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

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

In the initial volume of the Revolution Trilogy Rick Atkinson recounts the first twenty-one months of America’s violent war for independence. From the battles at Lexington and Concord in spring 1775 to those at Trenton and Princeton in winter 1777, American militiamen and then the ragged Continental Army take on the world’s most formidable fighting force. It is a saga aliv...

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

  • Steve Smits

    This is a remarkable history of the first two years of the American Revolution. The research is deep and the topics covered are broad. Atkinson has chosen to write not only on the military campaigns but also the political currents at play in America, England and France,and on the personalities that shaped the decisions on both sides. The narrative is told in chronological order making it easy to follow the events as they unfolded and making the connections between various dimensions clear to see

    This is a remarkable history of the first two years of the American Revolution. The research is deep and the topics covered are broad. Atkinson has chosen to write not only on the military campaigns but also the political currents at play in America, England and France,and on the personalities that shaped the decisions on both sides. The narrative is told in chronological order making it easy to follow the events as they unfolded and making the connections between various dimensions clear to see. One gets a clear understanding of the context that underlies the action taken by both sides in the early years of the conflict.

    One of the problems of military histories, and I have read many, is the difficulty of following the movements and actions of combat, owing especially to lack of knowledge of terrain and of sorting out the confusion of multiple engagements happening simultaneously. Atkinson does an excellent job in making the diverse tactical positioning and clashes as clear as possible. In his descriptions of battles and skirmishes he reminds us of how brutal this war would be on its participants. He makes it plain how the British arrogantly underestimated the resolve and spirit of the rebels in the early years of the war. At the same time he notes the great difficulties Washington faced in organizing and sustaining a cohesive and sustained fighting force. One is also struck by his emphasis on how the shortcomings of logistics for both sides hampered greatly their ability to fight effectively.

    Atkinson' prose is outstanding. and makes the read pleasurable. It should be known by prospective readers that this is not just a military history; it is very much as well a fascinating political and cultural look at the times .

    This book is highly recommended. I eagerly await volumes two and three of the trilogy.

    (I rceived this book through the Library Thing early reviewers program.)

  • Lorna

    is a meticulously and deeply researched history of the American Revolution by renowned historian Rick Atkinson. This first volume of the anticipated

    was riveting as you watch the struggling Continental Army up against the mighty and formidable forces of the British Army and Royal Navy dispatched by King George III. This is the story of the newly formed colonies in America and their struggle, not onl

    is a meticulously and deeply researched history of the American Revolution by renowned historian Rick Atkinson. This first volume of the anticipated

    was riveting as you watch the struggling Continental Army up against the mighty and formidable forces of the British Army and Royal Navy dispatched by King George III. This is the story of the newly formed colonies in America and their struggle, not only for freedom, but to forge a new democratic nation. Atkinson describes the first twenty-one months of the American Revolution with the battles at Lexington and Concord, to those at Trenton and Princeton, told in painful detail. We see each of these battles, not only from the point of view of the generals to the soldiers, but to those waiting at home. This was a fast-paced book as we see well known characters from our history to the more obscure. I, for one, will be anxiously awaiting Volume II of this remarkable tale of America's early and laudable history.

    -- Thomas Paine

  • Jeffrey Keeten

    Whenever I read about the Amercian Revolution, I’m always struck by the enormity of the task our founding fathers were facing. They were not prepared for war, not in the least. They had no navy, no standing army, very few officers with milita

    Whenever I read about the Amercian Revolution, I’m always struck by the enormity of the task our founding fathers were facing. They were not prepared for war, not in the least. They had no navy, no standing army, very few officers with military experience, a slipshod government, and they lacked any kind of plan as to how the war was to be won.

    But I’m getting ahead of myself. I guess it isn’t a spoiler to say that the rebels do win the war, but with this first of three volumes, Rick Atkinson is only covering 1775-1777, and believe me, these were dire years, fraught with disaster.

    Atkinson’s description of the Battle of Lexington and Concord is perhaps one of the best and most vivid I’ve ever read. He has this wonderful knack of putting in details that other historians would have never discovered or would have felt were too insignificant to include in the text.

