Winner of the Barbara and David Zalaznick Book Prize in American History
Winner of the Excellence in American History Book Award
Winner of the Fraunces Tavern Museum Book Award
The paperback edition of the New York Times bestseller that the Wall Street Journal said was “chock full of momentous events and larger-than-life characters.”
Rick Atkinson, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning An Army at Dawn and two other superb books about World War II, has long been admired for his deeply researched, stunningly vivid narrative histories. Now he turns his attention to a new war, and in the initial volume of the Revolution Trilogy he recounts the first twenty-one months of America’s violent war for independence.
From the battles at Lexington and Concord in spring 1775 to those at Trenton and Princeton in winter 1777, American militiamen and then the ragged Continental Army take on the world’s most formidable fighting force. It is a gripping saga alive with astonishing characters: Henry Knox, the former bookseller with an uncanny understanding of artillery; Nathanael Greene, the blue-eyed bumpkin who becomes a brilliant battle captain; Benjamin Franklin, the self-made man who proves to be the wiliest of diplomats; George Washington, the commander in chief who learns the difficult art of leadership when the war seems all but lost. The story is also told from the British perspective, making the mortal conflict between the redcoats and the rebels all the more compelling.
Full of riveting details and untold stories, The British Are Coming is a tale of heroes and knaves, of sacrifice and blunder, of redemption and profound suffering. Rick Atkinson has given stirring new life to the first act of our country’s creation drama.
Related collections and offers
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
God Himself Our Captain
BOSTON, MARCH 6 — APRIL 17, 1775
The mildest winter in living memory had yielded to an early spring. Not once had the Charles River iced over, and even now whispers of green could be seen on the Common sward and across the tumbling hills to the north. By reducing the need for firewood, this "extraordinary weather for warlike preparations," as one pugnacious clergyman called it, had preserved Boston from even greater suffering in the nine months since British warships had closed the port. Still, warehouses stood vacant, shipyards idle, wharves deserted, shop shelves barren. The only topsail vessels in view were the eight Royal Navy men-of-war plugging the harbor approaches. "It is now a very gloomy place, the streets almost empty," a woman wrote an English friend in early March 1775. "Many families have removed from it, & the inhabitants are divided. ... Some appear desponding, others full of rage."
Only a bountiful local crop of lambs and charity from other colonies preserved Boston from hunger: fish and flour from elsewhere in New England, rice from the Carolinas, rye from Baltimore, a thousand bushels of wheat from Quebec, cash from Delaware and Montreal. By British decree, provisions arriving by sea were unloaded in Marblehead and carted twenty miles to Boston, an expensive, tedious detour. Town selectmen launched projects to employ the unemployed — street paving, well digging, building a new brickyard. But gangs of idle sailors, longshoremen, ropemakers, riggers, and carpenters could often be found loitering by the docks or in the town's ninety taverns.
Even in better days, Boston had known ample misery — smallpox and measles epidemics, Quaker and witch hangings. For the past three decades the population had stagnated at fifteen thousand people, all of them wedged into a pear-shaped, thousand-acre peninsula with seventeen churches, no banks, no theaters, and a single concert hall, in a room above a shop. Puritan severity was not far removed. A generation earlier, both actors and theatergoers could be fined for "immorality, impiety, and a contempt for religion"; other miscreants were branded alphabetically —"A" for adulterers, "B" for burglars, "F" for forgers. Counterfeiters who escaped a scorching "C" might be nailed to the pillory by their ears. But never had the town seemed more abject or more menacing; these days there were as many British soldiers in Boston as adult male civilians. One resident watching the regiments at drill lamented that the Common "glows with warlike red."
On Monday morning, March 6, the "gloomy place" abruptly sprang to life. Hundreds and then thousands filled the streets, most of them walking, since by ordinance no carriage or wagon could be driven at speeds faster than "foot pace" without risk of a ten-shilling fine. The annual commemoration of the 1770 Boston Massacre would be held a day late this year to avoid profaning the Sabbath, and Dr. Joseph Warren, a prominent local physician, intended to deliver a speech titled "The Baleful Influence of Standing Armies in Time of Peace." An "immense concourse of people," as one witness described it, made for Milk and Marlborough Streets, where an octagonal steeple rose 180 feet above the Old South Meeting House, with its distinctive Flemish-bond brick walls, enormous clock, and split-banner weathervane. By eleven a.m., five thousand packed the place to the double rafters and cambered tie beams. More than a hundred box pews filled Old South's floor, with high paneled sides to block chilly drafts and wooden writing arms for those inclined to take notes on the day's sermon. An upper gallery with benches wrapped around the second floor. Between the arched compass-headed windows rose a high pulpit, now draped in black and crowned with a sounding board.
