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Victory at Yorktown: The Campaign That Won the Revolution.

Victory at Yorktown: The Campaign That Won the Revolution by Richard M. Ketchum. Henry Holt and Company (, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10010, 2004, 368 pages, $27.50 (hardcover).


Luck, fortuitous circumstances, and British incompetence combined to make possible the American victory in the Revolutionary War. In his latest book, Richard M. Ketchum conveys the harshness of the American War for Independence; the way it dragged on, one step ahead of complete American exhaustion; and the constant good fortune that cast its shadow on the Continental Army.

The indecisiveness and sensitive egos of the three primary British actors--Gen Henry Clinton, Gen Charles Cornwallis, and Adm Marriot Arbuthnot--were particularly helpful to the American cause. Their obstinacy brought effective British joint operations to a halt during the summer of 1781. Vague orders and requests along with the absence of unified command provided the Americans and their French allies an opportunity to surround and compel the surrender of Cornwallis's army. While the British held meetings, the armies of George Washington and Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, moved aggressively toward the goal of pinning down Cornwallis on a peninsula with his back to the sea so that the French Navy might have the opportunity to seal off Cornwallis's only avenue of escape. Because two French admirals were willing to coordinate, take risks, and fight, the Royal Navy lost a battle and gave maritime superiority of the Virginia coast to the French during October. Ketchum is at his best when explaining how all of these pieces fell into place in order for the siege at Yorktown to result in a strategically decisive victory. He also explains how the war limped on for two more years--a good lesson for the reading public, who equates Yorktown with the end of the war.

Ketchum provides examples of how the American war effort had been reeling in the years prior to Yorktown. Congress was bankrupt and unable to pay Continental soldiers; thus, fewer of them stayed in Washington's army each campaigning season. Here, the author should have made his case more boldly. Instead of hammering home how dire conditions were for the Revolution during 1779-80, he interrupts that story with interesting vignettes, weakening the thrust of his narrative. Descriptions of the British Army's scorched-earth policy, Benedict Arnold's treason, and mutinies by veteran soldiers are compelling enough on their own. Stories of "bundling" and the capture of a young Andrew Jackson, while fascinating, detract from two of his more important and powerful themes: America was losing, and atrocities characterized the British conduct of the war. At times Ketchum's narrative is hard to follow because he jumps around chronologically without flagging events sufficiently. He also tends to neglect using much of the recent scholarship on the Revolutionary War. For instance, the Newburgh Conspiracy helps him make his case that the Continental Army was on the verge of collapse just as the country was about to win the peace in 1783, but he does not reference Richard Kohn's standard work on Newburgh. Ketchum also relies on dated interpretations of the strategic influence of the Saratoga Campaign and does not grapple with Jonathan Dull's argument that Maj Gen Horatio Gates's victory did not convince the French to ally themselves with the United States; rather, they were just waiting until their fleet was ready before going to war. His description of the Battle of Cowpens would have benefited from the work of Lawrence Babits.

When Ketchum finally begins to discuss the Yorktown Campaign in chapter 6, he engagingly recounts how events came together to seal Cornwallis's fate; his writing sweeps the reader through the buildup to the siege. This half of the book shines. Ketchum's narrative takes one into the haughty correspondence among the British flag officers and brings events on the ground to life. He builds images of the siege, bombardment, and surrender that are so evocative that one wishes the book were longer. Victory at Yorktown puts the reader into the trenches and paints mental pictures of the battles in which one sees the efforts of daring sappers, charging infantry, and suffering soldiers as if on a walking tour of the battle site. Although the subtitle is misleading--it is not strictly a campaign history--this book still merits a wide readership.

It also contains critical lessons for today's military officers and policy makers. The British generals gave greater priority to protecting their own imperatives than to subordinating their egos to their king's goals, while the French were so focused on winning that General Rochambeau accepted being placed under the command of a revolutionary general. Likewise, because General Washington wanted to win the war, he was willing to accept help from a country he did not fully trust. In pursuit of national objectives, commanders simply have to numb themselves to perceived insults and do whatever is necessary to communicate and coordinate efforts toward the common goal, even with disagreeable colleagues. General Clinton, in particular, refused to take responsibility for the course of the war, and General Cornwallis was defeated as a consequence. These are timeless lessons for war fighters.

Dr. Michael E. Weaver Maxwell AFB, Alabama
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Author:Weaver, Michael E.
Publication:Air & Space Power Journal
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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