‘The British Are Coming’: acclaimed history writer Rick Atkinson turns to the American Revolutionary War

  • “The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill, June 17, 1775,” 1786 oil painting by John Trumbull. American forces gave the British an unexpected black eye in the battle in modern-day Charlestown. Boston Museum of Fine Arts/public domain

  • Rick Atkinson, author of the World War II series The Liberation Trilogy, has turned to the American Revolutionary War in his newest book, the first of a new trilogy. Photo by Elliot O’Donovan/Facebook

  • “The British Are Coming” is the first volume of a trilogy on the American Revolutionary War by popular historian Rick Atkinson.

  • “Forcing a Passage of the Hudson River, 9 October 1776,” oil painting by Thomas Mitchell, circa late 1700s. British naval power led to a decisive American defeat in the battles in and around New York City. National Maritime Museum, England/public domain

  • “Battle of Long Island,” 1858 oil painting by Alonzo Chappel. British forces routed American troops in August 1776 in this battle, which took place in modern-day Brooklyn, N.Y. Public domain

  • “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” 1851 oil painting by Emanuel Leutze. American forces, after months of defeat, launched a successful surprise attack on Hessian troops in Trenton, New Jersey the day after Christmas 1776.   Metropolitan Museum of Art/public domain

  • A 1775 engraving by Amos Doolittle of British troops marching in Concord, Massachusetts, where the revolutionary war began in earnest on April 19, 1775. New York Public Library/public domain

Staff Writer
Thursday, August 29, 2019

Between 2002 and 2013, Rick Atkinson won widespread praise for The Liberation Trilogy, his three books about the U.S. military’s experience in Europe during World War II. The first volume of the series, “An Army at Dawn,” which covered the North African campaign of 1942-43, won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for History.

Beyond that, critics lauded the series for its rich narrative flow: a deft mix of profiles both of key military figures and ordinary soldiers, taut descriptions of battles, and a comprehensive overview of the most complex and brutal war in history. The New York Times Book Review called the series “a monumental achievement.”

Now Atkinson, a former prize-winning reporter and editor for the Washington Post, has turned his talents to a more distant conflict. “The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777,” by Henry Holt and Company, is the first volume of Atkinson’s newest series, The Revolution Trilogy, a sweeping look at America’s war for independence.

It’s a tale of heroism and cowardice, of abject failure and unexpected success; of a struggle that set a good number of Americans against each other; of British arrogance and mistakes; and of raw American commanders, with less experience than their British counterparts, who often stumbled but also could rise the occasion with inspired leadership.

There are well-drawn portraits of a number of those figures — George Washington, Nathanael Greene and Benedict Arnold on the American side; William Howe, Henry Clinton and Lord Frederick North on the British — as well as multiple voices, drawn from letters and diaries, of soldiers, civilians and others caught up in the fighting.

If you think you’ve heard this story before, think again. Focusing on the early battles themselves, with just enough attention on the political story to put the fighting in context, Atkinson brings freshness to an oft-told tale, with a narrative flow that offers a novel’s tension and at times an almost cinematic feel — and with a text that runs to 564 pages, that’s no mean feat.

But his book is also rooted in facts, even given its literary flourishes (“Men primed, loaded, and shot as fast as their fumbling hands allowed. A great nimbus of smoke rolled across the crest of the hill.”). His bibliography runs to 43 pages and includes any number of primary sources and records that allow him to give a detailed look at, for instance, the massive problems both the British and Americans faced in equipping their forces.

The British were forced to send most of their supplies from England, which meant vast amounts of foodstuffs and other materials rotted or were lost in crossing the Atlantic; in one shipment of 72 horses, only 16 survived the journey. The Continental Army and colonial militias, in turn, were chronically short of everything: muskets, gun powder, food, uniforms, shoes. They often were reduced to melting down pewter plates, organ pipes and lead from window frames to make musket balls.

The prologue of “The British Are Coming” sets the stage for the opening clash at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, describing the historic conflicts between England and its American colonies, such as the Stamp Act, that led eventually to open fighting.

