Book Review: Patriot Battles by Michael Stephenson
War may be Hell, nevertheless men love to read and write about war. Michael Stephenson is certainly equal to the task of writing about war professionally and passionately. It is obvious that he loves the writing, and if you enjoy military history, you'll love the reading.
Purpose of the Book
The subtitle of Patriot Battles is How the War of Independence Was Fought. The subtitle holds two keys to the book. The first is the purpose of the book: to answer the how question for all parties concerned in the war. The second is a key thesis of Stephenson's work: the war fought between the American colonies and their British brothers from 1775-1783 was actually quite conservative all things considered. That is, that it is better called the War of Independence than the Revolutionary War. It was essentially a change in management, from British to American, rather than a radical revolution in authority, society, and tradition. What he means is not that there were no radical ideas or results, indeed there were. Rather, the War was not accompanied by the mass upheaval, wide bloodshed, and chaotic shifts seen in later revolutions such as in France a few decades later or those throughout the 20th century.
Part One: The Nuts and Bolts of War
Patriot Battles is divided simply into two parts. The first, "The Nuts and Bolts of War," covers in 11 chapters the details of battle and war during the War of Independence. Stephenson succeeds at putting the reader in the place of the soldiers and leaders on both sides of the conflict. He provides a bluntly honest portrayal of their motives, weapons, equipment, and plight with a flair for iconoclasm. In fact, he enjoys this myth-busting, letting the reader know, for instance, that the Americans were rarely found in uniform "blue-and-buff," instead they were just happy to have cloths, coats, and shoes. The famed American rifleman, as deadly a shooter as he was, wasn't quite the favored warrior of imagination either, instead most commanders, Washington included, preferred the musket man.
Washington would have preferred to do otherwise than forced to in almost every way. Washington considered himself a Gentleman after the English-European tradition and deeply desired to fight in a European manner with national uniforms, bold battle plans, traditional tactics, and an aristocratic officer's class. But he didn't have any of those things and instead did very well with what he had. He also learned to play the Fox, something else he didn't really like-he would have preferred bold, open warfare-but he became very good at it. By the end of the war Washington neared his ideals, but by then, well, it was over.
Part Two: The Great Battles
The second half of the book, "The Great Battles," covers in brief the 18 key battles of the War of Independence. The order of battle, the battle's terrain, and the key movements for each are laid out in useful description. Interestingly enough, most of these battles were won by the British, whose Lobsterbacks and Hessians tended to take the field on most days though often at high price. The fact of the War is that the American patriots simply would not quit. Washington's subordinate and then later American commander during the War in the South, Nathanael Greene said, "We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again" (79). In the southern campaigns, for instance, the British fought ten major engagements. Stephenson says, "They 'won' seven of them and lost the war" (314).
The only criticism I have is the somewhat consistent comparison to America's current war in Iraq with the War of Independence. Stephenson believes that we have reversed roles in the ensuing centuries. George Bush has more likeness to George the III rather than George Washington. Stephenson may be right, and that what would perhaps make the thesis for a fine work of its own. However, I would prefer to keep the history books history as much as possible. This will limit the longevity of the work and its reception by many. Most are not picking the book up to hear an opinion about George W. Bush or the War in Iraq.
Strengths of the Work
There are several things which commend Stephenson's book. First, his writing is image-filled and connects with the contemporary reader. He has a solid, impacting style that communicates well. For instance, take the following passage on the rush of battle, the chance for glory, and the consequent exhaustion:
“Because there were only a very limited number of social roles open to them…heroism in battle provided at least an opportunity for recognition if not for glory.” The individual soldier in combat can be driven forward not only by training, the fear of retribution, and the pressures of his peers but also by a profound sense of the possibility of the heroic: what might be called “internal glory.” It is that moment—an adrenaline flash—when a man picks himself off the ground and rushes a strongly held enemy position. It is the moment when an extraordinary feat of courage overcomes terrible fear. But that stupendous, transforming, adrenaline rush comes with a price, a debilitating drain of energy that follows close on its heels. The nervous system is burned out, like an electrical surge frazzling a computer’s motherboard. The psychological and physical crash that follows battle to some extent explains the inability of generals to follow up victory with vigorous pursuit. The truth was that their men were spent." (89)
Second, Stephenson includes a great many facts of the war which explain many contemporary questions concerning the style of 18th century warfare. For instance, why did men stand in long lines just a football field away from each other and just fire away? That seems stupid and inconceivable to us today. The truth is, that as extremely horrific the experience was, the actual battle casualties were quite low because the weapons used were simply that ineffective. Men could stand in lines and shoot at each for hours and yet the rate of casualties be quite low. These tactics would of course cause horrific casualties when in subsequent decades the weapons were improved-as seen in the Napoleonic and Civil Wars.
Third, Stephenson provides many anecdotes which help to humanize the leaders and soldiers in the war and remove the dust of glory provided by two centuries. Many of these are about George Washington. Though many of these may seem to idolize Washington, most of them are simple records of what really happened, and it could be that Washington was, well, great. His bravery and courage were well-noted during the war, as this passage shows:
“During the assault, the British kept up an incessant firing of cannon and musketry from their whole line. His Excellency General Washington, Generals Lincoln and Knox, with their aids, having dismounted, were standing in an exposed situation waiting the result. Colonel Cobb, one of Washington’s aids, solicitous for his safety, said to His Excellency, “Sir, you are too much exposed here. Had you not better step a little back?”
“Colonel Cobb,” replied His Excellency, “if you are afraid you have liberty to step back.””
- Recorded by Dr. James Thacher at the battle of Yorktown (72).
As well as this one, which has as it's backdrop the near revolt of the American officer corps at the end of the war:
“On 10 March 1783 two anonymous declarations of grievances—the Newburgh Addresses—were circulated among the officers of Newburgh, New York. In a striking way the addresses echo the language of patriot revolt against Britain itself, except America was now the oppressor: ‘A country that tramples upon your rights, disdains your cries and insults your distresses.’ In order to head off the insurgents, Washington preempted a meeting they had called and, with a brilliant coup de theatre—reaching for his glasses, he said, ‘Gentlemen you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray, but almost blind in the service of my country.’—he won them over. The office corps returned to what it had always been during the war: loyal to the nation beyond all reasonable expectation and more steadfast in republican ideals than most of the people it served.” (78)
In the end, I commend to you Patriot Battles.