Six years ago, Rick Atkinson published The Guns at Last Light, the final volume of his brilliant, award-winning Liberation Trilogy, a narrative history of Americans in combat during World War II. This month, Atkinson returns with The British Are Coming, the first volume of the Revolution Trilogy, a history of the American Revolutionary War. This book is, in a word, fantastic. It offers all the qualities that we have come to expect from the author: deep and wide research, vivid detail, a blend of voices from common soldiers to commanders, blazing characterizations of the leading personalities within the conflict and a narrative that flows like a good novel.
The British Are Coming begins in 1775 with the lead-up to the battles of Lexington and Concord and ends in January 1777 after the battles of Trenton and Princeton. Many of us have heard of these places, and some of us have visited them. One of the many virtues of Atkinson’s skill as a researcher and writer is that he is able to strip away contemporary accretions and give readers a tactile sense of those times and lands.
Few of the Founding Fathers appear in these pages; they are off in Philadelphia writing their declarations and acts of the Continental Congress. But Ben Franklin, nearing 70, makes an arduous winter journey to Quebec as the Americans try and disastrously fail to split Canada away from Great Britain. Then there is Henry Knox, an overweight bookseller who turns out to be a brilliant artillery strategist. And the brothers Howe, leaders of the British Army and Navy, waver between punishing their enemies and treating them lightly to coax them back into the arms of the mother country.
Towering above them all is George Washington, famous for his physical grace and horsemanship. During much of this time, he is such a failure that some officers plot against him, and he fears being dismissed as the military leader. Under his leadership, the army retreats again and again and again. The enemy mocks Washington, ironically calling him “the old fox.” He must beg soldiers to stay when their enlistments expire. He endures.
One of this book’s great achievements is that it gives readers the visceral sense of just how much the American forces endured. It’s moving to read accounts from soldiers who slept on the snow and frozen ground with their bare feet to a fire, then rose and marched without shoes or jackets to cross the icy Delaware River on Christmas night 1776 to rout British-paid mercenaries in Trenton. The British Are Coming is a superb ode to the grit and everyday heroism that eventually won the war.