Review: Winning Independence


July 26, 2021
by Timothy Symington Also by this Author


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Winning Independence: The Decisive Years of the Revolutionary War, 1778-1781 by John Ferling. (New York, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021)

The latest work by Professor John Ferling (author of The Ascent of George Washington, A Leap In the Dark, and Whirlwind) is a scholarly explanation as to why the United States ended up winning the American Revolution, an outcome that was never inevitable and was in fact unlikely and highly improbable. Winning Independence: The Decisive Years of the Revolutionary War, 1778-1781 focuses on the years between the British defeats at Saratoga and Yorktown. Britain should have won the war easily in the years 1775, 1776 and 1777. Missed opportunities led to the American victory at Saratoga, and then the difficulties that plagued the British until October of 1781. Winning Independence is not so much of a narrative of how the Continental Army won in the end, but rather an indictment of British leaders in America and Great Britain who continued to come within a hair’s breadth of winning the Revolution. How did they keep missing it?

The first of sixteen chapters, “Britain’s War to Win, 1775-1777,” explores how easy it should have been for Gen. Thomas Gage to handily whip inexperienced colonial militias in the war’s beginning. However, the tragic and costly victory of Bunker Hill seemed to have given the British a feeling of “shell-shock”: British commanders were very hesitant to go on the offensive against the rebels, leading to the squandering of several chances to destroy Washington’s army, such as in New York and New Jersey. Washington was able to keep his army alive to attain a surprise victory at Trenton and then at Princeton, but the newly-independent nation was a long way from true security. The national economy was in a shambles and morale was extremely low. Thomas Paine understood that victory would not be easy (“These are the times that try men’s souls”). The city of Philadelphia was taken by the British and it seemed that defeat was assured. Then Burgoyne surrendered to Horatio Gates at Saratoga, and the French alliance that resulted truly made the chances of an outcome favorable to the British almost out of reach. Almost.

The new British strategy was to bring the war to the southern colonies, and Ferling argues that the narrative of the southern theater has been studied and examined too little by historians. Most people are more aware of the events of the northern states in the early years of the Revolution. The southern campaign was twice as long, and cost more lives, so it should be given its due. It was hoped that there were more Loyalists in the Carolinas and Georgia who would take every opportunity to flock to British camps to sign up to fight for their king. If victory in the northern theater was impossible, perhaps maintaining control of the southern provinces would be a satisfactory outcome. Things did indeed go well for the King’s forces in the southern theater. The “American Saratoga” happened in the spring of 1780 when rebel Gen. Benjamin Lincoln surrendered his army after a long siege in the city of Charleston, South Carolina. The British also won at Camden and Guilford Court House but were defeated by the rebels at King’s Mountain and Cowpens. Communication problems between British commanders and the long wait for instructions from London put the British in a difficult position several times. While Lord Cornwallis was waiting for clear directions from his superior, Gen. Henry Clinton, the French alliance was making the Continental Army stronger. Cornwallis moved his army up north to Virginia and settled on the Yorktown peninsula. Chapter 14’s title is appropriate: “The Trap Slams Shut,” and Cornwallis ended up surrendering his army after a violent siege to American and French forces. Neither side believed that this was the end of the war, but the London ministry overseeing the war finally had had enough.

John Ferling is able to use the familiar narrative to bring certain individuals into the spotlight. He describes the military styles of George Washington and Henry Clinton. The very-capable Charles Cornwallis is almost portrayed as a tragic hero, failing due to events out of his control. The involvement of the French, absolutely crucial to the war’s final outcome, is detailed. The naval operations of the Comte d’Grasse and d’Estaing were vital, along with the military expertise of the Comte d’Rochambeau, who served as Lafayette’s mentor. American Gen. Benjamin Lincoln’s defeat at Charleston is chronicled, and although his was a major defeat, the military genius of Nathaniel Greene demonstrated Washington’s exceptional ability to pick the best men as his generals. The nefarious actions of two “villains” are also part of the history: Benastre Tarleton and the duplicitous Benedict Arnold, who would become more than a problem for the Continental Army. The surprising personality whose actions were important in helping the rebel cause in Virginia was that of Gov. Thomas Jefferson (one would never expect to read about Jefferson in a book centered around the actions of the military).

The last chapter, “Reckoning,” is a summary of how the plans of the American, British and French commanders would have played out if they were implemented as intended. Professor Ferling poses many “what-if” scenarios, showing how uncertain victory was for all sides:

Yorktown did not come about overnight. It was the result of momentous decisions and a chain of events on a long, twisting road from Saratoga to the historic siege in this once bucolic spot in Virginia. Before 1781, French squadrons had twice come to North America and, for the Allies, nothing substantive had come of either visit. Had Comte d’Estaing inflicted ruinous blows to Britain’s war effort on either occasion, the war might have been brought to an end years before Yorktown. Had General Augustine Prevost pressed his advantage at the gates of Charleston in the spring of 1779, South Carolina might have dropped out of the war, changing the complexion of hostilities in the South in unfathomable ways. Had the British successfully attacked West Point or destroyed either General John Sullivan’s army or the French in Newport, or had Benedict Arnold’s treason not been a narrow miss, only Virginians who lived on the peninsula between the York and James Rivers would have ever heard of Yorktown. [Pages 551-552]

Winning Independence: The Decisive Years of the Revolutionary War, 1778-1781, is a familiar history, but what makes it unique is the author’s focus on the decisions of British commanders. Of course, Washington and the French were also responsible for the British defeat, but the war was always Great Britain’s war to win. They had more than ample opportunities, all of which they missed. This focus presents the last campaigns of the war in a new light, and the reader comes away with a better understanding of how the Americans supposedly accomplished the impossible. Ferling’s latest book includes valuable maps of the different settings of the important battles (Boston and New England, Quebec, New York and Connecticut, Virginia and Pennsylvania, the Carolinas and Georgia) and several beautiful paintings of the main characters, such as Washington, Clinton, Cornwallis, Greene, Daniel Morgan, Lafayette, Rochambeau, etc. The book’s length is a challenge, but it is well worth the effort.

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One thought on “Review: Winning Independence

  • Nice review of an excellent and important book. I thought Ferling’s heaviest lifting in Winning Independence was his reappraisal of Clinton, in whom he found a very talented strategist and field commander. Other historians have hinted at the same conclusion, but Ferling’s analysis is by far the most thorough and ought to change the way we look at the general. We see the traditional portrait of a thin-skinned, intelligent strategist paralyzed by overthinking and insecurity change to that of a bold strategist and field commander contradicted from above and undermined from below, yet still seizing every opportunity he could find to prevent a defeat he feared was inevitable. Every future historian of Revolutionary War strategy, operations, and leadership is going to have to wrestle with Ferling’s conclusions.

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