John Ferling: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris

Ferling1Throughout his long career, historian John Ferling has specialized in the American Revolution. He taught numerous courses on the Revolution, America’s Founders, and U. S. military history. He is the author of thirteen books, the latest of which is Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War That Won It (2015). His other books include biographies of Washington and John Adams, and a history of the Revolutionary War, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (2007). Here is a portion of the brief autobiographical statement that appears on his website.

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My parents were from the same small town in West Virginia. My mom graduated from West Liberty State College and taught elementary school for several years. My dad briefly attended the same college, but dropped out during the Great Depression. He eventually found work with Union Carbide and continued to work for the company for 40 years.

I was their only child and when I was one year old my father was transferred to Texas City, Texas, and that is where I grew up. I graduated from Sam Houston State University with a BA degree in history in 1961. Later, I received an MA from Baylor University and a Ph.D. from West Virginia University.

Early on I taught in Texas, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania, but I spent most of my career at the University of West Georgia in suburban Atlanta. I retired from teaching after a forty-year career.

I was always interested in writing. As a kid, I devoured the sports section of the Houston Post, as much interested in the writing as in the scores. In college, I discovered good books written by good historians and decided that I wanted to become a historian and to write history.

I still love sports, however, especially baseball, and I have been a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

My wife, Carol, and I live in metropolitan Atlanta.

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WhirlwindMorris: When and why did you decide to write Whirlwind?

Ferling: I taught a course on the American Revolution about thirty times during my career and each time I vowed to someday write my own version of the Revolution. I felt that economic factors were of paramount importance in provoking the colonial rebellion, something that few historians during the past forty or so years stressed. In addition, it was a rare history of the American Revolution that devoted much attention to the War of Independence. About one half of Whirlwind deals with the coming of the Revolution and the changes it wrought, and the other half treats the war. My book was a long time coming, however, because there were always other things that I also wanted to write.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

No, I had “lived” with the Revolution throughout a forty- year writing and teaching career, during which my views gradually took shape. They did not change substantially while writing Whirlwind. I wouldn’t say that it was a “revelation,” but in the course of writing the book I came to a greater appreciation of the travail that Washington faced and the difficult choices he had to make as commander of the army.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Ferling: I started with the intention of almost exclusively emphasizing the role of economics in the coming of the Revolution, but in the course of researching and writing the book I came to see that the colonists’ desire for greater autonomy – which obviously was tinged with economic incentives for some – was of crucial importance. I struggled too (I hope successfully) to integrate the Whig ideology with the economic interests of the insurgents, something I had not envisaged doing at the outset of my work on the book.

Morris: To what does the title refer?

Ferling: The title Whirlwind was taken from descriptions left by Abigail Adams and John Adams of the events of revolution and war swirling around them. When disease spread from the armies in the siege of Boston in 1775 out into the nearby hamlets, Abigail Adams – who resided in Braintree — briefly questioned the colonists’ wisdom at having embarked on this “Whirlwind.” Six months later, during the final, tempestuous weeks in Congress before the decision was made to declare independence, John Adams wrote his wife that judgment and courage were required “to ride in this Whirlwind.” As two individuals who experienced the war and Revolution saw it as a “whirlwind” of trauma and dangers, I thought that entitling the book “Whirlwind” was appropriate. Besides, the Anglo-American troubles spawned a vortex that swept up everyone and nearly everything in the America of that day.

Morris: During an interview that appeared in the Journal of the American Revolution, you observe, “With all the mistakes, maybe the biggest mystery of the war is how anyone won.”

Ferling: This long war, as is true of most protracted wars, had many turning points. Had the British put more troops in America, as General Gage urged, it might have crushed the insurgency in 1775. Britain could have and should have won the war in 1776, and it might still have won the war in 1777, but flawed strategic choices and poor generalship destroyed the chances.

