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.

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