The 10 Key Campaigns of the American Revolution edited by Edward G. Lengel (Washington, D.C: Regnery, 2020).
Edward Lengel begins this book with a remarkable claim. He writes, “The American War for Independence remains—now, nearly 250 years since its onset—a relatively new field of study.” This will initially strike many readers as a wild assertion. How can this be true when, by one estimate, nine hundred books have been written about George Washington alone? Lengel explains, simply, that “Shocking as it may seem, many of the war’s campaigns and battles have become the subjects of book-length treatments only over the past several years.”
This is indisputably true. In important ways, recent books have also corrected and clarified our understanding of even the most famous campaigns, events, and personalities. It seems that historians were, for a long time, more interested in critiquing and analyzing the Founding Era than in nailing down the Revolution’s actual course of its events. Several histories have appeared in this century that have broken significant new ground in this regard. In The 10 Key Campaigns of the American Revolution, Lengel pulls together a Dream Team of these writers to provide a fresh, top-level overview of the war. Each of the ten authors takes a chapter, providing an authoritative and readable account of a campaign.
For those already steeped in the subject matter, the book offers an opportunity to step back from the trees and look again at the forest. For those who are new to the military history of the founding era, it is an excellent primer. Best of all, it is a book filled with good stories. Who doesn’t love the drama of the Ten Crucial Days and King’s Mountain? Admittedly, there is something odd about writers who know so much about their subjects writing so briefly on them. How on Earth, one must ask, did Michael Harris manage to tell the story of Brandywine and Germantown in a mere eighteen pages? Yet, each of them does it quite well: providing very readable narratives that feature new or recent insights and well-colored characters. Some of the contributors ask and answer difficult questions. Washington and Lafayette, two of the war’s great heroes, are brought down a peg. History has been kinder to Benedict Arnold for some time. Now Charles Lee and Philip Schuyler are also given more sympathetic treatments.
A book of this sort can’t cover everything. Some readers, for instance, will be disappointed by the absence of the southern campaign of 1776. The empire tried that year (at Moore’s Creek Bridge, Great Bridge, and Sullivan’s Island) to rally southern Loyalists to the King’s standard. John Buchanan does point out the importance of Moore’s Creek Bridge in his chapter, noting that it kept backcountry North Carolina Loyalists “cowed” for the next four years. Likewise, the war in the west is missing: George Rogers Clark’s victories in Illinois; Lachlan McIntosh’s failed effort to take Fort Detroit; William Christian’s 1776 expedition against the Cherokee; and John Sullivan’s 1779 expedition against four of the six Iroquois tribes are not mentioned. Some will be sorry to see Nathanael Greene’s South Carolina campaign of 1781 passed over as well.
Glenn Williams, who is best-known for his writing on western campaigns, opens the volume with Lexington and Concord. Williams is a retired Army officer who is now senior historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History at Fort McNair. Though Williams’ pen is perhaps an unexpected choice for this chapter, he tells his story with a military professionalism that is familiar from his books—that is to say, with a minimum of editorializing and with an emphasis on explaining the battlespace. He describes strategy, tactics, geography, and logistics with just enough context to help readers understand what happened and the immediate reasons why it happened.
Mark Anderson does an admirable job telling the heroic story of the Revolution’s greatest villain: Benedict Arnold. Anderson is also a military officer-turned-historian. The former airman is the author of 2013’s The Battle for the Fourteenth Colony: America’s War of Liberation in Canada, 1774-1776. The Quebec campaign often seems like a sidebar to the Revolution—both ineffective and disconnected from the rest of the war. Anderson ties things together, however, explaining that as America’s first significant defeat, the losses in Canada brought a new realism to the cause.
Todd Braisted brings a heavy dose of that realism into his narrative of the New York campaign of 1776. Washington’s repeated failures in this campaign could easily have concluded the war if Gen. William Howe hadn’t preferred a face-saving exit for the American rebels to a coup de grâce. Braisted drives this point home with Pennsylvania officer Daniel Brodhead’s assertion that “Less Generalship never was shown in the Army since the Art of War was understood” and a Hessian officer’s statement after the Battle of Long Island that “If [the Americans] are all as bad as they were on this day, this will be more of a hunt than a war.”
