Thursday, January 31, 2019

In The Offing: Washington's Coup de Grace a la Francaise

A Review of Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Hurricane's Eye

Viking, 2018, 366 Pages

By A.J. Orlikoff
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

Nathaniel Philbrick, in In the Hurricane's Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown, provides a remarkable and important reinterpretation of the fateful Yorktown campaign which ultimately delivered the United States independence from Great Britain. Monographs regarding the military history of the American Revolution are many, yet few help crystallize these heavily studied events in a new light in the way Philbrick does. Philbrick contributes a re-conceptualization of the Revolution as both a conflict between powerful European states and a war upon which the contour and outcome of was highly dependent on the war at sea. Consequently, Philbrick argues that it was the French and their naval power which were the ultimate arbiters of American independence. Indeed, Philbrick writes clearly and soberly of “…the bitter truth… that by the summer of 1781, the American Revolution had failed.” In doing so, Philbrick explicitly and tacitly argues for a reinterpretation of the American Revolution as primarily a French victory with the Americans, “…a fly on the back of the elephant.” However, Philbrick argues that the man who understood this most was none other than George Washington and that his understanding of the importance of French naval strength facilitated the victory at Yorktown.
The cover of In the Hurricane's Eye is a modified version of a painting hanging in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum gallery. The Navy Art Collection/ Naval History and Heritage Command receives due credit for this use of this image on the dust jacket, yet the original painting’s presence at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum was left out of the credits.  (
In the Hurricane’s Eye is a branching military overview of the Yorktown campaign punctuated by a focus on important and influential individuals. Many readers will recognize names such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benedict Arnold, Charles Cornwallis, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Alexander Hamilton, yet many often overlooked individuals such as Spanish diplomat Francisco Saaverda and American General Nathaniel Greene receive due credit for their accomplishments. Notable events in relation to the development of the Yorktown campaign are covered in a detailed and clear chronological narrative. These events culminate with the Battle of the Chesapeake Capes and the Siege of Yorktown, where all the moving parts in the complex web of Philbrick’s narrative succinctly converge. 

Philbrick’s work triumphantly succeeds in a number of important ways. In the Hurricane’s Eye stands as an excellent example of journalistic scholarship. Though the author chooses not to utilize citation, Philbrick draws from an impressive array of sources to construct the story of the Yorktown campaign. The author’s extensive and detailed notes on sources stand as a credit to Philbrick’s scholarship. Philbrick also writes with a journalistic flair that is sometimes hard to find in well-researched historical scholarship. This eminent and impressive aspect of Philbrick’s work makes the In the Hurricane’s Eye equally accessible to both serious historical researchers and casual readers, something more historians should strive to achieve.

This engraving by Berthet currently on display in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum gallery depicts Yorktown as having palm trees and gently sloping mountains in the distance.  (Photo by M.C. Farrington/ Courtesy of the Naval Historical Foundation)
In the Hurricane’s Eye is not without some fault. Philbrick’s effusive praise for George Washington breaks with traditional scholarship regarding the planning for the Battle of Yorktown, arguing that Washington’s fixation on New York as an avenue for attack was appropriate given what he knew despite both French senior commanders, The Comte de Grasse and the Comte de Rochambeau, favoring an attack in the Chesapeake Bay. Philbrick excuses Washington’s beliefs as the correct course of action despite Washington eventually being persuaded by the French to abandon his plan. Though Philbrick is right to commend Washington’s overall strategic acumen, Philbrick stretches this conclusion to cover what many historians argue are Washington’s mistakes. In addition, Philbrick credits Washington as a military genius due to him wanting to achieve naval supremacy over the British when that was an obvious course to every senior military commander in theater.
"Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown," an engraving by Hinshalwood on display in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum's gallery, gives the French, at left, equal prominence with the Americans on the right as the British, hats doffed, approach on foot in the center to surrender. (Photo by M.C. Farrington)
Philbrick also notably criticizes the Comte de Grasse. Though some of Philbrick’s criticisms of the French naval commander have merit, such as Philbrick’s assertion that De Grasse poorly organized his fleet when they sortied out of the Chesapeake Bay to attack the British, Philbrick departs from standard accounts and argues that De Grasse was a poor naval commander who was too aggressive and impetuous. For example, the author fails to mention that the reason De Grasse rapidly moved to engage the British fleet off the Chesapeake Capes was due to the expected arrival of De Barras’ much smaller squadron, which De Grasse believed would be annihilated by the larger British fleet at will if he didn’t deploy his forces. This lack of context casts de Grasse as far more aggressive and foolish than he was. Furthermore, this lack of context in articulating de Grasse’s action or lack thereof continues throughout the narrative, such as when Philbrick fails to mention that de Grasse’s defeat at the Battle of the Saintes was caused by two subordinate officers who disobeyed his direct orders. The overly effusive praise for Washington and overly harsh criticism of De Grasse deprive In the Hurricane’s Eye of a consistently measured interpretative voice.

Overall, Philbrick’s In the Hurricane’s Eye is a triumph of contemporary and sober historical scholarship. Philbrick’s work is among the rare historical monographs that resonates at multiple levels. It’s persuasive without being revisionist, scholarly without being moribund, and illuminating without being excessive. Philbrick’s interpretation of the importance of the French, particularly their navy, as among the most important factors leading to American victory are necessary to understanding the true story of American independence. Thus, In the Hurricane’s Eye should be considered an essential read for both Revolutionary War scholars and anyone interested in the campaign which won the United States’ independence.

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