Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
American Crisis: George Washington and the Dangerous Two Years After Yorktown, 1781–1783 • William M. Fowler, Jr. • New York: Walker and Company, 2011 • 342 pp. • $28.00
Reviewed by Peter R. Henriques, professor of history, emeritus, at George Mason University. He is the author of Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington (2006).
Comparatively little attention has been given to the period after the decisive Franco-American victory at Yorktown in October of 1781 and before the final ratification of the Treaty of Paris in 1783. William Fowler seeks to address this weakness in a fast-paced and well-written book, American Crisis: George Washington and the Dangerous Two Years After Yorktown, 1781–1783.
Essentially a chronological and narrative history written for the elusive "general reader," Professor Fowler's book illustrates why George Washington was correct in viewing this period as one full of dangers and pitfalls. As he wrote Thomas Nelson, "Instead of exciting our exertions" the victory at Yorktown might "produce such a relaxation in the prosecution of the War, as will prolong the calamities of it" (p. 2). Much of the book focuses on this question, with the single largest topic being how to maintain morale and order in a bored and disheartened army that felt itself poorly treated and deeply fearful of being left with the short end of the stick once the final peace was achieved.
Although General Washington is the central figure in the story, this is by no means a biography. Time is spent etching out the characters of a number of figures, including those on the British and French sides. The sympathetic portrait of Sir Guy Carleton, managing the British evacuation of New York City, is particularly interesting. Indeed, several chapters are devoted to examining what was occurring in Europe during the two years in question. For some reason, there are no chapter titles, only numbers 1, 2, 3, etc. Headings would have helped the reader better understand what story the author was attempting to tell.
The so-called Newburgh Conspiracy is the best-known event of this time period, and Fowler does examine it in some detail. One of the more interesting aspects of the story is how the nationalists in the Continental Congress sought to use the army as a means of pressuring a reluctant Congress to accept a national impost. Indeed, Robert Morris, described by Fowler as "next to Washington, the second most powerful man in America," actually took the position that peace was not desirable, because only a prolonged crisis would move Congress to action (p. 19). Fowler does not speculate as to how close the nation came to a military coup d'etat. There is no doubt that General Washington's actions were decisive in convincing his officers not to force a showdown with Congress. To this reviewer, it seems clear that he was able to achieve this success because of the profound respect and admiration his officers had for him. This seems to contradict a point that Fowler makes several times by quoting contemporaries to the effect that the general, because of the low morale in the army, was unpopular with many of the officers and men. No doubt, the grumbling was genuine, but Washington seems to have been the most revered and admired man throughout the army.
Although he recognizes that Washington was motivated by the "spur of fame," Fowler does not make a serious effort at analyzing the character and motivation of the general. A few statements about Washington are incorrect. He did not "instantly" agree with Rochambeau to attack Yorktown; he did not "reluctantly" champion a professional army but rather favored one from the beginning; and it is unfair to say that Washington's mother was "keen . . . to inflict personal pain on her illustrious son" (pp. 5, 135, 163).
The work includes a number of interesting vignettes and facts. (One of the more surprising is that Washington set up his headquarters at 169 different places throughout the course of the war.) The Asgill affair is examined in some depth, and Washington is criticized for his order to take a hostage. "He realized, too late, that what he had done was morally questionable and undoubtedly illegal" (p. 67). It is surprising to see that Colonel Nicola, best known for supposedly asking Washington to be a king, is presented in a sympathetic manner. Fowler also explains Washington's decision to create the "Badge of Merit"—the origin of today's Purple Heart—as a way of opening the "road to glory" for all in a free country, but he then notes that only three men were awarded the honor during the war.
In sum, for those wanting to learn more about the final years of the war, this readable book is probably the best place to start.