"People's expectations are alive for the oration," the lawyer John Adams had recently written. An uneasy murmur rose from the congregants, along with the smell of damp wool, perspiration, and badly tanned shoe leather. It was rumored that mass arrests were likely this morning, and that British officers had agreed that if the king were insulted they would draw swords and slaughter the offenders. "We may possibly be attacked in our trenches," Samuel Adams had warned, and a witness reported that almost every man in attendance "had a short stick, or bludgeon in his hand." The murmur in Old South grew louder when several dozen red-coated officers clumped through the door and stood in the aisles.
Samuel Adams was ready for them. An undistinguished petty official who had squandered a family malthouse fortune, Adams ran an impressive political organization, deftly shaping public opinion through a newspaper syndicate that for years had told other colonies — often with lurid hyperbole — what life was like in a free town occupied by combat troops. "He eats little, drinks little, sleeps little, thinks much," an adversary later wrote, "and is most decisive and indefatigable." Now fifty-two and afflicted with a pronounced tremor in his head and hands, he often stood on his toes when excited, and surely he was on his toes now. He quickly cleared the front pews and beckoned the officers so that, as he later explained, they "might have no pretense to behave ill." About forty eventually took seats on the forward benches or the pulpit stairs, while Adams settled into a deacon's chair, within sword thrust.
The crowd hushed when Dr. Warren appeared at the pulpit after sidling through the congested aisles. He was handsome and young, just thirty-three, pitied for having recently lost his wife, who'd left him four young children, yet much admired for his kindness, grace, and medical skill; more than a few of those in the audience had been inoculated by him during the smallpox outbreak a decade before. He was also a ringleader. As chairman of the extralegal Committee of Safety, he proved to be a capable organizer and insurgent strategist. John Adams, the previous day, had praised his "undaunted spirit and fire."
Later accounts would depict Warren wearing a white toga over his breeches, symbolic of antique virtues — simplicity, industry, probity, civic good over private interest. Although the doctor was likely dressed more conventionally, he did affect what was described as a "Demosthenian posture," with a handkerchief in his right hand, as he addressed "my ever honored fellow citizens":
Unhappily for us, unhappily for Britain, the madness of an avaricious minister ... has brought upon the stage discord, envy, hatred, and revenge, with civil war close in their rear. ... Our streets are again filled with armed men. Our harbor is crowded with ships of war. But these cannot intimidate us. Our liberty must be preserved. It is far dearer than life.
Warren invoked the long struggle to carve a country from the New England wilderness. He described Britain's recent efforts to assert hegemony over that country, and the shootings five years before that left "the stones bespattered with your father's brains." Then came the Coercive Acts, insult upon injury. "Our wish is that Britain and the colonies may, like the oak and the ivy, grow and increase in strength together," Warren said. "But if these pacific measures are ineffectual, and it appears that the only way to safety is through fields of blood, I know you will not turn your faces from your foes."
Several British officers hissed and rapped their sticks on the floor in disapproval. A captain sitting on the pulpit steps allegedly held up several lead bullets in his open palm, a menacing gesture.
Although one skeptic would describe the oration as "true puritanical whine," Dr. Warren knew his audience: farmers and merchants, seamen and artisans, with their queued hair, knee buckles, and linen shirts ruffled at the cuff, their pale, upturned faces watching him intently. They were a borderland people, living on the far rim of empire, where in six or seven generations the American clay had grown sturdy and tall. They were patriots — if that term implied political affiliation rather than a moral state of grace — who were disputatious and litigious, given to violence on the frontier and in the street: a gentle people they were not. Their disgruntlement now approached despair, with seething resentments and a conviction that designing, corrupt men in London — the king's men, if not the king himself — conspired to deprive them of what they and their ancestors had wrenched from this hard land. They were, a Boston writer concluded, "panting for an explosion."
