Barbara Tuchman
Barbara Tuchman; drawing by David Levine

For more than thirty years, Barbara Tuchman has shown just how popular history can be made to be. She chooses interesting subjects, ranging from the follies of the Vietnam War to the plagues of the fourteenth century, and evokes their drama and importance; she is candid about her own prejudices, and she has an exceptional gift for telling a story. In The First Salute Tuchman has brought her special talents to “an unfamiliar field,” the War for American Independence. She has not written another comprehensive history of the war, nor has she analyzed closely any one part of that war. Instead, she presents three loosely connected narratives inspired by an event that took place on the small Dutch West Indian island of St. Eustatius. There, in November 1776, four months after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Dutch garrison, on orders from the Governor, fired a salute to mark the arrival of a warship of the United States. This was the first official recognition of the independence of the United States by a foreign nation. It marked the beginning of events that brought the Dutch into the American War, changed the strategy of the British navy, and led at last to the decisive cooperation of French and American forces at Yorktown in 1781.

By ordering that an American ship be officially recognized, Johannes de Graaff, the Dutch governor of St. Eustatius, sought mainly to encourage trade with the United States, to let the merchants under his jurisdiction know that they might sell arms and ammunition to the rebellious colonies. He and some of his countrymen may have been sympathetic with the republican revolution in North America; but their main concern was, and would remain thoughout the war, the success of Dutch commerce. The British protested de Graaff’s action and called upon the Dutch government to help them put down the American rebellion, but they received little satisfaction. The Dutch Estates General sustained their governor, allowing European merchants in St. Eustatius to continue trading arms with the United States.

Similarly, after France entered the war against Britain, the Dutch persisted in shipping naval stores to France, in trading with the United States, and in harboring the American naval hero John Paul Jones. The outraged British sent warships to intercept Dutch merchant vessels carrying contraband through the Channel. The Dutch replied by using convoys and joining Russia, Sweden, and Denmark in a league of armed neutrality. This stubborn pursuit of commerce—the insistence on trading with France and America—finally carried the Dutch into war with Britain. In December 1780 the British government ordered the commander of its fleet in the Leeward Islands to attack St. Eustatius. By then, the enterprising merchants of St. Eustatius had been selling supplies to the American rebels for more than five years.

Admiral Sir George Brydges Rodney, commanding in the Leeward Islands, had no trouble capturing St. Eustatius and ending its trade with the United States. But neither Rodney nor the Royal Navy was able to save the British empire in North America. Why they failed is still a central question. In 1763 the British navy had emerged triumphant from the Seven Years’ War against the French. It was then considered to be the most powerful navy in the world, but it had been neglected during the ensuing peace and had fallen, by the outbreak of the American Revolution, into serious disrepair. Ships were rotting; the officer corps was preoccupied by politics; the system of tactics and signaling was too rigid to produce decisive action at sea; and officers, fearful of severe punishment for mistakes, were unwilling to take risks or act aggressively.

Nevertheless, the British government was so confident of the superiority of its navy—so confident of its ability to control American waters against rebel privateers and European navies—that it never planned carefully how best to deploy its fleets. Rodney, one of the best officers of his day, had been able to defeat a Spanish squadron and relieve Gibraltar in January 1780. Thereafter, even he had little success until it was too late to save America. He fought inconclusively with the French admiral François de Grasse off Martinique in April 1780; he was unable to persuade the British commanders in North America to join him in attacking the French squadron at Rhode Island in the fall of 1780; and after capturing St. Eustatius in February 1781, he failed both to engage de Grasse in the West Indies and to keep him from intervening decisively in the Chesapeake during the ensuing summer. Only after Charles Lord Cornwallis had surrendered, after America had been lost, was Rodney able to defeat de Grasse.

The Franco–American victory at Yorktown had not been easy: it had taken careful planning, rare cooperation, and good luck. The French had entered the war in 1778, seeking revenge for losses sustained in the Seven Years’ War. They had supported the Americans vigorously with arms and loans as well as ships and men. Yet until 1781 they had received little return on their investments. The American people were remarkably reluctant to support the war; French fleets had been unsuccessful in three separate efforts at cooperation with the rebels; and the American and French commanders continued to find it difficult to agree on a strategy. Then, in the spring of 1781 when the British began to assemble a substantial part of their army in Virginia, the allied commanders at last agreed. They would concentrate all available forces from North America and the West Indies against the British in Chesapeake Bay. Admiral Rodney anticipated this strategy but could not persuade his colleagues that the French and Americans were capable of carrying out such a grand scheme. When other British generals and admirals finally acknowledged what was happening, they had not the forces, the skill, or the determination to save themselves. An army and an empire were lost at Yorktown in October 1781.


