The West Point History of the American Revolution

The West Point History of the American Revolution

United States Military Academy, eds. Samuel J. Watson, Ty Seidule, and Clifford J. Rogers

Simon & Schuster, New York, 2017, 320 pages

Book Review published on: January 5, 2018

The West Point History of the American Revolution continues the United States Military Academy’s excellent “History of Warfare Series” in examining how a poorly trained, inexperienced, and disorganized militia defeated one of the most formidable imperial armies in the world. This welcome addition to the study of America military history is the result of West Point’s goal to provide its cadets with the best military history texts ever created. Renowned military historians Samuel J. Watson, Ty Seidule, and Clifford J. Rogers explain the military and political background of the American Revolution, offer compelling insights into the military leadership of George Washington, and explain in detail why Great Britain lost the war.

The West Point History of the American Revolution goes beyond traditional literature of the conflict that focuses on battles and leaders to examine events, issues, and the attitudes of the American colonists and their British brethren. Watson provides an informative overview of colonial life, the nature of warfare, and the growing importance of the thirteen colonies for the British Empire. In assessing the myriad of causes leading to the American Revolution, he concludes that it ultimately resulted from a quarrel over sovereignty and taxes. Britons were paying far higher taxes than colonists were as a percentage of income, but the colonists perceived they were not equally represented in Parliament. It was this perceived lack of political representation that manifested in the Boston Tea Party and the War of the Regulation. Watson observes that the revolution could have been prevented if Parliament would have simply provided direct representation to the colonies.

Contributor Edward G. Lengel challenges the traditional narrative that Washington was a Fabian leader who sought to preserve his army while wearing down the British army through guerilla tactics. He counters that Washington sought to take the war to the enemy and force a quick end to the conflict. He reminds us that the odds were stacked against Washington when he assumed command of the Continental army following Bunker Hill. The army, more accurately a mob at that time, simply lacked the leadership, equipment, weapons, uniforms, and disciple required to meet the British army in battle. Washington quickly implemented changes in training, discipline, and organization in realizing his vision for the Continental army. It was during the dark days at Valley Forge that Washington’s vision was effectuated by Gen. Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben as he developed the professional army we know today. And, he was able to transform this mob into a viable fighting force all the while engaged in combat with the British army and their Hessian mercenaries. Lengel attributes Valley Forge as a turning point for the Continental army.

The West Point History of the American Revolution suffers from the curse of the grand narrative in describing the war in the southern states. Conway does an excellent job describing the British army’s Southern Strategy but is remiss in describing the dire situation facing the patriot’s cause in 1780. The British army’s capture of Charleston and its victory at Camden freed Gen. Charles Cornwallis to begin operations in North Carolina. It was the efforts of Francis Marion, Andrew Pickens, and Thomas Sumter that effectively disrupted the Southern Strategy, compelling Cornwallis back into South Carolina to address the threat posed to his lines of communication and British efforts to pacify the state. These three men kept the spirit of the patriot cause alive in South Carolina long after the Continental army had been defeated and chased out of the state.

The West Point History of the American Revolution’s strength is the use of illustrations, vignettes, and in-depth analysis of key battles, opposing strategies, and the militaries involved. It reminds us that the American Revolution evolved into a truly international conflict, drawing in most notably the French, Spanish, Dutch, and German forces to create a republic that changed the course of history. The authors attribute the inclusion of France, Spain, and Holland joining the patriot cause as the decisive factor in winning our war for independence. This work is highly readable and provides a comprehensive examination of the American Revolution. It would be an excellent addition to the library of any historian, student with an interest on the revolution, and to the West Point series on American wars.

Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas