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The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777 (The Revolution Trilogy, 1) Hardcover – Deckle Edge, May 14, 2019
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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
“To say that Atkinson can tell a story is like saying Sinatra can sing. . . . Historians of the American Revolution take note. Atkinson is coming. He brings with him a Tolstoyan view of war; that is, he presumes war can be understood only by recovering the experience of ordinary men and women caught in the crucible of orchestrated violence beyond their control or comprehension.” ―Joseph J. Ellis, The New York Times Book Review
“Mr. Atkinson’s book . . . is chock full of momentous events and larger-than-life characters. Perfect material for a storyteller as masterly as Mr. Atkinson. . . . Mr. Atkinson commands great powers of description.” ―Mark Spencer, The Wall Street Journal
“[Atkinson has a] felicity for turning history into literature. . . . One lesson of The British Are Coming is the history-shaping power of individuals exercising their agency together: the volition of those who shouldered muskets in opposition to an empire. . . . The more that Americans are reminded by Atkinson and other supreme practitioners of the historians’ craft that their nation was not made by flimsy people, the less likely it is to be flimsy.” ―George F. Will, The Washington Post
“Atkinson…wastes no time reminding us of his considerable narrative talents. . . . His knowledge of military affairs shines in his reading of the sources. . . . For sheer dramatic intensity, swinging from the American catastrophes at Quebec and Fort Washington to the resounding and surprising successes at Trenton and Princeton, all told in a way equally deeply informed about British planning and responses, there are few better places to turn.” ―The Washington Post
“An epic tale, epically told. Atkinson excels at deftly summarizing personalities. . . . He moves effortlessly from the plans of commanders to the campfires of troops. The extraordinary scholarship involved―his meticulous endnotes cover 133 pages―is testament to a historian at the very top of his game…. The writing [is] incisive, humane, humorous, and often scintillating. . . . Anyone reading The British Are Coming will finish it looking forward impatiently to the next two. The trilogy looks fair to become the standard account of the war that brought the American Republic into being.” ―Andrew Roberts, Claremont Review of Books
"The British Are Coming is an exquisite masterpiece of history by one of the nation’s foremost writers and historians. There is a newness, eloquence, and immediacy in Atkinson’s telling that surpasses any previous Revolutionary War narrative; it conveys to the reader a sense of discovering the American Revolution for the very first time, in all of its sheer drama. This volume embraces the lived experience of the war’s early years with all of its complexities, ironies, triumphs, and tragedies. . . . This volume is, in short, a work to be reckoned with and one that will powerfully inform broader conversations on the importance and continued relevance of our national origins." ―Citation, 2020 George Washington Book Prize
"One of the best books written on the American War for Independence. . . . The reader finishes this volume uncertain of how either side can win this war, but very much wanting Atkinson to continue its telling." ―Robert J. Allison, The Journal of Military History
“[Atkinson’s] account promises to be as detailed a military history of the war as we will see in our lifetimes upon its completion. . . . Atkinson makes good use of information from letters and journals to give his reader a sense of what it would have been like to walk in the shoes of both the war’s illustrious and lesser known participants. . . . Atkinson’s accounts of battles are among the most lucid I’ve read. . . . Readers who enjoy richly detailed military history will be greatly anticipating his second volume.” ―Journal of the American Revolution
“Atkinson takes his time, but there's delight in all that detail. . . . Atkinson is a superb researcher, but more importantly a sublime writer. On occasion I reread sentences simply to feast on their elegance. . . . This is volume one of a planned trilogy. Atkinson will be a superb guide through the terrible years of killing ahead.” ―The Times (London)
“The British Are Coming [is] a sweeping narrative which captures the spirit and the savagery of the times. Based on exhaustive research on both sides of the Atlantic, Atkinson displays a mastery of the English language as well as military tactics which puts him in a class of his own as a writer.” ―Lionel Barber, Editor, Financial Times
“Rick Atkinson is emerging as America’s most talented military historian. . . . The British Are Coming is history written in a grand style and manner. It leaves one anxiously awaiting the next two volumes.” ―New York Journal of Books
“This first installment in Pulitzer-winning historian Atkinson’s new trilogy is a sweeping yet gritty American Revolutionary epic. With granular detail and refreshingly unfamiliar characterizations―an uncertain George Washington, a thoughtful King George III, a valiant Benedict Arnold―he makes an oft-told national origin story new again.” ―Publishers Weekly (One of the 10 best books of 2019)
