Washington overcomes odds in showdown at Yorktown
Since 2014, in “Bunker Hill” and “Valiant Ambition,” Nathaniel Philbrick has been narrating the story of America’s struggle for independence. In his latest book, “In the Hurricane’s Eye,” he picks up this saga in 1780, as Washington and his Continental Army, low on supplies, idle and restless, wait anxiously for the French navy to come to their aid.
What follows is a tension-filled and riveting account of the alliance that assured American independence.
Philbrick is a master of narrative, and he does not disappoint as he provides a meticulous and often hairraising account of a naval war between France and England and a land war that pitted American and French troops against British regulars and Loyalist volunteers. The French government, Philbrick reminds us, was driven less by a commitment to American liberty than by a desire for revenge against its imperial rival, England.
With no navy of their own, the Americans remained confined to land operations in 1780 and 1781, as they had been throughout the war. By the winter of 1780, Continental Army morale was low — and it would sink even deeper in early 1781 when news reached Washington that Benedict Arnold had escaped capture after pillaging Richmond.
But the loss of Arnold was far from the only thing troubling Washington. For many months, he had nurtured a fervent wish that the French navy would mount a joint effort with his army to recapture New York City. The French, however, had other plans: an assault on Lord Charles Cornwallis’ army at Yorktown. A bitter Washington knew he was in no position to argue.
Ragged and driven beyond endurance, Washington’s men persevered, and together, the revolution’s military and naval forces would bring Cornwallis to his knees. This is the moment Philbrick has been building to, and he recreates the battle with all the drama it deserves.
Not everyone will find Philbrick’s detailed coverage of naval and military engagements easy to follow or fully engaging. A landlubber like me felt overwhelmed by some of the nautical language. This should not deter readers, however, for those engagements are not the entire focus of the book. Philbrick has a second, perhaps more compelling theme: how the character of men shapes the history they make.
Hurricanes may destroy ships as if they were matchsticks; the sea may swallow up men. Yet how men respond to the manmade hurricanes that whirl around them lies at the heart of the story. Philbrick offers finely drawn portraits of men whose characters shaped history.
These include the selfabsorbed Adm. Mariot Arbuthnot, the bloodthirsty cavalry commander Banastre Tarleton, the genial Marquis de Lafayette and the callous Lord Cornwallis, but the central figure — the man who overshadows all others — is Gen. George Washington.
In the face of mounting frustration with the French, intense disappointment with the American public’s response to the Army’s needs and a growing fear that the American cause would be lost, Washington struggled to maintain his equanimity.
To his credit, Philbrick resists the temptation to descend into hagiography. Washington, he admits, defended slavery and was not free of racial bias.
In “In the Hurricane’s Eye” Philbrick occasionally succumbs to the lure of historical fortune-telling that marred his previous book. Here he declares that Yorktown “was where the road to the Civil War began.” But such pronouncements do not detract from the authentic drama of the story Philbrick has to tell, a drama that ultimately centers not on nature but on Washington. From his anguished question “Whom can we trust now?” after learning of Arnold’s treason to his “silent adieu” to his troops at New York’s Whitehall, Washington remains the true eye of the hurricane, the calm within the storm.
Carol Berkin’s latest book is “A Sovereign People: The Crises of the 1790s and the Birth of American Nationalism.”
‘In the Hurricane’s Eye’ By Nathaniel Philbrick, Viking, 366 pages, $30