More than one of these authors has the unenviable task of revealing Washington’s flaws. William Kidder, however, has the opposite task: explaining just how enormously important the general’s successes at Trenton, Assunpink Creek, and Princeton were to the cause. Kidder is a retired school teacher and local historian whose 2019 Ten Crucial Days: Washington’s Vision for Victory Unfolds added to our understanding of this campaign in well-told detail. Though born of desperation, Washington’s brilliance and his army’s determination during the Ten Crucial Days saved the Revolution.
James Kirby Martin clearly enjoyed writing his essay on Gen. John Burgoyne and the Saratoga campaign. “The obstreperous Americans needed a good dosage of military discipline,” he writes, “and Burgoyne was sure that he knew how to help administer the imperial spanking.” Martin conjures gloomy images as well. After retaking Fort Ticonderoga, he says, “It was almost as if the wilderness started to devour the British-Hessian army alive as it reckoned with traversing the landscape below Lake Champlain.” Martin gives Benedict Arnold and Daniel Morgan full credit for their heroism and leadership at the Saratoga battles. He also gives Philip Schuyler a deserved nod while extending Horatio Gates no grace. “Gates’s adoring delegates in the Continental Congress declared him the hero of Saratoga,” he writes, “but Burgoyne stated that Arnold was the general who had done the most to defeat his army. In recent years, Schuyler has regained recognition as a critical player, having overcome the bad rap laid on him regarding the loss of Fort Ticonderoga.”
There have been several treatments of the Philadelphia campaign of 1777 in the last couple of decades, written by Stephen Taaffe, Bruce Mowday, and Thomas McGuire. Michael Harris’s treatment of the Battle of Brandywine was published in 2017, which is now joined by a second volume on Germantown. Readers eager for the release of the latter volume got something of a sneak peak in Harris’ contribution to 10 Campaigns. Harris is good at identifying key decision points and explaining their consequences. Obvious examples here are Howe’s decision to take his ship-borne army up the Chesapeake instead of debarking along the Delaware. Another is Washington’s accession to Henry Knox’s insistence that they dislodge Thomas Musgrave’s redcoats from the Chew House at Germantown. “Washington’s decision turned the initiative over to the enemy,” Harris writes. He adds with no minced words: “The rank-and-file Americans did their duty and performed heroically. Once again, the choices made at the highest levels failed them. Just as poor intelligence had doomed the Americans at Brandywine, poor tactical decisions did the same at Germantown. Ultimately, Washington failed the army; the army did not fail him.”
The chapter on the Monmouth campaign is written by Mark Edward Lender, coauthor of an important 2016 reinterpretation of that battle. Lender’s chapter begins and ends with quotes that highlight Washington’s humility before a sovereign God. He does an excellent job simplifying an event whose complexity can be confusing. Perhaps most importantly, he gives Maj. Gen. Charles Lee credit for a fine performance on the battlefield. The traditional view of Lee’s conduct at Monmouth is that he cravenly (or traitorously) withdrew his advanced force at the first sight of the enemy, was insolent to Washington when rebuked for it, and was consequently dismissed from the army following a court martial. It is true that Lee (at least briefly, while in captivity) turned his back on the American cause. That and his unlikable personality have heretofore prevented a close analysis of his actual performance. Lender examines Lee’s actions during the battle and the behavior of Lee’s accusers in his ensuing court martial and entirely flips the scales. He assesses that “with his left gone and Cornwallis threatening, Lee had no alternative but retreat” in the battle’s first phase and credits his leadership through the rest of the engagement. With regard to the “spin” spread by Washington associates like Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens, Lender writes, “Frankly, the attacks amounted to character assassination.” Lee’s trial, he asserts, “was a travesty.” He also explains why exaggerated accounts of Washington losing his temper with Lee, written years later by generals Lafayette and Charles Scott, are “all nonsense.”
