Saturday, May 21, 2016

Book review: American Crisis

Book review:
William M. Fowler, Jr., American Crisis: George Washington and the Dangerous Two Years After Yorktown, 1781-1783 (New York: Walker and Company, 2011)
340 pages

American Crisis offers many teaching moments to students of American Revolutionary history.

The war didn’t end at Yorktown. British troops finally left New York City more than two years later.

Washington enters Boston, 1783
Some might speculate that the war effectively ended before that dramatic capitulation at Yorktown in October 1781, because the British never allocated the land and naval forces that were needed to force the colonials to give up. Certainly, the hostilities did not end when Cornwallis threw in the towel. Fowler weaves military, political and diplomatic details together in describing “the dangerous two years” between Yorktown and the official signing of the peace treaty in 1783.

It’s difficult for us in modern times, so accustomed to light-speed communications, to understand the frustration and limitations faced by military commanders, Congress, king and Parliament in the late 18th century. A round trip across the Atlantic could easily take two months or more. Washington could communicate with his officers and Congress only as fast as a horse could travel. British commanders in America were largely on their own in making tactical and strategic decisions. Parliament, the king and American diplomats negotiating peace had to act in perpetual ignorance of recent military actions in North America.

The feckless sloth and impotence of the Second Continental Congress, and (after 1781) the Congress of the Confederation, is a central theme in Fowler’s account. American troops went unfed, unclothed and unpaid for long months and years. The troops committed technically mutinous disobedience about 50 times, and Washington’s officers pushed close indeed to open revolt in their largely unsuccessful efforts to get paid as the end of the war draw closer.

The principal obstacle to forthright action in the congress was its inability to raise money: national taxes needed unanimous consent of the 13 states, which mostly never happened, and the individual states mostly refused to pony up funds from their own resources to support the army. Thus, “the dangerous two years”—if the British had had the military capability to defeat Washington’s army, likely it could have done so. Luckily for us, the king and his ministers never beefed up their army and navy enough to win the war in North America.

In effect, Washington held them off until they gave up.

Fowler says it much better than I can.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

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