Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence
by John Ferling, Oxford University Press, New York, 2007, $29.95.
To senior historian John Ferling, the American Revolution was a race to see which side would lose first. Throughout the aptly titled Almost a Miracle, he remains sharply critical of actors on both sides of the conflict. A case in point is the 1777 Pennsylvania campaign. Ferling describes British General Howe’s sluggishness after landing in Pennsylvania, negating any advantage he might have achieved through surprise. Meanwhile he charges George Washington with throwing away victory at Germantown by committing too many resources to an assault on the Chew House.
Although Ferling served as professor of history at the University of West Georgia for more than 30 years, his work here involves popular, not academic, history. To anyone who follows the scholarly debates over the American Revolution, the word “Republicanism” may seem oddly absent. Ferling presents a narrative of the military side of the conflict in this companion volume to his Leap in the Dark, which addressed the political aspects of the struggle. Throughout Almost a Miracle, Ferling eschews analysis. The figures of the American Revolution emerge through descriptions and asides. For instance, when describing the escape of Washington’s army from Brooklyn in 1776, Ferling wryly comments that “in the singular lemon-yellow light made by the sun and fog, the Continentals completed the operation, an extraordinary undertaking that succeeded through a mixture of rare decisiveness, careful and shrewd planning, and good fortune.” This engaging account will prove an antidote to any reader inclined toward an overly triumphal or determinist view of the American Revolution.
At times, the absence of analysis is felt. For instance, after a fine job of describing the pivotal Battle of Saratoga and British surrender, Ferling ends the chapter with a scene of officers from both armies settling down to a meal together. This marvelous scene would have benefited from reflection on its significance, an opportunity Ferling passes up.
In a discussion of the career of General Howe, Ferling ascribes his cautious generalship, especially his tendency to shrink from attacking entrenched American positions, to the hold of the disastrous Battle of Bunker Hill on Howe’s imagination. That explanation is adequate but begs the question, Why didn’t Howe devise more creative solutions to operational problems? Eighteenth century British military history held several excellent examples of how to force an opponent out of a fortified position, including General Wolfe’s landing at Anse-Aux-Foulons near Quebec in 1759. The latter was certainly familiar to Howe: He commanded the first troops to land in the assault. Rather than exploring Howe’s caution at all, the author might have considered why a fear of taking casualties produced inaction from Howe.
The final chapter of the book is quite interesting but regrettably short, especially when one considers the length of this book. Ferling offers an explanation of America’s victory, which is well encapsulated by the statement, “nothing was foreordained about the outcome of this war.” He does conclude that America was lucky to have George Washington as commander-in-chief.
Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.