Review: Rick Atkinson, The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes guest historian Joshua Shepherd to the blog who reviewed the book mentioned above. Short bio of Joshua is at the bottom of this post.

In recent years, there’s been a fortunate resurgence of interest in the Revolution and founding era. To meet the mounting demand for Revolutionary history, some of the nation’s most gifted popular authors have written highly successful volumes that cover the War for Independence and the Early Republic.

Some outstanding books have consequently gone to press, but, by and large, the publications have very often been biographies; occasionally, publishing houses introduce monographs that cover a single campaign. From professional circles, much of the new scholarly research focuses on the currently-vogue academic preference for social history. At least in recent decades, the relative paucity of military history has left an appreciable gap in the historiography of the Revolution. With the release of The British Are Coming, author Rick Atkinson has met a vital need for an up-to-date and comprehensive military history of the American Revolution.

The author crafts an engaging narrative that chronicles the first harrowing two years of the Revolutionary War. New England’s early fights at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill receive fresh attention. But lesser-known engagements at Moore’s Creek, Great Bridge, and Sullivan’s Island were watershed events. Such Patriot victories proved to be crushing setbacks to the King’s cause in the southern colonies, ensuring that the region would remain largely untouched by the war until 1780.  

Although often regarded as a strategic sideshow, America’s ill-fated attempt to wrest Canada from British control is given lengthy and appropriate attention in Atkinson’s book. The entire campaign was a major undertaking during the first critical year of the war, but with the hindsight of over two centuries, it’s apparent that the affair was ill conceived, poorly supplied and, ultimately, badly led. The effort likewise siphoned tremendous resources and manpower from the nascent Continental Army at a time when it could ill afford such diminution of its strength.

British efforts would be narrowly focused in the north, and led to a year of disaster for the Patriot cause. From the pages of Atkinson’s book, George Washington clearly emerges as the “indispensable man” of the Revolution, but a commander who nonetheless faced an embarrassing string of battlefield drubbings subsequent to the British invasion of New York during the summer of 1776. After the near collapse of the Continental Army – and the Patriot war effort – during the retreat across New Jersey, Washington gambled big, and won, during his desperate attacks on Crown detachments at Trenton and Princeton. Atkinson’s closing chapters offer a riveting account of the legendary winter campaign that turned the tide of the war.

The British Are Coming affords readers a good overall view of the war’s grand strategy, but Atkinson’s approach to military history is far remove from bland accounts and cold statistics. The author clearly possesses an affinity for the common foot soldiers who have waged America’s wars. His battle narratives are consistently interspersed with first-person accounts that capture the confusion, terror, and outright carnage of the eighteenth century battlefield. Although Revolutionary armies were led by officers who ostensibly waged war as gentlemen, Atkinson’s stark accounts of battle belie the notion that the War for Independence was anything less than a horrifically bloody affair.     

Primarily intended as a military history, this book offers enough glimpses of the power circles in London and Philadelphia to afford the reader a basic understanding of the divergent political notions that drove the conflict. Although armies on the field decided the war’s outcome, the epic and oft tragic story of the Revolution is explored through the experiences of wives, children, Loyalists, and the enslaved.    

Rick Atkinson is uniquely equipped to tackle a research and writing project of this magnitude. A former journalist, veteran author, and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, Atkinson is perhaps best known for his three-volume history of World War II’s European theater. The same template bodes well for Atkinson’s new series, the Revolution Trilogy.

Although written for a broad audience, this book is far more than mass market pop history, it’s a substantial work of scholarship. Atkinson delved deeply into archives across the United States, and was granted nearly unprecedented access to the papers of George III, which are held by Windsor Castle and hitherto rarely seen by researchers. The text is fully annotated, largely citing primary sources, although it’s clear that the author likewise familiarized himself with the best secondary research on the Revolutionary War. Taken as a whole, this book is one of those rare volumes that successfully combines the best of non-fiction narrative with the highest standards of academic scholarship.

Atkinson has succeeded in penning a worthy addition to the vast literature on the Revolution. The British Are Coming, appropriate for both academics and informed laymen, will unquestionably remain a classic in the field.   

*Joshua Shepherd, a sculptor and independent researcher, has created over 30 public monuments. His articles, with a special focus on Revolutionary and frontier America, have appeared in publications including MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, Military Heritage, Journal of the American Revolution, Civil War Quarterly, and Muzzleloader.

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