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.)

  • Melissa Dee

    Rick Atkinson’s flair for the colorful detail of a country at war is demonstrated again in “The British are Coming”. I’ve long been a fan of Atkinson, and his “Liberation Trilogy”, and am delighted that he has brought his research and writing talents to the early battles of the Revolutionary War in Volume 1 of the Revolution Trilogy.

    Atkinson brings the horror and glory of battle vividly to life with quotes from the actors themselves, from the lowliest to the the most exalted. His descriptions of

    Rick Atkinson’s flair for the colorful detail of a country at war is demonstrated again in “The British are Coming”. I’ve long been a fan of Atkinson, and his “Liberation Trilogy”, and am delighted that he has brought his research and writing talents to the early battles of the Revolutionary War in Volume 1 of the Revolution Trilogy.

    Atkinson brings the horror and glory of battle vividly to life with quotes from the actors themselves, from the lowliest to the the most exalted. His descriptions of George Washington, for example, are drawn from the writings of the man himself, as well as American and British contemporaries. Of particular interest to me was the section on Franklin in Paris.

    I very much look forward to the next two volumes.

    I voluntarily read and reviewed an advanced copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

  • Sarah

    This book is the first of a trilogy of the American Revolution. I am reading it aloud with my sister, we haven't finished it yet (are halfway through), but I want to write a review now as I know the book is just being released and I want to recommend it. We are really enjoying it.

    The book takes you chapter by chapter through the war, each usually focusing on a different place either in America or other countries (Canada and Britain). The book takes you, in a detailed way, through the war. Focus

    This book is the first of a trilogy of the American Revolution. I am reading it aloud with my sister, we haven't finished it yet (are halfway through), but I want to write a review now as I know the book is just being released and I want to recommend it. We are really enjoying it.

    The book takes you chapter by chapter through the war, each usually focusing on a different place either in America or other countries (Canada and Britain). The book takes you, in a detailed way, through the war. Focusing on various battles, moving you around the scope of the war so that you can observe the various conflicts, battles and political discussions and decisions in various places and on both sides of the conflict.

    The author introduces you to various people involved, Including Franklin, Washington, Adams, and men on the other side, like King George III, Generals Gage, Howe, Carleton and Burgoyne. And you don't just get acquainted with the famous people, also lesser known people, some of whom live and some of whom die.

    Atkinson is an excellent writer. While keeping a high level overview of the history, he still manages to pull you in and make you feel for the people involved and, in a way, makes you feel that you are viewing events with them. I think that part of how he manages to pull that off is because he peppers his sentences and paragraphs with snippet quotations from official documents and the writings (from letters and diaries) of individual people of that era, contemporary eyewitnesses and commentators. He'll of often start a sentence off in his own words and then conclude it, or intersperse it, with snippet quotes from a person involved. Here are a couple of samples:

    "Books and manuscripts fed British stoves, and many officers agreed with Captain Glanville Evelyn, who told his father he hoped all of Boston burned 'that we may be enabled to leave it.'"

    "Prescott was among the last to escape, 'stepping long, with his sword up,' parrying bayonet thrusts that snagged his banyan but not his flesh. Peter brown scrambled over the wall and ran for half a mile; musket balls, he told his mother, 'few like hail stones' Captain Bancroft fought his way out, first with a musket butt, then with his fists, bullets nicking his hat and coat and shearing off his left forefinger. Corporal Farnsworth of Groton would tell his diary, 'I received a wound in my right arm…'"

    It was fascinating to observe the actions and thoughts on both sides of the conflict. As I said, this book is very interesting. Seeing the big picture and learning about the little details as well. It was really hitting me, perhaps more than ever before, that waging war back then was a really tough thing to do. Not only did one have to make sure one was supplied well with arms, munition, food, clothing..etc. But also one had to battle the elements and disease. One of the biggest enemies of the Americans was the Smallpox. It really started devastating the American troops in Canada, it was horrible reading about how they couldn't help the people dying of smallpox, lying in their dying moments infested with maggots and other vermin. It was simply horrible thinking about dying like that. The men had to battle unique individual ailments as well. Such as kidney stones and headaches. It's funny…I never really thought about that before, that a headache or an attack of kidney stones could take key officers out of a battle, or just make it much harder to deal with the pressures they already faced. It's sort of a 'duh' thought, but I had just not considered it before.

    Many other little details were fascinating too. Even lists of things were interesting. Lists of stockpiles of food and supplies, lists of dumped and destroyed things (so that the enemy couldn't utilize it). And then other details, for instance, apparently Benjamin Franklin had advocated that the military use the Longbow, which struck me as odd at first, but then made more sense because it took the guns of the day so long to be loaded. His proposal was rejected though. And then, as I believe I've mentioned, the authors include mentions of many people's opinions and perspectives from that time period, even briefly mentioning one man in particular whom I never quite associated with the events in America, the preacher John Wesley. He was against the Americans but not sure about using force to bring them around. Things like that just made it seem more real.

    There are bits that are somewhat funny as well, like this snippet: "The western riflemen typically wore deerskin trousers and leaf-dyed hunting shirts, with a buck's tail affixed to the hat and a scalping knife sheathed on the belt. Many had 'liberty or death' printed in large white script over their hearts, although one young rifleman admitted to preferring 'liberty or wounded'."

    Anyway, I should end this now as I want to recommend this book, not write a book about it myself. All in all, this book is very, very interesting and informative. Quite an intriguing learning experience.

    Many thanks to the folks at Henry Holt (via a LibraryThing giveaway) for sending me a free advanced review copy of this book (My review did not have to be favorable). Since my copy was an advanced copy, the content of the published version may not be exactly the same as the copy I have.

    *Some people may want to know that there is some foul language and blasphemy in this book (Mainly from direct quotations of people at the time). Also, I did not agree with all of the author's political views (For instance, his comment that American's had and have a "penchant for subjugating those deemed in need of deliverance"?. But I am able to overlook it and focus on the history.

  • 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

  • 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.

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