Reading Opinion Essay: John Ferling, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

I found John Ferling’s Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence to be much more interesting and easy to read than A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic.[1] Perhaps the tighter focus of the subject matter of the former made for a more exciting narrative, or maybe I simply enjoyed reading about battles and military strategy more than I did about the diplomatic and political struggles outlined in the wider scope of A Leap in the Dark. This is not to say that Ferling’s prose in Almost a Miracle was any less dry than it was in his older monograph; as I did in A Leap in the Dark, I often found my mind wandering as I waded through long and frequently tedious sections of Almost a Miracle.

Ferling’s research appeared to me to be very thorough and exacting, and he utilized frequent notes referencing a wide variety of interesting primary sources. Unfortunately, his resulting narrative often left me feeling as if I was reading a boring laundry list of historical details. Ferling never seemed to inject any humor into his prose, even when discussing the “gallows humor” of Continental soldiers.[2] Like all wars, the American Revolution was most certainly serious, awful, and deadly. But as anyone who has served in the armed forces can attest, life in the military, even in a combat zone, is often filled with absurdity. Even an occasional attempt at some wry humor on the part of Ferling would have helped to humanize his story of the American Revolution.

One section I did find particularly engaging was Ferling’s discussion about the war in the South.[3] This was a theater of the war that I was thoroughly unfamiliar with, mainly because my prior knowledge of the American Revolution was so limited, but perhaps also because the stories we are exposed to in popular culture tend to focus on events in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts. I read Ferling’s accounts about the swashbuckling adventures of Daniel Morgan and Nathanael Greene with a great deal of interest and enthusiasm, and there were times when my otherwise negative opinion of the author’s prose was substantially muted. All in all, I thought Ferling made a very good case for his assertion that “the American victory was won at last in the South in 1780-1781.”[4]

For the most part, I thought Ferling did an outstanding job of presenting a balanced view of the American Revolution, both in his treatment of the causes and implications of various military engagements, and in the personalities and motives of the combatant commanders. Befitting, of course, a scholarly work of this magnitude—and often in contrast to the American national mythology surrounding the birth of the nation—Almost a Miracle did not portray Washington, for example, as a particularly brilliant tactician, nor did it attempt to broadly paint the British as evil oppressors absolutely bent on destroying American liberties. Ferling consistently praised performance that was outstanding and condemned that which was lackluster, regardless of which side he was discussing.

His balanced view notwithstanding, I thought Ferling was a little too forgiving of Washington’s shortcomings as a military commander. Ferling noted some of these failures in his conclusion, and I believe he was essentially correct in his assertion that Washington was the best man available for the job, at least at the outset of the war.[5] However, the Washington described by Ferling throughout Almost a Miracle was a commander capable of serious and repeated tactical and strategic missteps, a thin-skinned man prone to fatal dithering and command-by-committee. After forcing Gage’s army from Boston in early 1776, Washington courted disaster numerous times on Long Island and Manhattan before finally winning a few small victories in New Jersey in the winter of 1776-1777. It was not until he was prodded into action by Rochambeau that Washington moved his army to Virginia in 1781 and scored a truly decisive victory over Cornwallis at Yorktown. In the meantime, Washington hovered around New York City, convinced that forcing the British out of the city was the key to ending the war. In my opinion, Washington displayed no strategic wisdom in his stubborn posture on this point, and I believe Ferling was entirely too forgiving of Washington. To his credit, Ferling conceded some of these points, but only in passing in his conclusion. Ferling was absolutely correct in his opinion that Washington’s “deft feel for politics,” his uncanny ability to spot talent in others, and his diplomatic skills were crucial to the American victory.[6] Washington was certainly all of these things and more, but he simply was not a very good general, and I do not think Ferling did a good job of exploring that point.

Ultimately, I felt that Ferling’s scholarship was sound and admirable, though I did find a few things to quibble over regarding his analysis. Scholarship aside, however, I was not impressed with Ferling’s writing style, in either of the monographs assigned for this course. I have become much more interested in the Revolutionary era, but I am not sure I will seek out more of Ferling’s work in my future studies. I hope to find studies that illuminate much and entertain at least a little.

[1] John Ferling, A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[2] John Ferling, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 332.

[3] Ibid., 476-500.

[4] Ibid., 575.

