“In the Hurricane’s Eye” -Winter 2018
The final book in Nat Philbrick’s Revolutionary War trilogy
by: John Stanton
Five years into the War for Independence, George Washington was leading an army that was undermanned, underfed, ragged and often unpaid. It was an army that lost as many battles as it won. And the vaunted British Navy controlled the coast of America.
“The bitter truth was that by the summer of 1871 the American Revolution had failed,” Nat Philbrick writes in his latest book, “In the Hurricane’s Eye,” the third book in a trilogy that began at Bunker Hill.
“With thousands of able bodied citizens refusing to serve, with thirteen states refusing to fund the meager army that did exist ... the very existence of the United States now rested with soldiers and sailors of another nation.”
The trilogy begins in those heady days of revolutionary foment, with “Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution,” and follows the war as it moves into the American interior in “Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution.”
In all three books Philbrick tells us a story that we only think we know. This time it is the story of how the American Revolution was won in the waters just off the Chesapeake Bay, in a naval battle between the French and British fleets.
It’s a sprawling story, filled with characters that Philbrick draws out of the sepia tones of history and allows them to be seen in all their fragility, venality and greatness. Researching these characters and letting their struggles drive the story has become his main trait in writing what is best called narrative history.
Not a single American ship was involved in the Battle of the Chesapeake. It has been called the most important naval battle in history. The outcome sealed the fate of British General Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, and led to the end of the war.
“I came to realize that all my impressions about the Revolutionary War were wrong,” Philbrick said. “The impression that it was a bunch of citizen farmers that rose up and defeated the mightiest military power in the world, thereby throwing off the shackles of British tyranny? Baloney. It is much more complicated than that. Yes, the farmers (the minutemen) started it, but they were not there at the end. I think this is lost on Americans today. We wouldn’t even be a country without the intercession of France.”
Philbrick sat down with Nantucket Today to talk about a story filled with French generals and admirals, hurricanes with winds of 200 miles per hour, the shifting winds of naval warfare, and how the fate of the American Revolution hinged on both gold coins raised on the streets of Cuba in order to pay American soldiers and the prostate troubles of a British admiral.
I think most people have heard about lafayette, but not about the extent of the French support we received in the revolutionary War.
“Initially there is lafayette. he came over on his own, not as part of the French army. he was just 20 years old and filled with patriotic fever. And he was probably the richest man in France. he meets Washington and is bowled over. he eventually becomes the surrogate son Washington never had and one of his best generals.
We thought of this as being a Colonial rebellion, that would result in our being an independent country. but it quickly morphed into a world war with France and britain going at it. it ultimately resulted in britain losing her colonies, but it was almost a side thing. once it became an international conflict it was not the center of what britain and France were interested in.”
So many things happen in 1781, that they seem like set pieces in a movie, and yet they are all connected. the Caribbean hurricane in 1780, the running battles between the American commander Nathanael Greene and the british General lord Cornwallis, benedict Arnold burns richmond, Virginia. it goes on and on.
the hurricane is a suitable metaphor for that year. so many things are going on in different parts of the country and in the Caribbean and in europe.
All your books feature a cast of unexpected characters. in this book those characters and their foibles drive the story.
one of my favorites is Admiral George rodney. he is like a character out of shakespeare, with his emotions governing what happens. he was the best british admiral, but he was always broke and he saw the taking of st. eustatius as a way to make his fortune.
Also, he had a prostate problem and right as everything was building to a confrontation he goes back to london for treatment. that left the lowly thomas Graves, an admiral nobody wanted to be in charge of the british fleet. (Graves made strategic mistakes that give the battle of the Chesapeake to the French).
What fascinated me about this is all these seemingly random events had to happen just the way they did for this result to occur. it was not fated by the gods. And in the middle of it all you had Washington trying to do everything he could to make it happen, but forced in many instances into being simply a spectator.
Washington had some difficulties dealing with the French way of doing things, didn’t he?
“Washington had that ability to recognize what really mattered in any situation, and to keep his focus there. he is driven to near distraction when he realizes the French have their own agenda. that’s how it goes with alliances. France is in this war not to help us, but to get britain. they have what they want to do. Washington has what he wants to do. but they don’t always coincide, so it is really difficult for him, very frustrating.”
Why isn’t the importance of the French involvement and the battle of the Chesapeake more part of the story we tell ourselves about the revolutionary War?
Part of it is we want to think we won our own revolution by ourselves. but the fact is, without French help it wouldn’t have happened. Not a single American ship was involved. so, it doesn’t fit our national narrative for the War of independence if we take a subsidiary role to a foreign power. but the fact is that Yorktown is a fait accompli because of this battle.
You make clear in the book the differences between a battle on land and a battle on the ocean, especially in the 18th century. Did having spent much of your life on sailboats help you write those scenes?
Naval battles are almost like a chess game. When you are on land the battleground doesn’t shift beneath your feet. When you’re at sea with wind shifts and tide changes, and things like that, nature plays a big role.
I’ve sailed in those waters, before i knew i was ever going to write a book about it. i went back on a research trip and it is almost like getting a personal sense of geography. it was helpful.
Do you have an idea lined up for your next book?
I’ve had enough of bloodshed for a while. And it takes three years of research before i can really start writing. i wanted to change it up a little bit and yet was having a hard time letting go of George Washington. When he became president, he realized he was the leader of what was basically 13 independent nations, called states, that didn’t really see themselves as part of a single nation. there was no sense of solidarity or nationhood.
Washington realized he needed to visit all 13 states. so, he goes on a road trip, visiting all 13 states. he rode in a coach, but got on his white horse to ride into town. he went as far north as Portsmouth, N.h., as far south as savannah, Ga. he united the country through the sheer force of his charismatic personality.
So, my wife Melissa and i, and Dora (their dog) are setting out on a road trip to follow Washington’s journey. it’s going to be called “travels with George: in search of Washington’s America” and it will be a different kind of book for me. A lot about Washington’s travels and thoughts, but also about what the places and people are like now.
John Stanton is a writer and documentary filmmaker. He writes frequently for Nantucket Today and The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.