This reinterpretation of Charles Lee is a significant. It is not a tweak or a shift in emphasis. Lender asserts that the truth about Lee’s conduct at Monmouth is the opposite of what we were always told. This view was recently reinforced by Christian McBurney in a book titled George Washington’s Nemesis: The Outrageous Treason and Unfair Court-Martial of Major General Charles Lee during the Revolutionary War. Importantly, Lender does not accuse Washington of orchestrating the destruction of Lee’s reputation and career. “Washington disliked his chief subordinate, but despite his curt battlefield exchange with Lee there is little indication that Washington envisioned any post-battle action against him.” It was Lee, expecting vindication, who requested the court martial. In truth, Washington was not above putting his finger on the scales of military justice. He did it during Light Horse Harry Lee’s court martial in 1779. That, however, was in the direction of an acquittal and in defense of a man’s reputation.
Like James Kirby Martin, you can hear the joy in John Buchanan’s voice as he tells the tale of the Kings Mountain campaign. Martin tells us that the victors of that battle had been called “a pack of beggars” by South Carolina’s elite and “crackers” by British officers. An evidently somewhat ungodly minister of God called them, “Ignorant, mean, worthless, beggarly Irish Presbyterians, the Scum of the Earth, and Refuse of Mankind.” And so, just one page into Buchanan’s chapter, we are already cheering for the Overmountain Men to win. Buchanan is a skilled storyteller and his narrative is fun to read. First, we learn about Huck’s Defeat and Musgrove’s Mill, engagements that often don’t get the attention they are due. He describes the remarkable cooperation between the backcountry militia colonels while “a new American army was marching south under the command of Congress’s darling, the hero of Saratoga, Major General Horatio Gates, who had neither the skill nor the stomach for combat command.” The fight at Kings Mountain is one of the best stories of the war. The all-militia versus all-Tory (except for Maj. Patrick Ferguson) battle proved that the British grand strategy, which depended on sustained Loyalist uprisings, was doomed to fail. Perhaps the best moment in Buchanan’s narrative comes when, as the “crackers” approach the crest of the mountain whooping and hollering and shooting, Major Ferguson’s second in command declares, “This is ominous. These are the damned yelling boys.”
Another of the Revolution’s great stories is the Battle of Cowpens. Here the story is told by John Maass, author of The Battle of Guilford Courthouse: A Most Desperate Engagement,which was published this year. The hero of Cowpens was, of course, Gen. Daniel Morgan, who orchestrated one of the few true double envelopments in the history of warfare. He famously achieved this through a novel “defense in depth,” which involved persuading militia to fire at least twice before retreating behind the Continentals. Gates (about whom no one in this book has anything good to say) had relied on the militia to stand their ground in open combat at Camden with catastrophic results. Washington habitually placed militia off to one side, essentially telling them to stay out of the way. Morgan knew they were willing to fight but might not be counted on to stand their ground, and built that realization into his battle plan. Morgan’s inspiring stroll through the camp the night before battle, encouraging and flattering his men, is reminiscent of Henry V the night before the Battle of Agincourt. (This episode was recently told in detail by Albert Louis Zambone in Daniel Morgan: A Revolutionary Life.) The Race to the Dan and the Battle of Guilford Courthouse fill out this chapter, featuring the smart leadership of Gen. Nathanael Greene.
The final chapter is written by Robert Selig, a National Park Service historian and specialist on French forces in the war who has done important work mapping and interpreting the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Historic Trail. Selig begins with Washington’s extraordinary admission to Col. John Laurens: “We are at the end of our tether, and . . . now or never our deliverance must come.” This was not a cry of desperation, it was a message to King Louis XVI, to whom Laurens was planning to pay a visit. French aid came, of course, in the form of Rochambeau’s army and DeGrasse’s fleet. Selig, however, rebuts the traditional narrative that Washington was fixated on attacking New York City and had to be coaxed by the French into marching to Yorktown. Selig reveals that Washington and Rochambeau actually agreed as early as May of 1781 that they would focus on New York “or to extend our views to the Southward as circumstances and a Naval superiority might render more necessary and eligible.” For the time being, however, they agreed that New York was the better target in light of “the insurmountable difficulty and expence of Land transportation—the waste of Men in long Marches (especially where there is a disinclination to the service—objections to the climate &ca).”
