Monday, September 29, 2008

Patriot Battles

Our book today is Patriot Battles: How the War of Independence Was Fought by Michael Stephenson, a nuts-and-bolts manual of the mechanics of how the American Revolution was fought. Stephenson is a long-time writer of military history, and this lively, sometimes caustic, always witty book is his best to date.

Of course all war is a messy business, but those of you schooled on the Revolution by watching Mel Gibson movies (with their clear-sky battlefields and perpetually-loaded rifles) may be shocked by just how messy the battles were that won this country its independence from Great Britain. The men on the American side were untrained, the equipment on both sides often didn't work, and the sheer proximity from which deadly fire was exchanged was often horrifyingly intimate.

Stephenson covers all of this, but he does it in such a smart and sharp way that he saves it from becoming relentlessly gloomy. Any author who casually refers to Blenheim Palace as "that lumpy and unlovely McMansion" assures us by doing so that we're in good hands. Nevertheless, our author has some gruesome details to relate:

The Cinderella relationship of the War of Independence to the Civil War is a reflection, to some extent, of our taste for the red meat of military history. Big body counts may sell books, movies, and TV documentaries, but they should not obscure the often brutal realities of eighteenth century warfare. For individual units the casualty levels could be fearful. At the battle of Brooklyn on 27 August, 1776, the 400-strong Maryland brigade left 256 dead on the field after their heroic forlorn-hope counterattack against overwhelming odds.

And although Stephenson's main subject is enormous and involves a huge amount of details, he finds time regularly throughout his fantastic book to illuminate and bring to life side-subjects, as in the sidebar on Loyalists, which begins like this:

They are the forgotten ones; sharing the gloomy penumbra of history with impoverished White Russian aristos working as waiters in Paris in the 1920s after the Bolshevik revolution, or once-wealthy, cultivated South Vietnamese government officials opening delis in Los Angeles and New York after their country fell. They have about them a sepia sadness, the corners curled and the colors faded. Who cares? They were the losers.

As with all first-rate historical writing, so here: the reader is virtually compelled to keep going. Likewise with his adroit character sketches, always done with quick, efficient strokes for maximum effect:

Washington held [General Charles] Lee in awe, as did many of the patriot officer corps, and his reward was to be the butt of Lee's sneering. When Washington was struggling for survival during his retreat across the Jerseys in 1776, Lee almost contemptuously disregarded his pleas for reinforcement. When Lee was exchanged from captivity in March 1778, Washington put on a lavish show of welcome that Lee treated ungraciously. Washington would have had to be a saint not to have harbored some resentment of the Englishman's hubris. Whereas Charles Lee was a difficult man to like, unkempt, foulmouthed, and generally bizarre, Lafayette was charming and amiable, and showed an almost filial affection toward his commander in chief. Whatever the psychological shoals and riptides, Washington's vacillations and maladroit attempts to "manage" the two men would be disastrous.

Stephenson's account of the raw physical toll of the War of Independence ends promptly and obediently at Yorktown, with the surrender of Cornwallis, but the 400 pages of this book (now an attractively solid Harper paperback) canvas the whole of the conflict in all of its tactical and logistical complexity, and always with a brio and a background sense of amusement that's so often missing from the writing of history. This book earns with its skill and heft a place on the shelf alongside the very best books on the American Revolution. It's eagerly recommended.


Sam said...

This book sounds great. Sadly, most of my knowledge of everything comes from Mel Gibson movies, so I should also probably read Hamlet, The New Testament, and, uh, Popol Vuh?

Beepy said...

It's good to see that you're writing again...

steve said...

At least you won't have to re-learn anything about the 'Mad Max' movies - they look to be coming EXACTLY true.