Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, the battle the changed the course of the American Civil War by James M. McPherson (2002)

The 160 pages or so of this tidy little book are like a pendant to ‘Battle Cry of Freedom’, McPherson’s vast 860-page history of the Civil War Era, which I have reviewed at length.

Crossroads of Freedom is part of a series called Pivotal Moments in American History. In his introduction McPherson says that, as you might expect, there were numerous important moments in the American Civil War, before going on to explain why he thinks the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862 justifies his focus.

Why Antietam?

Closest the South ever came to victory

In a nutshell it’s because Antietam was the closest the South came to taking Washington DC, an event which would have not just demoralised the North and possibly fatally weakened its army. Far more importantly, it would have a decisive step toward achieving the South’s primary war aim which was Recognition by the International Community. The French followed Britain’s lead and Britain hesitated to recognise the South as a separate nation until it proved itself economically viable and secure. Seizing the opponent’s capital city would have been the most dramatic proof possible that the Confederacy was indeed a nation in its own right. And Antietam was the closest they came. And they failed.

Robert E. Lee’s army of Northern Virginia lost about a quarter of its number and he decided to abandon the attempt to take the capital and withdrew back into Virginia. The South’s defeat at Antietam not only weakened them militarily, but also psychologically. Despite two and a half more years of war and many more victories on their own soil, they would never again come so close to striking one decisive blow.

The war for freedom

A year earlier President Lincoln had begun seriously considering declaring that one of the North’s war aims was to liberate the South’s slaves and abolish slavery as an institution, but had decided not to do so so as not to jeopardise the uneasy allies in the Northern Camp such as some factions in the so-called borderline states (for example Missouri and Kentucky) and the entire Democrat Party (Lincoln and the American government when the war broke out, were Republican).

Republican President Abraham Lincoln

The crushing defeat of the South’s forces at Antietam emboldened Lincoln to go ahead and make his declaration, on 1 January 1863, converting the war from one which merely wished to reincorporate the rebel states back into the Union to an all-out attempt to crush the South, to abolish the central element of its economic system, to abolish slavery and completely remould the South on the model of the free market, capitalist North.

Casualties

In fact the most consistent argument McPherson uses is the appalling casualties of the battle. A staggering 23,100 men were wounded, killed or missing in action during the battle. In a move which made sense in 2002 when the book was published, but itself looks like a historical curio, McPherson opens his text by comparing the estimated 6,000 deaths at Antietam (September 17 1862) to the (then) recent atrocity of September 11 2001, when 2,997 died; and goes on to point out that the number of casualties at Antietam was four times greater than American casualties on the Normandy beaches on D-Day Jun 6 1944, more than the war casualties of every other war the US fought in the nineteenth century put together (the War of 1812, the Mexico-America War, the Spanish-American War and all the Indian wars). It was ‘the bloodiest day’ in American history.

‘No tongue can tell, no mind can conceive, no pen portray the horrible sights I witnessed.’ (Pennsylvania soldier in his diary, quoted on page 129)

So those are the reasons McPherson adduces for choosing the Battle of Antietam as his ‘Pivotal Moment in American History.’

What is Antietam?

Antietam is a small river which runs south through Maryland into the River Potomac near the hamlet of Sharpsburg. The battle took place across the river in the sense that some of the largest casualties occurred when Union troops attempted to cross narrow bridges or ford the 30 metre-wide river. The North refer to it as the Battle of Antietam, the South the Battle of Sharpsburg.

It is pronounced Ant-eat-em, or, in American, Ant-eed-em.

Key learnings

Secession not civil war

In a sense it wasn’t a civil war. A civil war breaks out all over a country, for example in Britain in the 1640s where the Roundheads sought to overthrow Charles I’s rule over the nation. So that was a struggle between competing factions for control of one nation.

The American ‘civil war’ was more a secession. The 11 southern slave states seceded or withdrew from the nation called the United States and declared themselves a new country, with a new capital at Richmond Virginia, a new flag, and a new president, Jefferson Davis.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis

It was more comparable to events in other post-colonial countries where a province wanted to secede but the central government fought a war to hang onto and control the seceding territory, for example Biafra in Nigeria or Eritrea seeking independence from Ethiopia, the struggle of South Sudan to become independent of North Sudan, and so on.

This meant that, militarily, the North had to conquer the South in order to force it back into the country called the United States – which in practical terms meant seizing the Southern capital, Richmond, ideally along with its government – whereas all the South had to do was maintain its territorial integrity i.e. sit back and repel the North’s attacks.

As with many secessions the impartial observer is tempted to ask, Why not? Why shouldn’t Biafra seceded from Nigeria, Eritrea from Ethiopia or the Confederate states from the Union?

President Abraham Lincoln thought he had been elected president of all of America and it was his duty to maintain the nation’s integrity. He thought the South must be compelled to return back into a state they wished to leave. It’s very tempting to ask, Why?

Expansion West – would the new states be slave or free states?

One reason may have been that the US was a very unfinished nation, with most of the Western half of the continent far from settled, with much of it divided into territories which had yet to attain the legal status of ‘states’. At the time of the war the US consisted of 34 states i.e. 16 of today’s 50 states did not yet legally exist.

Therefore it wasn’t an act of secession taking place within a fixed and defined territory. Above all, the chief cause of the war was whether the new states being defined to the West – states such as Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona and so on – would be slave states of free states.

The American Civil War was a war fought against the expansion of slavery into the territories acquired after the Mexican-American War. It was not about the moral rectitude of Lincoln or the North. Although he personally found slavery abhorrent, he believed in the innate superiority of the white race. His paramount goal was not the freedom of over four million black slaves but to save the Union at all costs. He once said:

‘My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race I do because I believe it helps to save the Union, and whatever I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.’

(quoted on Richard Lawson Singley’s blog)

So it was not only a struggle to define what the country called the United States would consist of in the 1860s, but the result would determine whether the just-about-to-be-created states would belong to the existing union or join the Confederacy. In one sense the North and the South were fighting over who would own the West.

By ‘own’ I mean which social and economic model the Western states would adopt, slavery or non-slavery. Both sides were determined that the about-to-be-created states should adopt their social and economic system. You can see why this was a really fundamental problem which was almost impossible to decide by political means.

How the expansion of slave states would permanently alter the political balance in the US

Moreover it had a direct impact on the nature of the politics of the USA. Each American state sent two senators to the Senate, regardless of population. Therefore, there was a naked power struggle whenever a new state was admitted to the Union as to whether its two senators would be pro or anti slavery, the decision of each state threatening to upset the very finely tuned balance of power between slave and anti-slave states in Congress.

American politicians managed to defer the multiple aspects of the issue from the 1830s through the 1850s but as the nation expanded westwards it became ever-more pressing, until the series of expedients and compromises were finally exhausted by the start of 1860 and the election of President Lincoln brought the issue to a head.

International recognition

Because it was more of an act of secession than of civil war explains why the issue of international recognition was so important. At that time the ‘international community’ more or less amounted to Britain, led by the wily 70-something Lord Palmerston, and France, led by the buffoonish Emperor Napoleon III. McPherson brings out how vital it was for the South to demonstrate to Britain in particular that she was a viable independent nation. To do that she had to repel Northern attacks and, ideally, win victories herself.

McPherson describes in some detail the diplomatic manoeuvring in London where both North and South had ambassadors working at every level of the British government to sway it to its side (Charles Adams for the North, James Mason for the South).

James Murray Mason, one-time senator for Virginia and Confederate emissary to London (he wasn’t officially recognised as ambassador) where he tirelessly lobbied for British recognition of the Confederacy

By and large the British establishment, the aristocracy and the better off middle classes, supported the South. This was not out of love for slavery, for most Britons had long been against slavery, having fought a long campaign for the abolition of the slave trade at the turn of the nineteenth century and then the abolition of the legal status of ‘slave’ throughout the British Empire in 1833. Britons and prided themselves that the Royal Navy patrolled the world’s oceans to combat slavery.

No, on the whole Britain’s ruling classes favoured the South for three reasons:

  1. fear of North America’s growing industrial and economic power, combined with dislike of the North America’s crude, no-holds-barred industrial capitalism
  2. a preference for a romanticised view of the more ‘leisurely’, agricultural society of the South, which airbrushed out the slaves sweating in the fields, or chose to believe Southerners’ preposterous claims that the slaves benefited from their enslavement. (The many, many statements by Southern politicians explaining why the slaves loved their slavery or benefited from it, have to be read to be believed.)

The third reason was cruder. The core of Britain’s industrial revolution had been breakthroughs in powering and managing the textile trade and this relied entirely on cotton imported from the American South. It was in Britain’s clear economic interest to support the South. Hence McPherson is able to quote liberally from The Times newspaper which wrote numerous editorials sympathising with the Confederate cause.

But ultimately, the great prize the Confederacy sought, recognition by Britain, boiled down to the decision of one man, savvy old Lord Palmerston, and McPherson quotes conversations between the man himself and advisers or members of his cabinet or ambassadors for either side in the war, in which the canny Lord delays and prevaricates and insists he just needs to see a bit more proof that the South is a viable, standalone state.

In the autumn of 1862 his own Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone, started a cabinet debate on whether Britain should intervene. Like many in the British ruling class, Gladstone favoured the Confederacy (in fact his family wealth depended on slavery in the West Indies). The strongest argument for British intervention was humanitarian, to try to bring to an end the increasingly horrifying levels of bloodshed.

This was something the Confederates devoutly wished for, since it would place them on the same legal status as the North and amount to international recognition of their independent statehood.

But while personally sympathetic to the South, Palmerston killed Gladstone’s suggestion and maintained his temporising position right till the end of the war in April 1865, dying a few months later in October 1865, having maintained Britain’s good relations with the state that ended up winning, Lincoln’s North.

Types of freedom

In the introduction and in passages throughout the book McPherson explores the idea that the war was about different definitions of ‘freedom’.

The South was not totally incorrect in describing the North’s approach as a kind of tyranny i.e. trying to keep the 11 Confederate states inside a country they had all elected to leave. On this view the Confederacy was fighting for the principle of the states’ freedoms to choose their own laws and social systems according to the wishes of the local people and in defiance of central, federal power. Hence you read no end of rhetoric in southern newspapers and southern speeches about their aim to be free of despotism, escape the heel of tyranny, achieve deliverance and so on.

This view underplayed two factors:

One was the issue defined above, that the war wasn’t just about the present, but about the future, because whoever controlled the Western states was set to, ultimately, emerge as the larger and more powerful player in the divided continent. I.e. it wasn’t pure tyranny on the North’s part. In a roundabout way it was about the long-term survival of the North’s view of what the 1777 revolution had been about.

The second is the one you hear more about in these woke times, which is the breath-taking hypocrisy of the South to make fancy speeches about ‘freedom’ while basing its entire economy and society on the forced labour of some 4 million slaves.

