Friday, February 10, 2017

What we're reading: The American Revolution

Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain
Who Saved It, by Larrie D. Ferreiro

The American Revolution remains, as it ever has been, a popular subject with historians. It probably always will be. Every nation develops a myth of national origin that defines national identity and values, and so is ever a point of historical reference, and sometimes revision, to the generation at hand. We critically assess the degree to which we have shaped--and perhaps even imagined--events at our birth for our contemporary usage and understandings. Not too long ago, books on the American Revolution centered on its American heroes. Their character, values, and actions, were all components of the story of American exceptionalism, a persistent theme in our sense of national identity. Recently, those characters have suffered some in historical treatments, but the most important change, it seems, that has taken place in Revolutionary War historiography is that the American Revolution is no longer approached as sui generis, an event independent of its contemporary cultural, social, political, and even geographical context. For example, recently Alan Taylor’s book, American Revolutions (previously reviewed in this blog) took a broad look at the social and regional revolutions that were taking place on the continent during the American Revolution; and a forthcoming book this spring--Scars of Independence, by Holger Hoock--will characterize the American Revolution as a civil war.

Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, famous for the plays The Barber of Seville
and The Marriage of Figaro, was heavily involved in arranging arms shipments
to the 
Americans. Portrait by Marc Nattier, 1755.
Brothers at Arms is another book that takes an expansive view. It explores the place of the American Revolution in the context of international diplomacy as principal European powers reviewed their strategic aims in Europe, on the North American continent, and in South America. Ferreiro shows how the actions those countries took concerning war in America were shaped by recent European history and by each country’s assessment of its national interest. Some may disagree with Ferreiro’s precis of colonial developments leading up to the revolution, but the major area of his research, particularly the details of decisions that were made at the French and Spanish courts, has resulted in a book that is rather astonishing in detail and convincing in its argument. Ferreiro looks in turn at the roles of French and Spanish merchants, ministers, soldiers, and sailors in support of the American Revolution. The details about how the French and Spanish armed the Americans from early in the war are particularly impressive. One could hardly have imagined that such information, largely transactions of a clandestine nature, would have been recoverable at this distance from events. We get a clear understanding of the diplomacy and strategic objectives of French and Spanish foreign ministers, as well as an explanation of how those objectives were modified by events on the battlefield in America, and by events in Europe, the Caribbean, and around the world as France and Spain declared war on Britain and the American Revolution became a global conflict. Ferreiro methodically makes the case for how Spanish and French support were critical to the fortunes of the faltering American fight.

John Trumball's 1822 painting of the surrender of General Burgoyne at
Saratoga. The American victory at Saratoga prompted France to enter the war. 

The heart of this book is Ferreiro’s explanation of how the diplomatic and military actions all converged, the way the decisions of different powers inter-related across a global landscape, with events in one remote part of the world affecting the tactical and strategic map in America. Perhaps the best example of this is the wonderful account of how everything came together in terms of international collaboration with the Americans in what proved to be the decisive battle of the Revolution, the siege of Yorktown and the surrender of Cornwallis.

French Foreign Minister Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes
maneuvered France and Spain into war against Britain, turning
the American Revolution into a global war between the European
powers. Portrait by Antoine-Francois Callet.

Jose Monino y Redondo, Conde de
Floridablanca, the Spanish Foreign
Minister. By entering the conflict,
he hoped to regain Gibraltar from
the British. Portrait by
Francisco Goya.
Along the journey to the penultimate moment at Yorktown, Ferreiro guides you to an understanding of military tactics and warfare of the period--for example, the critical strategic importance of naval superiority--as well as an understanding of late 18th-century armaments and military technology. We learn about the place and manufacture of different muskets and cannons used in the war and their relative virtues, and in more than one place Ferreiro explains the extraordinary advantage that the simple technological innovation of cladding the hulls of battleships in copper gave the British in naval actions (it made ships much faster and also reduced the time a ship was out of action for renovations and repair). You get a sense here too of how the critical convergences, in an age of difficult communication, were coordinated. Often the military engagements recounted in this book have an air of happenstance and luck, of fortunate timing. Fleets might have sailed forth to confront each other, but often they could not even locate each other for an engagement in a vast ocean. And distance and space were not the only challenges to a successful engagement with the enemy. Naval expeditions frequently had to plan around the weather, which limited maneuvers and scuttled ships.

Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette.
Portrait by Joseph-Desire Court, 1791
My favorite passage in the book, perhaps because it is surprising but also because the wisdom seems timeless, involves the person we immediately think of as symbolic of French assistance in the American Revolution, Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette. The aristocratic Lafayette had sailed from France to join the American Revolution as a private citizen, not as a representative of the French state, several years before France officially joined the conflict. He was very young, and was motivated by an ambition not uncommon to men of that age, “the love of glory.” In 18th-century France, this meant something more than mere fame-seeking. In Diderot and d’Alembert’s celebrated Encyclop├ędie, the phrase was defined as the natural calling to high honor and reputation, a devotion to a noble cause and not to personal gain.

When French military resources, both naval and ground troops, finally assembled in the colonies, it looked like things were propitious for a collaborative and direct American and French attack on British troops, but there was disagreement over what the target should be. For many of the Americans and for Lafayette, who strongly identified with their ambitions, the desire was to attack the British army lodged in New York. It was a desire that had less to do with cool calculations about the military odds of success and more to do with the ignominious history of the early defeat of the Continental Army there. The youthful Lafayette wrote a long letter to the leader of French troops in America (a veteran of many military campaigns on the European continent), the Comte de Rochambeau, pressing him to agree to an attack on New York. Rochambeau finally had enough of Lafayette’s importuning, and in a restrained but pointed letter he replied, “My dear marquis, allow an old father to reply to you as a dear son….you know me well enough to believe that I have no need to be spurred, and that at my age when a decision is reached….all the incitements possible cannot make me change without a positive order from my general [Washington]. It is always a good to think the French invincible, but I am going to tell you a secret learned from 40 years’ experience. There are no easier men to defeat than those who have lost confidence in their leaders, and they lose it at once when they have been endangered through personal and selfish ambition.”

Jean-Baptiste-Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau.
Portrait by Charles Wilson Peale, 1780.
The title of this book, Brothers at Arms, with its suggestion of some emotional fraternity, may be a bit of a misnomer, as the relationship described so well and the case made here so comprehensively is one of an association that, whatever the fraternity might have occasionally been on the battlefield with allied nations, was entered into for closely calculated reasons of self-interest and national gain. However vital the relationship was to the outcome of the fight for American independence, the author indulgences in no romantic illusions about the motives of the counties that were a party to it. This is a rigorous and cold-eyed study.

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