    What Atkinson does here, with this wonderful piece of writing, is put the reader on that road with the redcoats in the mud, and then he pulls back in a 3D panorama and shares with us this evocative, gobsmacked observation by this 8 year old boy. The thought of the thunderous sound of a river of red sends shivers down my spine.

    I can only imagine the courage it took for those colonial men to stand out there on that village green, facing this lobsterbacked behemoth of professional soldiers, who not only outnumbered them but were better trained and better armed. I can also feel the fear of those British regulars who had to march back down that road to Boston with rebel snipers hitting them from every fence line and stand of trees. The colonials learned very quickly to avoid fighting the British standing in the open like tin pins waiting to be slaughtered.

    General Hugh Percy made a very astute tactical decision not to try and cross the bridge over the Charles River, but ferry his troops with boats back to Boston. The rebels were lying in wait at that bridge in large numbers, and the slaughter would have been disastrous for the British.

    I doubt that George III would have had his toy soldiers pack up and come home, but it would have been a very clear early victory for the rebels that would have brought men flocking to the banner for freedom in droves.

    This was a serendipitous bit of fortune for the British, but most of those moments of near disaster would belong to the Americans. There were numerous times when the British were on the verge of destroying the rebel army, and, through the fickleness of fate or an overly cautious decision by the British leadership or a stealthy retreat by the rebels, who frequently seemed to just vanish into the mist, the war could have easily been over within the first few years, if not months.

    What if the British had captured George Washington? It is hard to even think of a successful conclusion to the conflict without

    founding father at the head of our army. What if the Continental Congress had replaced Washington? It was bandied about; after all, he was losing battle after battle. The importance of his victory at Trenton can not be overemphasized. Not only did it shore up support with the French, but it also reaffirmed the faith of Washington’s supporters. There was also the treachery of General Charles Lee and General Horatio Gates, who plotted endless behind Washington’s back, each feeling they were better qualified to lead the colonial army. If they had spent as much time trying to defeat the British as they had trying to discredit Washington, the war may very well have ended much sooner.

    The Battle for Lake Champlain (or Valcour Island) is one of the more enthralling David and Goliath stories of the war. General Benedict Arnold might have summed up the dire circumstances best with his assessment of the situation.

    The Revolutionary War was fought on the cheap and had to be, as the Continental Congress was frequently existing on fumes. Arnold didn’t win this battle, but he certainly didn’t lose it either, only because of that much vaunted audacity that left the British wondering if they had been fighting a ghost all along.

    Atkinson does a very good job describing this battle, but Nathaniel Philbrick devotes more ink to it in

    and by doing so brings it more vividly to life. In my opinion, Benedict Arnold is the most fascinating person of the Revolutionary War.

    At least here in volume one of this trilogy, we can sit back and enjoy Arnold’s exploits. The disastrous decision he made that forever tainted his legacy was still a few years away. He was a complicated man, bedevilled by his enemies, hampered by his own pride, and sorely missed by Washington for the latter part of the war.

    I was shocked to learn about the staggering number of confrontations that occurred during the first two years of the war.

    There is so much more I wish I could talk about. I could go on and on expressing my enjoyment of Atkinson’s descriptions of each encounter between the rebels and the British, but the idea is to encourage all of you to go read this book, not to indulge myself in my own interpretations and speculations about the plethora of interesting facts that were part of every aspect of the war.

    If you are a professional or amateur historian, you will find this overview an edifying and enjoyable experience. If you know very little about the Revolutionary War, this will make for a very good start in your exploration of this frankly world phenomenon, where a rabble of men gain their freedom by continuing to fight despite the string of demoralizing defeats and the overwhelming odds they faced against an 18th century superpower. The beacon of freedom did not come into existence easily, and we certainly should forever remember that we are not just Americans. We are a conglomeration of all nations.

    Here be one of the wretched refuse whose ancestors washed up on your shores before the Revolutionary War.

    We have worked too long. We have come too far. We mustn’t ever forget who we are.

