The American Revolution: First Person Accounts by the Men Who Shaped Our Nation
Edited by T.J. Stiles
T.J. Stiles delves into the letters, essay, and diary entries of several of America’s founding fathers to ascertain and explain the development, first of the American identity, then the American War for Independence.
Stiles opens by explaining how it was not specifically the Stamp Act that spurred Americans to revolt. He cites an oral history of one of the men who volunteered in George Washington’s army. He was untouched by the Stamp Act. He never paid a farthing because of it. Nor was the tea tax of importance to him. He didn’t drink it.
The war to him was about the Americans’ right to govern themselves. They had done so since their arrival in the New Land in 1620. They had defended themselves and expanded their territory by expending their own resources and blood. When the French-Indian War broke out and the British were forced to send troops to America to wage the war, Americans, who’d defended their homeland for more than a century were relegated to a subservient role as British officers took over command.
In the mind of the boy king, George III, the colonists owed Britain for the defense of their territory, thus Parliament passed and King George signed the Stamp Act. Colonists responded with riots and looting of British officials’ homes. When the British tried to stop the Americans from smuggling British goods into the colonies without paying duties, the colonists responded by trashing the customs houses.
Stiles then delves into an analysis of the war itself. It was not a guerilla warfare as is popularly believed. Most often, the colonists lined themselves up against the British in the tradition of the day. Americans employed guerilla tactics sparingly and almost exclusively in the southern theater.
Stiles notes that a comparison between the American Revolution and the Vietnam War is apt. The British were only able to secure major cities. They could not secure the countryside where Washington’s army foraged and lived off the land. While the British could score victories in the countryside, they did not have the manpower to hold the territory. Too vast was the land area and too few were the troops.
It finally dawned on Parliament and King George was forced to agree that the costs of waging war in America had far outweighed any benefit that would have been reaped from taxation. It was this realization and the capture of Cornwallis’ army at Yorktown that led the British to surrender and secure terms for peace.
The Stamp Act
Stiles draws on the writings of two major figures in shaping the philosophy of independence: Samuel Adams and John Adams. They were cousins, but could not have been more different. Sam Adams was a failed businessman, an embezzler, and a failure at all he’d attempted in life except the role of revolutionary. John Adams was a successful lawyer, a man of reason and sanity. They approached the fight against the Stamp Act from different perspectives.
In a letter to an American agent in London, Samuel Adams lays out the philosophical underpinnings of taxation without representation. Noting that Britain had enriched itself through its relationship with its American colonies, it had no right to tax Americans specifically and it had no right to tax it without its interests being represented in Parliament.
In his diary, legendary for its comprehensive detail, John Adams chronicles through second hand accounts the revolts against the Stamp Act and his own discussions with learned men of Massachusetts about the egregious nature of the Stamp Act. Revolution was not on Adams’ mind. He and his aristocratic friends hoped that the Stamp Act might be repealed so that peace and prosperity would be restored.
The Stamp Act controversy came and went, but continued encroachments upon the sovereignty of the British colonies continued. Britain had already imposed a tax on the colonists’ tea. After an initial protest, they grudgingly paid it. But when a monopoly was granted to the financially ailing, but politically connected East India Company, the colonists revolted in the legendary Boston Tea Party when the Sons of Liberty, led by Samuel Adams, dumped tons of tea into Boston Harbor.
The Townshend Acts were a series of laws designed to increase direct influence of the Crown upon her subjects in the American colonies. It imposed duties and tariffs to pay the salaries of governors and judges hired by the British government to rule over the colonies. It forced colonists to quarter British troops in their homes, and created positions within the government to enforce trade regulations which the Americans had routinely skirted.
In a document drafted for the Sons of Liberty by Samuel Adams, we see a man transformed from a petitioner and protestor to an advocate for rebellion. In it, he describes the encroachments upon the liberties on the men of Massachusetts men and says that any man who abets these encroachments is an enemy of the state.
