John Ferling: Interviewed about the Am Rev

Historians in the News

[John Ferling is the author of Almost A Miracle (Oxford U. Press).]

OUP: Compared to the Civil War and America’s twentieth century wars, the War of Independence appears to have been pretty tame. Do you agree?

John Ferling: All wars are different. Each war has its own cast of characters, but most importantly the technology of war continues to change, leading to ever more destructive weaponry. Soldiers in the Revolutionary War were for the most part equipped with muskets that had an effective range of 50 yards. Civil War soldiers carried rifles with an effective range that was six times greater. Soldiers in World War II not only carried rifles that they could fire more rapidly, they took machine guns and terrifying other weapons into battle.

Yet despite the relatively primitive technology of the eighteenth century, there was an astonishing death toll in the Revolutionary War. One American male in sixteen of military age died during the Revolutionary War. One in ten of military age died in the Civil War and one in seventy-five in World War II. Of those who served in the Continental army, one in four died. In the Civil War, one regular in five perished. In World War II, one in forty U.S. servicemen died. The death rate was similar for those fighting for Great Britain in the Revolutionary War. One-fourth of the British soldiers, German mercenaries, and American Loyalists who fought with the redcoats in North America perished. More than 80,000 British and American soldiers and sailors died in the Revolutionary War. Given the populations of the two countries in 1776, those losses would be the equivalent today to the loss of roughly 2,000,000 Americans.

OUP: What was the turning point in the Revolutionary War?

Ferling: In his wonderful book on the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom, James McPherson wrote that long wars tend to have several turning points. That was true of the War of Independence as well, which in my judgment had 5 turning points. The Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775 not only convinced Americans that they could stand up to regulars, it had a deleterious psychological impact on General William Howe, soon to be the British army’s overall commander in North America. General Washington’s brilliant campaign in New Jersey in the last days of 1776, which included the two engagements at Trenton and the subsequent battle at Princeton, boosted sagging morale, enabled a new army to be recruited, and impressed the French leadership. General John Burgoyne’s disastrous invasion of New York in 1777, culminating in his surrender at Saratoga that October, brought France into the war as an American ally and led Britain to adopt a new strategy, the Southern Strategy. By mid-1780 the war had stalemated, with possibly ominous implications for the United States. As a result, I see the partisan war that erupted that summer in South Carolina’s backcountry, and the stunningly adroit campaign waged the following winter in the Carolinas by General Nathanael Greene, as an important turning point. It ultimately led Britain’s Southern commander, Earl Cornwallis, to take his army into Virginia. Four months later he suffered defeat at Yorktown, the long-awaited decisive victory that broke the stalemate....
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