Monday, May 1, 2017

Non-Fiction Book Review
Victory at Yorktown: The Campaign that Won the Revolution
Richard M. Ketchum
 
What many people find disturbing about the general populace today is their lack of knowledge of our country’s past. Certainly an understanding of how our country came to be is essential for us to be clear-sighted citizens.

The historical information that “Victory at Yorktown” provides is targeted for adult readers more than it is people of high school age. Reading the book and appreciating its content require a discipline that I believe high school age readers have not yet sufficiently developed. They would benefit more from reading accurate historical fiction.

If the reader is patient, if he reads each chapter after a sufficient time has elapsed to allow him to return to “Victory at Yorktown” refreshed, he will be rewarded.

The book takes up the narrative of the military struggle between American and British forces in 1780, five years after redcoat soldiers and Massachusetts militiamen had fired at each other at Lexington and Concord. Ketchum must set the stage for what is to follow, a difficult task because he has so much to cover. I found the first two chapters and Chapter 4 rather dull, mainly because Ketchum had to present so much diverse information.  I wanted him to focus on two, three, or four aspects of all the information he presented. For instance, I wanted him to expand upon the civilian population’s "shocking indifference" toward the war.  A large segment of the American people had sided neither with the rebels nor with the British, finding fault with both. 
 
After Chapter 4, Ketchum’s narration became more concise and detail-oriented.
 
In Chapter 5 Ketchum did a fine job presenting Nathanael Greene’s and Daniel Morgan's backgrounds, essential detail that makes more believable the two Americans' successes as military leaders. Morgan's triumph at Cowpens is very well narrated. Detail like Cornwallis leaning too heavily on the tip of his sword and breaking it while listening to the news of Tarleton's defeat added interest.
 
Chapter 6 makes the important point that Washington and the French were willing to act, to take risks, while the British (General Clinton in particular) were not. Clinton was content to stay in New York rather than risk an engagement while Washington and Rochambeau were crossing the Hudson River on their way to Virginia. He could have destroyed Washington before Washington linked up with the French army, but he stayed put. To use a football saying, "He played not to lose." Admiral de Grasse was willing to risk encountering the British fleet by sailing from the West Indies to the Chesapeake. The French government upon Ben Franklin's prodding was willing to double down and contribute essential supplies and currency at a time when investing more in America could logically be viewed as wasting valuable resources. Washington was indeed a gambler, out of necessity, yes; but being a gambler was also, apparently, part of his nature, as he had demonstrated earlier in the war. As Ketchum points out, so many variables had to come together. Had they not, Washington's plan to defeat/capture Cornwallis's army would have failed.
 
Highlights of Chapter 7 were Rochambeau loaning Washington 20,000 dollars, the French impression of Philadelphia, the lines on page 166 about Philadelphia merchants wanting the war to continue and Americans showing "a certain deference to those with money," the importance of the West Indies, the crucial element of luck (favoring the French), and the sluggish Admiral Graves (whom General Howe had despised in 1775) being in command of the British fleet when it engaged de Grasse's ships. Not to be overlooked was the incredible ineptitude of the British high command.
 
In Chapter 11, his final chapter, Ketchum is at his best both in his selection of historical information and in the quality of his narration.  Ketchum's criticism of the British high command and George III was spot-on. Washington's special qualities shine through especially in this chapter. His farewell to his officers in New York was especially well written.
 
My appreciation of the author grew as I advanced through the book.  I took away a better appreciation of the extreme hardships suffered by those who served their states and their united cause, the absolute necessity of France’s assistance, George Washington’s indefatigability, integrity, and willingness to take chances, and the Continental Congress’s utter incapacity to govern. My awareness of the amazing incompetency of the British military leaders and the extreme obduracy of George III was reinforced.  I appreciated as well the role that chance played in the outcome of events, be it who lived or died or what broad opportunities were utilized or wasted. If no other conclusion stays with the reader, the one that should remain is that our forefathers were extremely fortunate to have won their independence. I wish most Americans today had that appreciation.