Almost a Miracle
The American Victory in the War of Independence
by John Ferling
Oxford, 704 pp., $29.95
Three years into what we call the War of Independence, a British journalist observed that any "other General in the world than General Howe would have beaten General Washington, and any other General in the world than General Washington would have beaten General Howe." There's a good deal of wisdom in that amusing observation, as John Ferling amply demonstrates in his lengthy and rather somber new portrait of the war. George Washington's incredible doggedness and poor tactics (at least initially) formed a perfect fit with William Howe's preternatural sluggishness to create a bloody stalemate that dragged on for eight years.
It has long been noted that this war, above all others, seems obscured by a haze of glory, its heroes standing too tall to be real. Such works as David McCullough's brilliantly readable 1776 almost make one want to stand up and cheer for the boldness, savvy, and bravery of the men and women who secured our freedom through their sacrifices, including the supreme one. But there was, of course, another side, common to all wars: the fear, the cold, the dirt, the diarrhea, the death from disease, the bad and insufficient food, the boredom, the dark humor over officers' stupidity and incompetence, the reciprocal contempt felt by officers (including the American general Richard Montgomery, who came to the conclusion that the army he was leading consisted of "a set of pusillanimous wretches"), the rapes, and other atrocities against civilians.
This war was no glorious romp. Nor was it one that enjoyed widespread public support, particularly after it dragged the economy into the mire and saddled citizens with enormous debt and brutal taxes. It produced a greater percentage of casualties to population than any conflict in the nation's history except the Civil War.
In Ferling's telling, the Revolution is not a war primarily of stirring heroics and national resolve but of almost mind-boggling screw-ups by both sides--in generalship, political leadership, and everything in-between, from tactics to military intelligence to logistics. As such, it offers a sober lesson for the political leaders of our times who might share the culture's growing faith in the supreme virtue of instant gratification. In the real world, unfortunately, many struggles of consequence cannot be fought and won that way, and this particular war--one of the most consequential in history--was a long, hard, grim slog which, right until the end, possibly even after the surrender of General Cornwallis at Yorktown, could have gone either way.
Ultimately, the thing that settled it in America's favor against the awesome might of the British Empire (hence, the book's title) was George Washington's superhuman stubbornness, and his ability to keep an army (and thus, a new nation) together in the face of defeat, deprivation, and despair. Moreover, luck played a considerable role--an unpleasant thought to those of us who would like to believe heroic man controls his fate.
In 575 pages of text, densely packed with detail from letters and other contemporary accounts, Ferling thoroughly explores the confusion and personal failings that so often shape war, starting with the stupendous slowness and caution of General Howe, which often cost his side dearly. But Ferling also provides ample coverage of the ways in which Washington, whom Howe was "seemingly always capable of outmaneuvering," repeatedly stumbled into near-catastrophe.
Writing of the battle for New York City in 1776, Ferling notes: "Perhaps most soldiers betray uncertainty on the eve of battle; by late August, Washington was way beyond that. He was baffled." Trapped on Manhattan, Washington remained in the snare of Howe for more than a month, "during every minute of which his army faced almost certain destruction should Howe suddenly act purposefully." (Howe, true to form, let him escape.)
Ferling cites Washington's "shortsighted outlook" during this period, arguing that it "stemmed from his inexperience, combative nature, and the inner demons that gnawed at him following the army's embarrassing showdown, driving him to seek redemption through a decisive showdown with the hated enemy." This Washington, furthermore, is thin-skinned, paranoid, and prepared to strike with the speed and deadly efficiency of a viper to bring down any political foes who dare to question him.
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.