In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown, by Nathaniel Philbrick, Viking Books, New York, 2018, $30
As the American Revolutionary War dragged on, General George Washington became increasingly concerned about securing the resources necessary to strike a decisive blow against the British. He was continually confounded by a lack of materiel, men and the means required to take on the world’s premier military power. Washington was especially frustrated by the lack of naval support promised by the United States’ French allies. He pleaded with Admirals Charles-Henri-Hector d’Estaing and François-Joseph-Paul de Grasse to pressure the British, who controlled America’s shores and reinforced the land armies hounding Washington and his ragtag militias.
A series of catastrophic hurricanes in the Caribbean in 1780 changed the whole equation. The storms decimated the French fleet, forcing it to relocate to safer waters along the East Coast during hurricane season. Nathaniel Philbrick’s dazzling new book details how that disastrous weather in turn enabled the American general to unleash his own military brilliance and spring a trap on the overconfident Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis.
It comes as no surprise that Philbrick has chosen to chronicle the naval contributions that led to the Yorktown victory. He has written extensively on maritime history, including his mesmerizing In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whale Ship Essex. Here he wholeheartedly dives into the nautical maneuvering of the Battle of the Chesapeake that finally gave Washington his chance.
Philbrick’s exhaustive research into the events leading to Yorktown cast new light on Washington’s value as a strategic military planner and his understanding of naval warfare. In his compelling narrative the author relates how the American commander struggled, given inadequate resources and manpower, to develop an overarching approach to fighting the British. Along the way he uncovers forgotten nuggets of history in the United States’ fight to secure independence. One such jewel is the role of Francisco Saavedra de Sangronis, Spain’s key official in the Caribbean. His efforts to provide Spanish ships for a combined assault on the British, and his ability to secure a large loan so the French fleet could continue north to Virginia, were crucial steps toward the resolution at the Battle of Yorktown.
In the Hurricane’s Eye is a thoroughly enjoyable account of the moment that allowed the United States to morph from rebellious territory into an independent nation. It is another Philbrick masterpiece that will engage and entertain readers for generations.
—David D. Kindy