His cousin, John Adams, having defended the British soldiers accused of shooting colonists in the Boston Massacre is also becoming more radicalized as the Crown continues to tax Americans while not providing any representation in Parliament. John Adams’ verbiage is much less incendiary than his older cousin, but in his journal in the days leading up to the Boston Tea Party and the days after, he notes the “republican spirit among the people ,” and notes that they would never submit to tyrants. He applauds this spirit spreading to other colonies as the 13 individual colonies start to identify with a common cause.
This spirit of common cause was fueled by a letter from Samuel Adams entitled, “Letter from the town of Boston to the Colonies.” Adams reports that the laws and regulations for the town of Boston and the colony of Massachusetts have been changed by, “edict” of the Crown and that British General Thomas Gage has arrived in the city to take control of the rowdy Bostonians.
Stiles notes that these were startling acts to the people of Boston. When word reached the other colonies, they could not help but wonder what was in store for them. The tension continues to mount as the colonists try to reassert their former independence and King George and Parliament try to reign them in.
Stiles documents the meeting of the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1774 in the writings of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton – then a student at Kings College (which would become Columbia). In direct response to the Boston Tea Party, Parliament enacted a series of laws aimed at restricting the colonies’ independence. These became known as the Intolerable Acts.
Boston Harbor was closed until the East India Company was compensated for the destroyed tea. A military government was established in Massachusetts. British officials were allowed to move the trial of any British officials brought before a Massachusetts court out of the colony, ostensibly to assure that they received a fair trial. The Quartering Acts required Massachusetts to provide suitable lodgings for troops.
From Adam’s prodigious journal, Stiles excerpts Adams’ travel notes as he journeys from Braintree, Mass. to Philadelphia, meeting with fellow delegates along the way to ascertain their opinions. Another section of his journal serves as meeting minutes where Adams notes that 12 of the 13 individual colonies have coalesced into a single entity with a single purpose, rallying around Massachusetts. Georgia sat out the debate.
Adams also observes the debate about voting and the how votes are weighed. The larger colonies of course want their votes to carry more weight. Smaller colonies want an equal say. This is the first debate that would be formative in the creation of the national bicameral legislature.
In The Summary View of the Rights of British North America, Jefferson eloquently lays out the colonies’ grievances against the crown. The colonies want to be left to manage their own affairs to their own benefit and to the benefit of the mother land. While not calling King George a tyrant, he compares the Intolerable Acts to tyranny. Jefferson makes clear the colonists are loyal British subjects who only want the redress of their grievances and the right of self governance under the Crown. The cry for independence would come later.
Alexander Hamilton was engaged in a rhetorical duel with an Anglican Priest, Thomas Seabury, over the colonists’ rights to form a Republican body to seek redress of their grievances and the legitimacy of those grievances. Hamilton, not as eloquent, but more succinct than Jefferson, lays out that justification in his pamphlet, Full Vindication. He makes the case that men are slaves unless they are ruled by others by their own consent. He argues that when men are governed without their consent, their only course is to seek redress from the government for their complaints.
The pleas so eloquently expressed by Thomas Jefferson were met with scorn in Britain. King George and Lord North regarded the Continental Congress to be an illegal assembly that was a threat to British rule in the New World. As a result, military control of Massachusetts – specifically Boston – was tightened.
Many colonists now believed that while all it might not yet come to full blow revolt, armed resistance might be necessary. They began to stockpile weapons in Concord, Mass. Hearing of this, General Thomas Gage dispatched his troops to travel by water across Charlestown Bay to seize the weapons.
In a letter to Arthur Lee, Sam Adams dubs the men of Massachusetts ready to take up arms in defense of their state as Minute Men. He tells Lee that at the moment when military government was established in Massachusetts, their began a state of hostility between the colonies and Great Britain.
