Compelling storytelling is a craft not easily mastered by many Historians. We’ve all struggled through books that do nothing more than lead us through a dusty timeline of historical events littered with stale flat historical figures. Worse yet is the historian with a knack for unnecessary detail and little interest in exploring the complexities of human motivation.
So it is with great pleasure then that one comes across a book that covers such a monumental topic such as the American Revolution with a flair for good storytelling. John Ferling’s Almost a Miracle is just that book. The one volume synopsis of the war would be my first suggestion for someone with a casual interest in the American Revolution.
Now time for a few observations of Ferling’s fine work:
Ferling is not a big fan of Lafayette.
Using words like “petulant”, “brash” and “sycophant”, Ferling pulls no punches when describing young Marques as an opportunist who rides the coattails of Washington. Ferling notes Rochambeau’s concerns about Lafayette’s attachment to Washington and even points a finger at Lafayette for triggering the events at the battle of Monmouth that effectively ended Charles Lee’s tenure as a general in the Continental army.
Lafayette had a romanticized interpretation of the ideals that drove the Revolution, yet his motivations were complex. He also was driven by an ambition for fame and glory and this ambition was certainly a factor in his decision making.
After the war, Lafayette never wavered from this romantic notion of the Revolution and worked to bring this vision to France. Unfortunately, he was swept up in the chaos of the French Revolution and was fortunate enough to escape with his life.
Not afraid to sidestep historical doubts in order to tell a compelling story.
When dealing with history, very little can be said with absolute certainty. Debate still continues on two instances that Ferling address in Almost a Miracle.
One is Patrick Ferguson’s choice not to fire on Washington during the battle Brandywine. Many believe Ferguson spared Washington’s life that day, yet others maintain that this was not Washington at all, but one of the many European Aristocrats participating in the war (Count Casimir Pulaski).
Another is the supposed clash between William Washington and Banastre Tarleton during the battle of Cowpens. Did they briefly engage during the end of the battle? Perhaps, but there are still doubters this confrontation actually took place.
But trifling over the fog of history can bog down an otherwise compelling story, so I applaud Ferling’s choice to avoid the debates and ambiguities that all historians must wrestle with.
Ferling does not ignore the south
Ferling points out the essential and often overlooked British southern campaign. To most, Cornwallis magically appears in Yorktown. But Ferling leads us through the series of events in the south that placed him there. Kings Mountain, Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse and the cunning Nathaniel Greene are not overlooked.
Ferling is fair to Hortio Gates and Charles Lee
Disparaged by most historians and laymen alike, Lee and Gates are often exemplars of poor generalship. Ferling does not sugarcoat their shortcomings, however he also describes them as the two most experienced and talented generals under Washington. One is left to feel a twinge of regret that Lee and Gates personal shortcomings led them to infamy.
Ferling’s take on Washington was well thought out and concise.
Was Washington a brilliant General? No. About average according to Ferling. But Ferling points out the attributes that Washington did bring to the table and notes how these were unique and essential to the position. Washington’s ability to work with congress, collaborate with the French, focus on thousands of administrative details and adapt to the circumstances made him the “indispensable man”.
In summary, John Ferling’s Almost A Miracle accomplishes the difficult feat of consolidating a long complex period of American history in a very palatable and entertaining way. This book is certainly one to recommend for all those interested in the American Revolution. Well done!
Thanks! I agree Ferling wrote a great book. OTOH, as regards Washington, there are those, eg, LTG Dave Palmer, previous superintendent of West Point, who argue that Washington was a military genius: http://www.amazon.com/George-Washingtons-Military-Genius-Richard/dp/159698791X
My reading of other books, especially ones about the Battle of Trenton (“Washington’s Crossing”), certainly help me to understand Palmer’s perspective: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/019518159X/ref=wms_ohs_product?ie=UTF8&psc=1
BTW, I just bought the following book used: http://www.amazon.com/Battlefield-Atlas-American-Revolution/dp/0933852533/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1407613713&sr=1-1&keywords=battlefield+atlas+of+the+american+revolution
and found it to be extremely helpful not only in putting battles in chronological order but, with its accompanying maps, helping one easily visualize troop dispositions.
Thanks for the suggestions! I am interested in Palmers perspective. I always thought Washington’s genius was in his strategic adaptability, eye for talent, and political acumen. Does Palmer point to his tactical abilities?