McPherson indicates some of the twisted logic this led Southern politicians and commentators into:

  • some denied that there was anything wrong with slavery, declaring that Africans were happier being mentored and tutored by their superiors
  • some declared slavery as old as the Bible and justified by God
  • others bluntly said the slaves were not fully human and so couldn’t enjoy rights and freedoms reserved for whites

Any way you cook it, Southerners tended to downplay slavery, preferring to emphasise the ‘nobility’ of their fight for independence and play up the same kind of ‘freedom from tyranny’ which their great grandfathers had fought the British to achieve.

By contrast Northerners had at least two definitions of freedom. One was the obvious one of anti-slavery which associated the South as a culture of slavery and oppression. The other was a more complicated notion around the idea that no democratic nation can afford to be held hostage by the extreme views of a minority, in this instance the insistence on slavery of 11 states continually bogging down the political process of the other 23 states. It was freedom for the elected government to enact the policies it was elected for, without the endless filibustering and obstructing of the South.

Around page 100 I came across a variation on this idea, which is the notion that the government of a country cannot be held hostage by the continual threat that any region of the country which doesn’t like this or that policy will simply secede and walk away. Two things.

  1. This obviously threatens the very notion of the integrity and identity of a country (cf modern Spain’s refusal to countenance the independence of Catalonia, which would be fine for Catalans but seriously weaken Spain as a country).
  2. With each of these potential splits a nation becomes smaller, weaker and more unstable.

I was struck by the editorial in the New York Herald which pointed out that if the North gave in to secession, where would it end? The entire nation might fragment into a pack of jostling states which would fall prey to instability, rivalry, wars and weak government like the nations of South America. If the North lost Maryland (which Robert E. Lee’s army invaded in September 1862), he thought the North might:

be broken up…not into two confederacies, but into ten or twenty petty republics of the South American school, electing each a dictator every year at the point of the bayonet and all incessantly fighting each other.’ (quoted on page 102)

So that’s why the book is titled ‘Crossroads of Freedom’ – because, seen from one angle, the entire war was fought to decide whose definition of ‘freedom’ would triumph. And McPherson designates the Battle of Antietam ‘the crossroads of freedom’ because it was, in his opinion, the decisive moment in the war, the crossroads at which men died in huge numbers to contest these definitions of ‘freedom’ and out of which a massive new definition of freedom, the emancipation of all the slaves, emerged.

Emancipation of the slaves

A casual acquaintanceship with the history of the American Civil War and Abraham Lincoln leads many to think that war was fought about the issue of slavery and led directly to the emancipation of the slaves.

Slave owners disciplining their belongings

A closer reading of events teaches you that Lincoln resisted making emancipation the central issue for several years. This is because of the time-honoured, central nature of democratic politics in a large state, which is that to form a government which can pass laws and get things done you always have to form coalitions of interest. And so Lincoln was reluctant to make emancipation the central issue because:

  • he knew it would alienate many Democrats even in the North (Lincoln was a Republican)
  • it would alienate slave owners in the all-important borderline states between the Union and the Confederacy
  • it would spur the Confederacy to fight harder

One of the things that emerges most clearly from McPherson’s account is how it was a series of Confederate victories in the summer of 1862, with much loss of life on the Northern side that finally made Lincoln decide he had to ‘take off the gloves’ and go all out to win the war by any means possible. In this regard the declaration that the North would emancipate the slaves, while it contained a humanitarian motive, was also motivated by Realpolitik. It:

  1. acknowledged the reality on the ground where more and more Afro-Americans were fleeing their bondage to the nearest Northern armies where they were happy to volunteer to work as cooks and ancillary staff or be drafted into a fighting regiment
  2. put clear blue water between the two sides and their war aims
  3. unequivocally seized the international moral high ground

It marked a Rubicon. Previously Lincoln, many in his cabinet, many soldiers and civilians had hoped there could be some kind of reconciliation. The initial declaration was announced on 22 September, 1862, just five days after the battle of Antietam, and gave the South 100 days to return to the Union or lose all its slaves. The South rejected the offer and so Lincoln made the second and definitive declaration on 1 January 1863. Now it would be a war to the death, a war of conquest and domination.

Details

War aims

War aims always escalate. Abraham Lincoln reluctantly engaged in the war with the relatively narrow aims of securing US government property and ensuring its excise taxes were collected. That is why the commencement of the war with the Confederates attacking Fort Sumter near Charleston, South Carolina by the South Carolina militia was so symbolic. Fort Sumter was held by forces loyal to the North but was clearly on Southern soil. The questions of who should control it, whether the Union garrison should abandon it and ship north or hold onto it as a legitimate property of the US government went right to the heart of the issue of whether a new government (the Confederacy) existed and what rights it had.

Anyway, back to the escalation theme: For the first 2 years Lincoln repeatedly promised that if the South returned to the fold, all would be forgiven and nothing would be changed. McPherson’s account covers the period during which the Republican government realised that it couldn’t win this conflict by cajoling and coaxing, that it had to ‘take off the kid gloves’ (a phrase McPherson tells us quickly became an over-used cliché) and fight the Confederacy with every tool at his command.

It’s in this context that must be understood the proclamation of the emancipation of the slaves on 1 January 1863. It marked a seismic shift in the North’s war aims from merely reincorporating the South ‘as before’, leaving it its own institutions and laws, and a new, thorough-going determination to destroy the central pillar of the Southern economy, slave labour, and remould the South in the North’s image.