[5] Ibid., 571-73.

[6] Ibid., 570.

American Militias in the War of Independence

The militia units that fought at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill fought with courage and audacity, and their exploits are rightfully legendary. As the American Revolution progressed, however, the militias called up for service in various parts of the country often did not live up to the standards set by the citizen-soldiers of Massachusetts in 1775. Civilian and military authorities alike began to question the effectiveness of militia units, as those soldiers called up sometimes failed to appear and, when they did heed the call, often broke and ran when faced with British bayonets.

Those militia units that performed admirably may have done so when fighting near their own homes, like the men at Lexington and Concord, since they understood that they were protecting their own homes and families. However, I feel that the single greatest factor in whether or not these citizen-soldiers fought well and bravely was the quality of their regular officer leadership. A Continental officer who knew how to keep their morale up and how to utilize them most effectively stood a much better chance of having his auxiliary troops perform at a high level. Perhaps no other situation demonstrated this axiom better than Daniel Morgan’s leadership at Cowpens, South Carolina.

When Morgan realized that Tarleton was closing in on his little army, the American general hastily selected a plot of ground upon which to meet the British. After conceiving of a plan and briefing it to his officers, Morgan explained the concepts and mechanics to his militiamen. Additionally, he attempted to buoy their spirits with bawdy humor and stories of the rousing welcome they would receive back home for their glorious labors. Morgan’s battle formation essentially consisted of three lines of infantry, with a cavalry unit in reserve. The first line of foot soldiers were backcountry riflemen who were situated as skirmishers and hidden behind trees; their job was to wait until the British closed to within a few yards, fire several shots, and then make an orderly withdrawal to the second line. This second line of soldiers were militiamen who had instructions to fire three volleys, aiming at British officers if at all possible, and then move behind the third line, which consisted mainly of Continental soldiers. Morgan had enormous confidence in his militiamen, and his trust was not misplaced. They performed remarkably well and exactly as planned, and Morgan’s troops delivered a stunning defeat to Tarleton’s overconfident army. Morgan’s faith in the militiamen no doubt was revealed in his leadership style with those troops, and they rewarded their commander by performing with courage and precision.[1]

Along with this tactical success, and despite many instances of shoddy performance by citizen-soldiers, militias served in a larger strategic role, one that was essential to the success of the American cause. Ferling insisted that “the war could not have been won” without the contributions of militia troops, since they effectively acted as a constabulary in their individual provinces.[2] Ferling also pointed to quality leadership as a factor in their performance, quoting a Hessian officer: “Men are brave only when they are well led.”[3] This observation was both extraordinarily wise and utterly self-evident.

[1] John Ferling, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 480-83.

[2] Ibid., 575.

[3] Ibid.

The Army: Then and Now

I was very entertained this week by Ferling’s description of life for soldiers in the Continental army.[1] Though life in today’s United States Army is not nearly as dreadful as it was for those soldiers, the parallels are striking in many ways, particularly in regard to the reactions of soldiers to army life. As Ferling noted, “For most, perhaps, the great discovery about the army was the dark reality that a soldier never controlled his own life.”[2] Though times and the army have changed, there are still many aspects of my life over which I have no control, and it can be frustrating.

I laughed out loud at the black humor displayed by soldiers about the crude medical care they received. I often joke about the recruiters’ promises of the free health care we receive, instead referring to the “free sub-standard health care” available to us. Ferling mentioned a list of strange treatments for various maladies; soldiers today joke about the Army doctor’s drug-of-choice, vitamin M—Motrin, which is prescribed for seemingly everything.[3] Joseph Martin believed he survived yellow fever only because his regiment’s doctor was on furlough.[4] While I cannot relate to the seriousness of his illness, I do scratch my head at the contradictory diagnoses I get from various doctors concerning my own health concerns.

Martin wondered at “his ‘imbecility in staying’ in the army,” and compared army service to a sentence in a state prison, both of which I have also done. [5] Ultimately, though, Martin understood what so many other soldiers have realized: a bond of brotherhood develops among comrades in the military, unlike anything civilians will ever experience.[6]

[1] John Ferling, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 331-38.

[2] Ibid., 336.

[3] Ibid., 332.

[4] Ibid., 333.

[5] Ibid., 338.

[6] Ibid.