The British Are Coming
The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777
Henry Holt, New York, 2019, 800 pages
Book Review published on: July 19, 2019
Rick Atkinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of An Army at Dawn, is acclaimed for his deeply researched, stunningly vivid narrative histories. The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777, is the extraordinary first volume of Atkinson’s greatly anticipated trilogy about the American Revolution. In this book, Atkinson masterfully weaves the big picture with events and interesting historical tidbits, providing the most engaging work on the American Revolution from 1775-1777.
The British Are Coming goes beyond traditional literature that focuses on battles and leaders and instead examines events, issues, and attitudes of the colonists and their British brethren. Atkinson provides an informative overview of colonial life, nature of warfare, and the growing importance of the thirteen colonies for the British Empire. He informs us that the war was not a spontaneous event but was long in coming. In assessing the myriad of causes leading to the American Revolution, Atkinson writes that quarrels over sovereignty and taxes are the issues that resulted in a revolution. Britons were paying far higher taxes than colonists as a percentage of income, but colonists perceived they were not equally represented in British Parliament. It was the perceived lack of political representation that sparked the Boston Tea Party and the parliament’s retaliation following it. London’s hope of isolating Boston as a pariah only galvanized the colonists’ resistance, empowering radicals and further converting neutrals and moderates to the cause. Atkinson compels the reader in considering if the American Revolution could have been prevented if the British Parliament would have simply provided direct representation to the thirteen colonies.
Atkinson’s exhaustive research of the recently available unpublished papers of King George III indicates a ruler far more involved in the planning and execution of the Revolutionary War than previously believed. Addressing parliament following the Battles of Lexington and Concord, George III stressed that an independent America would be “a dangerous rival” to the British Empire. Furthermore, he asserted that it would have been better for England that America had never been known than that a great consolidated American empire should exist independent of Britain. Atkinson’s research describes George III intimately involved in all aspects of Britain’s military efforts in the colonies to include an organizational chart of America with regimental and artillery battery icons depicting their locations.
Atkinson gives the reader several “what ifs” to consider. British forces remained under incessant firing during the fifteen-mile retreat from Lexington and Concord. British Lt. Gen. Hugh Percy’s fortuitous decision to head toward Charlestown instead of crossing the only bridge over Charles River to reach Roxbury and Boston Neck saved the British force from destruction. A large patriot force had tossed the bridge planks into the Charles River and militiamen waited in ambush behind barricades. According to Atkinson, a senior British general later stated, “There would have been an end that day of British government in America.”
Another “what if” occurred days following the retreat of British forces from Lexington and Concord. During the British army’s planning for the Battle of Bunker Hill, British Gen. Henry Clinton’s recommendation was to conduct a surprise flank attack as British Lt. Gen. Thomas Gage executed a frontal assault. This would have severed the American’s line of retreat, trapping patriot forces on the peninsula where they would have been defeated. However, Gage disapproved Clinton’s request, fearing separated British forces would be defeated in detail.
Atkinson reminds us that the odds were stacked against George Washington when he assumed command of the Continental army following the Battle of Bunker Hill. The army, more accurately a mob or coalition of forces from several states, simply lacked the leadership, organization, equipment, weapons, uniforms, and discipline required to meet the British army in battle. The lack of weapons, gunpowder, and lead bullets should have alone stopped the Continental army before it started. However, Washington had a vision for the Continental army and quickly created a staff and implemented changes in training, discipline, and organization. Thus, Washington was able to transform this army into a viable fighting force all the while engaged in combat with the British army and their Hessian mercenaries. Washington was simply larger than life.
The strength of The British Are Coming is its use of illustrations, period factoids, personalities, and in-depth analysis of key battles, opposing strategies, and the militaries involved. Atkinson reminds us that America’s victory was truly a miracle. The book is highly readable and provides a comprehensive examination of the American Revolution from the beginning until the Battle of Princeton. This would be an excellent addition to the library of any historian and student with an interest in the Revolutionary War.
Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas