Philbrick, Nathaniel. In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown. New York, New York: Viking, 2018.
Widely known as an accomplished horseman, Philbrick opens his third book on the American Revolution with a vignette indicative of George Washington’s underappreciated nautical skills. Sailing on the Hudson River with the French Ambassador Chevalier de la Luzerne, Washington operates the tiller and expertly guides the boat through a squall which is the words of the Frenchman “required skill and practice.” This story introduces Philbrick’s central thesis that Washington’s nautical experiences and naval understanding led to the Rebel’s winning strategy and the defeat of the British at Yorktown.
Before the French and Spanish intervention in the Rebellion, British generals moved their troops by sea with impunity allowing the British Army to travel faster and land their troops anywhere. The overpowering massive British fleet protected the army from Rebel assault and siege. However, the ability to freely operate disappeared when the French and Spanish entered the Revolutionary War as the combined Franco-Spanish fleets represented formidable adversaries. However, the Allied navies did not operate at the beck and call of the Rebels, as the prime Franco-Spanish mission was to secure their colonies in the West Indies and to capture valuable British sugar islands such as Jamaica.
Philbrick points out that the disastrous hurricane of October 1780 decimated the Allied fleets while on station in the Caribbean. This experience taught French admirals that by moving to North America during late summer and fall, they could escape the hurricane season and better protect their ships. By adding the French Caribbean fleet to the smaller French fleet operating out of Newport, Rhode Island the combined fleet would be a formidable opponent for the widely dispersed British North American naval forces.
Washington took advantage of this “move to safety” by proposing a joint attack on New York City. One of the best aspects of Philbrick’s book is his description of the complex relationship between Comte de Rochambeau, the commander of the French Army in North America and Washington. As with Allied commanders in many European wars, Rochambeau and Washington had a cordial, but mistrustful and competitive relationship. Learning that French Admiral Comte de Grasse, commander of the French Caribbean fleet planned to move his ships to the Chesapeake region, not New York City, as Washington desired, Rochambeau, withheld this vital information from Washington. Only at the last moment did Washington learn of de Grasse’s plans and altered his upcoming campaign strategy.
In Philbrick’s view, the bankrupt and weakly defended Rebels had essentially lost the war in 1781. The arrival of the French Fleet off the Chesapeake saved the day by establishing naval superiority for the first time in the Revolution. Unlike most historians, Philbrick points to a little known naval battle that swept the British from the Chesapeake and sent them back to New York. Ironically, with no Americans fighting in the naval clash of the Chesapeake, this battle, in his view was more important than the subsequent Yorktown land siege, a fait accompli given the fact that Lord Cornwallis was trapped and could not evacuate by sea.
Exploring the geopolitical complexities, Philbrick offers compelling evidence that demonstrates that the Yorktown campaign victory was not preordained and that the outcome could have gone either way. He describes that the French Army in America, as well as the Rebels, were desperately short of money. Only the assistance of Francisco de Sangronis Saavedra, a Spanish diplomat who organized the loan of specie from wealthy Havana residents to provide the French commanders with much need hard currency money. On the Rebel side, Robert Morris personally financed the Rebel march to Yorktown. Neither government ever reimbursed these vital, patriotic funding sources.
Uniquely writing from a naval perspective, Philbrick’s work does not break new ground with primary research. However, he does great justice to place the French and Spanish participation and naval affairs front and center in the interpretation of the Revolutionary War. Too often, authors focus on the Rebel land victories diminishing the overarching impact of naval affairs. Further, Philbrick offers a highly engaging and captivating storyline that aids readers in comprehending the “big picture” of the end of the Revolution. Lastly, his nautical view that Washington’s familiarity with the sea essentially won the Revolution is provocative. I recommend the highly approachable In the Hurricanes Eye to both scholars and general readers.