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  • Ozymandias

    This is a very good general overview of the American Revolution told from a military perspective. Or rather, it’s the first part of a trilogy on the Revolution and covers from the early days in Boston (1774/5) to the battles of Trenton and Princeton (1776/7). The highlight of the book is the author’s military understanding and ability to express it in words. There is little that is superfluous here, although the author does display a skill at integrating interesting tangents in ways that enhanci

    This is a very good general overview of the American Revolution told from a military perspective. Or rather, it’s the first part of a trilogy on the Revolution and covers from the early days in Boston (1774/5) to the battles of Trenton and Princeton (1776/7). The highlight of the book is the author’s military understanding and ability to express it in words. There is little that is superfluous here, although the author does display a skill at integrating interesting tangents in ways that enhancing rather than distracting from the account. The prose is excellent and keeps the reader engaged, and the chapter titles are well chosen, being mainly taken from the statements of contemporaries, such as Washington’s “the retrograde motion of things” after the defeat at Fort Washington or “a sentimental manner of making war” after Germain’s complaint about those advocating peaceful solutions after the first blows have been struck. Such titles do much to capture the reader’s interest. As befitting a more popular history, the book is heavy on anecdotes and first-hand accounts and rather lighter on analysis.

    One thing that I really appreciate about this book is that it doesn’t just focus on the famous elements of the war, it tries to provide as wide a view as possible. It begins, for example, not in the colonies but in England, where George III is having a celebration in Portsmouth. In fact, one of the book’s greatest strengths is its depiction of the English viewpoint, which is something that has been understandably forgotten in other accounts. And this focus on the forgotten elements of the war extends through the rest of the book as well. We get the expected accounts of Lexington and Concord (again, told largely from the British POV in a somewhat terrifying account of a march into the wild frontier of some backwards land), Bunker Hill, and New York, before ending with the battles of Trenton and Princeton. But we also get an account of the raising of armies in England and Ireland as well as TWO detailed chapters on the war in Canada. I’ve read a lot of books on the Revolution but I’ve never heard the siege of Quebec described in such detail. While it’s honestly not as exciting as the big name battles (and it sure undermines the gung-ho narrative of plucky freedom-fighters warring against tyranny) I appreciate the fact that we get a well-rounded look at the whole war.

    There are a few issues that I have. The chief one is that it’s prone to misusing quotes, or perhaps simply using the wrong ones. I enjoyed reading the contemporary excerpts. It’s always interesting to hear what participants thought of things. But he also feels the need to quote any turn of phrase that he finds particularly pithy. You can’t go two pages without seeing a sentence containing something like “ ‘the something of something’ as Historian put it.” I found it very grating. Consultation of a wide range of secondary sources is praiseworthy for a historian, but reproducing their every statement seems less like consultation and more like copying the selected highlights.

    In any event, the book is an excellent introduction to the wars of the American Revolution and manages to capture the feel of the period well. As a broad overview of the war it does its job superbly. Naturally, it has its limitations and has little time for broader social or cultural trends, nor do we get much of a feel for events outside the warzone except through the narrow lens of the king and prime minister. But as an account of the general course of the warfare it’s hard to beat. I look forward to the subsequent volumes.

  • Chris Farrell

    For those who are fans of Rick Atkinson’s tremendous Liberation Trilogy covering the US involvement in WWII, this may be slightly disappointing. In my opinion it’s not quite as good - the prose style isn’t super-tight, and I’ve become a bit disenchanted with the “historical present” voice that modern historians use to make history feel more immediate (did he use it in the Liberation Trilogy? I don’t remember it being as prominent).

    One of the things that was great about the Liberation Trilogy was

    For those who are fans of Rick Atkinson’s tremendous Liberation Trilogy covering the US involvement in WWII, this may be slightly disappointing. In my opinion it’s not quite as good - the prose style isn’t super-tight, and I’ve become a bit disenchanted with the “historical present” voice that modern historians use to make history feel more immediate (did he use it in the Liberation Trilogy? I don’t remember it being as prominent).

    One of the things that was great about the Liberation Trilogy was that it really leaned in to de-mythologizing WWII, particularly the US command structure which was often thoroughly mediocre. Patton in particular is a commander who, while competent, has a mythology far out of whack with his actual abilities and accomplishments. If there is any period of US history that could stand to be de-mythologized, the American Revolution is certainly it, and I was looking forward to something quite skeptical. While Atkinson is certainly dutiful and fairly rigorous, even he can’t *quite* escape the halo of myth that surrounds this.

