"In the Hurricane's Eye"

Prize winning author Nathaniel Philbrick will be at St. Louis County Library Headquarters this Thursday, Nov. 8, at 7 p.m. to present on his newest book “In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown.” Doors will open at 6 p.m. There is no charge to attend the event, and books will be available for purchase.

Following is a review of “In the Hurricane’s Eye,” by MO Books Blogger, Bill Schwab.

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Philbrick’s magnificent capstone of his trilogy of books about the Revolutionary War sheds light on lesser-known aspects of the last year of the conflict that led to the near miraculous Franco-American victory in Yorktown. The volume largely focuses on the nautical clashes at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay during 1781. Philbrick’s thrilling narrative builds toward his re-creation of what he considers “the most important naval engagement in the history of the world,” the Battle of the Chesapeake, on September 5, 1781.

The narrative opens by depicting the depressed condition of the colonies. The colonial economy is near collapse. The colonists are tired of supporting its army, one that’s not producing any substantial results. Soldiers are sick, starving, poorly clothed and angry because their promised wages remain unpaid. Benedict Arnold has just betrayed his post and Washington wonders if mutiny by more soldiers is in the offing.

The officers of the Continental Army are so furious at Congress’ betrayal of their promise to provide pensions that they plan to march their troops on Congress to demand payment in person. But finally, after five years of war, the discouraged George Washington begins to see the tide turn because of the weather-related movement of the French naval fleet.

A series of deadly hurricanes devastated Jamaica, Barbados, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Martinique sinking a large Spanish fleet in the Gulf of Mexico on October 10, 1780. These losses convinced the leaders of the French fleet to move their ships north toward Chesapeake Bay during the 1781 hurricane season rather than risk spending the winter of 1781 in the Caribbean Sea. Thus the French fleet was readily available to do battle when General Washington called for help.

The colonies’ French allies’ strategic maneuverings, under the command of Admiral Françoise DeGrasse, led to the defeat of the British fleet at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay in November 1781. The victory is attributed to the intentional way that French seamen had been trained to engage in warfare. In France’s Academie de Marine, students were told, “to think of a naval battle in terms of a chess game rather than a brawl.” This deliberative approach was key to soundly defeating the British and greatly improved Washington’s chances of victory at Yorktown.

The decisive victory brought King George III to the negotiating table and by November 1783, the last British troops sailed for home. That December George Washington resigned his commission as General-in-Chief to return to Mount Vernon for a longed for, (but short) retirement.

The author depicts both Washington’s strengths and weaknesses. He describes the general’s responsibility for the rupture with Alexander Hamilton about slave ownership. Thousands of slaves fought for the colonies and were crucial in winning the war, yet, as soon as the war was over Washington ordered all slaves, including those 300-plus persons who “belonged” to his family, to return to their owners. This detail effectively illustrates the disconnect between the ideals of the Revolution and the incongruity of its leaders’ enslavement of kidnapped Africans.

This meticulously researched reinterpretation of the Revolutionary War offers a much-needed balanced presentation instead of the sanitized, patriotic version usually presented in the classroom. It is a vivid, richly detailed account of the final battles that educates and entertains while it also makes very clear the colonists’ risks and sacrifices that led to America’s independence.

Nathaniel Philbrick’s writing is impeccable. The book incorporates many little-known vignettes about the war and reads like a thriller. He also is the author of “In the Heart of the Sea”, winner of the National Book Award; “Mayflower”, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; ”Valiant Ambition”, winner of the George Washington Prize and several other volumes.