In many ways the American Revolution was unavoidable. Given the struggle to control the resources and riches of these British colonies, armed conflict was an eventuality that could have been foreseen with a little imagination. Britain’s North American colonies offered riches too extensive and necessary to the growth of empire.
The House of Hanover had ruled England since 1714; by 1774 George III ruled an empire that surpassed even Rome’s in territory and wealth. But this expansion had come about in no small way because of war. Britain had defeated France and Spain in the Seven Years’ War, acquiring Canada from the French and Florida from Spain. But victory came at a staggering cost, sending the British national debt to £132.6 million, the equivalent of more than £11 billion today. Even the annual cost of maintaining 7,500 British troops in America to protect newly acquired assets came to £225,000 annually (19.6 million in today’s pounds). Parliament paid for it all by raising taxes on the British people. By the war’s end, land taxes consumed 25 percent of property owners’ income.
This situation couldn’t continue, and it didn’t. Parliament and George III reasoned it was now time to get the colonists to pay up for the British navy protecting American trade and the British army protecting the peace with Indian tribes along the frontier. “A typical American…paid no more than sixpence a year,” writes Atkinson, “compared to the average Englishman’s 25 shillings—a ratio of one to fifty.” Offsetting this minor tax burden for the colonials was the realization that they had no representation in the English parliament.
Matters did not go well. A series of taxes passed from 1765 through 1773 compelled the colonists to pay duties on glass, copper, iron castings, paper, stamps, and a host of other commodities, most memorably tea. The colonists consumed over 1 million pounds of tea per year, and the crown was not going to take a pass on the revenue this consumption produced. “No taxation without representation!” was not just a colonial philosophical belief, but a battle cry. On the evening of Dec. 16, 1773, a large number of men boarded three British ships laden with tea. They dumped all 45 tons of it into Boston Harbor. A New York businessman, Robert Murray, approached British Prime Minister Lord North with an offer to pay for all the destroyed tea, hoping to prevent an armed response. North was more interested in punishing the colonies and discouraging further acts of insurrection, and turned him down.
Parliament debated how to respond to the increasingly seditious conduct of the Americans. Finally, on Feb. 7, 1775, the House of Commons passed by a vote of 288 to 105 a resolution asking the King to declare Massachusetts in rebellion and urging that all measures be taken to subdue the colony. Shortly after, Benjamin Franklin left London after almost 15 years there as an American lobbyist and diplomat. Less than two months after his departure, British and American troops were exchanging gunfire at Concord. Going to war is never an easy or inexpensive activity. When your country is a collection of loosely knit colonies with no national army or navy and you’ve decided to pick a fight with the largest and most powerful empire in the world, your commitment had better be complete. In the view of some historians, only about a third of Americans supported rebellion, while another third were loyalists and the remaining third largely indifferent.
War with America had major economic consequences, particularly for English merchants. The colonists bought up to 20 percent of British manufactured goods, a fourth of all the white salt England produced, a third of its refined sugar, and at least two thirds of its iron nails.
Consider the new challenges the colonists immediately faced upon the outbreak of war:
1) They had to organize an army and a navy, and chains of command for each, while determining what type of units they needed: how many infantry and artillery battalions, how many cavalry squadrons, etc. 2) They had to find locations to station troops and decide when and where they would train them. 3) Enlistment contracts had to be drafted, the length of which would depend on their war plan. How many years did they envision fighting to achieve independence? 4) The army and navy had to be supplied with weapons, ammunition, food, uniforms, medical supplies; the army with wagons, horses, etc.; the navy with vessels. 5) Congress had to devise a way to pay for it all.
The first clashes of arms occurred at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. These were the first of 1,300 battles fought in all 13 colonies and as far north as Montreal and Quebec. The revolution they started would not end for 3,059 days and would claim (estimates vary widely) between 25,000 and 35,000 American lives.
British forces were dispatched from Boston in an attempt to seize a cache of arms they had reliably been told the rebels had hidden in Concord; they were also trying to capture John Hancock and Samuel Adams. Opposing forces met at Lexington at dawn on April 19 and the fighting would continue until the rebels forced a British withdrawal. Harassing rebel fire increased British casualties during the retreat, and the redcoats would eventually count 73 dead and almost 300 total casualties.
The action at Concord and Lexington raised morale among the colonists; British survivors came away with a new respect for these rebels: “Whoever looks upon them as an irregular mob will find himself very much mistaken,” wrote Brigadier General Hugh Percy to General Harvey, the British army adjutant general in London. Lieutenant Frederick Mackenzie of the 23rd Regiment of Foot said of his rebel foes, “They have men among them who know very well what they are about.”
The British Are Coming is thoroughly researched, and in reading it one encounters many interesting facts. For example, the shooting accuracy of American troops was horrible; the Americans fired at least 75,000 rounds at Concord and Lexington, “using well over a ton of powder, but only one bullet in almost three hundred had hit home. The shot heard round the world likely missed.” The sheer volume of information Atkinson has mined from hundreds of sources is breathtaking. In this volume, the first of a trilogy, he covers action from the start of the war at Lexington to January 1777 at the Battle of Princeton. Atkinson includes more than 130 pages of footnotes, 46 pages of source citations, and a 20-page index, providing more than enough material for further study. Additionally, 24 well-illustrated maps of the various battles chart the ebb and flow of operations.
Despite these positives, the book could still use some improvements. Two things come to mind: first his use of flowery language that verges upon poetic license. For example, in one bit of stage setting, he writes, “Outside the south windows, autumn colors tinted the elm trees and the distant Charles glistened with a pewter hue.” How would the author know this? Later he writes, “Stars smeared the sky on this blessed night, but rheumatics could feel in their bones that a winter storm was coming.” It’s hard for me to believe that there were many rheumatics in either the British or American armies—though perhaps they were kept handy for their weather forecasting abilities. Atkinson has here fallen prey to the temptations of many who write history: they attempt to cross over from history to historical fiction. Atkinson has unearthed a trove of fascinating facts and he needn’t embellish his prose in this fashion.
Atkinson’s work as an historian clearly benefits from his familial background and early interest in the military. He was born in Munich, Germany, where his father was a U.S. Army officer. While in high school, Atkinson received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, which he declined. With his interest in military history and an obvious affinity for soldiers, I have no doubt that he would have made a fine officer. The U.S. Army’s loss was the genre of historical nonfiction’s gain, as he went on to establish his name and reputation as an author and scholar with several best-selling books, including An Army at Dawn, The Day of Battle, and The Long Gray Line. His latest work proves that he deserves his outstanding reputation.
[The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777 by Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt & Co.) 800 pp., $40.00.]