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'In The Hurricane's Eye' Focuses On Naval Power's Role In The Victory At Yorktown

Nathaniel Philbrick's masterful new look at the American Revolutionary War's end days isn't quite revisionist history, but it comes close. With both hands, he grabs the reader's head and turns it towards the sea.

Naval power, according to the account in his new book In the Hurricane's Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown, was central to the victory at Yorktown — but is largely overlooked because the decisive sea battle that preceded it did not involve Americans.

It's a startling take on a familiar history that one might expect from this author. Philbrick has devoted much of his writing life to sailing ships and the people who served on them, winning the National Book Award in 2000 for In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.

As Philbrick points out, the United States in the 18th century was a collection of "thirteen largely self-sufficient entities...a segmented political organism that was almost impossible for the British army to kill." At least some of the British commanders knew it. Philbrick quotes Adm. Samuel Graves, who "likened the movements of the British army to 'the passage of a ship through the sea whose track is soon lost.'"

But the colonies were also largely coastal communities and the coasts were controlled by the British navy, the world's most powerful. British forces on land were continually resupplied and replenished from the sea. Philbrick says George Washington was unique in recognizing that victory would be achieved only by first defeating the British fleet. When France and its navy entered the war on the side of the United States in 1778, Washington's "genius" was to incorporate those forces into his war strategy.

"Nothing happened quickly in the eighteenth century, especially with an ocean between America and Europe," Philbrick writes, but his writing compresses time and keeps the narrative brisk. He quotes liberally from letters and memoirs of the key actors, which creates a surprising intimacy. He also makes clear how little coordination there was between allies, largely because of slow communications but also because of disagreement and ego.

The book is filled with land battles, sea maneuvers, conspiracies, hurricanes – all culminating with the Battle of the Chesapeake, which Philbrick writes "has been called the most important naval engagement in the history of the world." So called because a French fleet's defeat of a British fleet enabled the land victory at Yorktown and ultimately the end of the war.

Along the way Philbrick guides the marine-challenged reader. A "74," he explains, is a ship with "74 cannons arranged on two decks...a crew of between 500 and 750 men, more like a floating tank constructed of wood. It took two thousand oak trees, or fifty-seven acres of forest to build a single 74, whose ribs and planking were so thick that cannonballs, if shot from a distance, regularly bounced off the ship's sides." In battle the French fired high to take out British rigging; the British fired low to kill as many enemy sailors as possible.

Many of the characters and their roles in the drama are well known. But then there is Francisco Saavedra de Sangronis, a Spaniard who convinced the businessmen of Havana to loan the impecunious French fleet 500,000 pesos. Without the money, Philbrick says, the fleet would not have sailed and the Battle of the Chesapeake would not have taken place. "It cannot be denied," he writes, "that the Spanish residents of Cuba provided what one commentator has called, 'the bottom dollars upon which the edifice of American independence was raised.' "

Fans of the musical will be disappointed to learn that Alexander Hamilton was a peripheral figure at Yorktown, mistrusted by his colleagues for showboating that at times put his troops at risk. Washington's greatness is reaffirmed but Philbrick reminds us that he was a slaveholder who insisted on retaking possession of his slaves who during the war had been freed by the British.

There are a lot of troops, ships and engagements to keep track of. The book has helpful battle maps, but this reader could have used more. And my dictionary had to substitute for the publisher's failure to provide a glossary of 18th-century nautical and military terminology.

But these are minor complaints. Philbrick's book is a fascinating fresh take on an old story. As is often the case in war, victory in the American Revolution was won by both genius and luck.

Philbrick writes: "That the pieces finally fell into place in September and October 1781 never ceased to amaze Washington. 'I am sure,' he wrote the following Spring, 'that there never was a people who had more reason to acknowledge a divine interposition in their affairs than those of the United States.'"

Mark Katkov is an editor at NPR.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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