Reasonably democratic, reasonably egalitarian, wary of privilege and outsiders, they were accustomed to tending their own affairs, choosing their own ministers, militia officers, and political leaders. Convinced that their elected assemblies were equal in stature and authority to Parliament, they believed that governance by consent was paramount. They had not consented to being taxed, to being occupied, to seeing their councils dismissed and their port sealed like a graveyard crypt. They were godly, of course, placed here by the Almighty to do His will. Sometimes political strife was also a moral contest between right and wrong, good and evil. This struggle, as the historian Gordon S. Wood later wrote, would prove their blessedness.
Warren circled round to that very point:
Our country is in danger, but not to be despaired of. Our enemies are numerous and powerful, but we have many friends, determining to be free. ... On you depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important question, on which rest the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.
Applause rocked Old South. One British lieutenant would denounce "a most seditious, inflammatory harangue," although another concluded that the speech "contained nothing so violent as was expected." Swords remained sheathed. But when Samuel Adams heaved himself from his chair to move that "the thanks of the town should be presented to Dr. Warren for his elegant and spirited oration," the officers answered with more hisses, more stick rapping, and shouts of "Oh, fie! Fie!"
That was but a consonant removed from "fire." Panic swept the meetinghouse, "a scene of the greatest confusion imaginable," Lieutenant Frederick Mackenzie told his diary. Women shrieked, men shouted, "Fire!," sniffing for smoke. Others thought a command to shoot had been issued, an error compounded by the trill and rap of fifes and drums from the 43rd Regiment, which happened to be passing in the street outside. Five thousand people tried "getting out as fast as they could by the doors and windows," wrote Lieutenant John Barker of the 4th Regiment of Foot. The nimbler congregants in the galleries "swarmed down gutters like rats," then hied through Coopers Alley, Cow Lane, and Queen Street.
A tense calm finally returned to a tense town. "To be sure," Ensign Jeremy Lister of the 10th Foot later wrote, "the scene was quite laughable."
* * *
Across the street from Old South, in the three-story brick mansion called Province House, Lieutenant General Gage was not laughing. Worried that the morning's oration would turn violent, he had placed his regiments under arms and on alert. The risible stampede came as a relief.
Thomas Gage was a mild, sensible man with a mild, sensible countenance; only a slight protrusion of his lower lip suggested truculence. Now in his mid-fifties, with thinning gray hair and a fixed gaze, he was the most powerful authority in North America as both military commander in chief and the royal governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay. Comrades knew him as "Honest Tom," and even an adversary conceded that he was "a good and wise man surrounded with difficulties." As a young officer he had seen ghastly combat in the British defeat by the French at Fontenoy in 1745 and in the British victory over rebellious Highlanders at Culloden a year later. In 1755, he led the vanguard of General Edward Braddock's expedition against the French in western Pennsylvania, where a disastrous ambush at the Monongahela River killed his commander and several hundred comrades; swarming bullets grazed Gage's belly and eyebrow, ventilated his coat, and twice wounded his horse. Three years later, Gage was a senior commander when the French battered a British expedition in New York at Fort Carillon, subsequently renamed Ticonderoga. These actions revealed a soldier without conspicuous gifts as a combat leader, a man perhaps meant to administer rather than command. It was Gage's misfortune to live in turbulent times.
Even so, twenty years of American service had been good to him, providing Gage with high rank, a comely American wife — the New Jersey heiress Margaret Kemble — and vast tracts of land in New York, Canada, and the West Indies. He evinced little sympathy for American political experiments. "Democracy is too prevalent in America," he had declared in 1772, when his headquarters was in New York.
The tea party had pushed his lower lip out a bit more. In an uncharacteristic fit of bravado during a return visit to London in February 1774, he assured King George that four regiments in Boston should suffice — perhaps two thousand men — since the Americans would be "lions whilst we are lambs" but would turn "very meek" in the face of British resolve. Other colonies were unlikely to support Massachusetts; southerners especially "talk very high," but the fear of slave rebellions and Indian attacks "will always keep them quiet." The thirteen colonies seemed too geographically scattered and too riven by diverse interests to collaborate effectively. Promises of suppression on the cheap appealed to the shilling pinchers in Lord North's government. Gage's views had also helped shape the Coercive Acts by feeding the pleasant delusion in Britain that insurrection was mostly a Boston phenomenon, organized by a small cabal of ambitious cynics able to gull the masses.
