If you were to ask six Americans chosen at random to name a pivotal battle of the American Revolution, possibly four of them would mention Lexington and Concord, when ragtag colonials broke into open combat with the ranks of the British military. The fifth and sixth might mention Yorktown, when, after a brutal siege, British General Charles Cornwallis surrendered his army to the American commander-in-chief, General George Washington. But you could ask for a solid month without coming across anybody who responded with “The Battle of the Chesapeake,” yet there's a strong argument to be made that the whole of the Revolution, the whole of the American future, turned on that battle, fought the 5th of September, 1781 on the Virginia Capes between French and British war fleets.
The newest book from bestselling author of "In the Heart of the Sea" and "Valiant Ambition" Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Hurricane's Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown, aims to correct this imbalance and put the Battle of the Chesapeake back on the front-stage footing it's always deserved.
He paints a stark picture of the state of American affairs in the run-up to the events at Yorktown, using an array of firsthand sources to describe a Continental army on the brink of dissolving right out from underneath its famous commander. “The bitter truth was that by the summer of 1781 the American Revolution had failed,” he writes. “With thousands of able-bodied citizens refusing to serve, with the thirteen states refusing to fund the meager army that did exist, and with the Continental Congress helpless to effect any constructive change, the very existence of the United States now rested with the soldiers and sailors of another nation.” The French had sent two experienced military leaders, the Comte de Rochambeau, savage and savvy, commander-in-chief of the French Expeditionary Force, and Admiral Comte de Grasse, enormous and enormously capable, in command of a French fleet of two dozen ships of the line. These men observed all possible politesse when dealing with their American counterpart, but they held the real power, and they knew it. In the summer of 1781, the American Revolution was briefly subsumed into a far larger and far older world war being waged between the French and British empires.
Facing the French in this strange New World theater were the British naval squadron commanded by Rear Admiral Thomas Graves, a vain and tetchy professional who's been called “incompetent” by more than one exacting military historian. And the land forces in question in Philbrick's story? Lord Cornwallis, of course – a strange combination of pigheaded pride and seeping, almost delusional ineptitude who remains as elusive in this account as in all others; no chronicler, in his own day or ours, ever seems quite sure why Cornwallis made any of the decisions he did.
As foreshadowed in the title of Philbrick's book, a key component of 1781 happened in 1780, in the form of a series of ferocious hurricanes. The first devastated Jamaica; the second, much more powerful, struck Barbados, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and Martinique on October 10; the third, known as Solano's Hurricane, ripped up currents (and a big Spanish fleet) in the Gulf of Mexico. “The lesson,” as Philbrick relates it, “was impossible to ignore”: the Caribbean was the last place on Earth the French would want to station a fleet of any size. They had tactical as well as geopolitical reasons to be up north at the Chesapeake during 1781's hurricane season.
The subtitle of Philbrick's book is more puzzling. Even the most sympathetic reader will be hard-pressed to attach any “genius” to George Washington in this story. Most of the suggestions he made (and made and made) to his far more experienced French counterparts were inept and courteously ignored, and most of the rest of the story comes down to dumb luck, like the physical ailment that kept the brilliant British Admiral George Rodney from confronting de Grasse himself, or like the the fact that Graves ignored key intelligence about the movements of de Grasse's fleet for an entire crucial month, or like the fact that Cornwallis inexplicably dug his forces in on an easily-isolated river bluff position that virtually guaranteed his eventual destruction. Washington displayed no “genius” in any of this; the French beat his enemy for him and then very graciously handed him the victory.
But boosting a national hero is surely forgivable on Philbrick's part, and the vast remainder of his story is told with all the zest and eloquence his millions of readers have come to expect. Philbrick is right to observe that this epic afternoon of cannon fire on the coastal sea-lanes is largely overlooked in popular accounts of the Revolution; "In the Hurricane's Eye" is exactly the kind of rousing narrative account it deserves.