These were not negligible concerns. Marching an army that was at the “end of its tether” five hundred miles to the south was not a decision to be made lightly. Then-Col. Peter Muhlenberg’s 8th Virginia Regiment had learned the hard way in 1776 that northern and inland soldiers with no resistance to malaria suffered mightily and died in great numbers when taken to the coastal south in the summer. (Many of Washington’s soldiers did in fact get sick at Yorktown.) Selig points out that the ultimate victory depended on a list of variables, including the weather, any of which might not have fallen into place. In the end, it was the design of Admiral DeGrasse’s ships that forced Washington’s hand. With a twenty-seven-foot draft, the vessels of the French fleet were physically unable to support an attack on New York City. The harbor was too shallow.
David Hackett Fischer once described in detail how the historiography of the Revolution has evolved and changed. In rough sequence, the major approaches have included participant histories, histories focused on republican virtue, romantic histories (like Washington Irving), “whig” or “liberal” histories (like George Bancroft), nationalist and “filiopietist” histories, histories written by “debunkers,” conservatives, Marxists, and multiculturalists. Today, he might add Critical Theory (the 1619 Project) to the list. What all but the first of these have in common is a focus on analysis, theory, and criticism. Fischer wrote, “Academic scholars were trained to study the history of large structures, long processes, major institutions, material conditions, and systems of value, which they believed to be the determinants of history. . . . Academic historians produced many thousands of publications on the American Revolution in the second half of the twentieth century. The work tended to share important substantive patterns. It was not much interested in the history of events. Battle books passed out of fashion, along with histoire evenimentielle [narrative history] in general. No academic historian has ever published a book explicitly on the battles of Trenton and Princeton.”
Fischer, a Princeton- and Johns Hopkins-trained professor at Brandeis University, made these observations in an appendix to the first-ever such history (written by him): the acclaimed Washington’s Crossing, published in 2004. He also noted the advent of “popular history.” He wrote, “Another new approach to history emerged in the late twentieth century, partly as a reaction to academic historiography, in which professional scholars wrote increasingly for one another. . . . It attempted to write a history of ordinary people, allowed them to speak in their voices and turned up many sources that had been neglected. . . . Much of it was scholarship of very high quality. A distinguished example was Richard Ketchum’s The Winter Soldiers (1973).” Thus, Fischer’s historiographical analysis arrived at much the same conclusion as Edward Lengel, who opens 10 Key Campaigns with the assertion that “many of the war’s campaigns and battles have become the subjects of book-length treatments only over the past several years.”
Though Lengel’s Dream Team includes professional historians with doctoral degrees, all of them are writers of narrative history. This book, in fact, is something of a “victory lap” for narrative and “popular” history. While most academics have been (in Fischer’s terms) studying the various “determinants” of history, arguing over theory, and writing “increasingly for one another,” no one—until recently—decided that it was important to figure out if Charles Lee was justly convicted or not.
While readers and publishers alike value a good story, the historian’s first duty is to figure out what actually happened when the details of major events have grown obscure. Lengel’s Dream Team has been diligently working on that while too many others have been asleep at the switch.
Edward G. Lengel, ed., The 10 Key Campaigns of the American Revolution (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2020), ix; Mark Edward Lender, “Revolutionary: George Washington at War,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 127 (2019): 240-242.
Ibid.; Gabriel Neville, “Death by Mosquito,” 8thVirginia.com, July 10, 2020; C. Leon Harris, transc., William Cunningham pension, S8264, RevWarApps.com; Danske Dandridge, Historic Shepherdstown (Charlottesville: The Michie Company, 1910), 260-261; J.R. McNeill, Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 223-224, 233.