Learning that one of the most acclaimed military writers of our time has turned his narrative expertise towards the American Revolution is exciting news indeed. Three-time Pulitzer prize winner Rick Atkinson is working on a trilogy about the conflict that founded the United States, and even though the first book won’t be in print for a few more years, we at Journal of the American Revolution couldn’t wait to talking to him about his interest in the period and his approach to this major project.
Tell us about your current project on the American Revolution.
Months before the 2013 publication of the final volume of my trilogy about the American role in the liberation of Europe in World War II, I decided that I wanted to take a crack at the American Revolution. It’s our creation story as a people, and as compelling a yarn as I could conceive for a narrative historian. I’m writing it as another trilogy, not because I’m fixated on triptychs, but because the tale I want to tell naturally breaks along those lines. I’m a military historian, so this is a battle history; but I write about war because it is a great revealer of character, and a writer could hardly ask for a more extraordinary cast.
That’s quite an undertaking. Where do you begin a project of this scale?
Well, obviously by trying to get my arms around the historiography, which is much deeper, broader, and richer than the historiography for World War II, regardless of how many books have been written about that more recent conflict. The historians of the past couple generations who have spent their professional lives studying the Revolution are simply stellar, and anyone plowing that field in the 21st century owes them an enormous debt. I’m an archive rat, and of course that requires months and months in repositories ranging from the Huntington Library in California to the British archives in Kew, and a score or more places in between. I also know the importance of walking the ground; for the Revolution, that’s a bit simpler than it was for World War II, which required traipsing across North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and Western Europe.
What will distinguish your work from what has already been written on this conflict?
That’s a fair question, and one I heard often when I began work on the Liberation Trilogy in 1998. First of all, I believe that all great events and great figures in human history are bottomless. Whether it’s World War II and Eisenhower, the Civil War and Lincoln, or the Revolution and Washington, there’s more to write–there will always be more to write. After a professional lifetime of writing about war, both as a journalist and as an historian, I think there are some aspects that I understand reasonably well. For example, I’ve written six previous books and each of them is about expeditionary warfare, in four different conflicts. Few expeditionary wars have been more fraught with difficulties than the Revolution from 1775 to 1783.
The American Revolution is far removed, time-wise, from your previous books. Are you finding it more challenging when there are no living participants to interview?
Oddly enough for a former journalist, I long ago concluded that interviewing veterans provides limited rewards for the time and effort invested. Rarely do even sharp memories–particularly decades after the event–offer more than the contemporaneous, or near-contemporaneous record. The fact that every eyewitness to the Revolution has been dead for a couple centuries doesn’t faze me. I do wish they’d all had typewriters! Eighteenth-century cursive, not to mention spelling and punctuation, can certainly be vexing.
How has your own understanding of the American Revolution changed since you started this project?
I hope that my understanding has deepened across the board, from the way major figures interacted (or didn’t) to the logistical complexities of making gunpowder, shipping horses across the North Atlantic, or stockpiling salt in order to feed an army on the march. The often brutal nature of the civil war; the shortcomings of strategic and tactical intelligence; the misperceptions in Britain regarding America, and vice-versa; the role of contingency and luck on the battlefield; the humanity of the Hessians–all these issues, and more, fascinate me.
What has been your biggest revelation so far?
Some revelations are best not revealed until the moment is ripe.
After so much success writing about more modern conflicts, what drew you to this period of history?
For me, the obvious thing would have been to pivot to the Pacific theater from 1941 to 1945 and write a complementary account to my European trilogy. Among other things, that would have required me to start World War II all over again, which had limited appeal. My presumption has been that the Revolution imprints us to this day, and reveals a great deal about who we are, where we came from, how we fight, what we’re willing to die for. As someone who believes in historical rigor, I think the mythology that encrusts much of what we think we know about the Revolution ought to be chipped away–and there are some awfully fine chippers working in the field. Finally, I’m fortunate enough to make my living as a professional storyteller, and to do that reasonably well requires following your imagination and your passion. My imagination and my passion have led me back into the 18th century.
We always have to ask the standard question: if you could interview one participant, who would it be? And just to make it more interesting, is this answer different than it would’ve been before you started the research?
Franklin would be pretty irresistible, wouldn’t he? If limited in my choice to a strictly military figure, I’d have to choose Washington if I wanted a comprehensive interview–he’s undoubtedly the long pole in the tent. But if I wanted simply to plumb personalities, I’d sure like a word with Arnold. And Greene. And Knox. And Lee. And Gage. And the Howes. And Germain. And Clinton.
Any idea what your next undertaking will be, once the American Revolution books are finished?
Oh, Lord. Even I can’t delude myself into thinking that this project is likely to be much shorter than the last one, which lasted fifteen years. That puts me into my 70s when I come to the end of this enterprise. Ask me then.