Book Review: The Guns of Independence

Some of you might remember the very first post on Historic America's Journal had to do with a trip the parental units and I took to Yorktown, Virginia all-the-way back in September, 2014. Goodness, was I ever that young? 

It's a heavy read, but a good one if you've got the strength. 

Anyway, during the course of our visit to the Yorktown Battlefield, I picked up a book on history of the siege itself entitled, The Guns of Independence: The Siege of Yorktown, 1781, by Jerome A. Greene. I knew this was the title I had to get because I asked the lady in the bookstore which one of books on display was the one to buy if you really wanted to learn something about the battle. She pointed to The Guns of Independence and said, "That's the one the Park Rangers use." Sold!

Now that I've finished reading it, I know what the bookstore lady was talking about. The Guns of Independence is not a book for the casual history reader - it's very 'inside baseball' and aimed at hardcore American military history geeks (i.e. yours truly). This being said, Greene's text was able to hold my attention; but if your eyes glaze over at the thought of reading about the particulars surrounding the deployment of General Mayhem's Division astride the enemy flank prior to the dawn assault up Blueberry Hill, this may not be the book for you. 

If there lingered any doubt within Cornwallis’ mind about when the Allies intended to storm his fortifications, French and American artillery eliminated it when a heavy new barrage welcomed the dawn of October 17. The fresh and fierce blast up and down the line smashed into the defenses and shook them violently. The Allies were going to pay a personal visit as soon as possible.
— Jerome Greene, The Guns of Independence

If you're only vaguely familiar with the Siege of Yorktown, here's the Reader's Digest synopsis: It's 1781 and the American Revolution is in full swing. Cornwallis is the British General who finds his army trapped in Yorktown, Virginia. They are vastly outnumbered and surrounded by an allied army of French and American troops led by George Washington and his counterpart, the Comte de Rochambeau. Relying heavily on the French commander's expertise in siege warfare, the encircling allied force digs an ever tightening noose of trench works around Cornwallis, who desperately hopes that the British navy will come to save him. While the Brits and their Hessian allies keep their heads down and grimly hang on for dear life, the Franco-American army (like an angry Apollo Creedhauls up huge siege guns and relentlessly pounds away at the enemy. Ultimately, the British navy is unable to ride to the rescue and Cornwallis surrenders his force of approximately 8,000 men to Washington's surly band of rebels. The catastrophic defeat leads the British government to sue for peace and America wins her independence. Huzzah!     

Washington and Rochambeau kickin' it outside the tent at Yorktown. 

The book itself was originally written as a tool to assist historic interpreters at the actual battlefield site, and was later adapted for a wider publication. Resultantly, it's pretty heavy on geographical descriptions of the battlefield and Green goes into great detail about the opposing siege works which the dueling armies dug for themselves. Having been to the battlefield itself, the descriptions and maps made a lot of sense to me, but for those who haven't been, it might all come across as white noise.

Henry Knox (a.k.a. Fat Guy in a Little Coat). 

Be that as it may, the best parts are the human stories Greene uncovers.  I liked the one about Henry Knox (Washington's artillery commander and the man who would later become our first Secretary of War) and Alexander Hamilton (a staff officer of Washington's who later makes the unfortunate decision to duel Aaron Burr). Hamilton was as short and thin as Knox was big and round. The two men were having a heated argument in the trenches one day about how best to sound the alarm should an enemy shell land nearby. As they reached the height of their disagreement, an actual British bomb landed beside them and Hamilton reflexively used Knox as a human shield. The two got tangled up, tripped over each other and wrestled around while the fuse on the bomb continued to burn. Luckily, they finally managed to scramble behind some cover just as the bomb detonated. After the explosion Knox yelled at Hamilton, "Don't make a breastwork [barrier] of me again!" (if you picture the two of them as looking like David Spade and Chris Farley, the scene becomes immeasurably funnier than it already is).

It's not all lighthearted fare though. The Siege of Yorktown was deadly serious business and Greene does a good job of articulating the basic premise that Washington & Rochambeau's entire calculus was based upon grim and unsmiling estimates of trench digging, proper positioning, the weight of artillery and the stress their enemy could withstand before breaking. In many ways, siege warfare is like geology - a science predicated on an understanding of pressure & time and how best to bend these two concepts to your advantage.  

Greene's book is a good one, but you need to bring an appetite for serious military history with you. Otherwise, you might as well watch The Patriot and call it a day. 

For those of you interested in learning more, watch this excellent video on Yorktown by the good folks at George Washington's Mount Vernon.