Almost a Miracle by John Ferling

Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence
by John Ferling
Oxford University Press, 679 pp.
CLR [rating:4]

War on a Grand Scale

“Warfare was woven into the fabric of life in colonial America.” So begins John Ferling’s thoughtful and comprehensively researched Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence. A professor emeritus of history at the University of West Georgia, Ferling is the author of nine earlier books on American colonial affairs and is certainly well positioned to pursue a military history of the conflict which he describes as, “War on a grand scale.”

As contemplated by Ferling, few, if any, colonial Americans escaped the impact of hostilities. Wars were frequent and while many men soldiered, many of these same soldiers died. Still others, the least fortunate in some respects came home from the wars, but not in one piece, physically or mentally. Nor were those who bore arms alone in experiencing the terrors of war. Civilians who dwelled on the exposed frontier in wartime lived with the constant fear of a potential surprise attack, and virtually every citizen, in every generation, and in every colony paid war taxes, tolerated wartime scarcities, endured war-induced inflation, and struggled through postwar economic busts. Ferling suggests, “In the century and a half before 1776 it would have been difficult to find anyone born in the English colonies in North America who had not lost a loved one—a son, a father, a brother, a husband—to war. If one was lucky, the loss was temporary, only for a few months during the period of service. But sometimes it was forever.” And it is against this backdrop that Ferling proposes that the revolutionary war was one that America came much closer to losing than is now usually remembered.

American soldiers in 1779 belonged to a Continental army that had changed in substantive ways since its inception in 1775. Men served under a more draconian Articles of War that bore distinct similarities to that which had long governed Britain’s standing army. Many wore uniforms made in France and carried firearms of French origin, most drawn from the cache of 100,000 Charleville muskets that had been received from France in early 1779. Moreover, American artillery assets included more than two hundred field pieces that France had also given the United States.

In addition to the Continental Army, Ferling posits that the colonial militia has “often been belittled, but without it the war could not have been won. It secured the home front in nearly every state by suppressing and disarming the Loyalists in the crucial early stage of the war.” He then pursues the transitions that show how militiamen augmented the Continental army, and, despite some egregious failures, they also on occasion “fought extremely well,” and at Bunker Hill, Princeton, Saratoga, and Cowpens “militiamen served with valor.” Still, at best, it was a grueling time for the militia and the Continental Army. Both faced cold, starvation, and death, and found themselves growing ever more contemptuous of those at home who never served or sacrificed, and of politicians who wore their patriotism on their sleeve: the “blustering hero” who fought “his battles over a glass of Madeira.” Yet, their misery and anger notwithstanding, these soldiers repeatedly demonstrated that when properly led they would fight, and fight well. And, from 1777 onward, these now battle-tested veterans were the foundation of a determined and sound military force that was more than capable of matching the more seasoned British Army.

Throughout the book, Ferling returns repeatedly to the people and their stories. The army of 1779 included numerous French, Prussian, and Polish officers. Some had been commissioned by America’s envoys in France without adequate background checks on their character and talents. Others crossed the sea on their own and deluded the, as Ferling suggests, “gullible – and, at times, desperate – congressmen with vivid, though illusory, accounts of their experience and skills. Some foreign officers proved to be beyond their ken and failed miserably.” One in particular was Philip Tronson du Coudray, a military theorist with the rank of major in the French army, whom Silas Deane, an American diplomat in France, had made a major general of artillery in the Continental army. Ferling wryly notes: “Happily for all but du Coudray, he drowned when his horse fell off a ferry during the Philadelphia campaign.” Other foreign officers turned out to imposters, while still others were unable to speak English, becoming virtually useless to their American line units. But many, Ferling adds, were useful. George Washington, for example, embraced the Prussian Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus von Steuben and the Frenchman, Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de La Fayette. Congress vested Colonel Louis de Presle Duportail with authority over all the army’s engineers and it gave Colonel Andrew Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a Polish captain who had been trained in France, command of a corps of engineers that it created two days after the 1776 surprise colonial victory at Trenton.

Of particular interest is Ferling’s background discussion of African American influence in the war. Although Congress had officially prohibited their enlistment after the fall of 1775, each of the New England states – having difficulty meeting its manpower quota – quietly ignored the law. Some blacks who entered the army were actually slaves who served as substitutes for their owners, with the promise of emancipation at war’s end. Other states permitted slaves to enlist with the consent of their owners, with Rhode Island compensating owners for the loss of those slaves who enlisted at the rate of twenty 20 pounds for the most valuable slave, and in proportion for those of less value. It further stipulated that those who volunteered would be “absolutely made free, and entitled to all the Wages, Bounties and Encouragement given by Congress to any Soldier inlisting [sic] into their Service.” Free blacks, like whites, were lured into the army either by bounties or the Revolutionary ideology. Confronted with chronic and indomitable recruiting woes, proposals for allowing blacks to serve began to surface in 1776. Benedict Arnold, for instance, urged that as many as six hundred slaves be recruited as mariners, with formal emancipation from slavery promised following the war, and there was talk in New Jersey of recruiting a black unit to serve as a home guard in the state. “Neither proposal was adopted, and the number of blacks serving before 1778 remained small, likely no more than a few score.” But dramatic changes occurred soon thereafter and, by 1779, a growing number of soldiers were, in fact, African American.

In the first installment of American Crisis, Thomas Paine, seeking to rally the nation in the last dark days of 1776, had with promised that through “perseverance and fortitude we have the prospect of a glorious issue.” After Yorktown, with peace on the horizon, Paine in the tenth American Crisis wrote that America’s victory had been won because the war had been “the country’s war, the public’s war…the war of the people in their own behalf.” Ferling concludes that Paine was correct on all counts: Britain’s suppression of the American rebellion was foiled by American resilience in the fighting in the North between 1775 and 1778; however, the rebellion was won by the American victory in the South in 1780-1781. Further, that many were responsible for the American victory. “The American people and their soldiers, and not just General Washington, had endured to gain a victory that, they prayed, would usher in a world filled with greater promise than would have been their lot under aristocratic, monarchical Great Britain.”

In the final analysis, if there is to be criticism, one might comment on the occasions in which Ferling’s prose appears to be bit over the top. For example, in one passage, he refers to the “…unnerving challenges faced by dauntless partisans, ordinary men, women, and young boys who looked mortal danger in the face in order to thwart the enemy in their midst.” No doubt, but, still, it seems a bit too gushy for its own dramatic good. And, in fact, this is but a superficial observation on what is an otherwise superior history, for Ferling’s scholarship is solid and displays a noteworthy attention to detail. Accordingly, Almost a Miracle is highly recommended as the military companion piece to Ferling’s 2003 diplomatic history A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic.

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