In discussing Adams’ letter to Lee, Stiles points out that American history has tended to romanticize these Minute Men as ragtag farmers and tradesmen who came together to defend their country. This is not entirely true. Many – if not most – of these men had military experience, knew military drill, and had been under fire by a hostile enemy. Gallant they were, but they were not the untrained citizen militia that we have come to believe they were.
In an essay called, Mission to Concord, British Ensign Jeremy Lister recalls the battles of those fateful first days of the American Revolution. At first, all went as planned. As history notes so well, Paul Revere did alert his countrymen to the arrival of the British. He also advised the British that armed insurrection would meet them as they neared Concord (as Sarah Palin correctly noted, much to the derision of the press). While the day started out well for the British, the first day of the war ended in near disaster.
Lister was part of that group that squared off against the British troops when they arrived in Lexington, Mass., on their way to Concord. History has often noted that no one knows who fired “The Shot Heard Round the World,” and Lister does not hazard a guess. He notes that shortly after the skirmish started, the Colonials turned tale and ran. While 27 of their number laid dead or wounded on the ground, just one British soldier was wounded.
When they arrived at Concord, they found they were outnumbered. The British soldiers under the command of Lister retreated at the sight of Colonials advancing as if to attack. While the British managed to destroy some of the weapons at Concord, they didn’t get to finish the job and made a hasty retreat from Concord, back toward Lexington.
They met resistance at the Concord Bridge and the two armies squared off. Four British soldiers were killed before they retreated. At the North Bridge, snipers laid in wait for them and started picking them off. From there, they returned their ship and crossed the bay back to Boston.
Stiles notes that another popular misconception of the Revolutionary War is that Americans routinely employed guerilla tactics to defeat the British. They did use snipers from time to time, but in every major engagement of the war, the armies met on the field in the tradition ranks. That popular misconception comes from the skirmish at the North Bridge.
General Gage sent dispatches to William Legge, British Secretary of the Colonies may have also contributed to this misconception. In his first dispatch, he tells Legge that “for the space of 15 miles, receiving fire from every hill, fence, house, barn, etc.,” were his troops. He tells the secretary that the citizenry is armed “with surprising expedition,” and planning an attack on Boston.
Three weeks after his April 22 dispatch, Gage’s alarm grows. He tells Legge that arms and men are flowing into the area from Connecticut and New Hampshire. Artillery is being massed around Boston and the civilians of Boston are fleeing into the countryside. Gage no longer took the Colonists’ resistance lightly. He was frightened.
Meanwhile in New Hampshire (in the part that is now Vermont), one member of that first continental congress was preparing an action of his own. Ethan Allen, a bellicose, but well read gentleman, assembled a legion of like minded men and prepared his own offensive. His plan was to take Fort Ticonderoga along the banks of Lake Champlain.
Allen notes that the entire fort fell with nary a shot fired. The lone sentry on duty aimed and fired at Allen’s men, but his gun misfired. He was captured and Allen’s men stormed the fort. They entered the barracks, captured the troops and the commander of the fort. Fort Ticonderoga and its cache of arms now belong to the colonists.
Stiles says the strategic location of Fort Ticonderoga, which along Lake Champlain controlled a bottleneck near the Hudson River which the British could use to transport troops into the country from Canada. But, he says, of greater importance were the canons and arms captured by Allen (and Benedict Arnold) which would be put to good use by Allen’s men and the Continental Army.
An Army, a Country
Through the writings of John Adams and British General Thomas Gage, Stiles documents the opening days of the Revolutionary War.
When the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia in spring of 1775, they were faced with a task that they had not expected. At the closing of the first congress, they decided to hold a second to respond to whatever response it was they received from King George to their grievances. Now, it was clear that they were going to lead a war of rebellion. That meant selecting a general, finding funding and equipment, and providing an army.
