Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence
Author: John Ferling
Release Date: March 2009 – Oxford University Press
John Ferling’s book, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence, is a military history of the war and serves as a companion to Ferling’s earlier A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic, which is a political history of the same period. Ferling, who has written several books on this period, has written a popular history aimed at the general reader, and while he provides a workable account of events, he does not present any new information or interpretation. This is to not surprising in a book written for a general audience. Ferling’s work is based on a wealth of primary and secondary sources, exploring the length of the war in chronological order. Ferling’s story focuses on the strengths and weaknesses of the commanders and leaders on both sides. Contrary to current trends in historical writing, common people and enlisted soldiers take a back seat to their social and military superiors.
Ferling focuses on how closely contested the war was, stressing the significance of the decisions made by generals on both sides. Ultimately, “the war came much closer to ending short of a great American victory than many now realize.” (xii) Ferling argues that George Washington’s Fabian strategy was in large part responsible for the eventual Patriot victory.
Approximately a third of the book covers the important time from the beginning of the conflict until the end of 1776. The remainder of the book addresses the less familiar years that followed and examines how the Patriots handled the major military challenges facing them. While Ferling describes each of the major campaigns and battles, he also puts them into the larger military framework, explaining the evolution of the Continental Army, the significance of naval power, the move to the southern theater, the Franco-American alliance, and the peace negotiations.
Ferling does a good job covering two topics that are often neglected in popular accounts of the war. The first is the importance of the war’s move south. Ferling explains the importance of the Southern Campaign and the steady colonial successes in the Carolinas that were essential to the final Patriot victory.
The second oft-overlooked subject is the place of the war in North America within the overall global conflict. I think an understanding of the global situation is essential for understanding how the Patriots were able to defeat the British who possessed what was possibly the best professional army in the world. Ferling points out that British actions in North America were not conducted in a vacuum, but within a worldwide context.
Ferling also works to rehabilitate the reputation of the colonial militia, which has “often been belittled, but without it the war could not have been won. It secured the home front in nearly every state by suppressing and disarming the Loyalists in the crucial early stage of the war.” He also points out that despite some serious failings, the militia on occasion, such as Bunker Hill, Princeton, and Saratoga “fought extremely well.” (575)
I was not surprised by Ferling’s depiction of Washington as “Madly ambitious and obsessed with recognition and renown,” who was a genius at shifting the blame for defeat on to others and engaging in self-promotion. Ferling covered similar ground in The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon. (368) It is good to see Washington returned to the level of mere human from his mythological heights.
Ferling does have an unfortunate habit of repeating phrases and terminology throughout the book, which perhaps is less his fault then the fault of his editor. One particular issue was his use of the length of a football field as a reference. He did so on at least four occasions, not only does this leave non-football fans in the dark, it also becomes repetitive.
As mentioned above, Ferling utilized a wealth of sources, both primary and secondary. His work is well cited with endnotes, I appreciate that his endnotes were primarily utilized for citations and not to provide additional information. Often authors include another books worth of information in the endnotes, the reading of which tends to break up the narrative flow of the book leaving the reading with the choice of flipping back and forth for each endnote, reading all of the endnotes after reading the text, or skipping them altogether.
Overall, I believe Ferling has written a military history of the American War of Independence that is accessible, comprehensive, and useful for both the general reader and the student. While Ferling does not provide scholars with any new information or interpretations, he has synthesized the most recent scholarship on the era into a highly readable account. He has also provided a reminder that nothing in history is guaranteed or foreordained.