The British Are Coming
By Rick Atkinson
Henry Holt, 2019
Readers who loved Rick Atkinson’s bestselling Liberation Trilogy will have a good idea what to expect from the author’s new book. The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777 is the first installment in the Revolution Trilogy, promising an in-depth look at the battles and campaigns that won American independence.
This first volume, “The British Are Coming,” covers the well-trod territory of the Revolution’s beginnings, and all such accounts - from Henry Beebe Carrington’s military narrative published in 1881 to Thomas Fleming’s surprise 1960 Bunker Hill bestseller Now We Are Enemies to Robert Middlekauff’s seminal 1982 book The Glorious Cause, the first volume in the Oxford History of the United States.
The story never loses its power to amaze: the ordinary citizens, farmers, and merchants of the British colonies (a “race of convicts,” in Samuel Johnson’s pugnacious phrase), goaded by a series of acts of the British Parliament designed to tame their growth and punish their presumption (the Coercive Acts, the Boston Port Act, the Quartering Act, each more insulting than the one before it, and with no end in sight), eventually summon the will to revolt. They put forward civic and military leaders, hastily equip armies, and desperately prepare to put up a fight against some of the finest military forces in the Western world. As Kevin Phillips puts it in his 2012 book 1775: A Good Year for Revolution, “No colonial riffraff could hope to stand up to the professional armies of the world’s preeminent imperium.”
30 ships of the British Navy were patrolling the New England sector; General William Howe took command in 1775; eight militiamen were killed on Lexington Green on April 19, 1775; events began to move with catapulting speed. Atkinson’s decision to play the whole narrative out at the more leisurely pace that allows for detailed consideration is a wise one - and virtually unprecedented, a product of the goodwill generated by this author’s previous trilogy. Instead of synopsizing these crucial first two years of the Revolution, from that blooding at Lexington through the dark days of the siege of Boston and the evacuation of Manhattan, right down to George Washington’s surprising and pivotal victory at Princeton, Atkinson’s more generous ambit allows him to pause for mood and tenor, as when the British relentlessly pursuing Colonial troops down the length of Manhattan decide to add a humiliating flourish:
Alerted to the gunfire, Washington rode to the rim of the heights, where shortly after nine a.m Colonel Reed found him squinting at enemy light infantrymen massing below the Hollow Way, a shallow dale a mile south that angled west toward the Hudson shoreline. As Reed explained the morning’s action, the derisive blare of a British hunting horn could be heard above the treetops, sounding the call for a fox under chase. “I never felt such a sensation before,” Reed would tell Esther. “It seemed to crown our disgrace.”
The British Are Coming is naturally a triumph, the first salvo in what promises to be the definitive history of the American Revolution. It’s scrupulously researched and warmly, endlessly readable, a book to hand both to Revolution aficionados and newcomers to the subject. It has no pre-ordained heroes or villains, but it teems with memorably three-dimensional characters. Even so crowded a field as Revolution studies must now make room.
--Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The National, The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.