Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The British Are Coming - by Rick Atkinson

This book is the first of a trilogy of the American Revolution.  I am reading it aloud with my sister, we haven't finished it yet (are halfway through), but I want to write a review now as I know the book is just being released and I want to recommend it.  We are really enjoying it.   

The book takes you chapter by chapter through the war, each usually focusing on a different place either in America or other countries (Canada and Britain).  The book takes you, in a detailed way, through the war.  Focusing on various battles, moving you around the scope of the war so that you can observe the various conflicts, battles and political discussions and decisions in various places and on both sides of the conflict.

The author introduces you to various people involved, Including Franklin, Washington, Adams, and men on the other side, like King George III, Generals Gage, Howe, Carleton and Burgoyne. And you don't just get acquainted with the famous people, also lesser known people, some of whom live and some of whom die.

Atkinson is an excellent writer. While keeping a high level overview of the history, he still manages to pull you in and make you feel for the people involved and, in a way, makes you feel that you are viewing events with them.  I think that part of how he manages to pull that off is because he peppers his sentences and paragraphs with snippet quotations from official documents and the writings (from letters and diaries) of individual people of that era, contemporary eyewitnesses and commentators.  He'll of often start a sentence off in his own words and then conclude it, or intersperse it, with snippet quotes from a person involved.  Here are a couple of samples:

"Books and manuscripts fed British stoves, and many officers agreed with Captain Glanville Evelyn, who told his father he hoped all of Boston burned 'that we may be enabled to leave it.'"

"Prescott was among the last to escape, 'stepping long, with his sword up,' parrying bayonet thrusts that snagged his banyan but not his flesh.  Peter brown scrambled over the wall and ran for half a mile; musket balls, he told his mother, 'few like hail stones'  Captain Bancroft fought his way out, first with a musket butt, then with his fists, bullets nicking his hat and coat and shearing off his left forefinger.  Corporal Farnsworth of Groton would tell his diary, 'I received a wound in my right arm…'"

 It was fascinating to observe the actions and thoughts on both sides of the conflict. As I said, this book is very interesting. Seeing the big picture and learning about the little details as well.  It was really hitting me, perhaps more than ever before, that waging war back then was a really tough thing to do.  Not only did one have to make sure one was supplied well with arms, munition, food, clothing..etc.  But also one had to battle the elements and disease.  One of the biggest enemies of the Americans was the Smallpox.  It really started devastating the American troops in Canada, it was horrible reading about how they couldn't help the people dying of smallpox, lying in their dying moments infested with maggots and other vermin.  It was simply horrible thinking about dying like that.  The men had to battle unique individual ailments as well.  Such as kidney stones and headaches.  It's funny…I never really thought about that before, that a headache or an attack of  kidney stones could take key officers out of a battle, or just make it much harder to deal with the pressures they already faced.  It's sort of a 'duh' thought, but I had just not considered it before.

Many other little details were fascinating too.  Even lists of things were interesting. Lists of stockpiles of food and supplies, lists of dumped and destroyed things (so that the enemy couldn't utilize it). And then other details, for instance, apparently Benjamin Franklin had advocated that the military use the Longbow, which struck me as odd at first, but then made more sense because it took the guns of the day so long to be loaded.  His proposal was rejected though.  And then, as I believe I've mentioned, the authors include mentions of many people's opinions and perspectives from that time period, even briefly mentioning one man in particular whom I never quite associated with the events in America, the preacher John Wesley.  He was against the Americans but not sure about using force to bring them around.  Things like that just made it seem more real.

There are bits that are somewhat funny as well, like this snippet: "The western riflemen typically wore deerskin trousers and leaf-dyed hunting shirts, with a buck's tail affixed to the hat and a scalping knife sheathed on the belt.  Many had 'liberty or death' printed in  large white script over their hearts, although one young rifleman admitted to preferring  'liberty or wounded'."

Anyway, I should end this now as I want to recommend this book, not write a book about it myself.  All in all, this book is very, very interesting and informative. Quite an intriguing learning experience.

Many thanks to the folks at Henry Holt (via a LibraryThing giveaway) for sending me a free advanced review copy of this book (My review did not have to be favorable).  Since my copy was an advanced copy, the content of the published version may not be exactly the same as the copy I have.

*Some people may want to know that there is some foul language and blasphemy in this book (Mainly from direct quotations of people at the time).  Also, I did not agree with all of the author's political views (For instance, his comment that American's had and have a "penchant for subjugating those deemed in need of deliverance"?)  But I am able to overlook it and focus on the history.

This book may be purchased at

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