Book Review: 1781: The Decisive Year of the Revolutionary War
Paul Robinson cracks open a book by Robert L. Tonsetic that points out the important year of 1781 in the American Revolutionary War.
The American War of Independence, as we call it on this side of the pond, is one of those periods in military history that I have never really got around to looking at in any real detail. I studied the basics at school (the advantages of doing a two year course on eighteenth and nineteenth century British political history) so I know the story, sort of - folks throwing tea in the sea in Boston one minute, the next we Brits appear to have lost one of the future world superpowers oops! However this book is a great one to give an easy way into the Revolutionary War and I would recommend it as such.
The author, Robert L. Tonsetic is a retired U.S. Army Colonel and a graduate of the University of Central Florida. And somewhat surprisingly, given the subject matter of this offering, his earlier books are about the Vietnam War (for example Days of Valor: an Inside Account of the Bloodiest Six Months of the Vietnam War) and not about the Revolution. Having said that despite the differences in technology, the just over two hundred year time difference and the apparently different geographies the similarities between the two conflicts are there to see (an "Imperial" power operating far from home, the opposition consisting of irregulars supported by a small but well trained force of conventional troops and a relatively narrow strategic area of operations bounded on one side by the sea and the other by rugged and mountainous terrain). Whilst this comparison is not the subject of this particular book one can immediately see why an author who has previously written about the Vietnam War would want to tackle the Revolutionary War!
It is obvious from the title that this isn't a history of the whole war but concentrates on what the author considers the key year of the war; as Tonsetic says in the prologue "This book traces the events of one of those rare years in American history when the fate of the nation hung in the balance", as key as 1865 and 1945. I have to say I might have gone further and said this was one of those even rarer moments - a key year in world history. The prologue briefly brings us up-to-date with the events of 1780 and what the strategic position was as the year in question begins. And a year that ended with almost total victory for the Americans started rather glumly for the Patriots.
The book is divided into three parts, thirteen chapters and an epilogue. The first part over its seven chapters takes us through the gloom of winter via the Battle of Cowpens to March and the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. Part two over three chapters takes us largely through the operations in the Southern theatre and ends with the Battle of Eutaw Springs. Part three over the final three chapters deals with the lead up to and the siege and surrender of Yorktown. The epilogue is a rather nice touch giving a one paragraph summary of what some of the key figures in the book (eg Lord Cornwallis and Major General Nathaniel Greene) did after the war.
Even if 1781 was not such a pivotal one you can see that this year basically plots itself as a story - the dark and gloomy beginnings, hope in the Carolinas, some exciting battles, the villains in the form of "Bloody" Tarleton and Benedict Arnold, some helpful foreigners (the French) and then the final action sequence in the form of a big siege that, from an American point of view, ends in victory for the good guys - and thus translates very neatly as a stand alone book.
Mr. Tonsetic has a really clear, vivid writing style. There is little fuss or bother in the way he writes and he brings just the right amount of human interest into the manoeuvring of armies and the machinations of generals by picking out individuals and their actions (sometimes just simple soldiers, not just the great and the good) and timely quotes from accounts of the time. Also, in the manner of a classic Tom Clancy novel (well almost) he knows just when to leave the action in one location to bring the reader up to speed with what is happening elsewhere. I found this a very easy to read but did not think that any of the detail or feel of the action was lost. Also as a Limey (don't hold that against me!) I found that the book has a slight American bias, but there is nothing wrong with that (after all, you won). However the British aren't exactly depicted as devils incarnate and the American Patriot forces are not shown to be all angels! So nothing to chaff about really.
The descriptions of the main battles and the siege of Yorktown are supported by some excellent black and white maps, which very clearly show the movements of both sides. It is one of the advantages of the Revolutionary War that compared with contemporary Europe or the later fields of the American Civil war the battles are relatively small and thus it is very easy to follow the movements of the troop and appreciate the lay of the land.
The book is also supported by a glossy central section of contemporary and modern art showing some of the personalities, battles, buildings and soldiers of the period (plus three of photographs of the Yorktown site as it is today). These are all in black and white and are typical fare for a book such as this and add helpful depth.
The only downside of the book really is that to get the best out of it you probably need to know something of the origins of the revolutionary war and an outline of the conflict up to 1780/1781. However I found even with my basic and somewhat hazy knowledge I still found it an exciting read, worthy of attention in its own right!
I enjoyed this so much that I intend to seek out Mr. Tonsetic's earlier books on Vietnam and find myself a broader history of the Revolutionary War; I assume we will have lost in that one as well!
1781: The Decisive Year of the Revolutionary War is available now in hardback from Casemate, priced £20.00 or $32.95 (ISBN 9781612000633)
Book review written by: Paul Robinson, Staff Writer