Contraband

As soon as war broke out slaves began running away from their Southern masters, fleeing to the nearest Northern centre or garrison. Northern generals in some regions let them stay, others insisted on returning them to their Southern masters. On 23 May 1861 an event took place which slowly acquired symbolic and then legal significance. Major General Benjamin Butler, commanding Union forces at Fort Monroe, Virginia, refused to return three runaway slaves who had arrived at the fort. Butler argued that, since their former owner was in revolt against the United States, his slaves could be considered ‘contraband of war’ and so were not subject to return.

General Butler refuses to return three slaves who have escaped to Fort Monroe in what came to be seen by both sides as a symbolic moment

Butler’s opinion on this issue eventually became Union policy. Two Confiscation Acts were passed by Congress in 1861 and 1862 by which all slaves used by the Confederate military for transportation or construction work could be freed if captured by Union forces. As these populations increased they were put to work behind the lines, working as labourers, teamsters (‘a person who drives teams of draft animals’), servants, laundresses, or skilled craftsmen, as well as serving as scouts, spies, soldiers or sailors. Some were recruited into all-black military units.

This explains why term ‘contraband’ came into widespread use to describe escaped slaves at the time but I admit I was surprised that it seems to be widely used by modern historians including McPherson. In these sensitive times I’m surprised that it hasn’t been replaced by a less derogatory and objectifying term such as ‘runaway slaves’.

Race war

Threaded throughout the book is the contemporary concern among Americans of both sides and even foreign commentators, that liberating the South’s slaves would lead to a Race War. Many sensible people thought the civil war would be followed by a much bigger struggle of white against black which would engulf the whole continent. Although this seems mad to us, now, we must understand that it was a real concern at the time and added to the reluctance of even very intelligent people to support unqualified emancipation.

‘“Abe Lincoln’s Last Card’, a cartoon in the British magazine, Punch, showing a ragged and possibly devilish Lincoln playing the ’emancipation card’ against a confident Confederate with the aim of detonating the powderkeg which the table is resting on, implying that the Emancipation Proclamation was a desperate and cynical move by a defeated North designed to spark a bloody insurrection. (The cartoon is by John Tenniel, famous for illustrating the Alice in Wonderland books.)

In the event we know that what followed was nothing like a ‘race war’; instead black people in America were to suffer a century of poverty, immiseration and discrimination until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s began to effect change.

Illustrations

And it has pictures, lots of them: 17 contemporary photos of key players in the drama including Union President Abraham Lincoln, the ex-slave and writer Frederick Douglas, the great generals George B. McClellan, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses Grant, the diplomats James Mason and Charles, the Secretary of State for War, the ironclad USS Cairo and so on.

Frederick Douglas who pressed Lincoln in 1862 to turn the war for Union into a war for freedom

And photos taken after battle by enterprising documentary photographers from New York such as Alexander Gardner to feed the newspapers. (McPherson informs us that America at this date had more newspapers per capital than any other country in the world.)

The war dead look like the war dead everywhere, same as in photos of the Indian Mutiny (1857) or the Crimean War (1853 to 1856), after the Boxer Rebellion (1899 to 1901) or the Boer War (1899 to 1902) let alone the calamitous wars and genocides of the 20th century. In all of them human beings are reduced to a compost heap of rags and putrefying flesh. Death reveals there is no mystery to human life. To the earth we return after a short period of preening, just like all the other organisms on the planet.

Confederate dead lying in ‘Bloody Lane’ after the intense fighting there at midday 17 September 1862

There are some 14 newspaper etchings and illustrations, of historic and dramatic scenes such as Commodore Farragut’s fleet passing the Confederate forts below New Orleans on 24 April 1862, specific incidents during the battle itself, and newspaper cartoons and caricatures of politicians.

And, crucially, there are maps, seven beautifully drawn and beautifully reproduced maps which help you make sense of the complex military manoeuvres and operations between Spring and September 1862, the period the book really focuses on.

This is a beautifully written and beautifully produced book which helps you follow the build up to the battle in detail but also interprets the meaning and significance of events in a highly intelligent and thought provoking way. 10 out of 10.

A video

Here’s a handy video which summarises the whole thing in 5 minutes.


Other posts about American history

Origins

Seven Years War

War of Independence

Slavery

The civil war

Art

Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling (2007)

‘We are now launching into a wide and boundless field, puzzled with mazes and o’erspread with difficulties.’
George Washington, autumn 1779

At 680 larger-than-usual pages, this is a very long, very thorough and very heavy book.

I bought it under the misapprehension that it would explain the economic and political background to the American War of Independence, which was a mistake. Almost a Miracle is a highly detailed account of the arguments about military strategy conducted by both sides in the war, and of the actual battles fought during the war.

In this respect its focus on the nitty-gritty of military engagements large and small follows straight on from the couple of books I recently read about its immediate predecessor, the Seven Years War:

The Seven Years War (1756-63)

Put simply, the result of the Seven Years War was that the British Army and its colonial and Indian allies won Canada from the French, seizing its key city, Quebec, and expelling the French from their would-be North American empire. Thus ensuring that America would be an English-speaking nation.

Britain won because:

  1. the British government threw many more men and resources at the war than the French
  2. the British colonists far outnumbered the French, 1.2 million Brits compared to 55,000 French

But the British government, led by William Pitt, had to borrow a lot of money to pay for these military campaigns and, as soon as the Seven Years War ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763, lost no time in trying to recoup their money from the colonists. A range of new taxes were introduced – via the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act and the Townshend Revenue Act – and existing taxes were collected more stringently.