John Adams describes those deliberations in detail. Often, when people describe the discussion of our Founding Fathers, they act as if the men were of one mind. They were not. The debates and petty jealousies were heated. John Hancock longed to be named commander of the continental army. The delegates opted for George Washington. Hancock would later emerge in the dark days of the war as a Washington detractor. Adams does not deify his colleagues. He describes in detail (and as Stiles points out, with some of his own petty jealousies born of political events at the time of his writing) the squabbles and fights that occurred within those deliberations.
In his narrative, Stiles describes in great detail how the continentals constructed the redoubt on Breed’s Hill overlooking Charlestown. Gage wanted to clear the continentals of that high ground and landed his troops who mounted an all out assault. The fighting was bitter and hard in the fight that was dubbed the Battle of Bunker Hill. The continentals were eventually forced to abandon the redoubt because they were running low on ammunition. But before their departure, they exacted an heavy toll of casualties on the British and struck a hard blow at British morale.
General Gage reported to his bosses that the Americans were not disorganized, were not cowards who would run at the intimidating site of the Redcoats, and would fight hard for their country. Unfortunately for the British, his superiors, particularly the newly arrived “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne did not take him seriously. They attributed the British failures at Concord and at Breed’s Hill (if any victory can be counted as a failure) to Gage’s inept leadership.
It was clear to most that the colonies will not be able to pursue reconciliation with Great Britain and many argue that it would not be to their advantage. In showing the rush to embrace independence, Stiles excerpts letters from Samuel Adams to a friend, arguing that the colonies are independent because they can’t be dependent or allied with nation’s with whom they are at war.
In Common Sense, the radical and verbose Thomas Paine argues that America is better off without the monarchy for her enemies are not the enemies of America. America’s goods will sell just as well in other nations as they do in Great Britain, and that, should they reconcile, the colonies will always remain a junior member of the British empire, entirely dependent on the motherland for commerce and defense.
The last document excerpted is the Declaration of Independence. Stiles talks of how John Adams nominated the eloquent Thomas Jefferson to draft it, noting the success of his earlier writings. He describes how Jefferson deftly explains the colonies rationale behind seeking independence and then enumerates their grudges against the motherland. What is striking is the fact that, despite undergoing the tedious process of group editing by the congress, what emerged is a pointed document that is clear in its explanation and does not exaggerate the sins of the king against her subjects in America.
To the Brink
Those initial victories were quite a morale boost for the Continental Army, but soon the war would go completely awry and force George Washington to exercise leadership like few had done before or have since.
Stiles covers the battle for New York and how it all went wrong for the Continentals. He excerpts letters from George Washington to his brother and to the leadership of the Continental Congress describing how the attack on the British moving into New York was thwarted in Brooklyn Heights and the retreat to Harlem Heights. In these letters, Washington admits that his men were outfought in Brooklyn, but he expounds upon the “victory” at Harlem Heights. As Stiles points out, it was a victory, but only against some advance forces who’d ventured a little too far ahead of the army and found themselves outnumbered.
Losing the harbor in New York was a monumental defeat. Eventually, Washington and his army would retreat from New York to Pennsylvania where the British expected them to wait out the winter. They were demoralized and thoroughly defeated. In the midst of this dispirited atmosphere, writer and orator Thomas Paine penned The Crisis which opens with that great line, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” It served to remind the Continentals why they were fighting and the glorious cause they were fighting for.
George Washington responded to defeat like all great leaders: he did something the enemy did not expect. The British, now in control of New York, landed thousands of ground troops, including the hated Hessians who were mercenary fighters. These Hessians were stationed in Trenton, NJ and were celebrating Christmas when Washington made his move.
No feat of the Revolutionary War is so storied as Washington’s army crossing the Delaware River into New Jersey. Through the night and wee hours of the morning, Washington and his troops rowed their boats across the ice choked river in the bitter cold. Washington landed his army on the New Jersey shore just after dawn – later than he’d hoped. His reasoning was the Hessians would still be asleep after their holiday revelry. His reasoning was sound.