A central figure in this, Atkinson writes, was Britain’s King George III, a rather provincial thinker who believed in the divine right of kings and grew increasingly angry with his “deluded subjects” in America, especially those in Massachusetts. The king, with the agreement of most members of parliament, decided the rebellion had to be met with force.

“When once these rebels have felt a smart blow,” George told his naval commanders, “they will submit.”

The realities of war

Atkinson recounts the Battle of Lexington and Concord with great verve, describing how ordinary Americans, swarming to the field with their muskets and even cruder firearms from as far as 25 miles away, gave a British column marching from Boston an unexpected black eye, inflicting 273 casualties as opposed to 95 American ones. (According to the current exhibit at Historic Northampton, 60 men met in the town’s meeting house a few days after the battle and joined American forces in Boston five days later.)

Then in June, the Americans gave the British an even worse drubbing at the Battle of Bunker Hill, in Charlestown, though English troops claimed the battlefield at the end of the day. Atkinson uses those two clashes to point out something that might have been forgotten over time: The Revolutionary War was a violent and bloody affair, one in which prisoners might be killed out of hand and civilians could be brutalized by both sides.

If 18th-century weapons were unreliable — “The shot heard round the world likely missed,” Atkinson writes about wildly inaccurate musket fire at Lexington and Concord — up close they could still be deadly. Though they’re not gratuitous, his descriptions of battles in which soldiers are decapitated by cannon fire or eviscerated by bayonets makes for grim reading. (Far more soldiers would actually die during the war from diseases such as smallpox and dysentery, or from infected wounds.)

Those early victories, Atkinson notes, also gave the Americans an exaggerated sense of their martial abilities — a belief that professional British troops could be defeated by “patriot moxie” and “inflamed citizen soldiers.” Though the British were forced to vacate Boston in March 1776 following a successful American siege of the city, they brought the rebels to the brink of defeat that summer and fall with a string of one-sided victories in and around New York City.

In fact, Atkinson writes, a fair chunk of those defeats could be traced to Washington: The American commander in chief made poor tactical decisions, he says, and failed to exercise more active command of his troops and subordinate leaders, though some American militia units also crumbled during their first encounters with the enemy, with many later deserting.

“The British Are Coming” also covers the ill-fated attempt of American forces, led by Benedict Arnold, to capture Quebec city in the winter of 1775-76; the subsequent headlong American retreat to New York state; and Arnold’s surprisingly successful naval battle, in October 1776, with English ships on Lake Champlain that prevented the British from capturing strategically important Fort Ticonderoga in New York.

Local history gets a nod as well, with the account of how American forces led by Colonel Henry Knox hauled heavy cannon, in the dead of winter in 1775-76, from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston. The journey included pulling the guns through Westfield and Springfield and across the frozen Connecticut River.

Atkinson’s new book might have been stronger with more coverage of the “why” of the war — the diverse motivations of the colonists — and a closer look at the often flailing attempts of the nascent U.S. Congress to lead that effort. But to his credit, he also covers some of the less-than-heroic actions of the American rebels, such as their sometimes savage treatment of fellow colonists — Tories — who wanted to remain part of Britain.

He also considers the contradictions at the heart of the Declaration of Independence, which offered no liberty to enslaved African Americans. Indeed, many Virginians in particular took up rebellion because of their fury at the colonial governor, John Murray, who offered emancipation to slaves who would join the British cause. Washington, a Virginia slave owner himself, seemed unaware of the irony of calling Murray an “arch traitor to the rights of humanity.”

From a narrative standpoint, you can’t beat the conclusion of “The British Are Coming”: how Washington and the Continental army, reeling from defeat, desertions and disease, suddenly turned the tables on the British, defeating them and their Hessian mercenaries in the battles of Trenton and Princeton in New Jersey as 1776 segued into 1777. Those victories gave fresh hope to American troops as they went into winter quarters and shocked the British, who realized the war was still far from over.

Today, when the country seems hopelessly gridlocked by political strife and division, it’s hard not to feel stirred by this story and think there’s still hope for our beleaguered democracy. “The British are Coming” is narrative history at its best.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.   

More about the book and Rick Atkinson can be found at revolutiontrilogy.com.