- - Sunday, December 23, 2018


By Nathaniel Philbrick

Viking, $30, 384 pages

When most people think of the American Revolution, they generally envision the historic land battles of Bunker Hill, Lexington and Yorktown. If one thinks of the war’s naval conflicts, it is perhaps only the sea battles of John Paul Jones that come immediately to mind.

But in historian Nathaniel Philbrick’s outstanding book, “In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory of Yorktown,” he describes vividly the Battle of the Chesapeake, a sea battle devised by Gen. Washington but fought entirely by the French, that occurred prior to the definitive win at Yorktown.

Mr. Philbrick explains that when France entered the war in 1778, Washington hoped that his new ally would break the British navy’s hold on the Atlantic seaboard. But for two-and-a-half years, the French failed to contain the British navy.

In December 1780, Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander, sent Benedict Arnold, his newest brigadier general, to Virginia. Washington ordered the Marquis de Lafayette to pursue the despised American traitor. Nine months later, after several battles between the Americans and the British, British Gen. Charles Cornwallis was trapped at Yorktown by the French fleet that had arrived from the Caribbean.

Up to the summer of 1781, Washington found that coordinating his army’s movement with a French fleet 2,000 miles away was impossible, but then, as Mr. Philbrick states, the impossible happened.

“The Battle of Chesapeake has been called the most important naval engagement in the history of the world,” Mr. Philbrick writes. “Fought outside the entrance of the bay between the French admiral Comte de Grasse’s twenty-four ships of the line and a slightly smaller British fleet commanded by Rear Admiral Thomas Graves, the battle inflicted severe enough damage on the Empire’s ships that Graves returned to New York for repairs. By preventing the rescue of seven thousand British and German soldiers under the command of General Cornwallis, de Grasse’s victory on Sept. 5, 1781, made Washington’s subsequent triumph at Yorktown a fait accompli. Peace would not be officially declared for another two years, but that does not change the fact that a naval battle fought between the French and the British was largely responsible for the independence of the United States.”

Mr. Philbrick goes on to state that ultimately the course of the war came down to America’s proximity to the sea, as well as storms and headwinds that were beyond the control of the generals and admirals. He writes that seemingly random events, from a hurricane in the Caribbean (hence the book’s title), to a bloody battle in the North Carolina woods, and to a loan of 500,000 Spanish pesos from the citizens of Cuba, had to occur before General Cornwallis arrived at Yorktown and Admiral de Grasse sailed into the Chesapeake. General Washington was amazed that the pieces fell into place.

“I am sure,” he wrote the following spring, “that there never was a people who had more reason to acknowledge a divine interposition in their affairs than those of the United States.”

Mr. Philbrick has researched the American Revolution for 20 years and wrote two previous books on the subject, “Bunker Hill” and “Valiant Ambition.” I’ve not yet read “Bunker Hill, but I read and enjoyed “Valiant Ambition.” The book offers a fine portrait of America’s indispensable man, George Washington, and the traitor Benedict Arnold, as well as presenting all the drama and animosity between the two men.

In his new book, Mr. Philbrick continues his look back at George Washington and Benedict Arnold, as well as Alexander Hamilton, Nathanael Greene, the Marquis de Lafayette, and the other soldiers and sailors involved in the war. Mr. Philbrick also introduces readers to unsung heroes, such as Francisco Saavedra and Joseph Plumb Martin.

Francisco Saavedra was the Spanish emissary in Cuba who provided the French Navy with ships and money, which enabled the French to sail to victory in the battles of the Chesapeake and Yorktown. Joseph Plumb Martin was a Connecticut sergeant in the Continental Army. As Mr. Philbrick informs us, Sgt. Martin was present at virtually every battle of the war and he offers information and insights from the field and trenches. In 1830 he wrote “A Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers and Suffering of a Revolutionary Soldier.”

“In the Hurricane’s Eye” is a well-researched and well-written book that offers a thrilling account of sea battles in the age of sail, as well as land battles and a portrait of the amazing historical characters who led and fought the battles of the American Revolution.

• Paul Davis, a Navy veteran who served on an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War, is a writer who covers crime, espionage and terrorism.

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