Perils of Peace: America's Struggle for Survival After Yorktownby Thomas Fleming
On October 19, 1781, Great Britain's best army surrendered to General George Washington at Yorktown. But the future of the 13 former colonies was far from clear. A 13,000 man British army still occupied New York City, and another 13,000 regulars and armed loyalists were scattered from Canada to Savannah, Georgia. Meanwhile, Congress had declined to a mere 24… See more details below
On October 19, 1781, Great Britain's best army surrendered to General George Washington at Yorktown. But the future of the 13 former colonies was far from clear. A 13,000 man British army still occupied New York City, and another 13,000 regulars and armed loyalists were scattered from Canada to Savannah, Georgia. Meanwhile, Congress had declined to a mere 24 members, and the national treasury was empty. The American army had not been paid for years and was on the brink of mutiny.
In Europe, America's only ally, France, teetered on the verge of bankruptcy and was soon reeling from a disastrous naval defeat in the Caribbean. A stubborn George III dismissed Yorktown as a minor defeat and refused to yield an acre of "my dominions" in America. In Paris, Ambassador Benjamin Franklin confronted violent hostility to France among his fellow members of the American peace delegation.
In his riveting new book, Thomas Fleming moves elegantly between the key players in this drama and shows that the outcome we take for granted was far from certain. Not without anguish, General Washington resisted the urgings of many officers to seize power and held the angry army together until peace and independence arrived. With fresh research and masterful storytelling, Fleming breathes new life into this tumultuous but little known period in America's history.
The battle of Yorktown in October 1781 and the surrender of Cornwallis's army to Washington is popularly thought to have made the success of the American Revolution a done deal. True, the war officially ended two years later-but surely its conclusion was only a formality? Novelist and historian Fleming (Washington's Secret War) persuasively argues that, in fact, final victory was by no means inevitable. Indeed, even before Yorktown, the Continental Army had fallen to just 5,835 men and the country was bankrupt, while 26,000 British troops and armed Loyalists remained in North America. Ironically, the battle itself was "potentially ruinous," writes Fleming: Washington could ill afford to keep his army in the field-as the British well knew. Their post-Yorktown policy was to drag out diplomatic negotiations for as long as possible until Americans tired of war agreed to reunite with the empire. It was left to Washington to avoid these "perils of peace" and make the republic a reality. Fleming is a narrative historian with a wide following, and his latest, while not groundbreaking in terms of scholarly research, tells an important story from an unusual perspective. 16 pages of b&w photos. (Oct.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
The prolific Fleming (Washington's Secret War) discusses the end of the American Revolution and the peace process involving America, Britain, and France. He begins with the British defeat at Yorktown and ends with Washington's tearful resignation from public life at the end of 1783. (Later, of course, Washington went on to become President.) Fleming refers to this resignation speech as "the most important moment in American history" because, in relinquishing absolute power to become a private citizen, Washington affirmed his faith in a government by the people. Fleming has a tendency to believe that his books tread new ground or uncover some long-kept secret. He claims that the purpose of this work is to "explore a hitherto-untold story." But his notes cite mostly secondary sources, some of which cover the same period and themes. His narrative provides a good, basic understanding of the conflict between and among the Continental Congress and Washington's army and of the Revolution's end and the complex diplomatic situation arising in Europe. General readers should be satisfied, but academics will wants something more scholarly. Recommended for public libraries.
Matthew J. Wayman
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The Perils of PeaceAmerica's Struggle for Survival After Yorktown
By Thomas Fleming
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Thomas Fleming
All right reserved.
A Potentially Ruinous Victory
On October 19, 1781, outside the small tobacco port of York-town, Virginia, on the narrow peninsula that jutted into the York River where it joined Chesapeake Bay, soldiers of two nations faced each other on opposite sides of a narrow dirt road. On the left in two ranks, hefting polished muskets, stood the regiments of the French expeditionary force in gleaming white uniforms and black gaiters. Beside them their officers glittered with gold braid; their cocked hats sprouted white, green, and red plumes.
Facing these European professionals on the opposite side of the road stood the regiments of the Continental Army of the United States, wearing improvised uniforms of fringed white hunting shirts and linen pantaloons, buttoned around the calves. Only their officers wore the blue coats with buff facings and the buff breeches that had recently been designated as their official uniform. The Continentals' posture was nonetheless proudly martial, and their French-made muskets had as much shine as elbow grease could lend them. From the elation gleaming on every face, there was no doubt that they considered themselves equal partners in themomentous event that was about to transpire.