“Pulitzer Prize-winner Atkinson (The Liberation Trilogy) replicates his previous books’ success in this captivatingly granular look at the American Revolution from the increasing tension in the colonies in 1773 to the battles of Trenton and Princeton in 1777. Extensive research . . . allows Atkinson to recreate the past like few other popular historians . . . A superlative treatment of the period.” ―Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“This balanced, elegantly written, and massively researched volume is the first in a projected trilogy about the Revolutionary War. . . . Combining apt quotation (largely from correspondence) with flowing and precise original language, Atkinson describes military encounters that, though often unbearably grim, are evoked in vivid and image-laden terms. . . . Aided by fine and numerous maps, this is superb military and diplomatic history and represents storytelling on a grand scale.” ―Booklist (starred review)
“Atkinson (The Guns at Last Light, etc.) is a longtime master of the set piece: soldiers move into place, usually not quite understanding why, and are put into motion against each other to bloody result. . . . A sturdy, swift-moving contribution to the popular literature of the American Revolution.” ―Kirkus (starred review)
“This book is, in a word, fantastic. It offers all the qualities that we have come to expect from the author: deep and wide research, vivid detail, a blend of voices from common soldiers to commanders, blazing characterizations of the leading personalities within the conflict and a narrative that flows like a good novel. . . . The British Are Coming is a superb ode to the grit and everyday heroism that eventually won the war.” ―BookPage (starred review)
About the Author
- Publisher : Henry Holt and Co.; Illustrated edition (May 14, 2019)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 800 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1627790438
- ISBN-13 : 978-1627790437
- Item Weight : 2.65 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.25 x 1.76 x 9.65 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #29,736 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Rick Atkinson shows us how in this densely-packed, rousing military history of the first two years of the Revolutionary War. The Americans kept on foiling the British through a combination of brilliant tactical retreats, dogged determination, improvisation and faith in providence. His is primarily a military history that covers the opening salvo in Lexington and Concord to the engagements in Princeton and Trenton and Washington's crossing of the Delaware and his reversal of fortune. However, there is enough observational detail on the social and political aspects of the conflict and the sometimes larger than life personalities involved to make it a broader history. The account could be supplemented with other political histories such as ones by Gordon Wood, Bernard Bailyn and Joseph Ellis to provide a fuller view of the politics and the personalities.
Atkinson’s greatest strength is to bring an incredible wealth of detail to the narrative and pepper it with primary quotes from not just generals and soldiers but from ordinary men and women. His other big strength is logistical information. No detail seems to escape his eye; the kind and tonnage of food and clothing provisions and shipping, sundry details of types of weapons, ships, beasts of burden and ammunition, the improvised, grim burial of the dead, plundering by the soldiers, the kinds of diseases riddling the camps and the medieval medicine used to treat them (some of them positively so - "oil of whelps" was a grotesque substance concocted from white wine, earthworms and the flesh of dogs boiled alive), creative ditties composed by the soldiers ("Clinton, Burgoyne, Howe, Bow, wow, wow"), the constantly-changing weather and physical landscape, the political machinations in Whitehall and the Continental Congress…the list goes on and on. Sometimes the overwhelming detail can be distracting – for instance do we need to know the exact number of blankets and weight of salt pork supplied during the eve of a particular battle? – but overall the dense statistics and detail have the effect of immersing the reader in the narrative.
The major battles – Lexington and Bunker Hill, Long Island and Manhattan, Quebec and Ticonderoga, Charleston and Norfolk, Princeton and Trenton – are dissected with fine detail and rousing descriptions of men, material, the thrust and parry at the front and the desperation, disappointments, retreats and triumphs that often marked the field of battle. The writing can occasionally be almost hallucinatory: "Revere swung into the saddle and took off at a canter across Charlestown Neck, hooves striking sparks, rider and steed merged into a single elegant creature, bound for glory". The accounts of the almost unbelievably desperate and excruciating winter fighting and retreat in Canada are probably the highlights of the military narratives; the final engagements in Princeton and Trenton are vividly described but seem more rushed in my opinion. Lesser-known conflicts in Virginia and South Carolina in which the British were squarely routed also get ample space. Particularly interesting is the improbable and self-serving slave uprising drummed up by Lord Dunmore, Virginia's governor, and the far-reaching fears that it inspired in the Southern Colonies. Epic quotes that have become part of American history are seen in a more circumspect light; for instance, it’s not clear who said “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes” during Bunker Hill, and instead of the famous “The British are coming” cry that is attributed to Paul Revere, it’s more likely that he said “The regulars are coming.” Also, the British army might have been experienced, but they too were constantly impacted by shortage of food and material, and this shortage was a major factor in many of their decisions, including the retreat from Boston. Brittania might have ruled the waves, but she wasn’t always properly nourished.