The colonists didn’t like new taxes

The colonists didn’t like it. There was a long, steady rumble of complaint from the moment the new taxes were introduced in 1763 to the outbreak of war in 1775. A spectrum of dissenting opinion emerged among the colonists, from:

  • radicals like John Adams, who early grasped the need for complete independence from Britain
  • moderates, who accepted British rule but wanted the taxes lightened or lifted
  • Loyalists or so-called ‘Tories’, who accepted everything the British government demanded on the basis that they were loyal subjects of His Majesty and His Majesty’s government

Key way stations along the road to war were:

  • 1768 – the arrival of British troops in Boston, the most important port (and largest city) in the colonies, to support the collection of taxes
  • 5 March 1770 – ‘the Boston Massacre’, when an angry mob surrounded the British customs building, someone let off a shot, the soldiers panicked and killed five colonials
  • the 1773 Tea Act which aimed to promote tea from India in America and led to ‘the Boston Tea Party’ of 16 December, when American patriots disguised as Mohawk Indians dumped £9,000 of East India Company tea into the Boston harbour
  • the four ‘Intolerable Acts’ passed by the British Parliament in May and June 1774, which stripped Massachusetts of self-government and judicial independence following the Boston Tea Party
  • the first Continental Congress in September 1774 when delegates were sent from all 13 colonies to the town hall in Philadelphia to discuss their response to the Intolerable Acts

Although critics of Lord North’s administration in the British Houses of Parliament fiercely criticised many of the British measures, although many British politicians spoke and wrote pamphlets in favour of greater moderation and understanding of the Americans, and although most of the American politicians were themselves conservative and favoured reconciliation with Britain – nonetheless, reading any timeline of the build-up to war gives an overwhelming sense of inevitability – of the Titanic steaming unstoppably towards the iceberg.

The two points of view were just irreconcilable:

  • The British king and his ministry thought they had spent a fortune, and lost a lot of men, defending colonists who paid only a fraction of the taxes which their cousins in Britain paid: it was time they coughed up.
  • The Americans thought victory in what they called ‘the French and Indian War’ had owed a lot to their own men and blood; they didn’t owe anyone anything. Plus, they had all grown up paying minimal taxes and so were outraged when the London government started imposing all kinds of new taxes and tolls on them and their imports.

American resentment crystallised into the expression ‘no taxes without representation’, meaning they refused to pay taxes imposed on them by a legislature 3,000 miles away, in which they had no say.

Because the outcome is so well-known, and because the extremists on both sides (especially the American patriots, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington) went on to become such household names, it is most interesting to read about the moderates on both sides, those advocating for peace and compromise.

I learned that the Loyalist members of Congress got together an Olive Branch Petition to send to George III. Their belief that America could quite easily remain within the British Empire, with just a few tweaks and adjustments, have – like the rational, carefully argued opinions of so many moderates throughout history – disappeared from view.

Studying them carefully – putting yourself in their place and trying out their arguments – gives you insights into the fate of moderates in so many revolutions – the French or Russian ones, to name the big two; and by extension, helps you to understand the fate of moderates in modern political situations (America, Turkey, Britain, Iran).

The American War of Independence

This book, by its sheer length and the staggering accumulation of detail, really brings home that the American War of Independence was much longer than you tend to imagine – from first skirmishes to final peace treaty it lasted a surprising eight and a half years, from 19 April 1775 to 3 September 1783.

What should the Americans do?

I think the single most striking learning is that both sides didn’t know what to do or how to fight the war, an uncertainty which persisted right to the end.

Hostilities broke out because the British garrison in Boston was sent in April 1775 to confiscate munitions which Patriot militias had been building up in the towns and villages of Massachusetts.

Patriot spies got wind of this and set off on horseback to warn the militias, who were therefore armed and prepared by the time the 700 or so British soldiers reached the small towns of Lexington and Concord. Small engagements broke out at both places, before the British regulars were reinforced and marched together back to the safety of Boston, shot and sniped at all the way. Their blood up, the local militias rallied across Massachusetts and set up a siege of Boston. The war had, in effect, begun.

On June 14 1775 the Continental Congress voted to create the Continental Army and voted George Washington its commander-in-chief. When news of all this arrived back to London, the government sent a British Army force across the Atlantic under the command of General Howe. It was war.

But what should both sides do next? The biggest learning from the book is that both sides effectively made it up as they went along. I’m used to the Great War where the Allied aim was to defeat Germany on the Western Front, and the Second World War where the Allies demanded the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan.

In both wars there were clear ‘fronts’ where the enemies fought, with the Allies pushing the Germans back from the Western Front in the Great War, with the Allies crushing Germany from east and west in the Second War, and pushing Japan back across Pacific islands towards her homeland in the East.

But in this war, where was the American homeland? Where could a knock-out blow be delivered?

And what did the Americans aim to achieve? Was it best to meet the British Army in a head-on, traditional-style battle and defeat it? When you put it like that, you see how unlikely it was that an army made of volunteers who’d spent most of their lives working on farms, with officers and NCOs having been appointed just a few weeks earlier, would be able to defeat the well-armed, well-drilled professional Brits.

So the Americans tended to seek smaller engagements where they had the advantage of surprise and knowledge of the territory – or otherwise they just retreated.

Washington early informed Congress that his would be a war of ‘posts’ (p.136) meaning small specific engagements, and that he would adopt the withdraw-and-fight-another-day tactics of the famous Roman general, Fabius Cunctator.