Although there is no single theme or argument to unite the narrative parts of The First Salute, several subordinate arguments run through it which bear on two related questions: Why did Britain lose the American War? And why did the United States win? Tuchman says repeatedly that Britain lost because of dissension, intransigence, and overconfidence. The British people were unable to agree whether the war was just, and that disagreement spilled into the Royal Navy, creating factions and destroying the harmony necessary for victory at sea. But the king, the ministry, and most of Parliament were unwilling to concede American independence or to consider that Britain could lose the war and the colonies. The overconfident British leaders did not bother to develop a strategy for ending the rebellion; they neglected those Americans who were loyal to the Crown and eager to serve against the rebels; and they failed to take seriously foreign threats to British seapower in North America. Americans, conversely, won because they were fighting for a cause and because they received foreign aid throughout the war.

These seem plausible and appealing explanations. But are they sound? Barbara Tuchman is right in saying that dissension and intransigence worked against the British. But in attributing British defeat to overconfidence she has substituted intuition for informed analysis. However satisfying it may be for Americans to think of the British as having been smugly overconfident, however tempting it may be to attribute their failures to disdain for rebels, overconfidence will not serve as a comprehensive explanation for British defeat in the American War. The British were overconfident at the beginning of the war. Officers who had served with the colonists during the French and Indian War said that Americans made poor soldiers. The royal governors said that the rebellion was the work of a few designing men and that a majority of the colonists remained loyal to the Crown.

But the opening campaigns of the war quickly banished overconfidence. Every British commander in chief from Thomas Gage to Sir William Howe to Sir Henry Clinton warned the government that defeating the rebels would not be easy. After John Burgoyne had surrendered his army at Saratoga and France had entered the war on the American side, Clinton asked to resign his command “on the ground of the ‘impracticability’ of the war.” King George III and his closest advisers remained publicly optimistic in order to maintain Parliament’s support for the war, and they continued to hope for a victory that would save the empire. But it is clearly an exaggeration to say, as Tuchman does, that anyone in government during the last years of the war had an “unlimited assurance of winning” or that in drafting Rodney’s orders for 1781 the ministry “never seriously considered that the Americans could win the war or that French help could or would be decisive.”

Tuchman does more than say that the British remained overconfident throughout the war. She asserts that overconfidence became the basis for important decisions. From the beginning of the war, the British developed no strategy for ending the rebellion because, she argues, they assumed “the superiority of British force was so great that it made taking pains in performance unnecessary.” Similarly, the British chose not to blockade French ports—to keep the French navy from intervening in America—“since at no time in the war did they take seriously the possibility of the Americans winning.” And, in “their persisting attitude of scorn for colonials, they made no effort to recruit Loyalists for an organized force of their own.”

Again Tuchman’s interpretations are not reliable. Although the British were overconfident at the beginning of the war, overconfidence did not keep them from developing strategies for ending the rebellion. They made plans for every campaign, plans that usually included some combination of force and persuasion. Generals and admirals sometimes could not agree on strategy; they did not always follow their own strategies; and their strategies were never completely successful. But the British did not suffer from “planlessness.” Nor did they fail to blockade French ports because they were overconfident. During the spring of 1778, they debated whether to use a blockade to keep the French from sending a squadron of warships to North America. Not having ships enough both to contain the French squadron and to protect England, they decided to let the French sail and to send reinforcements to New York. In this case the ministry clearly feared for England and for its forces in North America; it did its best to protect both. Overconfidence had nothing to do with this or other British failures to keep the French navy from intervening in America. Similarly, disdain for the colonists did not dissuade the British from recruiting Loyalist units. Even in 1776 and 1777, when General Howe was relying on regulars, he authorized the creation of Loyalist units; and after France entered the war, Clinton and the ministry made the Loyalists central to their strategy for recovering the South. By 1780 there were 10,000 men serving in Loyalist forces.


What of Tuchman’s explanation for why the United States won? She is certainly right in emphasizing the importance of foreign aid—of trade, advice, loans, and military intervention. There is also some truth to her belief that Americans won because they were fighting for a cause. Yet she has so simplified the advantages of patriotism as to thoroughly distort the way the war was waged. She maintains that Americans needed no elegant uniforms or elaborate training to defeat the British. Inspired by a love of liberty and fighting instinctively from behind walls and trees, Americans were more than a match for the disciplined ranks of European mercenaries. “Training is usually the criterion of military effectiveness, but not this time.”

Once again, Tuchman’s interpretation is both appealing and misleading. At the beginning of the war, Congress no doubt hoped that inspiration would be enough to win independence; and at Concord and Bunker Hill inspired militiamen were enough. But the ensuing campaign at New York showed clearly that the United States would need more than patriotism to overcome the British; they would need a large well-trained army, an army recruited for at least three years’ service and disciplined to European standards. Thereafter the Continental army became increasingly professional: it was a more effective army, but its ranks were filled by men who served for pay and bounties and glory as well as for love of liberty and country. Congress and the American people resented and neglected the army, which in turn expressed its frustrations through desertions and mutinies. The small, tough remnant of the army that shared in the victory at Yorktown was no simple band of patriots succeeding by inspiration alone.

The weaknesses of Barbara Tuchman’s interpretations result, it seems, not merely from a preference for intuition over analysis but also from relying on research that is both too narrow and too shallow. The First Salute is based on standard works of scholarship and published correspondence that deal directly with foreign aid and sea power in the American Revolution. Tuchman gives no sign of having read widely in the history of the Revolution; she has made almost no use of scholarly books published in the past ten years; she has not consulted the manuscript sources that deal most directly with her narrative; and she has treated superficially some of her principal sources (on each of the four occasions that she has quoted Sir Henry Clinton’s narrative of the American rebellion, she has drawn her quotation from the précis of a chapter rather than from the chapter itself).

Two examples of how her research has affected her interpretations must serve to illustrate others. Had she read Charles Royster’s A Revolutionary People at War, a respected and widely known book published in 1979, she might not have asserted categorically that inspiration rather than training accounted for American “military effectiveness” in the Revolutionary War. Royster makes it clear that much more than patriotism was needed to create and sustain an effective army. Similarly, even a cursory look at Paul Smith’s Loyalists and Redcoats (1964) might have kept Tuchman from arguing that the British were so contemptuous of the colonists that they never created Loyalist forces. Smith shows that some 19,000 Loyalists served in the American War, in units of their own.

A less significant but no less annoying consequence of Tuchman’s flawed research is the dozens of errors and inconsistencies that clutter her history. It is understandable that in writing about the American Revolution she might have become confused about alliances in the Seven Years’ War (England rather than France supported Prussia) or about when the British completed their conquest of Canada (1760 rather than 1759). But it is far more difficult to understand how similar mistakes should have survived in her account of the American War. She is, of course, responsible for her research and writing. But was there no reader or editor to help? Anyone with a general understanding of the American Revolution would have known that Cornwallis did not go to Halifax in the spring of 1776 (he went to the Carolinas), that Burgoyne’s army was not “shipped home as prisoners” after Saratoga (Congress kept the Convention army in America), that the Continental army did not spend the winter of 1778–1779 at Valley Forge (it was there only in 1777–1778), that Cornwallis did not “frustrate Washington’s advance” at the Brandywine or occupy Philadelphia at the end of the campaign of 1776 (George Washington eluded Cornwallis at the end of 1776; Cornwallis turned Washington’s flank at Brandywine and took Philadelphia in September 1777), and that the French Alliance did not keep American diplomats from negotiating a separate peace with Britain (the Americans ignored the Alliance and made a separate peace).

Even an editor with no knowledge of the American War should have noticed some of the inconsistencies in The First Salute. Accompanying maps show clearly that King’s Ferry, where the French army crossed the Hudson on its way to Yorktown, was not “opposite West Point” and that Yorktown itself was not “about one hundred miles” north of Portsmouth, Virginia. So, too, Rodney cannot have been both freed from the temptation of plunder on St. Eustatius and distracted from his duty by it.

Notwithstanding the weaknesses of her work—indeed, sometimes because of them—Tuchman has been able to create some vivid glimpses of the American War. The First Salute does not form a coherent whole; yet each of its parts has its own shape, and within each there are successful stretches of narrative. Her account of the Yorktown campaign shows what a gifted writer can do with a familiar story. She makes us feel Washington’s sense of anxiety and urgency as he rides toward the Chesapeake in the late summer of 1781. She gives a believable sense of his hopes that French ships will have gained control of the bay, that his siege train will have arrived safely from Rhode Island, that Lord Cornwallis will not have slipped away, and that the French West Indian squadron will be able to stay long enough to consummate a siege. Would all of the pieces fall into place? Would Washington be able to make the most of this daring and fragile plan, his last, best chance to win a decisive victory and secure American independence? However well we know the story—however tempted we might be to exercise our critical judgment—we succumb briefly to Tuchman’s spell.

But engaging passages do not make a satisfying history. The First Salute is not a coherent, reliable, or persuasive book. Tuchman’s research is too narrowly concentrated and too shallow to sustain sound, unifying arguments; and she is as yet too “unfamiliar” with the American Revolution to avoid elementary errors and inconsistencies or to locate her narratives securely within the history of the war. The First Salute is not the place to begin reading the works of Barbara Tuchman or the history of the struggle for independence.

This Issue

December 22, 1988