Behind the Continentals stood another line of soldiers—militiamen from Maryland and Virginia. These were temporary warriors, summoned to participate in the military drama by their state governors. Uniforms were nowhere to be seen in this rank; officers and men wore rough work clothes and many of the enlisted men were barefoot.
At the head of the facing columns of French and American regiments sat two groups of senior officers on horseback. On the right, forty-nine-year-old Lieutenant General George Washington and his aides and subordinate generals were wearing their best blue-and-buff uniforms and their boots gleamed with newly applied polish. Facing them were portly fifty-six-year-old Lieutenant General Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, commander of the French expeditionary force, and his staff—all in uniforms as resplendent as the officers' in their regiments.
The American commander in chief was unquestionably the dominant figure in this tableau. On horseback, Washington looked even taller and more formidable than on foot. Well over six feet, he had huge hands that gripped his horse's reins with a casual authority. His perfectly cut blue coat was devoid of medals or other decorations; only epaulets and a black cockade pinned to his cocked hat designated his rank.
Beside the French army officers, Admiral Louis Comte de Barras perched uncomfortably on a borrowed horse. The admiral was second in command of the French fleet that had played a crucial part in the drama that was about to reach an improbable climax. The masts of several of the fleet's frigates were visible on nearby waters. Out of sight on the Chesapeake were the massive ships of the line that had fought off the British navy in early September and irretrievably trapped a 7,700-man British army in Yorktown. Including the sailors, there were more than 29,000 Frenchmen at Yorktown and about 9,000 Americans.
This unlikely alliance of American Protestants imbued with defiant ideas about the universal importance of individual liberty and French Catholics loyal to a king who ruled by divine right with the backing of titled aristocrats was about to consummate a victory that none of them would have dared to predict two months ago.1
Several dozen yards beyond the fighting men, on both sides of the road, hundreds of civilians sat on horses or in carriages, or stood in neighborly groups. Day and night for almost three weeks they had listened to the booming siege cannon and waited breathlessly for scraps of news from talkative soldiers not on duty in Yorktown's trenches. Among the more distinguished of these noncombatants was twenty-six-year-old John Parke Custis, General George Washington's handsome stepson. Jack had sat out the war on his various plantations in Maryland and Virginia, letting other men his age do the fighting and dying. This did not improve his stepfather's already low opinion of him.
Young Custis had inherited an immense estate from his father; with growing distress Washington had watched him mismanage it. Jack sold thousands of prime acres for depreciating American paper dollars and gambled away not a little of these illusory profits. Washington had written him earnest, often stern letters urging him to handle his affairs more prudently—and got nowhere. Meanwhile Washington had never protested Jack's disinterest in military service; he knew his wife, Martha, would be horrified and even traumatized by a demand that her beloved only son risk his life for the glorious cause.
Jack had joined Washington's staff as a volunteer aide as the French and American armies completed their 450-mile march from New York. This flirtation with military glory did not last long. He had contracted camp fever, a form of typhus caused by poor sanitation and lack of soap in eighteenth century armies. It was a potentially fatal disease, especially when combined with dysentery, which had wracked Jack for several days.
A worried Washington had asked his old friend, Dr. James Craik, chief physician of the Continental Army, to care for Jack. But Martha's spoiled son, used to having his own way since birth, insisted he felt well enough to witness the surrender. He promised Dr. Craik he would then retreat to nearby Eltham, a plantation owned by Burwell Bassett, Martha Washington's brother-in-law. Too weak to sit up, Jack reclined on cushions in an open carriage.2
Among the civilians were several other improbable visitors to Yorktown. They were members of the Oneida nation of the Iroquois Confederacy. Most wore Indian-style clothing. Their leader, the sachem Great Grasshopper, sported a beautiful blue uniform, thick with gold braid. The French ambassador to the United States had given it to him when the sachem and more than forty other Oneidas had visited Philadelphia in September.
The Oneidas had been allied with France in the numerous wars the French had fought with the British in the decades before the Revolution. Influenced by a missionary minister . . .
Excerpted from The Perils of Peace by Thomas Fleming Copyright © 2007 by Thomas Fleming. Excerpted by permission.
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