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Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War That Won It Kindle Edition
|Length: 432 pages||Word Wise: Enabled||Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled|
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The focus on what was happening in England is particularly notable. Unfortunately, much of that attention tails off after war breaks out and from then on we mostly just hear about the generals on American soil. Ferling needs the space, though, because he also hits on the experiences of black Americans, women, the lower class, and Loyalists well, if only briefly.
For example, the British threatened the southern states by offering freedom to slaves who fled their masters and threw in with the British. Washington, southern planter that he was, was initially very reluctant to tap America’s black population for military support but quickly changed his opinion. Eventually around 5,000 blacks enlisted in the Continental army, accounting for roughly 5% of Continentals. Moreover, “they served in integrated units, something that would not occur again in the United States Army until the Korean conflict 175 years later.” And while independence did not lead to the end of slavery as many Founding Fathers erroneously believed it would, the free black population in Virginia jumped from 1% in pre-Revolution Virginia to 7% in 1810, with “[t]he percentage of free blacks within the United States doubl[ing] within the same period, jumping to nearly 14 percent of the total number of African Americans.” Female camp followers, many of them wives of soldiers, “averaged about 3 percent of the number of soldiers,” and many followed the men into battle despite Washington’s best efforts.
Ferling is an advocate for poor Americans. He can’t see them as mere cats’ paws in the Boston riots. They may not have read Locke, but Ferling thinks they appreciate the basics of the arguments. (I tend to agree.) And Ferling points out, for example, that the soldiery evolved over the course of the war from “something of a cross-section of freemen in America” to “young, poor, single men who owned no property.” Loyalists don’t get a high level of attention but neither are they ignored. How could they be? Roughly 19,000 Loyalists bore arms for the British. 4,000 died. Another 60,000 fled in exile. Innumerable Loyalists lost their lands and their livelihoods.
Granted Ferling’s focus is not on the political rebellion, but I wish he had more to say about an ineffective initial government that couldn’t properly support the prosecution of the war (he does touch on Congress’ failings regarding the quartermaster service). The committees of correspondence and the Association committees, which I knew little about, are covered. Both were important. They built a new political infrastructure and were highly effective at organizing the boycott of British goods—“the value of British imports during 1775 was just 5 percent of that of the previous year.” And the formation of the Continental Congress was followed by a surge of new, more radical men into local American politics
Ferling continues to a good job at one of my favorite things about his biography of John Adams—flagging where there is significant disagreement among historians. He also makes frequent mention of possible turning points in the war without getting bogged down in counterfactuals. Absent my quibble above, I have little-to-no complaint with how Ferling allocated the pages of a single volume covering a long war.
And what a war it was, one of the bloodiest in American history. Something like 200,000 American men served in some capacity, which works out to roughly…all of them, free and of military age (positively Towton-esque). 30,000 died, “a percentage roughly equal to the toll of regulars in the Civil War and nearly ten times greater than among those who soldiered for the United States in World War II.” Some 10,000 of the men fighting for independence (counting militiamen and privateers as well as Continentals) died in confinement. And it wasn’t just those fighting for American independence who died. A quarter of the British and German soldiers did (roughly 17,500 men).
It was a big war. The expeditionary force the British put together to seize New York wouldn’t be matched until WWI. It was also a world war. We Americans tend to see the war entirely through the lens of our own revolution. But there was also fighting in the Caribbean, Africa, and India. A lot of Americas know, for instance, that the French provided material support (they provided nearly of our artillery and about 90% of the weapons and ammunition). But they also drew British soldiers away to the Caribbean, etc. This is by no means a history of that world war, but it provides a context that is welcome.
The names that every school kid in America hears show up: Paul Revere, Trenton, Valley Forge, Saratoga, Benedict Arnold, Cornwallis, but Ferling also covers plenty of other important battles and persons. I would love to read a book just on the war in the southern states, but Ferling gives what I think is a too often neglected theater of the war the attention it is due. But first we see a catastrophic week and a half for the British from December 25, 1776 to January 3, 1777, during which the British lost 1,730 soldiers to America’s 155. We see Washington lose one in five of the men who entered Valley Forge that ugly winter (almost 7% of the American soldiers who died in all of the eight-year war). We see Washington fiddle while America burns (ok, it wasn’t that bad, but Ferling is harshly critical of Washington’s inactivity for the middle of the war). Ferling includes my very favorite story from the Revolutionary War, starting with a bombastic proclamation from the British and ending with their humiliation by my hillbilly forebears at the Battle of Kings Mountain (casualties included the geographical apostrophe). We see that battle and four more (with mention of innumerable skirmishes), engagements that were, win or lose, too costly for the British to continue, leading up to Corwallis’ surrender at Yorktown.
Let’s talk about individuals. Washington, of course, looms large. John Adams finds frequent mention, unsurprising given that Ferling wrote a biography of the man. Benjamin Franklin is another frequent flier. Ferling juxtaposes Franklin’s many reasons to be partial to the British against his public humiliation by the government. Alexander Hamilton appears briefly but in usual overachieving fashion. He was writing tracts by the time he was nineteen, arguing that Britain could not win a war against the colonists because France would give aid and the colonists could “harass and exhaust” the British through Fabian, insurgent tactics. The less well known Pennsylvanian Joseph Galloway is the most prominent Loyalist (who notably argued that the colonies needed a stronger, more centralized government in America).
Disclosure: I received a complimentary advance copy of Whirlwind via NetGalley.
Until 1760, Americans considered themselves British subjects. England, however, needing more and more money (as all governments do!), and as they imposed more and more taxation and regulations, Americans slowly evolved. John Adams was one of the first to call for freedom and, by the mid-1770s, many Americans agreed that the time for revolution was at hand. There were many opinions of what liberty should look like, but most agreed that England had gone too far. I couldn't put the book down...I wanted to go to war, too!
The war was more horrible, more gruesome, more devastating than I had thought. I'd heard of "The Shot Heard Round the World" and Bunker Hill in school, but not much else. The Revolutionary War was every bit as vicious as the Civil War, with 10s of thousands of dead and wounded on both sides, as well as casualties of blacks, Indians, French, and civilians. The war was fought by starving and barefoot soldiers in snow, in swamps, in villages, and in cities. War strategy often relied on the hope that reinforcements would soon arrive, but they rarely did. Communication was terrible; the outcome of a battle might not be known by people 100 miles away for weeks! I felt like I had lived through it. I couldn't wait for the War to end!
Finally the War did end. I looked around at the heaps of bodies and body parts and devastated fields and towns and displaced
people and said, "Now what?!"
Ferling's book was very good.