Winning Independence: A book review by Bob Morris

Winning Independence: The Decisive Years of the Revolutionary War, 1778-1781
John Ferling
Bloomsbury (May 2021)

From April 1775 until October 1777, how and why  Britain “could have and should have won the war”

In his Preface, John Ferling explains that by late 1778, “when it was clear that the war was stalemated, American, British, and French leaders were faced with difficult choices. How military leaders made these opaque choices is the linchpin of this book. It scrutinizes the ongoing travail of the rival commanders — George Washington, commander of the Continental army, and Sir Henry Clinton, commander in chief off Britain’s armies in North America — as they coped with the impasse.” Similarities include these: “Both sought the means of ending, or surviving, the stalemate, Both sought to understand if time was an ally or an enemy. Both wondered whether it was preferable to forego risks or to roll the dice on a hazardous undertaking.”

On April 19, 1775: British and American soldiers exchanged fire in the Massachusetts towns of Lexington and Concord. On the following night, the royal governor of Massachusetts, General Thomas Gage, commanded by King George III to suppress the rebellious Americans, had ordered 700 British soldiers, under Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith and Marine Major John Pitcairn, to seize the colonists’ military stores in Concord, some 20 miles west of Boston.

Years later, British General John Burgoyne led a large invasion army southward from Canada in the Champlain Valley, hoping to meet a similar British force marching northward from New York City and another British force marching eastward from Lake Ontario; the southern and western forces never arrived, and Burgoyne was surrounded by American forces in upstate New York. He fought two small battles to break out which took place 18 days apart on the same ground, nine miles south of Saratoga, New York. They both failed.

In the autumn of 1777, Burgoyne found himself trapped by superior American forces with no relief, so he retreated to Saratoga (now Schuylerville) and surrendered his entire army there on October 17. His surrender, says historian Edmund Morgan, “was a great turning point of the war because it won for Americans the foreign assistance which was the last element needed for victory.”

Ferling organizes his material within several different periods. First, he explains how and why Britain “could have and should have won the war.” The title of Chapter 1 is “Britain’s War to Win, 1775-1777. Next,and throughout most of the narrative, he compares and contrasts the British and Colonial leaders, especially Sir Henry Clinton and General George Washington.

“Britain’s commander in chief in North America after May 1778, Clinton developed a thoughtful and realistic strategic plan for winning the war in the South. Had Clinton’s plan been fully implemented, and had it carried the day, Britain would have repossessed South Carolina and Georgia, in addition to East Florida (today a substantial portion of Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi), which it had controlled since the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763.”

With regard to George Washington, he “unwisely opted to leave a bit more than three thousand Continentals garrisoned in Fort Washington, a post that overlooked the Hudson River in the rural northwestern reaches of Manhattan. It was an absurd decision.” 

According to Wikipedia, cited by William J. Bahr in his own superb review of Winning Independence, “Washington had considered abandoning Fort Washington, but he was swayed by Nathanael Greene [Ferling’s ‘master strategist,’ aside from Clinton and de Rochambeau], who believed the fort could be held and that it was vital to do so. Greene argued that holding the fort would keep open communications across the river and might dissuade the British from attacking New Jersey. Magaw and Putnam concurred with Greene. Washington deferred to Greene and did not abandon the fort.”

However, Washington and Clinton were not the only leaders faced with difficult choices. Others include de Rochambeau, Lord Charles Cornwallis, Burgoyne, Benjamin Lincoln, and Greene, “who was in charge of American forces in the southern theater in the year leading up to Yorktown.”

These are among John Ferling’s concluding observations: “The journey from Saratoga to Yorktown was long, tortuous, and bloody, and it might have ended quite differently. When independence was declared, William Ellery, a congressman from Rhode Island, said that it was one thing to declare independence, but another to win it. Five years after declaring independence, it was finally won at Yorktown, a triumph that promised — as Washington said in his farewell to the Army — “a glorious period” filled with “endangered prospects of happiness” that “almost exceeds the power of description.”

Hearty congratulations to John Ferling on another brilliant achievement. His talents for combining impeccable historical research with storyteller skills of the highest order are unsurpassed. Bravo!

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