The First American Crisis

American Crisis – George Washington and the Dangerous Two Years After Yorktown 1781-1783, by William M. Fowler, (New York:  Walker and Company, 2011)

American Crisis chronicles the activities of George Washington and the Continental Army during the dangerous two-year period after Yorktown and before the final Treaty of Paris ending the Revolutionary War. The author, William Fowler is an eminent Early American historian with numerous books and journal articles interpreting the Colonial Period through the Early Republic.  He is a professor of History at Northeastern and a past president of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Fowler’s American Crisis  is complementary to two other books written about this period; Don Glickstein’s After Yorktown and Thomas Fleming’s The Perils of Peace.  After Yorktown describes the strategically important global military campaigns in the two years before the Treaty of Paris. Don Glickstein weaves the story of how battles in Asia, Europe, Africa, on the North American frontier as well as the 13 colonies had an impact on the eventual peace among Britain, France, Spain, The Dutch Republic and the United States. Thomas Fleming’s The Perils of Peace is a compelling overview of the United States/British/French geopolitical situation and the diplomatic negotiations which ended the war.

Fowler’s American Crisis offers a unique, focused view written from the perspective of Gen. George Washington and his relationship with the Continental Congress.  Fowler describes the frailty of the political union within the United States and depicts how close the Revolution came to unraveling from within.  In Fowler’s view there were many forces which came close to dissolving the union with states going in fractious ways. He credits Washington’s vision and leadership for forging an American identity and preserving a national government.

Fowler begins by noting that in hindsight, Yorktown was a spectacular victory but in reality, the strategic military situation in North American did not change. Firmly entrenched in New York City, Savannah, Charlestown and several other posts, the British fielded two to three times the number of troops.  Further,French forces and money was propped up the Continental Army which lacked critical supplies and funds to pay its soldiers. After the defeat of Gen. Cornwallis at Yorktown, the main Continental Army under Washington marched north to confront the British who were securely ensconced in New York City.  Other than a few skirmishes, neither side offered a decisive engagement and the war settled into a desultory stalemate.

With soldiers’ lives devolving into camp and garrison duty, Patriot commanders had increasing difficultly maintaining army discipline and morale.  In addition, as it increasingly became apparent that the war was ending, the soldiers were anxious about receiving promises of back pay and compensation. At first it was the enlisted men who were restless and mutinied.  Then discontent spread to the officer corps.

Fowler provides a cogent summary of the events leading up to the infamous Newburgh Conspiracy in which some Continental Army Officers sought to exert military force on Congress to extract promised compensation. Gen. Horatio Gates, the hero of Saratoga and defamed at Camden, led this group of disgruntled officers.  In one foible, Fowler repeats a common mischaracterization of Gates as “Granny Gates”.  There is no contemporary sources which support this appellation and it was likely coined by a subsequent historian.  See Will Monk’s 2014 article on Granny Gates for the relevant historiography.

In a historic meeting in a Newburgh encampment building called the Temple of Virtue, Washington personally addressed an assembly of officers called together by a Gates subordinate.  Following 18th Century military protocol, Washington issued ordered to be read to his command and this was the first time during the war that he personally spoke to an assembly of officers. After an emotional address, Washington diffused the Newburgh officer revolt and preserved the sanctity of civilian political authority over the military.

As peace became increasingly apparent, Washington proclaimed an end of hostilities and gradually and cautiously reduced the army’s size.  British senior commander in North America, Gen. Guy Carleton and Washington met to discuss disengagement and the British withdrawal from New York City.  Suspicious of British intent right up to the day the last British soldiers left New York  City, Washington struggled to maintain a fighting force in case the war resumed.

The book concludes with Washington returning his military commission to the Continental Congress in Annapolis, Maryland.  In a bit of irony, Congress lacked a quorum, having only severn states in attendance and  passed a special rule to accept Washington’s resignation. The failure to gather the minimum number of states denoted the paucity of national leadership and demonstrated that substantial power resided in the individual thirteen states.

I recommend American Crisis to readers interested in leadership lessons gained by analyzing Washington’s inspired command transition from war to peace.  While other Patriot leaders were very important, Fowler asserts that it was Washington who had the moral stature to ensure that a national government would endure after war’s end.

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