Check out the Amazon reviews section, eg: “Palmer makes a convincing case that America is free, united, and governed by civilians because of Washington’s strategic foresight and [emphasis] tactical brilliance.” —Publishers Weekly. Specific questions, let me know, and I’ll find the answers for you.
I’m curious to know about the examples of tactical brilliance that Palmer is referring to. Aside from Trenton and Princeton, I wonder what other examples he uses.
As far as tactical genius, LTG Palmer points out Trenton, Princeton but also Germantown [almost a win, except for “bad luck”; Howe tenders resignation], and Monmouth.
I would also add Stony Point — the plan’s was Washington’s, which Anthony Wayne tweaked.
LTG Palmer’s analysis is quite sophisticated as far as GW’s strategic genius. One needs to look at the four phases of the war and how Washington adapted to and succeed in each. IOW, to best appreciate Palmer’s points, one needs to read the book. As well, one needs to recall how Washington continually needed to beg Congress for resources (vis a vis a Napoleon, who just took them). His ingenuity extended to setting up a spy ring, dramatized in “The Turn,” which unfortunately I haven’t seen.
“No less a light than Frederick the Great was quoted as describing the Christmas campaign [Trenton and Princeton] as being “the most brilliant of any recorded in the annals of military achievement.” p 67.
“Had he achieved nothing before or after, Washington’s exploits during the ten days from 25 December 1776 to 4 January 1777 alone would assure him high mention in the annals of military history. What happened is history. The details need no repeating here. In the brief space of a week and a half, a demoralized army, which nearly everyone had expected shortly to disintegrate, won two splendid victories, eluded a superior force sent to chase it down, forced Howe to evacuate most of New Jersey, and renewed its own price and sense of purpose. The crisis was over. New life had been breathed into the Revolution. The English historian George Trevelyan later wrote:
“From Trenton onward, Washington was recognized as a far-sighted and able general all Europe over — by the great nobles in the Empress Catherine’s court, by the French marshals and ministers, in the King’s cabinet at Potsdam, at Madrid, at Vienna, and in London. He had shown himself…both a Fabius and a Camillus [a fighting general,”the second founder of Rome,” died 365 BC].” p 147.
“Even so, the description does not fit well, for unlike the original Fabius, he offered battle time and again — only on his own terms, to be sure, which were usually from behind barricades, but he did fight. Twice he found the British guard down, once at Trenton and once at Germantown, and both times he swiftly launched a counterblow. When confronted with “a choice of difficulties,” the aggressive Virginian had not sought solution in flight alone. Even when circumstances had dictated a defensive war, he had not excluded the spirit of the offensive. p 157.
Trenton and Monmouth:
Evaluation of GW’s Genius:
Successful Strategic Retreats after tactical losses:
General (no pun intended) info:
If it wasn’t George Washington’s genius, both those on his staff or those in the French forces, he at least was smart enough to have attracted them to his command, and not stood in their way but supported them. He won a war that most, over time, expected him to lose. “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Light Horse Harry Lee.
Don Higgonbottham seemed to be among those leading the charge that GW wasn’t a military genius, that his strength lay with his character. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don_Higginbotham
Man, but Washington must have had a lot of character to have attracted, understood, managed, and supported that host of geniuses doing his thinking for him, all while the world’s greatest army and navy breathed hotly down his neck! In addition, others said all GW needed to win was to not lose. Gee, how simple is that? Or that he was just lucky. My what a lot of luck over eight years!! Some historians rate Hitler on the list of military geniuses. Wow, if a corporal who lost World War II, whose motivation was world domination, and who took over an already assembled brilliant bank of cautious generals on the German staff a can be acclaimed a genius, how about George Washington, whose strategies and tactics not only inspired Ho Chi Minh and Mao Tse Tung, but numerous graduates of our military academies?!!!!!! : )
Additional questions, please let me know.
Mike Schellhammer said:
This is a great review, and I absolutely agree with the assessment. “Almost a Miracle” is thorough, even-handed, and well-written. Its my “go-to” book to start researching almost any aspect of the Revolution.
Agreed Mike. I also think this is an excellent book for those new to the Revolutionary War. It never really bogs down at all.