But not everyone agreed with Washington, and his headquarters was always riven by factions of officers arguing fiercely about strategy. It is the merit of a military history on this scale that it makes it quite clear that the American military command was permanently rife with debates and arguments, sometimes quite bitterly, about what to do, where to strike, when to pull back.

And, as it became clear that the war wouldn’t be over by Christmas, there were fierce and partisan arguments in Congress.

Not only were there divisions about how to fight but, more importantly, where. Were there ‘key colonies’ or areas which must not be ceded to enemy at any cost – and, if so, where? Was it vital to hold Boston, or to retire if the army was imperiled? Ditto New York: should Washington’s army defend New York come what may or, again, make a tactical withdrawal in the face of superior British forces, and live to fight another day?

What should the British do?

But while the Patriot side was riven by indecision and infighting about where to defend, where to retreat, and how much of a big battle to engage in, it was, if anything worse, on the British side.

In particular, there was a fundamental division between those who thought the British should fight with no quarter, ravaging and destroying the land as they went – as the Union army was to do in the Civil War – giving the retreating army nowhere to hide and wearing down the enemy’s agricultural infrastructure, teaching them who was boss – and others who thought that the only practical policy was to fight a civilised and limited war, in order to win the hearts and minds of men who were after all, in a sense, our cousins.

This is one of the main big learnings of the book –  that the men in charge of the British war effort hesitated and prevaricated over and over again, especially General William Howe, general in command of British forces from 1775 to 1777.

At several key moments, for example when he had cornered the American Army in New York, Howe hesitated to push his advantage – and so let the Americans escape.

Great Britain’s last best chance to destroy the Continental army and crush the American rebellion occurred in September 1776, but the opportunity slipped away through a series of monumental mistakes. (p.139)

Howe had been an MP in the Commons during the build-up to war, and had voted for conciliation and compromise with the rebels. While the hawks called for a slash and burn policy, Howe appears to have thought that the Americans were misled by a handful of fanatics and that, if only they could be dealt a bloody nose, the Congress and most of the population would suddenly realise the error of their ways, put down their weapons, and accede to His Majesty’s very reasonable demands.

So although Howe defeated Washington in a series of encounters designed to drive him out of New York, he deliberately let slip a couple of sitting duck opportunities to surround and annihilate his opponent. History remembers Washington as a great general but he was fighting an opponent who was reluctant to really comprehensively defeat him.

Indecisive battles

And so both the British and the Americans hesitated among a variety of choices before embarking on anything coherent enough to be termed a ‘campaign’. What is then notable is how many of these campaigns failed – it seems to the untutored reader to have been a war of failures rather than successes.

Thus the engagements at Lexington and Concord led the Americans to besiege Boston, which sounds like a big bold thing to do. But General Howe threatened to burn the city to the ground unless he was allowed to sail away unscathed, the Americans reluctantly gave in, and Howe sailed off with all his men. Hardly a victory.

Similarly, the Americans launched a twin-pronged campaign to capture Quebec and therefore Canada, from the British, with Major General Richard Montgomery capturing forts up Lake Champlain while Major General Benedict Arnold led a force through the wilds of Maine, to join up in front of Quebec City.

The section describing the appalling sufferings of Arnold’s men as they hacked their way through swamp and forest, drowned in makeshift rafts on rapids, and began to starve, before finally blundering into the settled territory in Canada, is the most imaginatively gripping part of the whole book, reading like a gruesome novel of backwoods survival.

But the military point is that both the American forces were so weakened by the time they arrived and commenced the Battle of Quebec that their attack was a complete failure. Montgomery was killed and Arnold badly wounded in the assault on the city, before the survivors were forced to regroup and retrace their way back to America.

It had been ‘a calamity of epic proportions’ (p.111).

Similarly, Howe launched a great campaign to take New York City from Washington’s army ,and this involved a whole series of engagements as Washington slowly withdrew back through Long Island, then up Manhattan, and over into new Jersey. But the real story is that Howe missed several glaring opportunities to surround and exterminate Washington’s army, letting it live on.

Similarly, much is made of the Battle of Saratoga, a supposedly great victory by the Americans in October 1777. But when you read about it in as much detail as Ferling supplies, you first of all realise that it wasn’t a battle at all. British General Burgoyne had led an army down from British Canada, hoping to link up with General Howe’s army from New York, and another one coming east from Lake Ontario. Neither turned up and Ferling’s account shows how Burgoyne’s force was steadily weakened and depleted by small engagements along the way, loss of food and supplies, the necessity of leaving detachments to guard all the little forts he captured on the way south and so on and so on. So that by the time Burgoyne’s weakened force approached the American stronghold of Albany, at the northernmost point of the River Hudson, his depleted forces were perilously short of ammunition and supplies. Eventually Burgoyne’s force was surrounded by outnumbering American forces and he surrendered. There was no battle.

A lot of American mythology surrounds the Battle of Trenton, when Washington led his forces across the half-frozen River Delaware to take by surprise detachments of German mercenaries stationed in the small town of Trenton, who were outliers of Howe’s larger British Army stationed in New Jersey.

Yes, it was a daring pre-dawn raid, yes it caught the Hessians completely unprepared, and yes it led to the capture of almost all of them (22 killed, compared with just 2 dead on the American side).

But its importance was far more psychological than military. The Americans had done nothing but retreat from New York for six months. Trenton wasn’t a victory at all, it just showed that the Americans weren’t completely beaten and still had some kick left in them. Trenton stemmed the tide of defections and desertions from the Patriot army and showed sceptics at home and abroad that American troops could win something. But it didn’t gain much ground or defeat a major British force.

