The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775–1777 by Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt and Co., 2019)
New books on the American Revolution often focus on anything other than the military campaigns from 1775 to 1781. Journal of the American Revolution award winners, for instance, have featured the roles of individuals, Native Americans, and the events on the periphery. But Rick Atkinson’s The British Are Coming is the opening volley of what has become in the twenty-first century a bit of a throwback: a multivolume narrative military history.
It is unlikely that a major publisher would have ventured on such a project without an author such as Atkinson. But his previous Liberation Trilogy, which followed the American Army through World War II from its landing in North Africa to the fall of Berlin garnered accolades from critics, strong sales, and a Pulitzer Prize. By so doing it proved the multivolume military history genre, which harkens back to such writers as Shelby Foote, Bruce Catton, and Allan Nevins, was still viable in our age of omnipresent screens and 280-character “tweets.”
Atkinson’s newest work covers the period from March 1775, just before Lexington and Concord, through Trenton and Princeton at the end of 1776. Weighing in at nearly 600 pages of narrative text (exclusive of bibliography, notes, and index) and focused almost entirely on its military aspects, his account promises to be as detailed a military history of the war as we will see in our lifetimes upon its completion.
The choice of the American Revolutionary War for his next project is an interesting one. John Sterling, editor-at-large of Atkinson’s publisher, Henry Holt, explains that it has been several decades since we’ve seen a “start-to-finish battle history of the American Revolution.” In addition, more recent works have lacked the detail required to relate the emotional depths of those who personally experienced it to the modern reader. It is this gap Atkinson seeks to close with what Sterling characterizes as a “re-imagination” of the war.
Atkinson begins his narrative with a thirty-five-page prologue that starts far from the battlefields of North America in the English town of Portsmouth. King George III is inspecting his fleet and celebrating the tenth anniversary of the British victory in the Seven Years’ War. That conflict largely shaped the events that would lead to another global war that would begin on the North American continent only twelve years later. Atkinson deftly describes those twelve years as disagreements between London and its Atlantic seaboard colonies mounted, eventually boiling over into bloodshed on a Massachusetts village green.
Contrary to academic trends, the economic, political, and diplomatic details that do emerge are largely in support of the military narrative. This sharp focus on the military events of the opening year and a half of the war allow Atkinson to train his eye on rare detail, which can prove illuminating in understanding the war’s development.
For example, it’s one thing to merely tell a reader that the British suffered “serious losses” at Bunker Hill as many single volume accounts do. Atkinson’s account not only of the battle but its aftermath affords his reader a sense of what it was like for Gen. William Howe to see a great number of good friends die around him and then witness the mangled survivors afterward in Boston. With these extra details Atkinson’s reader receives a better sense, perhaps, of why Howe was more reluctant to press the war as directly and aggressively as those comfortably seated in their London clubs would have liked.
Atkinson makes good use of information from letters and journals to give his reader a sense of what it would have been like to walk in the shoes of both the war’s illustrious and lesser known participants. The smells, crowded living conditions, and unsafe streets of British-occupied New York all come alive. The bitter cold of the American campaign in Canada stings. Such details fulfill Atkinson’s goal of making the Revolution “real” to the modern reader for whom life in the eighteenth century is difficult to comprehend.
The generous length afforded Atkinson by Henry Holt also allows him to broaden his coverage of the war. Of course, the heart of this first volume is Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, the campaign in and around New York in the summer of 1776, and finally the battles of Trenton and Princeton. But there were campaigns in the South during this period as well, and the battles of Moore’s Creek Bridge and Charleston receive nice coverage. Canada, often relegated to a brief side show in other volumes, is given fuller treatment in Atkinson’s. Because we see Richard Montgomery bravely and expertly leading his men as few American commanders could at that point in the war, we more fully understand and appreciate why his death in Quebec was so deeply felt by Americans for decades. Similarly, Benedict Arnold’s treachery is difficult to comprehend without understanding his suffering during this campaign.
Atkinson’s accounts of battles are among the most lucid I’ve read. His prose is lean, with just enough detail to explain what happened and why the battle turned out the way that it did. There aren’t a lot of extraneous details in his battle descriptions that can sometimes bog down military histories. He also makes good use of statistics to convey a sense of how challenging it was to keep large armies in the field.
Nor does Atkinson ignore the naval elements of the struggle. Although the Americans generally lacked the ships needed to compete in one-on-one combat with the British navy at this stage of the war, they still managed to inflict significant damage at sea. The American “navy,” a rag tag group of marauding tubs, managed to scoop up fifty-five ships bound to supply Howe’s army in Boston in the spring of 1776 alone. Meanwhile, the ordeal of the British navy’s own attempts to blockade the lengthy American coast, and the difficulty it faced in transporting men and supplies across such a vast ocean and coast, is pithily summed up: “The tasks were too many, the seas too vast, the sails too few.”
This brings us to the question of why Britain endured the conflict for as long as it did. There was a clear desire by British leaders to see the Revolution as the work of a small number of leaders who, once corralled, could no longer infect the populace with revolutionary fervor. But why were they so quick to embrace this mistaken notion? Atkinson’s month spent at Windsor Castle with the newly-minted Georgian Papers project may help clarify this conundrum.
King George III himself was invested in the direction of the conflict beyond what other narratives have conveyed. Telling his commanders that “Every means of distressing America must meet with my concurrence,” he was steeped in detail, even naming the regiments and companies to be used on different missions. America was essential to George’s conceptions of England’s place in the world. That perhaps no one in England was more determined to win than its monarch can help us understand why his ministers and generals so easily embraced convenient myths that permitted the belief that the Revolution could be quelled on the cheap.
Atkinson’s first volume finishes where it began, at the royal dockyard in Portsmouth. The scene has changed vastly in the twenty-one months since the tale began. Where there was once a grand celebration is now the scene of a hanging. A rebel known as John the Painter had concocted audacious plans to cripple England’s naval capacity. His efforts led to significant cost but little real military value. Atkinson pauses at this episode to sum up the war’s state from the British perspective. Although numerous victories had been achieved, and the American city of New York captured, the vast American continent remained largely untamed: “No regular could safely stray more than a furlong from the shore.” Readers who enjoy richly detailed military history will be greatly anticipating his second volume.
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