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Forget Independence

John Ferling, author of "100 Days that Shook the World," imagines an alternate history

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Why did you want to tell this story?

From This Story

I think most Americans don't realize how close we came to losing the Revolutionary War. Most people think that after the Battle of Trenton at the end of 1776 everything was turned around and victory was assured, and that's just not the case. Washington himself said that 1781 was the low point of the war. There was so much hanging on this, and the war could have turned out differently. There was about a year there, before the Battle of Yorktown, when everything was just hanging in the balance.

What if things had gone the other way?

At the beginning of 1781, the war was a stalemate, France was trying to find a way to get out, there were mutinies breaking out in the Continental Army. Morale was breaking down. And I think what would have happened if there hadn't been a decisive victory in 1781—which occurred, at Yorktown—is that the major powers in Europe, who wanted the war to end because it was interfering with their trade, would have called a peace conference and said, 'OK, here are the terms—take it or leave it.' That would have given France an honorable way to get out of the war. The terms wouldn't have been very attractive terms for the United States. We would have come out with a United States of nine or ten states completely surrounded by Britain, from Florida and the Southern colonies, Carolina and Georgia, up through Canada. We would have been hemmed in, we wouldn't have had much trade; the chances of the United States surviving would have been negligible. Probably a lot of powerful people would have said, "Forget independence. Let's just go back with England." The war came close to ending that way.

Why is this part of the war not so well known?

That's a really good question. I'm not sure I have a good answer. I think what has tended to happen with the study of early American history, until fairly recently, is that most of the focus was always on the northern colonies. I think the reason was because that's where the major universities were located for so long. When I was an undergraduate, all those many years ago, if you took a course in colonial history, what you studied were the Puritans in new England. No one else got very much attention. I think it's only in recent years that the South has developed good universities with really good graduate programs, and over the last couple of generations, many Southerners went on to graduate school and began to be interested in their section of the country.

Also, what happened down in 1781 in the Carolinas got overlooked because George Washington wasn't involved. He was up north, and he didn't come down until the very end at Yorktown. Much of what has been written about the Revolutionary War tends to focus on Washington. Everybody else is just treated as a secondary figure.

There are interesting characters involved, though. You have Greene and Francis Marion and even Cornwallis. Which man in this story fascinated you the most?

I think probably Greene. I don't think Washington ever faced the problems that Greene faced. Greene came in with a tiny army, the army was starving, he didn't know whether he could get food. I'm not saying Washington didn't face problems, but I don't know that Washington really faced problems of the same magnitude that Greene faced. And Greene met the challenge.

Did you discover anything surprising over the course of your research?

About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Boston-based freelance journalist writing about government, education and ideas. Her writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Slate, Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe.

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