The one lesson that is constantly driven home is how events that seem providential and epic now were so uncertain and riddled with improvisation and desperation when they happened; in that sense hindsight is always convenient. Atkinson makes us aware of the sheer miserable conditions the soldiers and generals lived in; the threadbare clothing which provided scant protection against the cold, the horrific smallpox, dysentery and other diseases which swept entire battle companies off the face of the planet without warning and the problems constantly posed by loyalists, deserters and soldiers who refused to stay after their enlistments had ended. There were many opportunities for men to turn on one another, and yet we also see both friends and enemies being surprisingly humane toward each other. In many ways, it is Atkinson’s ability to provide insights across a wide cross-section of society, to make the reader feel the pain and uncertainty faced by ordinary men and women, that contribute to the uniqueness of his writing.
Atkinson paints a sympathetic and sometimes heroic portrait of both British politicians and military leaders, but he also makes it clear how clueless, bumbling and misguided they were when it came to understanding the fundamental DNA of the colonies, their frontier spirit, their Enlightenment thinking and their very different perception of their relationship with Britain. An excellent complement to Atkinson’s book for understanding British political miscalculations leading up to the war would be Nick Bunker’s “An Empire on the Edge”. While primarily not a study of personality, Atkinson’s portraits of American commanders George Washington, Benedict Arnold, Henry Knox, Charles Lee, Israel Putnam and British commanders William and Richard Howe, George Clinton, Guy Carleton and others are crisp and vivid. Many of these commanders led their men and accomplished remarkable feats through cold and disease, in the wilderness and on the high seas; others like American John Sullivan in Canada and Briton George Clinton in Charleston could be remarkably naive and clueless in judging enemy strength and resolve. Atkinson also dispels some common beliefs; for instance, while the rank and file were indeed generally inexperienced, there were plenty of more senior officers including Washington who had gained good fighting experience in the ten-year-old French and Indian War.
As a general, Washington’s genius was to know when to quickly retreat and disappear, to make the enemy fight a battle of attrition, to inspire and scold when necessary, and somehow to keep this ragtag group fighting men and their logistical support together. He was also adept at carefully maneuvering the levers of Congress and to keep driving home the great need for ammunition, weapons and ordinary provision through a mixture of cajoling and appeals to men’s better angels. After the Battle of Trenton in which his army crossed the icy Delaware and roundly trounced the British Hessian Guards in the middle of the night - Atkinson’s account of this semi-urban surprise attack is especially vivid - his reputation and confidence soared, and he came into his own not just as a great military commander but as a model American. After that there was no looking back from the path to fame and freedom.
For anyone wanting a detailed and definitive military history of the Revolutionary War, Atkinson’s book is highly recommended. It gives an excellent account of the military details of the “glorious cause” and it paints a convincing account of the sheer improbability and capriciousness of its success.
Rather than the two dimensional heroes and villains portrayed to students in elementary school, the multifaceted characters of Washington, Franklin, Arnold, and King George III and his minions are brought to vivid life. The smell of blood and gunpowder and the chill wind as Washington crosses the Delaware are palpable in Atkinson's prose. Canada is won and lost by American troops, France is not yet involved, and the outcome of the war is in doubt at the end of this volume.
This book draws readers into a world and time which permanently changed the course of history and formed the new and unique nation which became the United States. Those who open this volume must now patiently await the next installment.
I was not disappointed. "The British Are Coming" is written exceptionally well. The narrative flows tremendously well; I was captivated by the amount of detail Atkinson included of the battles, motivations, and the war itself. I also appreciated his small digressions to include facts many may not have known prior to reading. The book is just so detailed and meticulously researched. I also sincerely appreciate the effort Mr. Atkinson put into not only researching and writing the book, but in selecting maps that give a lot of needed context to the goings on of the war.
Although Atkinson's book is a long read (the content clocks in at approximately 550 pages; the final 250 pages consist of notes, an authors notes, references, and acknowledgements), it is well worth purchasing and reading.