John Ferling, professor emeritus from the University of West Georgia and author of several other books on politics and political figures in the Revolutionary and New Nation eras, has produced a work of mature scholarship that reflects a lifetime of study and lecturing and offers a highly readable and comprehensive military history of our War of Independence. Ferling knows his subject both generally and in depth, and communicates his knowledge to the reader with a facile pen and an eye for that which is significant. In nearly 600 pages of text, there is not a wasted line or a redundancy. I can fault him only for the few things he omitted—something inescapable when writing a one-volume study on a war that spanned nearly a decade and included battles on land and sea, large and small, conventional and irregular.
Although there is not much new information in this volume, Ferling’s contribution is nonetheless significant. He synthesizes the best information from many individual monographs and primary documents; includes the British perspective, both strategic and tactical, on all battles and describes their officers and men in engaging and intimate detail; provides maps and battle descriptions that are geared to the general reader; and reveals the foibles, follies, corruption, and dereliction of duty on the part of both the British and the Americans, as well as their brilliance, courage, integrity, and perseverance. Most of all, Ferling discusses with thoroughness the many forays, skirmishes, and battles conducted in the South that are often treated perfunctorily or neglected by general histories having, as often is the case, a New England and New York bias. Ferling even argues that the course of the war in the South ultimately determined the outcome of the conflict. This may be a stretch, yet the argument is well reasoned and does not lack for evidence.
Ferling contends it was miraculous that the British did not crush the Americans rebels in 1776—David McCullough says the same thing in his superb 1776—and that the New England colonies, or, by then, states, were essentially independent by 1778. From then on, the war was fought in the Mid-Atlantic and Southern states. Ferling argues, as many others have, that an aggressive and decisive British general—William Howe was neither—and coordinated actions, North and South and on land and on sea, could have won the war for England during the first two years of battle. However, the British forces lacked unity of command and coordinated battle plans. This provided Washington the luxury of learning from his mistakes and emerging from Valley Forge, despite terrible suffering and losses, with a real army.
After Washington’s glorious victory in the Battle of Monmouth in June 1778, the British decided on a Southern strategy aimed at Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia. Ferling says that it was only by the narrowest of margins that they failed.
The South suffered terribly. While nearly every American can describe the Boston Massacre, where five Americans were killed by the British, few can describe the Waxhaw Massacre, where a hundred Americans were butchered after they had surrendered. The horrific slaughter began when a British force led by Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton overtook a retreating American force under the command of Col. Abraham Buford in the rolling hill country of the Waxhaw on the border of North and South Carolina. Tarleton’s charging cavalry broke through the single American defensive line, hastily assembled by the brave but tactically inept Buford. Dozens of Americans were killed, and, hopelessly scattered and poorly led, those who remained alive threw up their arms in surrender and asked for quarter. Buford even waved a white flag. No matter. Tarleton’s cavalrymen slashed their way through the Americans, hacking off limbs and heads. In his after-action report, Tarleton wrote, “I have cut 170 Off’rs and Men to pieces.” The Americans suffered a total of 260 casualties, 75 percent of their force. Tarleton was known from then on as “Bloody Ban” or “Butcher Tarleton,” and “Tarleton’s Quarter” became a rallying cry for American rebels.
Tarleton fought through to the end of the war, failing to capture Francis Marion, his principal foe, contributing to the British victory at the Battle of Camden, and having his force nearly annihilated at the Battle of Cowpens. Tarleton was with Cornwallis at the surrender at Yorktown. When the formalities of the surrender were concluded, Washington invited all the British officers except one to join him and his American officers to dine together. The one exception was Banastre Tarleton. Ferling, who is not particularly harsh in his treatment of Tarleton, does not mention this fact.
The Waxhaw Massacre did much to rally the South and directly inspired Americans at the Battle of Kings Mountain. The British knew that the trans-Appalachian country was full of rebels, and Maj. Patrick Ferguson issued an edict calling for the frontiersmen to lay down their arms or he would “march over the mountains, hang their leader, and lay their country waste with fire and sword.” This did nothing but inflame rebel militia leaders with the surnames Campbell, Clarke, McDowell, Sevier, Williams, Shelby, McKessack, and Winston, defiant Scotch-Irishmen who bent the knee to no man. Six-foot-six and red-haired William Campbell, Patrick Henry’s brother-in-law, was chosen commander of the frontier force. He decided that if anyone were to “march over the mountains,” it would be he and his boys—and on they came with a suddenness that surprised Ferguson.
