Two of the most consistent "facts" taught in American History classes are that the Civil War ended with Lee's surrender at Appomattox, and Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown put the Revolutionary War into the Yankees' victory column.
But it ain't necessarily so
As Jay Winik showed in his brilliant April 1865, Lee surrendered only one of the three Confederate armies in the field, and drawn-out guerrilla warfare in the Southern countryside was a distinct possibility. It was a tribute to Lee's leadership and the American spirit in general that the terrible things that happened in the aftermath of nearly every other civil war in history did not happen here.
Now, in The Perils of Peace: America's Struggle for Survival after Yorktown Thomas Fleming shows that the outcome of the Revolution was also seriously in doubt after the colonials' "decisive" victory. Even with the loss of Corwallis' army at Yorktown, the British had advantages they could have pressed in nearly every military and economic arena and possessed the capability to strangle the nascent nation in its crib.
That it did not happen is largely due to the superhuman efforts of one man: George Washington.
The Perils of Peace could be considered Volume Two in Fleming's exploration of George Washington, Politician.
Historians tend to divide Washington's public life into two phases: General and President, and they apply Washington's political savvy to the latter portion of his life. Bothhere and in Washington's Secret War, Fleming explores Washington's considerable political skills during the war and an aftermath that was far more precarious than most realize.
What emerges in both books is yet another reason Washington should be considered The Indispensable American. Through the sheer force of his will, using his moral standing as either a blunt instrument or a sharp rapier and employing hitherto unexplored political maneuvers, Washington nearly single-handedly held the Revolution and the incipient nation together against all odds.
In fact, keenly aware of Britain's strategic advantages, Washington put considerable effort into quashing the general feeling of "mission accomplished" in Yorktown's wake, instead warning of a long hard slog ahead.
Even Washington's letter to the president of the Continental Congress modestly stated: "Sir, I have the honor to inform Congress that a reduction of the British Army under the command of Lord Cornwallis is most happily effected." The word victory is never mentioned.
And Washington had plenty to worry about. Had the Royal Navy not been under the command of Prime Minister Lord North's inept cousin, Admiral Graves, who ignored Admiral Samuel Hood's advice to press his advantage, Corwallis could have been saved. The French navy had now sailed off to the West Indies, where it was soundly thrashed by the Brits.
In South Carolina, meanwhile, a brutal civil war still raged between Loyalists and Patriots (events mirrored in the Mel Gibson film, The Patriot). While the British Army was staying out, the threat remained that the colony would join the Loyalist resurgence.
In addition, the Redcoats still held a heavily fortified and garrisoned New York, and the Americans did not begin to have the numbers to do anything about it.
Things also looked dark on the foreign affairs front. King George swore to not give up "an acre" of his "dominion," and the French seemed ready to let the Americans stand or fall on their own.
However there were two great men on America's side: Benjamin Franklin in Paris and Edmund Burke in Britain, the parliamentary thorn in King George's side.
In London, while the king and Lord North pushed to pursue the war against the Americans and refused to grant independence, Burke foiled them at every turn. Burke, now considered a patron saint of conservatism, wanted liberty both for his American cousins and for Ireland. He eventually toppled the North government and passed a resolution ending offensive force by the British Army in America.
In Paris, Franklin took the opposite tack from Washington, playing the Yorktown victory for all it was worth to keep the French -- weary of the American effort and eager to fight the British over more immediately profitable territories -- from completely dropping their support. The French court also was worried, justifiably so, about how the American revolutionary rhetoric of liberty would play among its own downtrodden citizenry.
Again, it was the Marquis de Lafayette who rode to the rescue of the Revolution, helping Franklin secure some much needed loans and throwing his weight behind Franklin in the peace negotiations. The peace talks themselves were a complex affair. Besides the United States of America (a name the English representatives steadfastly refused to use) and Britain, the French and even the Spanish were involved, which severely complicated matters.
At home, the Continental Congress was less than a joke, with pathetic numbers attending sessions. The currency was hyperinflated -- the price of a horse had risen to $150,000 -- and men on errands for Washington had to rely on the kindness of strangers for food and lodging. The Continental Army was on the brink of mutiny, having been unpaid for years.
Every schoolchild knows (or at least used to) that high-ranking officers urged Washington to seize dictatorial powers after independence was achieved, and textbooks usually report that he grandly and easily turned down the offer.
But Fleming brings fresh insight to Washington's decision by placing it in the context of the times. The postwar chaos and a genuine threat of anarchy in the face of a potent enemy made Washington wonder if temporary dictatorial powers were necessary for the country's survival in view of the unrest the inept Continental Congress was creating.
After suppressing a near-mutiny of his officers, Washington wrote in both anger and sorrow to Congress, urging it to pay his men the money owed to them. If Congress failed to act, he noted, "then shall I have learned what ingratitude is" and it would "embitter every moment of my future life."
Congress not only failed to pay the men, but some of the politicians also smeared the officers as greedy aristocrats before sending them home penniless. Still, Washington refused to abandon his vision of why the Revolution had been fought: to found a nation of free men
Ultimately, however, it was Washington's decision to resign that sent shockwaves throughout the capitals of the world. It wasn't just his refusal to seize total power, but also his determination to go home to Mount Vernon once the nation seemed safe and secure that baffled the monarchs and despots of Europe and beyond. Washington's move made headlines from London to Vienna and restored America's battered international prestige.
Washington's first farewell is a speech that can bring tears, no matter how familiar it has become, and Fleming makes the most of the emotional event that it was for the nation at the time.
Fleming provides a potent narrative for the events of these tumultuous two years by focusing on the characters involved and making the political battles between outsized personalities as vivid as those on the battlefield. Also a novelist of note, Fleming uses these skills to his advantage here, ending many chapters at cliffhanging points, then crossing the ocean to pick up another thread of the story, thus keeping the reader engaged and eager for more.
For years, Fleming has been reminding us that the success of the American Revolution was an extraordinary event that we should not take for granted. Now, that has become a primary theme of books on the Glorious Cause, with words like "Miracle" regularly showing up in their titles, and George Washington regaining his preeminent place in the narrative.
Once again, however, it is Fleming who breaks new ground in showing us just how much of the burden for success rested on the broad shoulders of Washington. Any historian who fails to place Washington at the top of a list of the greatest presidents should be laughed out of the room.
George Washington was not only the greatest president of the United States, he has no serious competition for the title of Greatest American. In fact, it would be hard to name a figure in the last millennium whose accomplishments affected the state of today's world more than those of Washington.
The recent spate of books on the Founding Fathers largely acknowledge this fact, but leave it to Thomas Fleming to take a fresh look at perhaps the most famous American and uncover new reasons to be thankful for this giant of history.