Book Review: After Yorktown: The Final Struggle for American Independence by Don Glickstein (Westholme Publishing, November 2015).
Key tenets of America’s founding ethos are that rugged, independent minded farmers and tradesmen rose up in righteous rebellion to throw off the shackles of British tyranny and they succeeded by winning the last battle of the Revolution at Yorktown. Don Glickstein in his new book After Yorktown exposes both of these assertions as overly simplistic and misleading. He provides cogent analysis and extensive research to support the thesis that considerable fighting occurred in the two years after Yorktown and that the American rebels were critically aided by the European powers’ wider conflict fought on four other continents.
To reduce bias, Glickstein labels Americans who advocated independence as Whigs and refers to those who remained loyal to Britain as Tories. This construction avoids the well-used label “Patriots,” as patriots existed on both sides depending upon your point of view. Although few other Revolutionary War historians have adopted this convention, it adds clarity and emphasizes the dual nature of the conflict as both a revolution and a civil war.
The book opens by relating the oft-neglected two post-Yorktown years of intensive warfare in the American South that included at least 200 military battles and skirmishes in South Carolina alone. Although several conventional battles were fought between the Continental Army and British regular units, most of the conflict occurred between Whig and Tory militias. On the western and northern frontiers, Native Americans played a large role in the hostilities. With British forces retreating to coastal enclaves, the violent civil war in the interior regions continued to rage and in some places, extended after the 1783 peace agreement.
Glickstein then turns to the global aspects of the war that saw Britain vying alone against the combined militaries of Spain, France and the Dutch Republic. Rivals for centuries, Britain and France waged thirty-one wars during the period 1066 to 1792. He describes critical battles in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, India and on the high seas. At first the worldwide coalition was on the offensive, capturing several British territories, especially in the Caribbean. After Yorktown, however, the British re-established their hold on the Caribbean, broke the Spanish siege and blockade of Gibraltar, and fought the French to a draw in India.
The book is fast paced and concisely written, with forty-three short chapters each describing the post Yorktown conflict in a different military theater or region of the world. In each chapter, Glickstein introduces the opposing military commanders, offering thumbnail descriptions of their lives before and after the war. Glickstein’s treatment of Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne is a good example. Before the Revolution, Wayne, a native Pennsylvanian and an able surveyor, charted land as far away as Nova Scotia. Glickstein summarizes Wayne’s military career as Washington’s troubleshooter, who effectively served in the northern theater before fighting in Georgia and South Carolina after Yorktown. After the Revolution, Washington continued to call upon Wayne for difficult assignments including defeating Native Americans in the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1793. And finally, Glickstein identifies Wayne as the inspiration for Bruce Wayne of Batman fame.
Glickstein retains the reader’s interest by interspersing attention-grabbing connections between post Yorktown conflicts and famous people seemingly unrelated to the American Revolution. Notable examples include Horatio Nelson, who as a junior British naval commander suffered two defeats during the Revolution; Charles Darwin, who prominently cited British commander Samuel Hearne’s naturalist observations recorded during the revolution; and Eli Whitney, who perfected the cotton gin by incorporating ideas suggested by Caty Greene, Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Greene’s wife.
Glickstein distinguishes his book from the plethora of Revolutionary War volumes published each year through well supported historical interpretations which dispel several myths, through a thorough command of relevant primary sources and by making interesting, little known connections among people, places and events.
As a myth buster, Glickstein challenges the popular view of the Whig militia Gen. Francis Marion as infallible in battle. In the early nineteenth century, Mason Locke “Parson” Weems created Marion’s reputation as the “Swamp Fox” in a highly fictionalized biography. Subsequent writers embellished Marion’s reputation by portraying only his victories. Finally, the 1959-61 Disney TV series The Swamp Fox further romanticized Marion’s reputation (with reruns airing into the 1990s). Glickstein dispels the myth of Marion’s invincibility by illustrating military judgment failures and describing notable defeats. Another myth that Glickstein dismisses is the unrestrained brutality of Native Americans towards women and children during this period. Generally, Native Americans did not kill women and children as depicted in Whig propaganda. However, Whig forces regularly killed Native American non-combatants.
One of the strengths of Glickstein’s book is the use of both American and British sources to support his battle interpretations. At times these contrasting sources report diametrically opposite outcomes. For example, after a November 2, 1781 skirmish southwest of Savannah, British sources cite killing about fifty rebels while losing twelve to fourteen soldiers. American battlefield accounts indicate almost the exact opposite with the Whigs losing thirteen men while killing fifty British soldiers. In this case, Glickstein did not opine on which report was correct. However, in the conflicting account of a clash between British Maj. William Brereton and Gen. Francis Marion, Glickstein sided with the British account and found Marion’s after action report “less believable”.
His extensive research reveals several obscure connections among opposing military leaders. For example, on Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis’s behalf, Lt. Gen. Charles O’Hara surrendered the British post at Yorktown to Generals Washington and Rochambeau. The next day O’Hara dined with Rochambeau and his son. Twelve years later, while fighting in southern France, O’Hara surrendered to a young artillery officer by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte. After two years of captivity, O’Hara was exchanged for Rochambeau’s son.
While After Yorktown is well researched and well written, there are some additions that would strengthen its overall thesis. For example, Glickstein omits two notable military theaters that impacted post-Yorktown military strategy and peace negotiations. In the frontier section, he missed the opportunity to include the volatile situation in Vermont after Yorktown where the British sent military incursions and conducted secret negotiations with the Vermonters to re-join the British Empire. Secondly, there is little description of the impact of the Dutch Navy. While no significant Dutch versus British naval battles took place after Yorktown, the threat of a Dutch fleet sortie kept British ships defending the home waters and not in the Americas or other military theaters. Finally, while Glickstein provides a broad view of the war after Yorktown, his thesis would be enhanced by a concluding assessment of why the last two years mattered and how they impacted the final peace treaty.
After Yorktown is highly recommended for those who want to understand how tenuous American independence was after Yorktown and the impact of the wider global conflict on the war’s outcome. The book demonstrates that two years of “bloody, messy” combat occurred after Yorktown not only in North America but also throughout the world. American independence would not have occurred without the British having to defend its worldwide colonies and the final peace agreements could not be concluded without settling the combatants’ global territorial ambitions.