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.
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.)
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October 08, 2007
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