There is much more like this. Ferling quotes lots of contemporary eye-witness testimony to give really impactful accounts of the endless marching, of long gruelling campaigns like Arnold’s trek north or Burgoyne’s trek south, of the endless arguments at British and American HQ – which make up the majority of the text.

The suffering and hardships, the climatic extremes, the lack of food and shelter, are quite difficult to read sometimes. I was particularly struck by the way many of the Continental soldiers had no shoes or footwear of any sort. On numerous marches their fellow soldiers followed the blood from bleeding feet left in the snow or mud. In fact, the two Patriots who died at Trenton died from advanced frostbite, and thousands of American soldiers lost toes and feet due to lack of basic footwear.

Skirmishing aside, really large full-scale battles didn’t happen that often, but when they do Ferling’s accounts are appropriately gory and bloodthirsty, over and again bringing out how war amounts to the frenzied butchering and dismembering, skewering, hacking and eviscerating of human bodies.

War in the south

By 1779 and 1780 Washington was in despair because he didn’t know what to do next. Ferling makes it clear that right up to the last moments of the war, Washington was fixated, obsessed, with returning to fight a big battle for New York – despite the fact that the Americans never had enough men to retake it against Britain’s well-entrenched forces.

That or maybe another stab at taking Canada from the British – another phantasm which haunted American military minds, despite the catastrophe of the Arnold campaign.

Washington’s obsession with the north meant that he missed the region where the war was eventually won, which was in the southern states. About half way through the book Ferling switches focus from New England, New York and Pennsylvania, to the southern states of Maryland, North and South Carolina and Georgia.

This second half feels different from the first half for two reasons: the French had got involved, and there was a lot more guerrilla and partisan fighting.

France and world war

American representatives had been in Paris since before the start of the war, negotiating trade deals etc. Once conflict broke out, Ferling devotes sections to describing in detail the lengthy negotiations between American representatives and the French government, with the former trying to persuade the latter to join in and support the revolution.

Both sides had many considerations to weigh up: some Americans worried that any victory with the help of the French would mean handing over territory in North America to them – maybe they’d want Canada back, and so become a threat to the young country from the north; or maybe the French would demand the rights to Louisiana (at that point all the land along both sides of the Mississippi) and would thus block any further American expansion to the west. Risky.

Other Patriots worried that any even-handed military alliance with the French might mean that Americans would get dragged into France’s endless wars in Europe: having begun a war to get free of entanglements with Britain and her power politics on the Continent, the Americans might find themselves ending up worse off than they began.

Many on the French side weren’t that thrilled either, and the French minister who managed the war, Charles Gravier de Vergennes, was presented with a sequence of obstacles, opposition and unexpected dilemmas which Ferling presents with great clarity.

I had no idea that, once the French had overtly allied with the Americans in 1778, they again began planning for one of their many attempts to invade England, and sent privateers to board and confiscate British shipping.

In the event, massive French loans to America enabled Congress to feed and clothe and supply its armies, and the fleet France sent turned out to play a vital role in ‘victory’. The Americans couldn’t have won their ‘freedom’ if it hadn’t been for French support.

War in the South

As 1780 dawned the British were as puzzled as the Americans about what to do next. A series of events led the British to conceive of mounting a ‘Southern strategy’ and General Henry Clinton (who had succeeded the indecisive General Howe in 1778) despatched General Charles Cornwallis to raise Loyalist forces across the south.

Cornwallis did attract Loyalist forces and – as Ferling brings out throughout his book – substantial numbers of slaves defected and/or ran away from their southern plantations to join the British forces who promised them their freedom.

But it was never enough. Loyalist support was defeated at the Battle of Kings Mountain (October 1780), and the British Legion, a cavalry force led by swashbuckling Banastre Tarleton, was defeated at the Battle of Cowpens (January 1781).

Cornwallis marched into North Carolina, gambling on a Loyalist uprising but it never materialised. He was shadowed by the American general Nathanael Greene, who dominates the American side of the story for this whole southern campaign and emerges (from my amateur perspective) as a much more energetic, successful and important American general than Washington, who spent all these last few years holed up in the north, vainly fantasising about recapturing New York.

It was very typical of this prolonged and indecisive war that a key engagement was the Battle of Guilford Courthouse on 15 March 1781, where Cornwallis’s army beat Greene, but suffered large casualties in the process. As in so many battles of the American War of Independence, Cornwallis held the field but the other side had won.

Because it wasn’t a war of decisive victories; it was a war of attrition where the winner was the one who could wear down the other side. This describes the American failure at Quebec and the British failure at Saratoga – and that is how the war finally ended.

British surrender

In 1781 the French arranged to send a significant fleet to the Americas. In fact it went first to the West Indies to secure French territories there, before asking its American allies where along the coastline it should be sent.

This prompted feverish debate among the Americans and their French allies about whether the French fleet should be sent to New York to revive Washington’s endless dreams of recapturing the city. But in the end it went to Virginia, partly under the influence of the French officer Lafayette, who had been fighting alongside the Americans almost from the start, and was now embedded in Greene’s southern army.

Before he left North Carolina for Virginia, Cornwallis had been receiving confused orders from his commander-in-chief, Clinton, holed up in New York. At some moments Clinton asked him to come all the way back north to help protect the city, but in other despatches ordered him to stay where he was. The one clear message that emerged from this confusion was that Cornwallis should hunker down in a coastal port and await the Royal Navy.