    I think what amateur historians will appreciate here is the inclusion of many British sources, from soldier’s letters home to commanders’ letters and diaries and other primary documentation. At least here in the US, the British point of view is usually not well-represented. The on-the-ground perspective that many individuals had of this being a civil war rather than an revolution helps frame the conflict.

    Obviously I’m rating the book 5 stars - I did really enjoy it. The Liberation Trilogy was just so good that I had hoped for more, but this is still an excellent history of the American Revolution that provides context and perspective and is mostly dispassionate. I look forward to the next book in this trilogy.

  • Richard Subber

    Atkinson offers an appealing mix of academic rigor and entertaining prose. This is both a history and an expertly rendered story about the early stages of the American Revolutionary War.

    If you think you know a lot about this critical time during our history, read The British Are Coming to broaden your knowledge and your understanding. If you’re working at being a student of the Revolution, dig in.

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  • Lucas Brandl

    This book does an excellent job of covering the first few years of the Revolutionary War from all angles; British and American, General and foot soldier, military battles and political battles. I think the length is about right for such a formidable task. Key battles and characters are covered in detail without lingering too long on any one subject.

    With so many people featured, no one figure is covered at the length of an individual biography, but the essence of many individuals are captured. I

    This book does an excellent job of covering the first few years of the Revolutionary War from all angles; British and American, General and foot soldier, military battles and political battles. I think the length is about right for such a formidable task. Key battles and characters are covered in detail without lingering too long on any one subject.

    With so many people featured, no one figure is covered at the length of an individual biography, but the essence of many individuals are captured. I was particularly impressed by the depth that was provided on George Washington, who is often seen by historians as a bit steely and impenetrable. Washington went through a profound depression during the first few years of the war, and this is pulled into focus by some of the letters to his confidants that are quoted. He was commanding an army that was lacking men, supplies, order or experience. His ability was constantly questioned, and he made several costly mistakes in early battles. His life was constantly at risk and hope always felt nearly lost.

    One person that I would have liked to see a more thorough examination of was King George III. He is featured in the book, and his position on continuing the war and breaking the rebellious spirit is documented, but there seems like more going on psychologically with him than is explained. For instance, the author references that George started to get very into farming and purchased numerous books about it. I would have liked more explanation of his personal travails and interests, and how they may have influenced his decision making.

    The British side overall though is well covered, with detailed portrayals of General Howe and others. Although many Americans understand that the colonial army was greatly lacking in supplies and food, this book does a great job of highlighting some of the same issues for the British side. They essentially had to ship everything over the ocean, and ran into lots of problems doing so. Horses and men would be shipped over, and enormous percentages would die in transit. Other British challenges are given keen attention as well. The British truly had to find a way to win the war and crush the rebellious spirit of a fledgling nation, while the American side could win simply by not losing for long enough.

    Another thing I enjoyed about the book was the incredible quotes that were used, ranging from Kant, to Voltaire, to Adam Smith. The first-hand accounts about post-battle medical attention really enliven the severity of the combat. If I had one quibble about the quotes it would be that John Adams, although admittedly a quote machine, is possibly over-quoted. His writings are referenced disproportionately throughout the book, even though in many cases he is an outside observer.

    Overall though I found the book very enjoyable. I generally prefer biography to wide-ranging military history like this, but The British Are Coming is sufficiently well paced and shifting to stay interesting.

    Note: I received an advanced copy of this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

  • Tony

    Anyone who has read Rick Atkinson's

    will understand that when he begins another massive examination of another war, the reader must follow. And right away.

    And so, although I had not scheduled the Revolutionary War on my reading journey this year, and although the Revolutionary War is not

    war, I really had no choice but to read this immediately. I was not disappointed.

    This is a military history, but the story would not be complete without Ben Franklin's seducing the Fr

    Anyone who has read Rick Atkinson's

    will understand that when he begins another massive examination of another war, the reader must follow. And right away.

