Monday, February 9, 2009

February Book of the Month

A View of the American Revolution
By Barbara W. Tuchman
Alfred A. Knopf, New York

November 16, 1776, Fort Orange, St. Eustatius, “Here the sovereignty
Of the United States of America was first acknowledged.”

Saluting is a pleasant part of military life that began with Roman soldiers. It is a courteous exchange of greetings with the junior member always initiating the salute to the senior member. It is not an onerous or demeaning aspect of military duty, as many who have not served believe. To this day, when entering a military base and exchanging salutes with the guard, I enjoy the instance of comradeship that is always rendered with a smile. I sense a feeling of safety for America emanating from these proud and dedicated young men in uniform. After all, our citizens deem them belonging to the most highly acclaimed public institution that America has. They are truly our best and brightest and many are family members.

Barbara Tuchman is a most highly read author who has written widely about America’s military history. Two of my favorites were The Guns of August and Stillwell and the American Experience in China. In The First Salute she turns her mastery homeward to give us an insightful view of a pivotal event during the Revolution that might be one of the most overlooked and critically important of all.

On November 16, 1776, the Andrew Doria, flying the red-and-white striped flag of the Continental Congress, entered the Dutch port of St. Eustatius in the West Indies and received the returning and ritual cannon salute to a foreign vessel entering its waters. From an unassuming fort on this diminutive Dutch island the small voice of St. Eustatius was the first to greet the largest event of the century; the entry into the society of nations of a new Atlantic state destined to change the direction of history.

Tuchman tells much of the story about this mostly unrecognized but vastly important event from the view and incredulity of the British that the Dutch would recognize the sovereignty of these break-a-way colonies. But, as throughout world history, following the money leads to the answer. The Governor of the Island by intentionally encouraging, in defiance of his own government, Dutch trade in military armaments to the Colonies, St. Eustatius increased its wealth and the Colonies received the firepower they needed.

St. Eustatius was known as ‘The Golden Rock’ for the flood of commerce that flowed through its free ports stuffing the coffers of its merchants with the proceeds. Edmund Burke, in 1781, opined that “its utility was its defense, the neutrality of its nature was its security, and it was an emporium for all the world, with prodigious wealth, all arising from its industry and the nature of its commerce.” It was a free port without custom duties. The instinct of the Dutch for commerce early persuaded them that profits were more likely to come from a free flow of trade than from restrictions. One said that the Americans would have had to abandon their revolution had it not been for Dutch greed. But, as we know, greed lies in the eyes of the beholder.

Tuchman’s documentation of the Dutch Ascendancy, after its revolt and freedom from Spain, is reason enough to read The First Salute. Few of us are knowledgeable of the dynamic accomplishments of the Dutch in almost every realm of endeavor; they were the most interesting people in Europe largely unknown to the world. And, in no small way they were the saviors of the Colonies through their wide ranging commerce and their political past. As Tuchman rightly notes, the winning of the Netherlands’ sovereignty and independence in 1684 vindicated the struggle for political liberty that was to pass in the next century to the Americans. But, jealousy of the extraordinary accomplishments of the Dutch clouded the European view as no nation of Europe “was more estimable in proportion.”

Attention is now turned to The Maddest Idea in the World-an American Navy. Being largely composed of seaboard colonies, America understood the urgency for a fighting Navy; and, early on, an American fleet was called for. The importance of sea power as a strategic weapon was well understood and the Second Continental Congress, on October 13, 1775, created the first navy of the United States. The Andrew Doria was one of the first four ships composing the commissioned fleet.

This leads the author to examine in fascinating detail world naval history of early times; including the wretched life aboard ship, naval fighting maneuvers, the fortunes made, several significant historical naval figures, and the neglect and decay of the European navies through inadequate funding, corruption, political chicanery, and the ill discipline of the men that extended into battle. Superpower naval forces had fallen into disrepair and this weakened their ability to retain supremacy of the sea as a strategic weapon. This fell to the Colonies favor.

Last Chance – The Yorktown Campaign is the final chapter of The First Salute; and, “miraculous” is the term applied to this decisive phase of the American Revolution. Washington in conjunction with the French was to march an Allied Army over 500 miles from New York to Virginia to lay siege to Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown. They would be a mixed group of newly acquainted allies foraging and bivouacking along the way. These plans involved a serious risk of failure; and, were it to be so, would defeat America’s desire for independence. Tuchman deemed this decision as bold as Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps.

The Revolution was saved when at ten o’clock on the morning of October 17, 1781, after a major bombardment and with the hope of escape diminished, a British officer with a drummer boy alongside walked toward the American lines under the banner of a white flag. The siege at Yorktown then began a cessation of hostilities leading to surrender of the British Army to Washington. That was in the eyes of one ”…the most melancholy news Great Britain ever received.”

It took two days to work out the surrender and the surrender ceremony as defeated Armies in those days had certain ‘rights of honor’ to be granted that suggested they had put up a good fight. Washington and his staff rejected many of these; but, on October 19, 1781, an agreement was reached that began inaugurating the existence of a new nation. Tuchman paints us a touching description of this final scene, “…notifying the Old World that the hour of change to a democratic age had come.”

But, oddly, the War was not officially over as it took two more years to negotiate a peace treaty that was not concluded until 1783. Lastly and sadly, in 1777 her crew in the Delaware burned the Andrew Doria, bearer of the first greeting recognizing American sovereignty, to prevent British seizure: A bitter and unfortunate ending for this fine ship that had received America’s First Salute.

All in all, The First Salute is a genuinely good American history text about the birth of our nation; and, some would say, the birth of the modern Western World. I hope you enjoy it as much as I.

Richard Spencer
39th ATS KDOV 1962-1965

To buy The First Salute for $1.00, click on:
The First Salute

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