Most say that once France entered the war, America’s victory was assured, but I don’t think so. In fact, Britain came perilously close to fighting the war to a stalemate in 1781, an eventuality that would have led to the war being settled by an international conference, an outcome that John Adams once said was his greatest fear. Adams knew that a conference of European monarchical powers would not be generous toward republican America. Britain would have retained a part of its pre-war empire. If the United States existed at all, it would have been small and weak. Adams also suspected – probably correctly – that France would accept such terms in order to make an “honorable” exit from hostilities. The American insurgents would have had no choice but to accept the terms that were offered.

Washington made numerous mistakes, none bigger in my estimation than allowing a period of inactivity from June 1778 onward deep into 1781. It was a time when, as Thomas Paine later wrote, Washington “slept in the field” while Generals Greene and Gates scored crucial victories. Washington’s inactivity almost led America to a ruinous end, the negotiated settlement mentioned earlier. Washington so obsessed over New York that he could not see other strategic possibilities. Fortunately for him, General Rochambeau could and did see an alternative in Virginia.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read the book, please suggest what you view as the most important point or key take-away in each of these passages.

o The Stamp Act Crisis (pgs 21-32) caused the colonists to look at their place within the Empire and examine imperial policy, scrutiny which put them on the road to fully understanding their second class status.

o The Intolerable (Coercive) Acts (pgs 81-87) was the point of no return for the colonists. They understood that acceptance meant a loss of autonomy, but resistance almost certainly meant war. They chose resistance.

o The First Continental Congress (pgs 90-98) was ostensibly called to determine whether to resist the Intolerable Acts and, if so, what form the resistance should take, but nearly all who attended already knew the answer to both questions – yes, America would resist and it would do so via a trade boycott. The real reasons for the meeting were (1) to fashion an effective means of enforcing a national boycott; (2) to impress Britain with the colonists’ display of unity; and (3) to determine if sufficient unity existed to go to war.

o The Battle of Bunker Hill (pgs 128-131) was crucial for convincing the colonists that they could stand and fight against British regulars, a revelation which helped in the initial drive to recruit men for the Continental army. The disaster on Bunker Hill also made it clear to some in the British ministry, including Lord North, the prime minister, that this was going to be a longer, more difficult war than had been thought. Only in the aftermath of the battle did the government begin to gather an army of the size that it would need to wage war in North America.

o Benedict Arnold (pgs 144-146, 190-191, and pgs 272-274) was an intrepid soldier, but a man with a proclivity for making enemies. Unfortunately for Arnold, many of the enemies he made were in high places. Bitter and frustrated with the treatment he received, Arnold turned coat, though he appears not to have made a final decision to do so until after he learned of the colossal American defeats in Charleston and Camden during the spring and summer of 1780, setbacks that Arnold probably interpreted as meaning that the Americans could not win the war.

o The New York campaign (pgs 166-179) should have resulted in a decisive victory by the British. It was a mistake for the Americans to try to defend an island against a powerful adversary possessed with total naval superiority. Washington made one error after another, each opening the door to a British victory, but if Washington was flawed, his counterpart General William Howe conducted an even worse campaign.

o Horatio Gates (pgs 191-195) is loathed today by some writers who are unwilling to acknowledge that others besides Washington shared in winning the war and by those who are convinced of Gates’s involvement in the so called Conway Cabal, an alleged plot to overthrow Washington. I think Gates waged an excellent campaign leading to Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga and also that his part in the “conspiracy” to overthrow Washington has never been fully proven. He made egregious blunders almost immediately after being named commander of the Continental army in the South in the summer of 1780, and the result was not merely the unmitigated disaster in the Battle of Camden, but his ignominious conduct in fleeing his soldiery. Washington could err repeatedly and remain in command. Most others were put out to pasture following their first costly mistake, especially if they were seen as a threat to Washington.

o George Washington as military commander (pgs 213-217): As I stated earlier, America was fortunate to have had him and lucky to have survived him.

