The British Are Coming
The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777
(Volume I of The Revolution Trilogy)
New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2019
Hardcover, 776 pages, ISBN 978-1627790437. $40
Reviewed by Robert T. Jones
US Army Command & General Staff College
Fort Gordon, Georgia
The American Revolutionary War has long been a favored topic for both popular and scholarly histories. With an extensive body of literature covering virtually every aspect of the conflict, it is unusual for a new book to generate the anticipation of the latest work from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Rick Atkinson. The British Are Coming : The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777 is the first volume of a planned trilogy on the conflict that ensured the founding of the United States. Those acquainted with Atkinson’s style of historical writing will find his latest work comfortably familiar. The “Revolution Trilogy” will mirror the format of the author’s hugely successful World War Two “Liberation Trilogy” (An Army at Dawn (2002), The Day of Battle (2007), and The Guns at Last Light (2013). Although this book is intended for a popular history audience, it has much to offer the serious student of the American Revolution.
This first volume in the Revolution Trilogy examines the first two years of the conflict including events leading up to the outbreak of war. As we have come to expect from this author, Atkinson effectively strikes a balance between a macro view of the issues that shaped the conflict and the ordinary everyday people and events of the times. The wealth of period detail contained in the narrative is one of the strong points of this book. As an example, in the prologue Atkinson immediately grabs the reader’s interest as he describes King George III’s week-long review of the Royal Navy at Portsmouth in 1773. “Most imposing were twenty ships of the line…some six thousand crewmen crowded their decks, and as the king drew near, fourteen hundred guns opened in thunderous salute” . To paint such a vivid narrative, the author draws heavily from primary resources such as letters, diaries, period accounts, and even the voluminous papers of the king himself . The narrative is further supported by 134 pages of endnotes as well as an extensive bibliography and index. Additionally, twenty-four well-rendered maps clearly depict the often complex movements of military forces. Additional illustrations are contained in two sections of period artwork.
The main body of the book is organized into three parts containing twenty-two chapters. The author uses a chronological and geographical approach to trace the key people and events of the first two years of the war. The chapters are sequential and each is oriented to a specific locality and time period. For example, Chapter 1 “God Himself Our Captain” focuses on events at Boston, Massachusetts during March and April of 1775. The author continues this approach throughout the book to paint a picture of people and events both great and small. The final chapter of this volume, “The Day is Our Own,” concludes at Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey in January 1777. This approach allows the reader to better understand and conceptualize complex and overlapping events happening throughout North America and Great Britain.
Another strength of the book is the author’s treatment of key historical figures. Interspersed throughout the work are “mini-biographies” of the important military and political leaders on both sides. Aside from the usual biographical information, Atkinson goes on to develop portraits of individuals as multi-dimensional characters. As an example, consider the author’s description of General Sir Henry Clinton, the king’s long-serving commander-in-chief for North America: “rational, dignified, and brainy, he could also be tetchy, insecure, and obsessive…he would always be an enigma, to his few friends, to his many adversaries, and to history” . Regarding the war in America, Clinton was equally critical of both sides. “A most unaccountable madness seems to have seized both countries” . Surely a revealing portrait of the senior British commander charged with bringing the Americans to heel. Likewise, as might be expected, Atkinson devotes a number of pages to his sketch of George Washington. In this his focus is on Washington’s internal traits, those aspects of his character most relevant to his position as commander-in-chief of American armies. “He was ambitious and dogged, with a resolve that made him seem tireless…unquestionably brave, diligent, and sensible, he could also be humorless, aloof, and touchy about his lack of formal education” . Washington needed all these qualities in abundance to prevail in a conflict that turned out to be a contest of endurance for both sides.
Taken in sum, Rick Atkinson’s The British Are Coming is a balanced account of the first two years of the American Revolution. Although the book is primarily a military history, it also includes the political, social, and economic aspects of the conflict. This work is a popular history aimed at anyone with an interest in the American Revolution, but scholars will also find much of interest. The book sets a high bar for the forthcoming volumes in the trilogy.
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