Washington over­comes odds in show­down at York­town

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Books - By Carol Berkin

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

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