o Changes as a result of the War for Independence (pgs 223-233 and 329-335): The changes were enormous. Nationhood was achieved, a sizeable chunk of population (Loyalists and African Americans) left the country, the Native Americans suffered a catastrophe when Britain gave away their lands, and many in France were inspired by the American Revolution. Lots of people die3d during the war. Proportionately, the death toll among regulars in the Continental army was nearly as great as among regulars in the Civil War and several times greater than among American servicemen in World War II. In addition to those deaths, untold numbers of militiamen and civilians also perished, the latter largely from diseases that spread from the armies. Much would be determined long after the war ended, including the shape of the new nation. Perhaps the Revolution did not “begin the world anew” as Thomas Paine had predicted, but it unleashed profound changes.

o The Southern Theater 1780-1781 (pgs 245-266 and 279-283) was where the war was won. Without the southern partisan fighters and General Nathanael Greene’s brilliant campaign that resulted in the setbacks suffered by the British at Cowpens, and Guilford Courthouse, General Cornwallis would never have gone into Virginia and Yorktown would never have occurred. The only alternative to going after Cornwallis in Virginia would have been a Franco-American campaign against New York, which was unlikely to have resulted in a decisive Allied victory.

o General Charles Cornwallis in North Carolina (pgs 289-292) Cornwallis was perhaps the best British general in the war. He failed in the South not because of his limitations, but because of the hand he was dealt. The British always had difficulty campaigning in the backcountry and Cornwallis had to do so against a formidable partisan foe and a brilliant American general, Nathanael Greene.

Morris: You have an extraordinary talent for looking at historical crises long ago from several quite different points of view. For example, how the colonial and British leaders viewed the significance of the events that led up to the Boston Tea Party and the subsequent Declaration of Independence.

Here’s my question: In your opinion, what were the major misconceptions on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean?

Ferling: The British were misled by three misconceptions, which in a sense were interrelated. They believed the Americans could never satisfactorily unite to bring off their insurgency; they believed the colonists would bow to pressure and war would not be necessary; finally, the British leaders believed they could easily crush the American rebellion through the use of force, and that they could do so before France intervened. Some colonists for a very long time labored under the misconception that the king would force the ministry to abandon its American policies. In addition, some Americans, including Washington, thought the war was won once France intervened.

Morris: If you could spend an evening in discussion before, during, and after an elegant dinner with any one of the founding fathers, who would that be and what would you be most eager to learn from him? Why?

Ferling: It would have to be John Adams. He and Franklin would be the best companions to have among the Founders, but Adams played a greater role within the colonies in the coming of the Revolution and he not only served longer in Congress, but he occupied more of a leadership role than Franklin. Franklin of course died before the tempestuous 1790s, while Adams was a major player during that decade. Adams was talkative and gossipy, so I would expect to learn some things from him about the other Founders and the decisions made from 1765 through the election of 1800.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Whirlwind, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Ferling: Much of the book deals with leadership and decision making, some of it good, some of it bad, some of it involving the mobilization of followers, shaping opinion, and coping with desperate crises. At times, some leaders seized opportunities to act, while others missed golden opportunities. All too often, the leaders I discussed refused to change, even in the face of failure. But some did make changes. Both Washington and Cornwallis adapted to strategies that were previously unforeseen and to some degree unconventional, and their having done so provides insight into their leadership skills.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Ferling: When giving public talks about the American Revolution, I am often asked who was my favorite Founder (Jefferson and Thomas Paine, who I consider a Founder, tie), who did I like least (honestly, I admire all of them), and is today’s America more akin to what Jefferson wanted or Hamilton wanted (it reflects some of what each sought, but for the most part – just as Jefferson feared would be the end result of Hamilton’s economic program — we are in a Hamiltonian world of plutocracy).

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To read Part 1 of my interview of John, please click here.

John cordially invites you to check out the resources at his website by clicking here.

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