A Peculiar War

The War for America, 1775-1783

by Piers Mackesy
Harvard, 576 pp., $10.00

Portrait of a General: Sir Henry Clinton in the War of Independence

by William B. Willcox
Knopf, 534 pp., $8.95

Washington Irving took pride in his ability to write attractive narrative prose. The knack sustained him and his readers through much of his five-volume biography of George Washington. But when he came to the military aspects of the Revolutionary War he ran into difficulty. The campaigns, he said, reminded him of two drunk men aiming blows at the air but failing to connect. Subsequent historians have shared his discomfort. It was a war with few major battles, and the majority of those won by the British. It was a war that dragged on for eight years; long intervals of inactivity alternated with spasmodic episodes when plans on both sides miscarried. Americans, though they feel gratified by the outcome of the conflict and by the constancy of Washington and his soldiers, which led to victory, cannot allow themselves entire satisfaction. For in large part the victory was brought about by the French intervention. France’s positive contribution would appear to be matched by England’s negative one. How much credit can be allowed to the Americans, when the war against them was in the hands of so inept a set of politicians, generals, and admirals? Still less might English scholars be expected to dwell upon the tragi-farcical performances of Lord North, Germain, Sandwich, Howe, Burgoyne, Arbuthnot, Clinton.

Yet it is on this side of the story that the greatest interest still remains. The American achievement must be set in the context of the British failure. The war cannot be written about in the manner of the great narrative historians of the nineteenth century. To understand any of the encounters that took place in North America, including the near-final miracle of Yorktown, we need to grasp a mass of complex, interrelated problems. We need to remind ourselves that for the British, the French, the Spanish, and the Dutch—all of whom were brought into the fight—what went on in the thirteen American colonies was weighed against all sorts of other factors. This is a subject that requires painstaking analysis. We need to become expert in the logistics of misadventure. Gertrude Stein once quoted a remark about someone to the effect that if he had been a general he would not have lost battles, he would merely have mislaid them. This is a lucky aphorism; taken seriously it tells a good deal about the circumstances of the American War.

The War has found an excellent analyst in Piers Mackesy. He is an Englishman who comes of a military family and has already done a good book on naval warfare in Napoleonic times. In his new book the viewpoint is rightly European, in particular British. The Americans are described in the terminology of the time, as “rebels.” Mr. Mackesy is not concerned except indirectly with the rights and wrongs of the rebellion. The question he examines is the one facing George III and Lord North’s administration: namely, how to end the rebellion and—later—how to defeat the European powers who had also declared war. Even before France intervened…

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