    And so, although I had not scheduled the Revolutionary War on my reading journey this year, and although the Revolutionary War is not

    war, I really had no choice but to read this immediately. I was not disappointed.

    This is a military history, but the story would not be complete without Ben Franklin's seducing the French. He is but one of many wonderfully drawn characters: Nathan Hale, Marie Antoinette, Beaumarchais, Ezra Lee (and the

    ), and Admiral Howe (

    ).

    And George Washington, of course. I was reminded of his many failures before he found genius. And also that he had survived smallpox, which many did not, the disease killing more than bullets did.

    Too, we think of this War as American Rebels versus British soldiers, but mostly the locals were fighting Germans. Thus, an American assault would be met with cries of

    I like the cadence of Atkinson's writing:

    . . . .

    And I like his understanding of military matters:

    This first volume tells the bleak opening battles and concludes with the victories at Trenton and Princeton. Game on. Near that end, Atkinson shares a

    letter from London to America, dated January 1, 1777:

    Or not. I can't wait to see how this turns out.

  • Ash Jogalekar

    When the British army of regulars captured American troops during the Battle of New York, they contemptuously noted how they were surprised to see so many ordinary people among them – tanners, brewers, farmers, metal workers, carpenters and the like. That observation in one sense summed up the difference between the British and American causes: a ragtag group of ordinary citizens with little battle experience pitted against a professional, experienced and disciplined army belonging to a nation t

    When the British army of regulars captured American troops during the Battle of New York, they contemptuously noted how they were surprised to see so many ordinary people among them – tanners, brewers, farmers, metal workers, carpenters and the like. That observation in one sense summed up the difference between the British and American causes: a ragtag group of ordinary citizens with little battle experience pitted against a professional, experienced and disciplined army belonging to a nation that then possessed the biggest empire since the Roman Empire. The latter were fighting for imperial power, the former for conducting an experiment in individual rights and freedom. The former improbably won.

    Rick Atkinson shows us how in this densely-packed, rousing military history of the first two years of the Revolutionary War. The Americans kept on foiling the British through a combination of brilliant tactical retreats, dogged determination, improvisation and faith in providence. His is primarily a military history that covers the opening salvo in Lexington and Concord to the engagements in Princeton and Trenton and Washington's legendary crossing of the frozen Delaware. However, there is enough observational detail on the social and political aspects of the conflict and the sometimes larger than life personalities involved to make it a broader history. The account could be supplemented with other political histories such as ones by Gordon Wood, Bernard Bailyn and Joseph Ellis to provide a fuller view of the politics and the personalities.

    Atkinson’s greatest strength is to bring an incredible wealth of detail to the narrative and pepper it with primary quotes from not just generals and soldiers but from ordinary men and women. His other big strength is logistical information. No detail seems to escape his eye; the number and tonnage of food and clothing provisions and shipping, sundry details of types of weapons, ships, beasts of burden and ammunition, the kinds of diseases riddling the camps and the medieval medicine used to treat them (some of them positively so - "oil of whelps" was a grotesque substance concocted from white wine, earthworms and the flesh of dogs boiled alive), ditties and plays that were being performed by the soldiers ("Clinton, Burgoyne, Howe, Bow, wow, wow"), the constantly-changing weather, the political machinations in Whitehall and the Continental Congress…the list goes on and on. Sometimes the overwhelming detail can be distracting – for instance do we need to know the exact number of blankets and weight of salt pork supplied during the eve of a particular battle? – but overall the dense statistics and detail have the effect of immersing the reader in the narrative.

