Forget Independence

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

"I think most Americans don't realize how close we came to losing the Revolutionary War," says Ferling. Courtesy of John Ferling

Why did you want to tell 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?

I hadn't realized the difficulties that the British faced. I think all Americans are aware of the travail that American soldiers faced during the war [for example, at Valley Forge], that they often didn't have food or medical supplies or proper housing. They certainly did suffer enormously. But I think the general view has been that the British soldiers had it pretty easy, that they lived pretty high on the hog during the war. And that just wasn't the case. These guys really faced an exhausting regimen. They were marching countless miles every day. They didn't have adequate clothing, it was in the middle of the winter, raining all the time. They had to forage for their food. I think that was the thing, more than anything, that came through for me.

Did you learn anything surprising about Greene?

This article is adapted from my forthcoming book, Almost a Miracle, a general history of the Revolutionary War. When I wrote the first portion of the book, I didn't really care for Greene very much. What changed for me is that I really came to appreciate Greene as I was working on him in this campaign. I think part of it was that when he was in the North he didn't have an independent command—he was always under Washington, taking orders. he seemed to be kind of an obsequious guy. I just didn't find him very likable. But once he became a commander he had to make his own decisions, and he became a very thoughtful, innovative person, a person of great daring and courage, a real human being. After the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, which culminated this 100 day period, he collapsed. I don't know if you would call it a nervous breakdown—probably not, it was probably just fatigue and stress—but he was incapacitated for a few days. It was a physical and emotional breakdown that didn't last very long, but I think it just shows how human he was and how human all of these people were. They had the same reactions to those problems that any of us might have.

You mention in the article that rumor had it, if anything happened to Washington, Greene was next in line. What would have happened if Greene had replaced Washington?

That's the great imponderable. In my book [Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence, released this summer] I try to come to grips with Washington and play around with a few things like that, and essentially what I said was that you never really know how someone is going to respond to power. All through history you have people who appear to be very well trained and they get into power and they're just overwhelmed by it. But then you have someone like Harry Truman. President Truman, when he was in the Senate, was a lackluster Senator. And yet when he became president, he responded to the office and turned out to be a very good president. I think you just never know. In Greene's case, I think if something had happened to Washington and Greene had gotten shoved into power in 1776, the odds are he wouldn't have done as well. By 1781 he'd had 5 years of command experience, so he was much better prepared. But you never know how someone is going to do.

Also, Greene died right at the end of the war. He died in 1786, and he was only 43 years old. Had he lived, I think there's a very strong possibility that he would have served in Congress, wound up being a US Senator or state governor. It's conceivable he could have even been president some day.

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