Review: The British Are Coming

The British Are Coming (The Revolution Trilogy [Volume 1]), Rick Atkinson. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2019.

Summary: A history of the first two years (1775-1777) of the American Revolution, discussing the causes, personalities, and key battles.

This is the first volume of Rick Atkinson’s proposed Revolution Trilogy. Based on my reading of this volume, I look forward to reading the next two. Atkinson skillfully manages to interweave accounts of the various British and American figures, and battles from Quebec to Charleston, South Carolina without confusing this reader or losing him in minutiae. Yet one has a sense of “being there” at Lexington, Quebec, Boston, Charleston, New York City, and Trenton and Princeton. We sense how insufferably certain of himself and earnest to flex his power George III is, and how subtle and skilled Franklin is in cultivating the support of a reluctant French court.

I discovered what a near run thing it was that Quebec almost became a fourteenth colony, save for Carleton’s determined defense and the critical shortages of manpower to win the decisive battle. I learned that Benedict Arnold, before his capture, was probably the most brilliant military leader in the colonists’ cause. The feat of his march into Canada alone established his ability to lead and overcome the impossible.

I almost found myself turning my nose as I read about conditions in American camps and that desertions and illness took more than the enemy. And I came to understand as never before how hard Washington had to work to just hold together a cohesive fighting force.

More significant was to see Washington’s evolution as a commander, particularly after his failure to grasp the topography of Long Island, and his misbegotten defensive attempts to hold New York. Victory, not in battle, but in establishing a superior position in Boston failed to teach the crucial lessons both of dispositions of his forces and the folly of trying to defend New York against a superior British force. Finally he realized that his most important task was to ensure the survival of his army while maintaining morale. His lightning strikes against Trenton and Princeton reflected a growing understanding of the need to fight as he could rather than as the British wanted him to, in which he could not succeed.

The other thing that became clear in the reading was that military superiority of the British was no match for the geography of the colonies. The end of this volume shows them controlling only two ports and a radius of geography in New York and New Jersey. The defeat in Charleston showed the British were not invincible when Americans fought from a position of strength, led by the flamboyant Charles Lee.

Atkinson combines lively narrative organized around the campaigns of 1775, 1776, and the first part of 1777 with well-drawn maps and helpful illustrations throughout the text. While the political efforts of the colonies are discussed as they enter in, this is first and foremost, a military history. Even Franklin’s efforts both in Canada (a failure) and France (a growing success) centered around military supplies. Along the way, we learn of many young men, both officers and rank and file who entertained hopes of a family and a bright future only to die either instantly, or in slow, painful death of wounds or illnesses in the camps. The story of every war was no less true in the inception of this country. The follies that refused to see a greater vision of birthing a new nation that might become a strong trading partner, would sadly become the story of colonialism over the next two centuries. And it would be the source of the “butcher’s bill” to be paid in blood over the next years of the war.

One thought on “Review: The British Are Coming

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: December 2021 | Bob on Books

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