I’ve been reading a book about the decisive battle of the Revolutionary War, and all the brilliant strategic decisions, boneheaded mistakes, personal vanities and serendipitous advantages that culminated in George Washington’s siege victory over the British General Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781.
The book, by noted historian Nathaniel Philbrick, is “In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory of Yorktown.” It’s a meticulous dissection of all the factors that led to the York-town showdown, the equivalent of a powerful narcotic for history nerds. The book was Christmas gift from someone who knows I’m addicted.
Spoiler alert: We won the Revolutionary War. By “we,” I mean the ragtag, barely organized group of colonists who determined to stand against England’s insistence on obeisance, fealty and better manners. It almost didn’t work. But for some fortunate turns of events, British bumbling and the assistance of the French navy we might all be having tea at 3 and nattering over the royal family’s latest indiscretions. Thank a French person when you have a chance. Without their assistance, our judges and lawyers (or barristers and solicitors) would still be wearing silly powdered wigs. According to Philbrick, it was the French navy’s rout of the British armada in the Battle of the Chesapeake that made America’s triumph possible. George Washington understood, Philbrick points out, that the land war could only be won if the sea war was won.
As an aside, I learned more about naval battle strategies involving huge, full-masted battleships of the late 1700s than I ever imagined possible. For all the complicated maneuvers, it pretty much came down to this: The foes lined their ships up broadside across from each other, at close range, and fired cannon shot after cannon shot until one opponent called it quits. Much carnage was involved.
The thing you learn about history, if you read much of it, is that it all would have turned out differently but for a few crucial moments when fate was in the balance. An errant word, a failed action, a moment of treachery, better weather, a missed or misunderstood communication could have made all the difference at so many points in the world’s biography. It’s only in retrospect that we can conclude that things turned out the way they were “supposed” to. Of course, that’s all we know; the rest we must imagine.
What struck me in reading Philbrick’s book was that through years of defeat, privation and brutal suppression by the colonies’ English overlords, America’s true patriots held their ground — improbably and against overwhelming odds. They fought hungry, unpaid, un-housed, in tattered clothes, haphazardly armed, against much larger forces in poncy uniforms. Not only did the Americans have to confront, retreat and regroup against the well-provisioned British armies, they also had to do battle surrounded by “loyalists” whose commitment was to the crown.
What those early patriots fought and died for was the fundamental American concept of democracy that is now under traitorous assault by a plump, pampered spoiled bully of a president who wants to be king. The nation’s worst president ever has only one goal: to be its last president ever.
George Washington famously and pointedly rejected the notion that he be crowned king of the fledgling nation. By then, Americans had had enough of monarchs. Until now, it never seemed anyone in this country would contemplate handing the reins over to a psychopathic tyrant. I thought we learned that lesson. But as someone once said (and I paraphrase), if you can convince people to believe anything, you can convince them to do anything.
Philbrick notes about our first president that “Washington had long since learned that greatness was attained not by insisting on what was right for oneself but by doing what was right for others.” And, “he [Washington] would never countenance using military to force the hand of civil government … As proven by Caesar in Ancient Rome and Cromwell during the English Revolution, this was the first step in the road to dictatorship.” Washington is quoted as warning against people who would “overturn the liberties of our country and … open the flood gates of civil discord and deluge our rising empire in blood.”
Compare and contrast at your leisure.
It would be interesting to be around 100 years from to read historians’ accounts of what happened in the United States of America in the early 21st century. I’m pretty sure that No. 1 will come out way ahead of No. 45 in everyone’s estimation.