THE BRITISH ARE COMING
The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777
By Rick Atkinson
My old mentor, Edmund Morgan, used to say that everything after 1800 is current events. According to Morgan’s Law, Rick Atkinson has been doing first-rate journalism, enjoying critical and commercial success for three masterly books on World War II, all thoroughly researched and splendidly written. To say that Atkinson can tell a story is like saying Sinatra can sing.
Now Atkinson has decided to move back in time past the Morgan Line, into that distant world where there are no witnesses to interview, no films of battles or photographs of the dead and dying. Visually, all we have are those paintings by John Trumbull, Charles Willson Peale and Gilbert Stuart, all of which are designed to memorialize iconic figures in patriotic scenes, where even dying men seem to be posing for posterity.
Undaunted, Atkinson makes his debut as a historian, determined to paint his own pictures with words. “The British Are Coming” is the first volume in a planned trilogy on the American Revolution that will match his Liberation Trilogy on World War II. It covers all the major battles and skirmishes from the spring of 1775 to the winter of 1776-77. There are 564 pages of text, 135 pages of endnotes, a 42-page bibliography and 24 full-page maps. Lurking behind all the assembled evidence, which Atkinson has somehow managed to read and digest in a remarkably short period of time, is a novelistic imagination that verges on the cinematic. Historians of the American Revolution take note. Atkinson is coming.
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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. Here, for example, is Atkinson on Benedict Arnold’s trek with his small army through the Maine wilderness during the ill-fated campaign to capture Quebec, which earned Arnold the title of “American Hannibal” for a feat likened to crossing the Alps with elephants:
“Hemlock and spruce crowded the riverbanks, and autumn colors smeared the hillsides. But soon the land grew poor, with little game to be seen. Ticonic Falls was the first of four cataracts on the Kennebec, and the first of many portages that required lugging bateaux, supplies and muskets for miles over terrain ever more vertical, from sea level they would climb 1,400 feet. ‘This place,’ one officer wrote as they rigged ropes and pulleys, ‘is almost perpendicular.’ Sickness set in — ‘a sad plight with the diarrhea,’ noted Dr. Isaac Senter, the expedition surgeon — followed by the first deaths, from pneumonia, a falling tree, an errant gunshot.”
It is as if Ken Burns somehow gained access to a time machine, traveled back to the Revolutionary era, then captured historical scenes on film as they were happening. At times, Atkinson’s you-are-there style is so visually compelling, so realistic, that skeptical souls in the historical profession might wonder if he has crossed the line that separates nonfiction from fiction. How can he possibly know how the sky looked at Concord Bridge? The sound that ice made as it scraped the boats as Washington crossed the Delaware? Whether Gen. William Howe’s boots were soaked with blood as he walked over the dead and wounded bodies on his way up Breed’s Hill?
The answer is in those almost endless endnotes. Based on my spot-checking of the sources, Atkinson has put his imagination on a very long leash, but it always remains tethered to the evidence. He is not a historical novelist, but rather a strikingly imaginative historian.
Although he is less interested in making an argument than telling a story, the story he tells is designed to rescue the American Revolution from the sentimental stereotypes and bring it to life as an ugly, savage, often barbaric war. Unlike in World War II, most of the killing occurred up close. Advancing troops could literally see the whites of the eyes on the other side, as well as hear horses and men dying in agony. “A man 5 feet, 8 inches tall,” Atkinson observes, “had an exterior surface of 2,550 square inches, of which a thousand were exposed to gunfire when he was facing an enemy frontally at close range.” If he was hit in the torso, his chances of dying were more than 50 percent.
As a result, a larger portion of the population died in the American Revolution than any conflict in American history save the Civil War. Part of the reason was disease; the war coincided with a raging smallpox epidemic. In addition, captured American prisoners had appoximately a 10 percent survival rate; the British were more barbaric in their treatment of prisoners of war than the Japanese in World War II. Instead of a Trumbull, the American Revolution needed a Goya.
Along the way Atkinson provides a steady flow of factual tidbits of the “did you know?” sort. For example, that the recipe for saltpeter, a prime ingredient for gunpowder, was bird dung mixed with urine; that the British Army at full strength required 37 tons of food a day; that one-quarter of the Hessian troops stationed in America decided to remain after the war; that the American obsession with Canada reflected the widespread assumption that it was destined to become the 14th state in the Union; that General Howe’s alleged American mistress, Betsy Loring, was a blond beauty British troops named “Sultana” for her nonchalant demeanor while drinking Howe under the table.
Notice that there is a 15-month gap between the start of the war in April of 1775 and the American declaration of independence in July of 1776. Bunker Hill, the bloodiest battle of the entire war, occurred over a year before a sufficient consensus emerged in the Continental Congress to leave the British Empire. Atkinson pays only passing attention to this political side of the Revolutionary story, devoting more space to the policymakers in London than their counterparts in Philadelphia. His title actually enjoys larger significance than Atkinson lets on, because the decisive factor in converting reluctant patriots to what was called “the Cause” was the looming British invasion in New York. By the summer of 1776 constitutional arguments had become irrelevant. The British Army and their Hessian mercenaries were coming to kill them, destroy their homes and rape their women.
There was also a silent war of considerable significance going on during the interlude between the first shots fired at Lexington and the official commitment to American independence. Atkinson notices it in passing on several occasions, but I hope he will give it the attention it deserves in subsequent volumes. Up and down the Atlantic coast, in every colony, county, town and hamlet, the American resistance movement seized control of the local institutions of governance, requiring oaths of allegiance from all residents, forcing all reluctant revolutionaries to convert and all loyalists to leave. This was not war in the conventional sense of the term, but it was the ultimate reason the British Army was destined to discover that it was on a fool’s errand. As Thomas Paine put it to Adm. Richard Howe: “In all the wars which you have formerly been concerned in, you had only armies to contend with. In this case, you have both an army and a country to combat.”
These caveats are not intended to deter readers, but rather to welcome Atkinson into the fraternity of historians. We are a contentious club of men and women who love to argue with one another. “The British Are Coming” is a major addition to that ongoing argument. A powerful new voice has been added to the dialogue about our origins as a people and a nation. It is difficult to imagine any reader putting this beguiling book down without a smile and a tear.