    The major battles – Lexington and Bunker Hill, Long Island and Manhattan, Quebec and Ticonderoga, Charleston and Norfolk, Princeton and Trenton – are dissected with fine detail and rousing descriptions of men, material, the thrust and parry at the front and the desperation, disappointments, retreats and triumphs that often marked the field of battle. The writing can occasionally be almost hallucinatory: "Revere swung into the saddle and took off at a canter across Charlestown Neck, hooves striking sparks, rider and steed merged into a single elegant creature, bound for glory". The accounts of the almost unbelievably desperate and excruciating winter fighting and retreat in Canada are probably the highlights of the military narratives. Lesser-known conflicts in Virginia and South Carolina in which the British were squarely routed also get ample space. Particularly interesting is the improbable and self-serving slave uprising drummed up by Lord Dunmore, Virginia's governor, and the far-reaching fears that it inspired in the Southern Colonies. Epic quotes that have become part of American history are seen in a more circumspect light; for instance, it’s not clear who said “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes” during Bunker Hill, and instead of the famous “The British are coming” cry that is attributed to Paul Revere, it’s more likely that he said “The regulars are coming.” Also, the British army might have been experienced, but they too were constantly impacted by shortage of food and material, and this shortage was a major factor in many of their decisions, including the retreat from Boston. Brittania might have ruled the waves, but she wasn’t always properly nourished.

    The one lesson that is constantly driven home is how events that seem providential and epic now were so uncertain and riddled with improvisation and desperation when they happened; in that sense hindsight is always convenient. Atkinson makes us aware of the sheer miserable conditions the soldiers and generals lived in; the threadbare clothing which provided scant protection against the cold, the horrific smallpox, dysentery and other diseases which swept entire battle companies off the face of the planet without warning and the problems constantly posed by loyalists and deserters to American patriots. There were many opportunities for men to turn on one another, and yet we also see both friends and enemies being surprisingly humane toward each other. In many ways, it is Atkinson’s ability to provide insights across a wide cross-section of society, to make the reader feel the pain and uncertainty faced by ordinary men and women, that contribute to the uniqueness of his writing.

    Atkinson paints a sympathetic and sometimes heroic portrait of both British politicians and military leaders, but he also makes it clear how clueless, bumbling and misguided they were when it came to understanding the fundamental DNA of the colonies, their frontier spirit, their Enlightenment thinking and their very different perception of their relationship with Britain. A excellent complement to Atkinson’s book for understanding British political miscalculations leading up to the war would be Nick Bunker’s “An Empire on the Edge”. While primarily not a study of personality, Atkinson’s portraits of American commanders George Washington, Benedict Arnold, Henry Knox, Charles Lee, Israel Putnam and British commanders William and Richard Howe, George Clinton, Guy Carleton and others are crisp and vivid. Many of these commanders led their men and accomplished remarkable feats through cold and disease, in the wilderness and on the high seas; others like American John Sullivan in Canada and Briton George Clinton in Charleston could be remarkably naive and clueless in judging enemy strength and resolve. Atkinson also dispels some common beliefs; for instance, while the rank and file were indeed generally inexperienced, there were plenty of more senior officers including Washington who had gained good fighting experience in the ten-year-old French and Indian War. As a general, Washington’s genius was to know when to retreat, to make the enemy fight a battle of attrition, to inspire and scold when necessary, and somehow to keep this ragtag group fighting men and their logistical support together, emerging as a great leader in the process. He was also adept at carefully maneuvering the levers of Congress and to keep driving home the great need for ammunition, weapons and ordinary provision through a mixture of cajoling and appeals to men’s better angels.

    For anyone wanting a detailed and definitive military history of the Revolutionary War, Atkinson’s book is highly recommended. It gives an excellent account of the military details of the “glorious cause” and it paints a convincing account of the sheer improbability and capriciousness of its success.

  • Sean Smart

    A masterful detailed account and the first volume in Atkinson’s planned series of Histories of the American Revolution/American War of Independence.

    My only small issue was a perceived bias of the American author for the American rebels.

    It seemed at times that the British were all fools and or rogues and all the Americans were fighting the British despite some references to Loyalists, when most figures show one third of Americans were rebels, one third were Loyalists and one third tried to stay n

    A masterful detailed account and the first volume in Atkinson’s planned series of Histories of the American Revolution/American War of Independence.

    My only small issue was a perceived bias of the American author for the American rebels.

    It seemed at times that the British were all fools and or rogues and all the Americans were fighting the British despite some references to Loyalists, when most figures show one third of Americans were rebels, one third were Loyalists and one third tried to stay neutral. And when the rebels won the war they burned out many of their Loyalist neighbours who resettled in British Canada.

    So a good but heavy read. I look forward to the next volumes.

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