Perils of Peace: America's Struggle for Survival After Yorktown

( 11 )


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 ...

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

Richard N. Smith
“As riveting and suspenseful…it is ultimately inspiring, this is history the way we all wish it could be written.”
John C. McManus
“No one understands the Revolutionary Era better. No one brings it to life with such amazing insight and intimacy.”
Charles Bracelen Flood
“A remarkable achievement, brilliant in conception and illuminating in the way in which heroes and villains…walk off the page.”
Tom McGuire
“[A]n engaging and lively narrative.”
Michael P. Federici
“[A] meaningful story about America’s past that compels readers to rethink their understanding of American identity.”
Publishers Weekly

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
Library Journal

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

Kirkus Reviews
Riveting history of the two years between Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown and the 1783 peace treaty that ended the Revolution. Popular accounts assert that America won the war at Yorktown, but Washington didn't think so, and historian Fleming (The Secret Trial of Robert E. Lee, 2006, etc.) demonstrates how right he was. As the general feared, the colonies celebrated and then, if possible, paid even less attention to his unpaid, shrinking, often mutinous army. Although Washington gets the credit, Yorktown was largely the work of our French allies, who fielded 29,000 soldiers alongside 9,000 Americans. Immediately after Yorktown, the French fleet (which made victory possible) sailed off with many of those troops, never to return. The remainder of the French announced they would spend the winter on the spot, despite Washington's pleas to march south. The British still controlled Georgia and much of the Carolinas, meaning that a future peace treaty might retain them as British colonies. The same was true of New York, whose largest city was occupied by forces far outnumbering Washington's. An aggressive British general might have made short work of that tattered army; luckily, no such commander remained in the colonies. Benedict Arnold (now a loyalist) yearned to do the job, but the British disliked him as much as the Americans did. Washington continued to earn his well-deserved immortality, exerting sheer charisma to keep together his dwindling army, which numbered perhaps 5,000 by 1783. Nathaniel Greene, the Revolution's most brilliant general, reconquered most of the southern states with an army that rarely exceeded 1,000. In France, 75-year-old Ambassador Benjamin Franklin delivered avirtuoso performance, cajoling the government to allow the colonies to make peace (despite an earlier promise to stick with the French till the end) and charming British negotiators. A captivating account of a surprisingly little-known period that will educate even sophisticated readers.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061139109
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/9/2007
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 638,158
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Thomas Fleming is the author of more than forty books of fiction and nonfiction, most recently, The Perils of Peace. He has been the president of the Society of American Historians and of PEN American Center. Mr. Fleming is a frequent guest on C-SPAN, PBS, A&E, and the History Channel. He lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

The Perils of Peace

America's Struggle for Survival After Yorktown
By Thomas Fleming

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2007 Thomas Fleming
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780061139109

Chapter One

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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments     IX
Introduction     XIII
A Potentially Ruinous Victory     1
Diplomats in Distress     44
An Empire on the Brink     82
The Art of Making Something Out of Nothing     103
Uncrowning a King     134
Men Talk Peace But There Is No Peace     159
Loose Cannons Front and Center     181
A Peace That Surpasses Understanding     213
Will It Be Peace-Or Civil War?     251
A Runaway Congress vs. A Berserk Parliament     275
George Washington's Tears     299
Abbreviations for Notes     323
Notes     325
Index     343
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 11 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 1, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Fills a Void

    Flemming does well to fill in a void that history has left. When we look at the American Revolution we usually skip from the victory at Yorktown in '81 to the Treaty of Paris in '83 as if the only thing that passed within that two year period was time. In fact a lot happened in that biennium, with political turmoil in Great Britain and a near collapse of the Continental structure in America. Immediately after Yorktown it was not at all clear that the war was over, as you may have been led to believe. That period is a compelling story of its own, and Flemming aptly tells it.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 9, 2008

    A Fine Little Book

    Great stuff! For those who love a good story, and a well-written piece of history, 'The Perils of Peace' is just your huckleberry. Fleming's tour de force takes you to the time, circumstances, people and places, where dreams of a free and independent United States arrived nearly stillborn -- for all the human nature at work. Written in a flowing, readable style, Flemming delivers his narrative devoid of the usual glittering platitudes and 'fulsome' hagiography that so often fabricates the most revolting wort into a thing of beauty. Basically, Fleming's scholarship is impecable so, do yourself a favor -- read this book. And once you do, you'll understand a lot more about the 'Great Experiement' than you ever did before. Promise!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 31, 2008


    WORST BOOK EVER!!!! It's by far, the most boring book i ve ever read. Feels as if you are reading a textbook. No plot or character development. It's just a bunch of facts about the Revolutionary war put in chronological order.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 8, 2014

    Most interesting ...

    Given such intrigue, congressional back-biting and international diplomatic one-upmanship, it is amazing that the USA came about at all. Contrasting 1782-83 with the present day, it seems not much has changed in politics. The text is easy to read and follow.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 23, 2013

    True history, not revisionist.

    Excellent work. Primarily all we hear nowadays is the "issue" of slavery. And yet, the emancipation proclamation was not issued until January of 1863, due to the violence and riots in all major northetn cities.

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  • Posted April 10, 2010

    Thomas Fleming fills the void after the British surrender at Yorktown. This is the first book that I've read that focuses on the events between the surrender at Yorktown and the signing of the peace treaty.

    This book is very well written. The author describes a tenuous series of events that against all odds led to a peace treaty. For the first time, I read a comprehensive description of the political and diplomatic battles not only in America, but in Europe. These non military battles were every bit as threatening to the survival of this infant nation as the full combat battles. Speaking of combat, the author provides details of the ongoing near civil war in the southern states between many different factions, and the continued military actions. The author additionally provides insight into the lesser known roles of Holland, Austria, and Russia. The personal descriptions of the many diplomats, politicians, and military figures is excellent. It leads to an understanding of why the individuals acted the way they did. I found that the author was able to convey numerous emotions. Fear, anger, suspicion, contempt, exhilaration, dejection, loyalty, etc. The author carefully constructs the complete story and provides detailed reasons to explain why some events were so important and what might have been different if communication was instant rather than being measured in months. I highly recommend this book to anyone wanting more than the battles and the fairly common descriptions of the main figures.

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  • Posted March 3, 2009


    Mr. Fleming has added much needed historical detail and perspective to that period of the American Revolution between Yorktown and the peace treaty. His thoughts are presented in a very readable style. The story is balanced between both sides of the Atlantic. I highly recommend The Perils of Peace for anyone who likes American history and especially the revolutionary period.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 14, 2007

    Enlightening, First-rate Scholarship For ALL!

    Leave it to Tom Fleming, writer & historian, to pursue a previuosly-neglected Washington as the stratgist determined to fashion an effective government in peacetime beyond his against-all-odds military victory. This illumination is unique -and its' scholarship is a breath of fresh air. The insight which he brings to Edmund Burke alone is worth the price of admission!

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    Posted April 29, 2010

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    Posted November 6, 2010

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    Posted August 18, 2011

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