As I now read several new histories covering the War of American Independence each month, and am working through a 'favorites list" at Amazon that approaches 150 titles, I know I would value a list that pointed me toward the best in this genre. Since any such list will be subjective, let me begin by declaring my criteria. I wish to recognize works of Revolutionary War history that combine excellent scholarship, lively prose and fresh perspectives. Particularly in this historical period, there are ample opportunities to be the only full length treatment of a particular subject and still fall short of being definitive. Here is what stands out for me thus far.
- Spring, Mathew H (2008) With Zeal and Bayonets Only; The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775-1783; Campaigns and Commanders series, University of Oklahoma Press. This is that rare work of scholarship that makes the transition from PhD dissertation to popular publication and loses nothing in translation. Far from being stiff ranked automatons unable to contend with patriot potshots, the British made dramatic tactical adjustments to contend with terrain and irregular warfare in America. Fighting in open order, modifying uniforms to suit conditions in the field, using elite light infantry and grenadier units as shock troops and overwhelming American riflemen with rapid advances and the bayonet are just some of these innovations. While the German mercenaries who served with the British are not the subject of this work, it does suggest that they made fewer changes either in their marching step or uniform (aside from replacing breeches and stockings with gaitered overalls).
- Burrows, Edwin G. (2008) Forgotten Patriots; The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War; New York: Basic Press. Aside from the notorious prison hulk Jersey, which contrary to popular assertion was dedicated almost exclusively to nautical prisoners, little else is remembered in America today about the ghastly neglect and loss of life suffered by American prisoners of war during the Revolution. Burrows makes a strong case that historical estimates of prisoner deaths are dramatically short of the mark. "The impact on local communities was crushing. Of the thirty-six men from Litchfield, Connecticut who helped defend Fort Washington, four were killed and thirty-two taken prisoner. Twenty died in the prisons of New York, another six on the way home. Only six returned to Litchfield - six of the original thirty-six." The Sugar House and Provost Prison in New York deserve to be as infamous in American memory as Andersonville and Elmira were during the Civil War; the fact that they are not is one of the fascinating topics explored by Burrows in this groundbreaking work.
- Rose, Alexander (2006) Washington's Spies; The Story of America's First Spy Ring; New York: Bantam/Dell. In the opening chapters, Rose drops a bombshell that casts the Nathan Hale story in an entirely new light. He restores his captor, the celebrated and subsequently disgraced Robert Rogers of Rogers Rangers fame, to his proper place in the narrative. Rose also offers evidence for the Revolutionary equivalent of Mrs O'Leary's cow as the origin of the great New York Fire soon after British occupation. I enjoyed this book for these nuggets of history alone, but its treatment of the Culper Ring that provided Washington with intelligence from within British New York is fine scholarship and storytelling combined.
- Patton, Robert H. (2008) Patriot Pirates; The Privateer War for Freedom and Fortune in the American Revolution; New York: Random House. The grandson of the WWII commander spins a great yarn and comes down decisively on the side of the privateers as contributing at least as much, if not more, to winning American independence than Washington's army. For him, privateering offers a unique lens on the social and economic underpinnings of the American colonies and those who fought for independence for pecuniary as well as patriotic reasons. "It is often overlooked that in the years leading up to 1775 rising anger over Britain's restrictive trade policies coincided with an economic surge in the colonies. Americans were the most prosperous people in the world, and also the lowest taxed. In fiscal terms rebellion was inspired by ambition rather than hardship, by a desire not for financial freedom but for more financial freedom. This push for opportunity spurred people's envy of success, their scorn of failure, and their increasingly dubious view of their compatriots' integrity."
- Babits, Lawrence E. and Joshua B Howard (2009) Long, Obstinate and Bloody; The Battle of Guilford Courthouse; Chapel Hill, UNC Press. Babits and Howard do a masterful job of teasing out troop movements and casualties from hundreds of veteran pension records, treating participant accounts as artifacts. As such, they have created what will long stand as the definitive account of this confusing but highly significant battle, placing it solidly within the context of the southern campaigns of 1780-1781 and presented in a highly readable and well documented form.
- Fischer, David Hackett (1994) Paul Revere's Ride; Oxford; Oxford University Press. This is an older work by a superb historian that has stood the test of time. Fischer is as much interested in events as their causes, in contingencies shaped by individual choice and larger social contexts. As for the midnight rider, he becomes a far more intriguing character than the hero of Longfellow's well known poem, both before and well after the Lexington Alarm. As with all Fischer's books, the appendices are a trove of fascinating data and tables that add significantly to an already throughout historical treatment.
- Fischer, David Hackett (2004) Washington's Crossing; Oxford, Oxford University Press. Fischer deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for this one. This is a tour de force that takes an event well enshrined in American myth and restores it as outstanding history. Fischer treats the entire campaign of 1776 with great skill, with comprehensive examination of the content and character of the American, British and Hessian forces. Again, he is interested in choice and contingency. "The meeting of these armies was more than a clash of weapons and tactics. It became a conflict of ideas and institutions in which people made different choices - and chose differently."
There are several works that take on the American War of Independence as experienced by the the British and their allies. I found the best of these to be Stanley Weintraub's (2005) Iron Tears; America's Battle for Freedom, Britain's Quagmire: 1775-1783; New York; Free Press. John Ferling's (2007) Almost a Miracle; The American Victory in the War of Independence; Oxford: Oxford University Press is an excellent one volume history of the war. I enjoyed Mark Urban's (2007) Fusiliers; The Saga of a British Redcoat Regiment in the American Revolution; New York: Walker, which is notable as one of the very few such regimental histories, contemporary or modern, from this period.
I am still hoping for a first rate history of the battle of Monmouth Courthouse (perhaps Babits and Howard will oblige). I'd like to see the Hessian regiments in American given the same treatment as Spring's analysis of the character and tactics of the British army. Sadly, I would also like to find that my monthly reading list contained a high percentage of history writing that meets the high standard of the works noted above, but there is much mediocrity and awkward prose even in the most promising of subjects. I welcome your recommendations.