Yesterday John Ferling, author of Almost A Miracle wrote a piece for the OUPblog about the turning of the tide in the Revolutionary War. Today he has kindly agreed to answer some questions about his work. To learn more about Ferling keep reading and be sure to check back tomorrow for an excerpt from his new book!
OUP: Compared to the Civil War and America’s twentieth century wars, the War of Independence appears to have been pretty tame. Do you agree?
John Ferling: All wars are different. Each war has its own cast of characters, but most importantly the technology of war continues to change, leading to ever more destructive weaponry. Soldiers in the Revolutionary War were for the most part equipped with muskets that had an effective range of 50 yards. Civil War soldiers carried rifles with an effective range that was six times greater. Soldiers in World War II not only carried rifles that they could fire more rapidly, they took machine guns and terrifying other weapons into battle.
Yet despite the relatively primitive technology of the eighteenth century, there was an astonishing death toll in the Revolutionary War. One American male in sixteen of military age died during the Revolutionary War. One in ten of military age died in the Civil War and one in seventy-five in World War II. Of those who served in the Continental army, one in four died. In the Civil War, one regular in five perished. In World War II, one in forty U.S. servicemen died. The death rate was similar for those fighting for Great Britain in the Revolutionary War. One-fourth of the British soldiers, German mercenaries, and American Loyalists who fought with the redcoats in North America perished. More than 80,000 British and American soldiers and sailors died in the Revolutionary War. Given the populations of the two countries in 1776, those losses would be the equivalent today to the loss of roughly 2,000,000 Americans.
OUP: What was the turning point in the Revolutionary War?
Ferling: In his wonderful book on the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom, James McPherson wrote that long wars tend to have several turning points. That was true of the War of Independence as well, which in my judgment had 5 turning points. The Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775 not only convinced Americans that they could stand up to regulars, it had a deleterious psychological impact on General William Howe, soon to be the British army’s overall commander in North America. General Washington’s brilliant campaign in New Jersey in the last days of 1776, which included the two engagements at Trenton and the subsequent battle at Princeton, boosted sagging morale, enabled a new army to be recruited, and impressed the French leadership. General John Burgoyne’s disastrous invasion of New York in 1777, culminating in his surrender at Saratoga that October, brought France into the war as an American ally and led Britain to adopt a new strategy, the Southern Strategy. By mid-1780 the war had stalemated, with possibly ominous implications for the United States. As a result, I see the partisan war that erupted that summer in South Carolina’s backcountry, and the stunningly adroit campaign waged the following winter in the Carolinas by General Nathanael Greene, as an important turning point. It ultimately led Britain’s Southern commander, Earl Cornwallis, to take his army into Virginia. Four months later he suffered defeat at Yorktown, the long-awaited decisive victory that broke the stalemate.
OUP:General Washington has been called the “indispensable man” in the American Revolution. Do you agree?
Ferling: I am often critical of General Washington in Almost a Miracle. He tended to be slow in making decisions, a virtuous quality in many respects, but not when a battle was unfolding. Another commander – one who was less thin-skinned (I’m tempted to say not quite so paranoid) – might have had better relationships with Generals Artemas Ward, Charles Lee, and Horatio Gates, and made better use of each of them. Washington’s strategic planning evinced striking limitations, most particularly in his fixation on retaking New York and his incredible slowness in comprehending the significance of the war in the South after 1778.
On the other hand, Washington’s handling of Congress and state leaders was incredibly artful. He also won the respect of the officer corps and kept that ambitious and adventurous – even somewhat dangerous – element under control. His personal conduct was steadfastly aboveboard, so that he never lost the public’s trust. Washington demonstrated uncanny diplomatic skills in his relationship with French army and naval leaders. His campaign in New Jersey in 1776, which I mentioned earlier, deserves every imaginable accolade.
In the final analysis, Washington faced mountainous problems, more perhaps than any other American supreme commander ever faced. I don’t think any other leader in the Revolutionary War could have coped better, and in all likelihood none would have done as well. America was fortunate to have had General Washington, though at times it was lucky to have survived him.
OUP: You spent years researching and writing this book about the Revolutionary War. How did your thinking about this war change in the course of your work?
Ferling: In three ways, I think. I came to appreciate just how tough this war was. The deprivation experienced by the soldiers on both sides was incredible, and the percentage of soldiers that died, especially among the British, was higher than I had imagined. I also came to a better understanding of the difficult choices faced by leaders, whether military officers who struggled to make sense of conflicting intelligence or political leaders who faced unimaginably hard decisions concerning strategy, diplomacy, manpower, and economics. Finally, I came to see clearly just how close the United States came to not achieving its aims in this war. With a couple different twists or turns in 1780 and 1781 the military stalemate would have continued, causing the war’s outcome, in all likelihood, to be settled by a European peace conference. In that event, the United States might have consisted of no more than 9 or 10 states and it could have been entirely surrounded by British possessions. The long-term survival of the United States in that case would have been doubtful.
OUP: What is your favorite book?
Ferling: I’m a baseball fan and the book that I go back to most often is David Halberstam’s Summer of ‘49. In the winter, when the days are short and cold, and the next baseball season seems to light years away, I occasionally enjoy making a steaming pot of tea and sitting down to read again of those players of yesteryear.
It is probably more accurate to say that I have favorite writers, and one of my favorites was Willie Morris. As I like cats as much as I enjoy baseball, I’m especially fond of his book My Cat Spit McGee.
A writer who influenced me when I was in college and trying to figure out what to do with my life was Bruce Catton, the popular Civil War historian. I own most of his books and still enjoy pulling them off the shelf and reading a bit here and there. He could really make the paragraphs flow.
I read lots of mysteries and especially like Lawrence Block’s books on his detective Matthew Scudder.
I read scholarly works, but I’m drawn to them in order to learn, not for their literary qualities. However, two currently active historians, in my field at any rate, are particularly good writers and I especially look forward to their books. One is David Hackett Fischer and the other is Joseph Ellis. Both are fine writers who produce provocative books.
The book that I’ve read most recently that I didn’t want to end was Joshua Prager’s The Echoing Green, another baseball book, and a wonderful character study of two baseball rivals, Bobby Thomson and Ralph Branca.