Review of “The British Are Coming” by Rick Atkinson

The poem “Concord Hymn” by Ralph Waldo Emerson paid tribute to the famous Battles of Lexington and Concord, the first official military engagements between Britain and the colonies in the American Revolutionary War (1775-83). Tensions had been building for many years between residents of the thirteen American colonies and the British authorities, particularly in Massachusetts. Emerson’s poem describes “the shot heard round the world” fired by Patriots at the North Bridge in what is now Charlestown, in northwestern Boston, Massachusetts.

Rick Atkinson, in The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777, his first magisterial volume of the planned “Revolution” trilogy, describes just how those tensions developed and the early years of the war. In his Prologue, while summarizing the events that led to the Revolution, Atkinson writes:

“The odds were heavily stacked against the Americans: no colonial rebellion had ever succeeded in casting off imperial shackles. But, as Voltaire had observed, history is filled with the sound of silken slippers going downstairs and wooden shoes coming up.”

The results of the 3,059 days of the American Revolution were “tectonic,” Atkinson avers. The first was the reduction of the British Empire by about one-third. [Ironically, one rationale for the British wanting to suppress the American rebellion was preservation of the empire, fearing it would encourage insurrections in other British colonies.] The second was “epochal and enduring: the creation of the American republic.” Unlike the creation myths about America, the war, Atkinson argues, was “both grander and more nuanced, a tale of heroes and knaves, of sacrifice and blunder, of redemption and profound suffering.”

He then goes into a great deal of detail about the early years of the Revolution, especially about the personalities involved in the conflict.

He describes the patriots as “disputatious and litigious, given to violence on the frontier and in the street: a gentle people they were not.” Furthermore, they were accustomed to tending to their own affairs, and resented the arrival of the British in Massachusetts who intended, per orders of the king, to enforce obedience to the laws. As Atkinson notes however, all the talk of freedom by whites in America and outrage over what they viewed as an encroachment on freedom was accompanied by a robust slave trade in blacks and Native Americans.

Much like current times, Americans in the 1770s were anxious about the future, nostalgic for the past, and angry about the present. The leadership in Britain had many misconceptions about these colonists. Most portentously, Britain was convinced resistance was largely confined to Boston, with the American colonies too scattered and diverse for effective collaboration. Therefore, it was assumed, the Regulars would make short work of the problem, and respect for British authority would be reestablished.

Britain’s military commander in chief in America, Lieutenant General Thomas Gage, sent warnings to London about the “wild and ungovernable” Americans, and pleaded for conciliatory measures, but he was derided as an “old woman.” The Americans, meanwhile, knew nothing of Gage’s attempts to improve their situation. On the contrary, he was seen as the face of Britain, and Gage effigies were burned in bonfires, while effigies of British soldiers were hung by nooses from roadside trees.

Portrait of Thomas Gage by John Singleton Copley, c. 1768

Although some of the British army and navy regulars were eager to wreak “chastisement” on the “villainous” Americans, most were bored, apt to be continually drunk on the cheap and plentiful rum, and inclined to desertion. In fact, the navy desertion rate was so high, particularly in Boston, that ships started to remain at anchor rather than risk mass defections on land.

There was also a good deal of friction between Patriots and Loyalists, or Tories. (Recent scholarship has estimated that roughly 20 percent of the 2 million white Americans in the Colonies during the Revolution remained loyal to the Crown.) The antagonism became so intense that the Tories felt need for protection, for good reason. The Patriots terrorized the Loyalists, with Anglican churches and clergymen singled out for even more abuse, because they prayed for the British king. Churches were smashed and priests tarred and feathered or covered with excrement. Extralegal Patriot “committees of safety” policed members of their own towns, encouraging neighbor to turn against neighbor, and not discouraging vigilante and/or mob violence.

Separate colonial governments made preparations for a possible war, even as the authorities did back in London. The Provincial Congress also took measures in anticipation of armed conflict, including the establishment of a courier system.

When the fighting finally began, Atkinson describes it poetically:

“Now the Lexington bell began to clang in the wooden tower, hard by the meetinghouse. More gallopers rode off to rouse half a hundred villages. Warning gunshots echoed from farm to farm. Bonfires flared. Drums beat. Across the colony, in an image that would endure for centuries, solemn men grabbed their firelocks and stalked off in search of danger, leaving the plow in the furrow, the hoe in the garden, the hammer on the anvil, the bucket at the well sweep. This day would be famous before it dawned.”

Battle of Lexington and Concord 1775

Atkinson brought me to tears with that passage. Not only is it one of many beautifully written and evocative descriptions of the founding of the country, but it reminds the reader of all that was at stake, with the fight to establish a democracy rather than an autocracy, a fight that may yet be lost some 240 years later.

The rest of the story proceeds in a similar vein. Atkinson has done meticulous research, and he is a consummate storyteller. I sat on the edge of my chair during many of the battle descriptions, even though I knew their outcomes quite well.

And as for that “shot heard round the world”? Atkinson tells us that scholars have calculated that at least seventy-five thousand American rounds were fired in the opening battles, but only one bullet in almost three hundred found its mark. As he wryly notes: “The shot heard round the world likely missed.”

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Henry Holt and Company, 2019

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4 Responses to Review of “The British Are Coming” by Rick Atkinson

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    I’ve never been much of a history buff so this might not be for me even though it sounds like it’s beautifully written.

  2. Beth F says:

    Wow! How did I miss this? Must look for a copy (possibly in audio)

  3. Mystica says:

    This part of history is almost unknown to me as it likely is to those on the other side of the world.
    Thanks for the very informative review.

  4. stacybuckeye says:

    I don’t know, I’ve always loved the name Gage.

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