Instead of advancing, Ferguson now took up a defensive position atop King’s Mountain. He had more than a thousand well-armed men, all Loyalists. The frontiersmen, some 900 strong, let out a whoop and came up the mountain, firing and then hiding behind rocks and trees to reload. Their advance never slowed, even though Ferguson sent his men into the rebels with bayonet charges. The rifle fire of the frontiersmen was stunningly accurate and deadly. Finally, Ferguson himself, astride a horse, was riddled with rebel bullets and toppled to the ground, dead. Loyalists threw down their arms and pleaded for mercy. The frontiersmen responded by yelling, “Tarleton’s Quarter!” and continued to fire until their officers put an end to the slaughter. Ferguson’s force suffered 320 casualties. The frontiersmen lost 90 killed or wounded. Theodore Roosevelt, in The Winning of the West, called the battle “the turning point of the war.” His assertion is open to debate, but the battle certainly was the turning point of the war in the South.
While many histories written by those in academe today are more politically correct than accurate, Ferling’s work only occasionally diverges from the straight scoop. He discusses black participation in the war but does not exaggerate the role of blacks. It has become de rigueur in the academy, and in newspapers and magazines, to say that blacks made up 20 percent or more of the rebel forces. How such nonsense is perpetuated is beyond me. Ferling notes that
the number of African Americans serving before 1778 remained small, likely no more than a few score. Their numbers increased dramatically during the last couple of years of the war to about 5% in the Continental Army but remained negligible in the state militias.
Ferling does say that blacks could possibly have made up ten percent of the Continental Army in the final days, but admits this is speculation and offers no evidence.
Although Ferling spends several pages focusing on blacks among the rebel soldiers, he curiously gives only a few lines of text to the Irish. Yet they are lines that seem to demand pages of discussion. “The army boasted a ‘German Battalion,’” says Ferling,
and almost 50 percent of the men in some Pennsylvania regiments were Irish immigrants. In 1779, Joseph Galloway told Parliament, “about one-half of the Rebel Army was Irish.” While he exaggerated, he correctly discerned that many Continental soldiers were what Private Martin derisively called “lowbred Europeans, especially Irishmen.”
That is all that Ferling says about the Irish, although they outnumbered blacks by at least six or seven to one in the Continental Army and probably ten to one overall.
More disturbing is Ferling’s omission of two of the war’s greatest heroes, John Barry and Timothy Murphy, both, perhaps not coincidentally, Irish. Born in County Wexford, Barry became known as the “Father of the Navy.” An imposing figure who stood 6’4″, he first led American Marines on land in several battles while waiting for the ships that he would command, Lexington and then Alliance, to be built. Among his feats at sea were the capture of two British warships and the sinking of several smaller armed British ships, and the defeat of the British in the final action at sea, the Battle of Cape Canaveral. When the United States Navy was organized, Barry became her first commanding officer and was given Commission Number One.
Timothy Murphy could be called the “Man Who Won the War.” Born in Pennsylvania to parents who had emigrated from County Donegal, Murphy was a frontier marksman second to none. At 250 yards, he could blow a seven-inch target to shreds. At the Second Battle of Saratoga (aka the Battle of Bemis Heights), Murphy fired incredibly long shots that killed two British commanders, Gen. Simon Fraser and Sir Francis Clerke, and caused the British, in complete disarray, to flee the field of battle. This victory convinced the French, whose aid was critical, to join the American cause. Murphy continued to serve with distinction until the end of the war. In 1929, when the state of New York erected a monument to Murphy, Gov. Franklin Roosevelt declared:
This country has been made by Timothy Murphys, the men in the ranks. Conditions here called for the qualities of the heart and head that Tim Murphy had in abundance. Our histories should tell us more of the men in the ranks, for it was to them, more than to the generals, that we were indebted for our military victories.
Throughout Almost a Miracle, Ferling strives to tell the story of the men in the ranks. Although he devotes a good deal of attention to the Second Battle of Saratoga, he fails to mention Timothy Murphy, saying only that the commanding British officers were shot by American “snipers.”
The omissions of Timothy Murphy and of John Barry are glaring. Nonetheless, unless one’s Gaelic blood is boiling, these are small quibbles with a finely crafted, fluidly written, and thoroughly documented military history of the American War of Independence. A one-volume study could not be much better.
[Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence, by John Ferling (New York: Oxford University Press) 679 pp., $29.95]