After finding and silencing the lone sentry on duty, Washington’s men attacked the confused Hessians. It was a rout. Washington’s men captured, killed, or wounded more than 1,000 Hessian troops. General Washington wrote another letter to Congress, this one told of a real victory, of real valor, and of a major tactical victory. Not only was this victory important for morale, it served to silence Washington’s critics in Philadelphia and within his own ranks.
Driven out of Boston, the British were not going to stay thwarted for long. Even with conflicting strategies being carried out by two highly independent generals, the British planned to take control of the major cities in the northern colonies. While Gen. Burgoyne waged war in upstate New York, Gen. William Howe decided to take the colonial capital of Philadelphia.
Marching his troops from Maryland, Howe encountered Washington’s army at Brandywine Creek. There, according to Stiles, Washington experienced his worst and most humiliating defeat. His army was spread too thin, trying to protect points along the creek where Howe and his army could ford. Just as they had at Brooklyn Heights, the British flanked Washington’s army and forced him into a humiliating retreat that ceded the creek to the British.
Stiles presents another chapter of Thomas Paine’s The Crisis to show the colonists’ reaction to their defeat. Paine was a propagandist, but he did not try to find a victory in what was a clear defeat. Instead, he tried to maintain the morale of his fellow soldiers and countrymen by pointing out that the Continental Army has but one enemy to defeat: Howe’s army. General Howe has an entire country of patriots to defeat. The odds, Paine concludes, dictate an eventual continental victory.
In his diary, John Adams is not so sure of the Continental Army, finding them to be a less than imposing military force. He discusses his night flight from Philadelphia as the Continental Congress evacuated from that city with the British en route.
Stiles returns to Paine who taunts Gen. Howe after Washington’s counter strike at the British in Germantown, PA. The Germantown battle was inconclusive, but put the British on notice that the Continentals would not stop to lick their wounds. They would press the cause. In this issue of The Crisis, Paine’s pointed remarks are directed at Gen. Howe, calling him passive and accused him of hiding among women and children. Paine knew these were not words that would be taken lightly by a man of Gen. Howe’s standing in British society.
Paine also lays out an encouraging message for his countrymen. The fall of Philadelphia is not of strategic importance, Paine claims. Howe has positioned himself badly, for “if he retreats from Philadelphia, he will be despised; if he stays he will be shut up and starved out.” As Paine saw it, Howe had to choose between to unpleasant courses of action.
For all his bluster of propaganda, Paine had a keen mind for analyzing the geopolitics of the war occurring in his country.
Stiles illustrates the early successes and ultimate failure of Gen. John Burgoyne’s campaign against the Continental Army in New York in 1777 through dispatches from Burgoyne himself and through letters written by Lt. Thomas Anbury of the British Army.
The campaign (which was in no way coordinated with Howe’s campaign in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, started out as an early success. Fort Ticonderoga fell with hardly a shot fired. Burgoyne reveled in his success and Lt. Anbury expressed his marvel at the fighting prowess of the Native American population.
As the Americans retreated further from the shores of Lake Champlain and into the interior, things started going badly for the British. The Indians, eager for action, slaughtered a family on their farm in upstate New York, rousing patriots and offending Tories who might have helped the army. There was also the “friction” as Stiles termed it that slowed the British Army. They carried too many supplies and brought along too many ancillary people such as wives, mistresses, and servants to move effectively through the wilderness.
Gen. Philip Schuyler and Gen. Arnold did not make it easy for the British to move. As they retreated, they destroyed bridges and infrastructure. They destroyed supplies that they could not carry so the British could not live off the spoils. Burgoyne’s failure in New York in 1777 was very much about the common war of attrition.
In the interior, the Minutemen made their presence felt again. As Burgoyne put it, they seemed to appear and disappear into the soil, picking at the slow moving British. Roused by the slaughter of civilians, the presence of Indians in their territory, and the Patriot cause, American militia bedeviled Burgoyne on his way to Ford Edward. They held off the British siege at Fort Stanwix and bedeviled the British troops who held Fort Ticonderoga.