Gage's report so encouraged the king and his court that the general was dispatched to Massachusetts as both governor of the colony and military chief of the continent. Respectful Bostonians had greeted him with an honor guard, banners, and toasts in Faneuil Hall, although two weeks later he shifted his headquarters to Salem, upon closing Boston Harbor at noon on June 1, 1774. His marching orders from the government urged him "to quiet the minds of the people, to remove their prejudices, and, by mild and gentle persuasion to induce ... submission on their part." He imposed neither martial law nor press censorship. Troublemakers were permitted to assemble, to travel, to drill their militias, to fling bellicose insults at the king's regulars.
Gage had evidently learned little on the Monongahela or at Fort Carillon about the hazard of underestimating his adversaries; precisely what he had absorbed from two decades in America was unclear. But within weeks of planting his flag in Salem, he recognized that he had misjudged both the depth and the breadth of rebellion. The Coercive Acts, including the abrogation of colonial government in Massachusetts, had inflamed the insurrection. One ugly incident followed another. In mid-August, fifteen hundred insurgents prevented royal judges and magistrates from taking the bench in Berkshire County in western Massachusetts. Two weeks later, Gage sent foot troops to seize munitions from the provincial powder house, six miles northwest of Boston; rumors spread that the king's soldiers and sailors were butchering Bostonians. At least twenty thousand rebels marched toward the town with firelocks, cudgels, and plowshares beaten into edged weapons. "For about fifty miles each way round, there was an almost universal ferment, rising, seizing arms," wrote one clergyman. An Irish merchant described how "at every house women & children [were] making cartridges" and pouring molten lead into bullet molds. The insurgents found Boston unbruised and the British regulars back in their fortified camps, but the "Powder Alarm" emboldened the Americans, demonstrated the militancy of bumpkins in farms and villages across the colony, and revealed how crippled the Crown's authority had become. "Popular rage has appeared," Gage advised London.
Additional episodes followed. More than four thousand militiamen lined the main street in Worcester in early September, closing the royal courts and requiring two dozen officials to walk a quarter-mile gantlet, hats in hand, each recanting his loyalty to the Crown thirty times, aloud. A Massachusetts Provincial Congress convened in Salem in early October 1774 to elect the wealthy merchant John Hancock as president — a vain, petulant "empty barrel," in John Adams's estimation. Of more than two hundred Massachusetts communities, only twenty-one failed to send delegates. Like similar congresses soon established in other colonies, this extralegal assembly acted as a provisional government to circumvent British authority by passing resolutions, collecting revenue, and coordinating colonial affairs with the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The British Are Coming"
Copyright © 2019 Rick Atkinson.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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.
Table of Contents
List of Maps xv
Map Legend xvi
List of Illustrations xvii
Prologue, England, June 1773-March 1775 1
1 Inspecting the Fleet
2 Avenging the Tea
3 Preparing for War
1 God Himself Our Captain 35
Boston, March 6-April 17, 1775
2 Men Came Down from the Clouds 55
Lexington and Concord, April 18-19, 1775
3 I Wish This Cursed Place was Burned 83
Boston and Charlestown, May-June 1775
4 What Shall We Say of Human Nature? 116
Cambridge Camp, July-October 1775
5 I Shall Try to Retard the Evil Hour 141
Into Canada, October-November 1775
6 America is an Ugly Job 164
London, October-November 1775
7 They Fought, Bled, and Died Like Englishmen 182
Norfolk, Virginia, December 1775
8 The Paths of Glory 195
Quebec, December 3, 1775-January 1, 1776
9 The Ways of Heaven Are Dark and Intricate 219
Boston, January-February 1776
10 The Whipping Snake 241
Cork, Ireland, and Moore's Creek, North Carolina, January-March 1776
11 City of Our Solemnities 257
Boston, March 1776
12 A Strange Reverse of Fortune 273
Quebec, April-June 1776
13 Surrounded by Enemies, Open and Concealed 297
New York, June 1776
14 A Dog in a Dancing School 323
Charleston, South Carolina, June 1776
15 A Fight among Wolves 348
New York, July-August 1776
16 A Sentimental Manner of Making War 380
New York, September 1776
17 Master of the Lakes 405
Lake Champlain, October 1776
18 The Retrograde Motion of Things 431
New York, October-November 1776
19 A Quaker in Paris 465
France, November-December 1776
20 Fire-And-Sword Men 485
New Jersey, December 1776
21 The Smiles of Providence 511
Trenton, December 24-26, 1776
22 The Day Is Our Own 530
Trenton and Princeton, January 1777
Epilogue, England and America, 1777 555
Author's Note 565