Monday, September 12, 2016

King's Survey: Upside Down

In which we see you can't believe—or rewrite—a story you don’t know. 
For a while there, kids, it looked like the Americans were actually going to win this thing. George Washington’s Continental Army had thrown small, but still significant, punches at Trenton in late 1776 and Princeton in early 1777. Then came the huge victory at Saratoga that fall. And France’s decision to enter the war on the American side early the next year. To be sure, there had been setbacksBritish victories against Washington at Brandywine and Germantown were followed by the occupation of Philadelphia by the end of 1777. But there was a lot to be hopeful about as winter set in.
—And then?
And then, well, nothing.
Well, not nothing, exactly.
—So why do you say so?
I guess I’m trying to keep this story interesting for you, Em.
—By lying?
Well, no, not lying. Herelet me try again:
Somehow, it had not quite been enough. Victories at Trenton, Princeton, andespeciallySaratoga had not been enough to break Britain’s imperial grip. News of a French alliance was exciting, but the fact remained that a British army occupied the infant nation’s capital.
You like that better?
—Well, yeah. But that’s because I know the outcome. So stretching out how bad it was makes the turnaround, when it comes, more satisfying.
—Whatever, Sadie. I’m still wondering what happens next.
Well, Em, no matter how I tell the story, the next step is the samethe same, that is, if I’m the guy telling it.
—You’re telling me every teacher has their own version of the Revolution?
Isn’t that obvious?
—Wait a second, Mr. K.
Yes, Kylie?
—You're telling me I could be in Ms. DiBono’s class and she’d be telling me that British won?
No. I’m not. The facts don’t change. But which facts, and what you do with them, change all the time. Well, maybe not all the time. There’s a fair amount of continuity.
—See, this is why I don’t like history. You never know what to think. At least with math you know the numbers add up.
Add up to what, is always the question.
—I’m really wondering what the point of all this is, then.
Well, look, I’d by lying to youreally lyingif I told you with any certitude that I know what the point is, either. Except this: you’ve got to have some story to work with. It may be a good story or a bad one. You might accept it, reject it, ormy hoperevise it. Because revising something means that it still contains something valuable, something you can work with. But you can’t really know even that until you actually hear the story. So, with that in mind, I’m going to keep going, OK?
—Hey, whatever you say, Mr. K. It’s your story.
Exactly. You’re stuck with ittemporarily. But I’m trying to keep it interesting, even if it means bending the facts for the sake of drama. So to answer your question, Em: what happens next is stalemate (which is what I meant by “nothing”). The British settled into their winter quarters in Philadelphia, and had a relatively pleasant winter of 1777-78relative to the Yanks, that is. Washington’s troops froze their fannies off at nearby Valley Forge, where the army teetered on the verge of destruction. Butand again, this is keythey survived, living to fight another day. One reason for that is a German immigrant with an inflated title and an even more inflated ego: Baron von Steuben, who drilled the Continentals into shape.
When spring came, the Brits became concerned they could get stranded in Philly, and decided to return to their base in New Yorkwhich, by one reading of events, meant that the whole campaign had pretty much added up to nothing (an especially damning reading, since the General Howe had gone to Philly instead of helping out at Saratoga. Washington tried to pounce on Howe at the indecisive battle of Monmouth in New Jersey. The Americans had some success out west, but failed in their attempt to take Newport, Rhode Island, which they had lost in 1776. The French were in the picture now, but mostly they had their own agenda in the Caribbean. There were peace talks, but they didn’t get anywhere. Basically, this went on for years.
—So what broke the stalemate?
The British decided to change strategy. Remember that the war had begun in New England, and they had pulled out, choosing instead to base their operations in the middle colonies. That looked like it was going to work for a while, but they failed to gain a decisive victory. Now the British looked to the South; they believed that there was a lot of Loyalist sentiment down there.
—Was that true?
Yes. Especially because the Patriots of the South were nervous about slavery. There was fear that the Revolution could get out of hand and destabilize the social order. Two prominent South Carolinians, Henry Laurens and his son John, argued that the South should free it slaves. But that idea didn’t get anywhere, and Laurens was killed in battle.
The British opened what came to be known as the Southern Campaign by capturing Savannah in 1778. The campaign really got underway in earnest when a naval force invaded Charleston, South Carolina, capturing the city in the spring of 1780. The British then won yet another decisive victory that summer in Camden, also in South Carolina. The logjam was broken, and the British had momentum.
—But they lost the war? How did that happen?
Ironically, it was because they kept winning costly victories that sapped their strength, among them Cowpens and King’s Mountain. By this point, the British had pushed into North Carolina, and they kept going; at one point they chased Thomas Jefferson, who was serving as governor of Virginia, out of his home in Monticello. They were covering a lot of ground, but they were also in danger of getting isolated and cut off. So they decided to head to the coast, to the Virginia port of Yorktown, where they would meet up with the British navy again.