So Cornwallis marched to Yorktown on the Virginia coast, built outworks, prepared for a siege and awaited relief. But it never came. Instead the French fleet arrived and Nathanael Greene’s army was joined by a steady flow of Continental soldiers and militias from all across the south, who were able to block off all Cornwallis’s escape routes.

As so often during the narrative, there were several windows of opportunity when Cornwallis could have escaped the siege and fled north, or embarked at least some of his forces across the Cooper river to land east of the city.

But he had been ordered to await the Royal Navy and await them he did until it was too late, he was completely surrounded and, with food beginning to run short – giving in to reality – Cornwallis surrendered his army on 17 October 1781.

The British give up

It cannot be emphasised too much that the Americans did not win the American war of Independence through a battle. They simply surrounded a British army which had let itself be taken by a series of accidents and bad judgements, and which decided to surrender.

And the Americans couldn’t have done it without the French naval force which blockaded Yorktown, thus preventing any hopes of relieving supplies or escape.

When news of this disaster arrived back in London in late November 1781 the British government… gave up. The British still had 30,000 troops garrisoned in New York, Charleston, and Savannah, could have recruited more, and the war could have been prosecuted for another six years, if anyone had wanted to.

But enough of the ruling classes were fed up with the loss of men and money to make it untenable.

Although the vote in Britain was limited to a tiny percentage of male property owners, nonetheless Britain was a democracy of sorts, and on 27 February 1782, the House of Commons voted against further war in America by 19 votes.

The minister responsible for conducting the war, Lord Germain, was dismissed and a vote of no confidence was passed against Lord North, who had led the government throughout.

A new government led by the Whig party came to power and immediately opened negotiations for peace. So it goes.

Conclusions

I’d never read an account of the American War of Independence before. It was a real eye-opener. There was:

1. a lack of focus, as both sides racked their brains to decide what they were trying to do

2. a lack of fighting – especially in 1779 and 1780 long periods passed with no fighting at all – I think Washington didn’t see any action at all in the final two years of the war

I was really, really struck by the way that a handful of events from the first months of the war have become so mythical that even I have heard of them – Paul Revere’s Ride from Boston to warn the Patriots that the British were coming; the first shot fired at Concord which inspired Emerson’s poem:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

And the Battle of Bunker Hill outside Boston.

But all these happened within the first few months of the war. American mythology dwells on these early, idealistic, and entirely positive events, and then – the following six years of failure and stalemate, well… you hear a lot less about them.

The exception is Washington’s night-time crossing of the Delaware river, ferrying his army across to launch his surprise dawn attack on Trenton, because it was a daring, dashing undertaking and it inspired a number of heroic paintings depicting the scene.

Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

But it’s as if the events of those first few months have become super-iconic, overflowing with revolutionary zeal and idealism and then…. as with all wars, when it wasn’t over by Christmas and in fact dragged on for six long, gruelling years more, during which thousands of men died, thousands of citizens lives were destroyed by marauding militias or Indians, and the entire economy of America was undermined by a lack of supplies which led to galloping inflation, well… you don’t hear much about that.

Ferling’s long, detailed account shows the gruelling reality which lay behind the handful of mythical highlights which we remember.

3. Above all, there was a lack of inevitability. 

Again, I am used to the kind of war where ‘the tide turns’ and the Germans start to be defeated on the Western front or the Japanese are fought back across the Pacific, so that the conclusions of World Wars One and Two possess a grinding sense of inevitability.

But there was no decisive ‘turning point’ in this war and the end, when it comes, is oddly anti-climactic, almost an accident. Oh well. We’re surrounded. Better surrender, chaps.

This sense of contingency is heightened by the way Ferling, at all points, investigates very thoroughly all the arguments and logics underpinning everyone’s strategies. There was no inevitability to Cornwallis deciding to invade Virginia or deciding to retreat to Yorktown – in fact, historians to this day struggle to account for it.

Indeed, for the last few years of the war, there was a mounting sense that either side might sue for international arbitration. This had happened in previous wars, where mediators such as Russia or Prussia were invited to arbitrate between warring sides in European conflicts.

As 1781 dawned, all sides – American, French and British – were fed up with the war and wanted it to end somehow, but the Americans in particular lived in fear that an international peace treaty might be imposed on them, and that – as was traditional – territory would be allotted to whoever held it when the deal was signed.

This wish to hold on to territory partly explains why commander-in-chief Clinton was reluctant to leave New York, which would be a jewel in the crown if Britain was allowed to retain it, and also explains Cornwallis’s energetic attempts to clear the southern states of rebels, and to raise Loyalist forces to keep them secure.

If peace suddenly broke out, they would have been retained by the British Empire.

Ferling brings out how this nightmare scenario kept men like Washington and John Adams awake at night – the notion that after six years of sacrifice, and watching the American economy go to hell, the Patriots might end up rewarded only with the New England states, and Pennsylvania and New Jersey, while New York state (which extends north to the border with Canada) and the entire south would be retained by Britain.

Worse, if the French insisted on reclaiming Louisiana, the new American republic would be surrounded on all sides by enemies and barriers.

It was not to be – but it might have been – and it is one of the many pleasures of Ferling’s long and exhaustingly thorough account, that the reader develops a real sense of just how contingent and arbitrary this shattering war and, by extension, all human affairs, really are.

The Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775 by Howard Pyle (1897)

The Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775 by Howard Pyle (1897)


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