Burgoyne pushed south toward Saratoga, hoping to take Albany before winter. In September 1777, the Battle of Saratoga started on Freeman’s Farm, an open field near Saratoga. Burgoyne eventually took the field and advanced toward Saratoga, but at a great cost of arms and men.
As Burgoyne kept up the push to take Saratoga, Asburey made a journal entry entitled, In the Redoubts. Asburey was positioned in one of the fortified British positions in the right side of Burgoyne’s three pronged assault on Saratoga. Asburey could sense that the tides had turned and the British were going to fail to take the city. He described the parade of wounded and dead that made their way from the field of battle to the safety of the redoubts and the demoralizing effect it had on the troops there.
Eventually, Burgoyne’s forces and supplies were exhausted. He was forced to leave the field for the safety of his fortifications. American sharpshooters made it their goal to pick off British officers (a practice the British regarded as entirely uncivilized), creating a major leadership vacuum in Burgoyne’s army. He was outnumbered due to heavy casualties. Eventually, he surrendered his entire force to Continental Gen. Horatio Gates at Saratoga. After the defeat, Burgoyne was recalled to Britain and never commanded again.
Stiles does not document it in primary resources, but he does discuss the friction between Gen. Benedict Arnold, who deserves most, if not all the credit for the American success at Saratoga – particularly at Freeman Farm. Arnold chafed under the command of Gates. Arnold was daring and wanted to press the attack on the British. Gates was more cautious. He wanted to mount a strong defense of Saratoga from fortified positions.
History shows it was Arnold’s leadership that carried the victory at Saratoga. Yet, Gates claimed all the credit for the victory in his dispatch to Congress. Gates was a rival of George Washington and was waiting in the wings to take command of the Continental Army with Washington’s next failure. Arnold was an ally of George Washington. It was in this rivalry that the seeds of Arnold’s betrayal of the American cause were sown.
War Comes to the South
According to Stiles, British General Henry Clinton decided to undertake a campaign in the American south because he had no other option for victory. The British’s effort in New York met with failure. His troops in New England were constantly harassed and could make little headway – especially with the brutal winter. Clinton decided to move into the Carolinas where he hoped to tap into what he thought was a large contingent of loyal Tories who would support his army.
He documents the initial British effort in the south to take Charleston, SC, which was a successful siege that resulted in the fall of the port city. Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton led that effort. He wrote his memoirs of the war and Stiles excerpts them and we see the war in the South which started out so successfully, fall to pieces for the British.
Tarleton was a cavalry man. The Continentals had not fought cavalry and were easily defeated by Tarleton’s mounted troops. However, those troops would make a grave error that would rouse the local population to new levels of hatred of the British.
Tarleton says that his mount was shot out from under him during the charge. He fell while his troops advanced. When they had defeated the continentals, the British troops mistakenly believed that the Continentals had killed their glorious leader. In retaliation, they executed approximately 100 POWs. In response, local militias picked at the British Army as they continued to advance.
Tarleton moved his troops north from the vanquished South Carolina into North Carolina. There, his troops easily defeating the Continentals at Camden under the inept field leadership of Horatio Gates. According to Stiles, this was the point when the Continental Congress determined that Gates was not the great field commander he made himself to be.
Stiles wraps up his excerpts from Tarleton’s memoirs by concluding that Gates was thoroughly discredited while British General Lord Charles Cornwallis reveled in the triumph of his subordinate Tarleton. Cornwallis believed the southern colonies were now permanently vanquished.
Stiles uses the memoirs of Gen. Henry Lee and Tarleton to document the battles that took place in North Carolina following Cornwallis’ early victories. Lee provides blow by blow, movement by movement accounts of the Battle of Cowpens, King’s Mountain, and Guilford Court House which make for tedious reading.