—I’ve heard of Yorktown.
For good reason, Ethan. Essentially, the battle was a complex maneuver orchestrated by George Washington. The plan required and U.S. French convergence on the British from three directions. His trusted lieutenant Nathaniel Greene, who had led the fight against the British in the Southern Campaign, would follow them as the Brits headed east. Washington’s army, aided by a French force led by Comte de Rochambeau, would secretly slip out away from the northern outskirts of New York City, and head south to Virginia. And the French fleet, led by an admiral named Comte de Grasse, would sail up from the Caribbean. All would meet at Yorktown. When they did, the British army there would find itself trapped on land as well as by sea. The plan required lots of planning and lots of luck, and it worked. For the second time, an entire British army was poached.
—How big a problem was losing this time?
What do you think?
—Well, they’re Great Britain, right? They lose one army, they can make another.
What do you think, Adam? Is Ethan right?
—I guess.
Well, you’re both right. The British raised another army, landed in Florida, and at the Battle of Disneyland crushed Washington’s army, ending the American Revolution. That’s why we all speak English rather than American now.
—Not me. I’m a native American speaker.
Choctaw, Jonah? Shawnee?
Exactly. Look, kids: you know I’ve been emphasizing that the British had the mightiest armed forces on the planet in 1781 (the French had a stronger army, but the British navy held the balance of power). Actually, there was fighting in Florida: the Spanish, who had declared war on Englandbut never formally allied with the Americans, for fear of sending the wrong message to their coloniesrecovered some lost territory. But the American Revolution didn’t end because the Americans wiped out the British capacity to fight. Remember: there was still another whole army in New York, for starters. But Yorktown was important in breaking the British people’s will to fight. It was a long, costlyand, in a growing number of minds, pointlesswar. The King really didn’t want to give up. But his key ministers convinced him that the government had to as a practical matter. Besides, the chances were that Americans would never survive on their own and would soon come begging anyway. And in the meantime, there would be money to be made in trading with them.
—So that’s how it ended?
Not exactly. The war sort of fizzled out. The Battle of Yorktown was fought in the fall of 1781, but the Treaty of Paris ending the Revolution wasn’t signed until two years later. Fighting between the British and the French continued in the Caribbean. The haggling over a treaty was interminable. And the American army almost fell apart.
—Really? Why?
Money. No one was getting paid. That’s because the Americans were broke. Their money was essentially worthless. The officers in the army were especially angry. In the upstate town of Newburgh, where the army was based in 1783, some officers planned a mutiny. Our friend Horatio Gates from Saratoga (who had really blown it at the Battle of Camden) may have been involved.
—Where was Washington in all of this?
That was the question, Yin. He was there, in Newburgh, but where did he stand? He was purposely vague. And then, at a key moment, he called a meeting, which led a lot of officers to show up out of sheer curiosity. What would he say?
—What did he?
He said: Are you out of your minds? Who are you rebelling against here? The government? You are the government! This revolution is about your wives and children! To abandon the cause is to abandon your families!
—Did it work?
After he was done yelling at them, he pulled out his glasses. "Gentlemen,” he said,
“you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.” The men started to cry.
—You’re kidding. Cry? Why?
They saw the sacrifice Washington himself had made. The war had worn him out. He refused a salary for his service in the army (though he did get reimbursed for his expenses). The glasses thing was probably a bit of theater, but it was effective. The conspiracy fizzled out. Soldiers angry about not getting paid actually did take over Independence Hall three months later, and Congress had to flee before order was restored. The Treaty of Paristhe negotiations of which were complicated, in part because France wanted to make sure the deal was to its likingcame in the nick of time.
When the war ended, Washington left New York, where the army had been based. He went to Annapolis, Maryland, where Congress was meeting. He went before them, and in another public statement he went before them and laid down his sword.
Because he wanted to show his deference to the government: civilians, not soldiers, would run the country. His role model was the Roman general Cincinnatus, who reputedly left his plow to go to war, and when the war was over went back to his plow.
—Seems kind of showy to me.
Maybe it was, Em. Washington was very conscious of his image. But you only have to look at the rest of American historyby which I mean Latin American historyto see how unusual Washington was. “The Man on Horseback,” or the general who takes over, is a familiar figure. And often a disastrous one. As he was in many parts of the world. In the early 1780s King George III asked the American painter what he thought Washington would do once the war was over. West replied that he heard Washington would go back to his farm. “If he does that,” an amazed king replied, “He will be the greatest man in the world.”
The Revolution was over. “We” were born.
Next: John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, roommates