Good evening all,
As a military historian, I’ve always been fascinated with those points in history when diplomacy fails and humans descend into the nasty business of killing one another. Since I’ve been working with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, naturally the American Revolution is solidly in my mind each and every day. I have been literally inundated with new information since I began there, but there are a few books on the Revolution that someone with even a passing interest in the conflict should read at least once in their life. One of those books has got to be Don Higginbotham‘s The War of American Independence: Military Attitudes, Policies, and Practice, 1763-1789. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977. Higginbotham was one of the most influential military historians of his day, an expert on George Washington, and a champion of the “new” military history. The War of American Independence remains, in my opinion, one of the best overview histories of the war in existence. As the title implies, Higginbotham approaches the war from numerous angles, devoting chapters to the military origins of the war, the home front, economic implications, the Continental Congress, the French etc.
Of course, any general work on the Revolution focuses in part on Virginia’s impact in shaping colonial attitudes at that time, “It was a Virginian who served as first president of the Continental Congress, a Virginian who commanded the American army, a Virginian who introduced the Congressional resolution for independence, and a Virginian who wrote the Declaration of Independence.” (85) Williamsburg at that time was the capital of the colony and many of the men you read about in history books spent a good deal of time in the city during the Revolution. Virginia was the largest, wealthiest, most heavily populated colony of the thirteen, so naturally the Old Dominion had a great deal of influence over its sister colonies.
More importantly than that, however, Higginbotham expertly highlights the American Revolution as one of the foundational conflicts that began to define the “American Way of War.” He devotes extensive time to the internal problems between militia and regulars, the guerrilla war, the Continental Navy as a commerce raiding organization, and George Washington’s various command issues. In summarizing the difference between the British Army and the Continentals, he includes several anecdotes from British soldiers, “William Carter, a British participant, called the riflemens’ sniping “an unfair method of carrying on a war”; while another redcoat described the frontiersmen as “the most fatal widow-and-orphan makers in the world.” (103)
Another important aspect of this book is the focus on the war in the South. Growing up in school, the American Revolution went a little something like this…
Taxes – Declaration of Independence – War Was Bad for a While – Valley Forge – Yorktown – America
Of course this leaves out a wealth of information and is overly simplistic, but you get the point. The war in the South included the dark depths of military conflict in colonial America, including instances of brother fighting brother in what was truly the first large-scale civil war in American history. You have all the colorful characters on both sides, Lord Cornwallis, Banastre Tarleton, Francis Marion, Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, Andrew Pickens, and Thomas Sumter running around in an area where loyalties were sharply divided and battle lines were not always neatly drawn, “East of the Santee, where disaffection was rampant, Marion roamed at will; and, as Cornwallis told Clinton, “the indefatigable Sumpter is again in the field…beating up for Recruits with the greatest Assiduity.” (362-363) I believe the British influence in the colonies at that time helped foster an uneasiness for standing armies, which perhaps explains why desertion was an issue and why many men preferred to fight in irregular units for a short period of time closer to their farms and families. Whatever the reason, the war in the South from 1780-1781 is often neglected and even more often under-appreciated for its contributions to both the Revolution in particular and the American Way of War in general.
By virtue of what I do for a living, I cannot help but search for connections to the modern world in a book like this, and because the subject matter is so varied, there are similarities everywhere. In particular, Higginbotham routinely addresses a vital group of people in the American Revolution that not many people are happy with in 2013…Congress. I particularly enjoyed the final chapter, which dealt with the myriad problems surrounding the Constitutional debates. I was very pleased to find out that two Virginians refused to sign the Constitution because they believed it delegated too much power to the federal government, “(Elbridge) Gerry, along with (Edmund) Randolph and (George) Mason of Virginia, were the only members present who failed to sign the Constitution on September 17. But Gerry alone specifically gave “the general power of the Legislature…to raise armies and money without limit” as a reason for his not signing. I’m sure if Patrick Henry were there that day, he would have done the same.
So if you are someone looking to find out more about the American Revolution on a large-scale and you are trying to find a good overview history, then go out and buy this book immediately. I doubt any modern historian can effectively communicate the vast scope of the war in such readable language. Don Higginbotham was truly a master of his craft and a historian of the highest order. He will be sorely missed.
As an aside before I go, here is a little parting shot from Mr. Archibald Maclaine of North Carolina…”Will we be such fools as to send our greatest rascals to the general government? We must be both fools and villains to do so.” (461)