The Magazine

Skin of Our Teeth

The War for Independence was no cakewalk, either.

Nov 19, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 10 • By EDWARD ACHORN
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Such a human Washington is a compelling figure, but it is clear even in this warts-and-all account that he was also indispensable to the existence of the new republic. Washington's greatness shines through the muck of chaos, as he comes to adopt a Fabian strategy to keep his army intact by avoiding all-out battle, while exploiting opportunities for sneak attacks, such as at Trenton and Princeton, thus preserving his countrymen's spirits and enticing France to support American independence.

Among the strengths of Almost a Miracle is its extensive attention to the often neglected southern theater of war. Ferling is also first-rate at placing the war in the context of political developments, breaking apart each year with chapters entitled "Choices."

If I do have a gripe, it is that Ferling's prose lacks some of the narrative drive and compelling storytelling of the best history. At times, the war feels as hard a slog to the reader as it was to the soldiers. There are also some peculiarly purple passages: "the dark stain of night gathered over Long Island"; "the rain-black night" and, a few lines later, "the rain-slick night"; "the last lonely streaks of daylight"; "the verdant countryside bursting toward spring's zenith." More strenuous editing might have been helpful, too: At one point, the Americans are "literally one step ahead of their pursuers," which seems most unlikely.

But these are essentially quibbles. In laying out the dimensions and nature of the war, Ferling's account is rich, detailed, and sound. And Almost a Miracle comes at a fortunate time, when many Americans have adopted the view that protecting their freedoms is a relatively easy and painless task, one governed by logic and an efficient use of resources. Should voters and policymakers delve into Ferling's account of our War of Independence, they will get quite a different idea of what it took--and takes--to win and preserve all that we hold dear.

Edward Achorn is the deputy editorial page editor of the Providence Journal.