BOOK REVIEW: Revolutionary Roads: Searching for the War That Made America Independent . . . and All the Places It Could Have Gone Terribly Wrong by Bob Thompson (Hachette Book Group/Twelve Books, 2023)
Bob Thompson made a significant commitment of time and resources to visit the battlefields of the revolution he selected to include in his book, appropriately titled Revolutionary Roads:Searching for the War That Made America Independent . . . and All the Places It Could Have Gone Terribly Wrong. The author’s investment of time in visiting numerous battlefields and associated Revolutionary War sites produced an entertaining narrative of discovery for the author that he shares with the reader. His approach seeks to highlight the thin line between success and failure of the revolutionary cause and the many places and events that could have caused it to fail.
Reading the Introduction to this text I was pleasantly surprised to find that the author, a New England Yankee whose early education led him to believe the entire revolution took place in New England, opened his book highlighting events in the south. Quickly moving to the concluding chapters, his text also ends in the south. Impressed with his enlightenment and willingness to accept that much of the American Revolution was fought in many places outside New England, I continued deeper into the text.
A very historically grounded and now retired four star general once told me, study warfare and battles, but select one campaign and associated battles and become an expert – this is a way to truly understand warfare. While the book may be considered a survey of the American Revolution, the author not only visited the battlefields he writes about, he visited them with historians and experts who dissected the actions there. He leveraged and credited these experts. The depth of analysis and emotional attachment he derived from this experience is evident in this narrative, making his style of writing and accompanying analysis readable and refreshing.
While the text generally follows a chronological flow of revolutionary events, the author often injects information on key events and individuals that span the revolution. He covers key events from the north to the middle and southern colonies and addresses these in short, easily digestible chapters. The topics and events he selects serve as representative samples of the broader events and issues of the revolution. He addresses some of the more well-known and studied battles and events but even ventures into a narrative on the guerilla or civil war in the south, a complex topic.
Not surprisingly, for an inquisitive writer attempting to understand the significance of key revolutionary actions and events, he devotes much of a chapter to the Battle of the Virginia Capes. This two-hour sea battle, involving no American Patriots, was one of the more operationally significant naval engagements in the history of warfare. I was extremely pleased to see he linked up with my good friend and Marine Corps mentor, Col. Jon Stull, USMC (ret) at Great Bridge and on the Yorktown Battlefield. Jon is another enlightened New Englander, a Connecticut Yankee, who has come to embrace the importance of the revolutionary war in the south, overcoming his early historical indoctrination. Jon recently served as the President of the Great Bridge Battlefield Waterways and History Foundation in Chesapeake, Virginia. Bob Thompson could not have located a more qualified and passionate student of Great Bridge and Yorktown, the two critical Virginia battles that bookend the revolution.
The list of expert historians consulted in contributing to Bob Thompson’s understanding of the people and events he chose to address is impressive. A good writer and story teller, Thompson sought out and received wise counsel from some of the most knowledgeable and passionate revolutionary historians available. Numerous individuals guided him around the battlefields and educated the author on nuances of the revolutionary story. This approach enhanced the author’s understanding of events that can’t be gained exclusively through research and reading. The experience of visiting the sites and walking the ground with expert historians contributed significantly to the author’s ability to inject emotion into his text.
The author organized his text into twenty-two chapters with an Introduction and Epilogue, 381 enjoyably written pages of text. A well-read, traveled and passionate revolutionary historian will find few revelations in this text, yet it provides a refreshing approach. The author cites mostly secondary sources, but many are seminal works. The author provides a different context to many events that were near-run things. Yet that is the nature of warfare in general; warfare is filled with surprises and the revolution is no exception. Personalities, decisions, and time do make a difference and what-ifs abound. A seasoned or revolutionary novice will enjoy this narrative and appreciate the words, insight and emotional experience conveyed by the author.