Bestselling author and National Book Award winner Nathaniel Philbrick subtitles his latest history “The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown.” But it could just as accurately be, “the frustrations of George Washington.” Six years into the Revolutionary War, it was still a toss-up as to whether the American rebels or the British crown would prevail.
General Washington, still quartered in New York in 1781, realized that the revolutionaries’ success depended on the difficult task of coordinating with the French navy and persuading them to heed his strategies. But French intransigence wasn’t the totality of Washington’s worries. His troops were resentful at going unpaid, and the colonies were notoriously parsimonious in funding the larger war effort. Then there were the abiding distractions of the general’s inflamed gums, rotting teeth and failing eyesight.
Drawing on letters, journals and sea logs, Philbrick manages to impart the immediacy of breaking news to his descriptions of marches, skirmishes and battles. From describing crucial shifts in the wind during naval conflicts to detailing the unimaginable horror of war wounds, he places the reader in the midst of the fray. The successful three-week siege of Yorktown, Virginia, in the fall of 1781 effectively won the war for Washington and humbled his tenacious adversary Lord Cornwallis.
The most tragic figures, however, were the slaves who joined the British in a bid to ensure their own liberation. As the siege tightened, Cornwallis decided that “despite having promised the former slaves their freedom, dwindling provisions required that he jettison them from the fortress” and into the hands of their former masters.
In the Hurricane’s Eye is illustrated with an array of useful maps and a section that reveals what happened to the principal American, French and British players after the war.
This article was originally published in the November 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.