The turning point for the continentals was at Cowpens. At that point, Cornwallis still outnumbered Gen. Nathaniel Greene’s forces. However, a brilliant ploy of faking a retreat and drawing the British into heavy fire cost the British dearly. Reinforced, Greene had the advantage of numbers at Guiford Court House and slaughtered many of the British troops before leaving the field.
Stiles points out that history records these battles as defeats for the Continental Army because they fled from the field. But Greene was simply employing Washington’s strategy of attrition. Greene had to preserve his army and his men while slowing the British advance and draw them forward. There stretched supply lines were easy picking for militia snipers and these Minutemen of the south made Cornwallis’ life miserable. Greene may have lost all the battles, but he won the war by simply killing more British soldiers than he lost among his own men. After brutalizing Cornwallis in North Carolina, Greene’s army headed north into Virginia. On his way was Gen. Washington’s army as they headed for the conclusive battle at Yorktown.
Tactical maps as visual aids would have been helpful in understanding this chapter better. Lee and Tarleton use many landmarks as reference points and it would have helped to have some sort of reference points to work with to better understand the tactics they employed.
It was at Yorktown that the decisive battle (actually, more of a siege) was fought. Stiles shows how the British generals in charge, Clinton and Cornwallis, could not agree or coordinate any sort of strategy to conquer the American south.
Through various documents produced by the two generals, we see each trying to absolve themselves of blame for the failure. Clinton could not understand why Cornwallis fled north after winning “victories” at Guilford Court House and Cowpens. Cornwallis was angry that Clinton had provided no support for his army who won the field in those two battles, but saw their numbers decimated.
Cornwallis fled from North Carolina to Yorktown, hoping the British fleet there would provide him support. Unfortunately, the fleet at Yorktown was not as strong as Cornwallis had hoped and what fleet was there was poorly led in battle.
Meanwhile, Continental generals Greene and Washington experienced a stroke of good luck. The French agreed to sail their fleet north toward Yorktown and keep it there for a limited time. Stiles provides a letter from Washington detailing how he planned to move his army south, quickly, while maintaining supply lines. He begged the French for just two more weeks to allow him to get there to reinforce Greene and capture Cornwallis’ army. The French granted the extension.
Captain James Duncan of the Continental Army provides a daily account of the siege of Yorktown where the British made a last stand. Duncan’s diary reveals that, for a last stand, very little fighting actually occurred on land. The battle was decided at sea where the French navy was simply better coordinated than the British navy which had commanded the seas for generations.
Stiles concludes his exploration of the American Revolution through primary documents by excerpting the journal of John Adams as the colonial delegates in Paris hammered out a peace accord with the British.
The primary issues were fishing rights off of Nova Scotia (valued by the Americans), the property rights of British loyalists living in America, and of course, territorial boundaries.
The Americans won on the issue of territorial boundaries. They acknowledged Spain’s claim to West Florida (now the state of Florida) and won navigation rights on the Mississippi River. The French got Canada.
Even before the Constitution, the republican principles of American governance shown as Benjamin Franklin, Adams, and the other American delegates refused to acknowledge the rights of property for Tories. That, they stated, would be left to the individual states to decide. The Continental Congress could not bargain away that right.
Stiles also includes Washington’s Farewell Address to his troops. It reveals that Washington was not romantic about war (most military men are not). He thanks God for his providence in bringing his army through the war to victory and acknowledges the help of his generals and other subordinates. Not a man of flowery prose was George Washington.
Stiles’ book relies too heavily on two few resources. Granted, John Adams was a prolific writer and chronicler of daily events. His journal provides invaluable insight into the political struggle to bring about independence. But others perceived events differently than Adams and John Adams was a man known to sometimes have a singular perception of events. Certainly other sources such as letters of participants in the first and second continental congresses could have been drawn upon to illustrate the debates within those legendary bodies.
The documenting of troop movements in the south was dry and boring. Letters from soldiers, both British and American, that described battles from the perspective of the grunt, or camp life, or some human aspect of the war would have better served Stiles.