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Nathaniel Philbrick’s ‘In the Hurricane’s Eye': Brilliant Washington, and a glittering supporting cast

George Washington is shown as a leader of armies, a politician, and a diplomat in this stirring depiction of the events that led to the battle of the Chesapeake and the eventual end of the Revolutionary War.

Nathaniel Philbrick, author of "In the Hurricane's Eye."
Nathaniel Philbrick, author of "In the Hurricane's Eye."Read moreLeft: Kit Noble

In the Hurricane’s Eye

The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown

By Nathaniel Philbrick

Viking. 366 pp. $30

Reviewed by Chris Patsilelis

This is the third and last installment in Philbrick’s history of the American Revolution. The first two books, Bunker Hill (2013) and Valiant Ambition (2016), bought us up to the Revolution’s seeming stalemate in 1780-81.

The American rebels continually attack the British and then disappear into the countryside while the Royal Navy ceaselessly bombards American seaside cities at will. Over five fruitless years, the British never have quite enough soldiers effectively to occupy rebel territory, and the rebels can never inflict a blow decisive enough to win independence. Packed with revealing information and high drama, In the Hurricane’s Eye is a must-read for any aficionado of the American Revolution. Drawing extensively on primary sources, Philbrick, author also of In the Heart of the Sea (1999), Mayflower (2006), and other works, recounts the chain of events that broke this deadlock.

In December 1780, Sir Henry Clinton, British commander in North America, sent his newest brigadier general, Benedict Arnold, to command troops in Virginia. In turn, George Washington, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, sent the young French nobleman the Marquis de Lafayette south in pursuit of Arnold. Washington also dispatched Major Gen. Nathaniel Greene to confront Cornwallis’ troops in the Carolinas.

Throughout Hurricane’s Eye, the author stresses the crucial importance of sea power in the American Revolution. He even shows Washington’s personal affinity with the sea, describing the commander’s prowess at piloting a vessel through a perilous passage on the Hudson River. Such affinity was why, as he was juggling his commanders and military moves, Washington was also trying to coordinate that strategy with the actions of the French fleet anchored 2,000 miles away in the Caribbean, a nearly impossible task. Adding to Washington’s troubles, the 13 states and the Continental Congress were failing “to provide the bare essentials required to maintain a functional army.” Washington was faced with the double task of paying his soldiers and enticing the French fleet into the fray.

The author introduces us to a formidable cast of characters. We meet the “highly emotional, willful, and impatient” Lafayette, and the annoying, uncooperative Comte de Rochambeau, both of whom would prove indispensable. Young aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton unwisely kept Washington waiting for 10 minutes at one point, which earned Hamilton an enraged verbal laceration. And we are introduced to Greene, a Rhode Islander and the most unlikely of military heroes. A Quaker pacifist, he suffered from asthma and had a pronounced limp. Initially considered a military embarrassment, Greene was overnight promoted from private to brigadier general (1775), and later selected by Washington to lead an army into battle against Cornwallis in 1780-81. He performed brilliantly.

By the summer of 1781, Washington, with the help of Spanish diplomat Francisco Saavedra, managed to collect 500,000 pesos from the citizens of Havana, Cuba (they would be repaid at 2 percent interest), to pay the French fleet and Washington’s own soldiers. The French fleets could now leave their Caribbean ports and come to the aid of his armies. He then mounted his attack on Cornwallis’ forces at Yorktown, Va.

Philbrick describes how, almost miraculously, the French fleet appeared at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay on Sept. 5, 1781. In this magnificent display of sea power, “No piece of eighteenth-century technology could compare in complexity, sophistication, and heart-stopping beauty” to these glorious ships of the line.

Then began what today is recognized as one of the most important naval battles in history, the Battle of the Chesapeake. The French fleet was led by the Comte de Grasse, but the battle was mainly fought by Louis-Antoine de Bougainville. In the savage maritime engagement that ensued, the British fleet, commanded by Adm. Thomas Graves, was decisively defeated.

Knowing that the British land forces now had no means of escape by sea, Washington confidently began his siege upon the 6,000 British and German soldiers at their Yorktown fortifications. A blizzard of American cannonballs rained down upon them: “it was the bombshells,” Philbrick writes, “huge, openmouthed orbs of iron filled with gunpowder and other combustibles and fired from the mortars in high, lazy arcs — that wreaked the most havoc,” wantonly severing arms and legs. The ambitious Hamilton, determined to cover himself in glory, led a battalion into battle.

On Oct. 19, 1781, at the surrender ceremony, British soldiers, “Biting their lips … openly weeping … hurled their weapons to the ground” to the jubilant tune of “Yankee Doodle.”