books History

George Washington’s Hurricanes: Nathaniel Philbrick’s “In the Hurricane’s Eye”

“Cornwallis had had his own nearly disastrous flirtation with the interior of the North American continent during his pursuit of Nathanael Greene across North Carolina. Finally, however, the British general had been defeated, not by the land or even another army, but by the sea. Never fully appreciating his dependence on the British navy, he had wandered the edges of the Tidewater in careless disregard of the potential dangers lurking beyond the horizon. In coastal America, the navy held ultimate sway.”

Ever since the American victory at Saratoga in the fall of 1777 and the entry of France into the War for American Independence, George Washington had been planning to use French naval support to deliver the crushing blow against the British in North America. For three tortuous years, 1778-17781, unsupported by Congress and even the local states and towns, Washington managed to avert starvation and mutiny and keep the Continental Army together as a cohesive fighting force. No man, it is patently clear with hindsight, could have managed such a feat. But to defeat the British in North America, during those same tortuous three years Washington had been convinced the culling blow would come at New York. Anywhere else, it seemed, wouldn’t suffice.

When France entered the war to settle old scores with Britain, the American Revolution became more than a conflict in North America, principally in fought in an around New England and Pennsylvania. The war had become global. Navies were now slugging it out from India to the Caribbean. French, and later Spanish and Dutch, armies and navies squared off against Britain’s empire as the European powers squabbled to cut away at Britain’s imperial hegemony.

Despite the ongoing conflicts erupting everywhere but America, Washington envisioned his final campaign: an assault on New York. Since 1778, at the Battle of Monmouth, the British under Sir Henry Clinton had holed themselves up in the loyalist bastion of New York. Like Washington, Clinton figured New York to be the scene of the decisive battle to determine the fate of the war and the British Empire in North America. So too did Benedict Arnold. That’s why he had succumb to temptation to surrender West Point, along the Hudson, to the British. America north of the Hudson had always been the bleeding heart of the revolution. Everywhere else was lukewarm at best. Whoever controlled New York and the New York waterways, especially the Hudson, would control the geography that would determine the war. So everyone thought and planned. With the Americans holding the Hudson and the British entrenched in New York, the war in America had grinded to a stalemate.

When the HMS Phoenix was shipwrecked by a hurricane in the Caribbean Sea in October 1780, no one would have predicted that the maelstrom forces of nature that periodically ripped through the Caribbean would play a decisive role in the outcome of the American Revolution. Three particularly devastating hurricanes roared across the Caribbean in October 1780. In the span of a single month, three category five hurricanes hit the Caribbean and left tens of thousands of people dead. The fighting over the gold mines of the sugar cane industry in the Caribbean screeched to a halt as British, French, and Spanish navies had to rebuild, sugar plantations restored, and cities also rebuilt.

Given the danger of even being anchored in the Caribbean in the fall, the French navy in the Caribbean received new orders: weigh anchor and set sail for the coast of America.

In the spring and summer of 1781, the American Revolution was still up for grabs. Cornwallis had embarked on his southern strategy. Clinton still occupied New York. Washington and Rochambeau sat in Newport, Rhode Island. Benedict Arnold had recently harried Virginia in a daring raid of the Virginia countryside that nearly captured Thomas Jefferson. No one could be certain who had the advantage, but the French were pessimistic about America’s prospects.

Characteristic of Philbrick’s writing style, In the Hurricane’s Eye is a graceful read through the final years of the American Revolution. What he had started with Bunker Hill and Valiant Ambition comes to a magnificent finale with In the Hurricane’s Eye. Much of the story is probably familiar. Cornwallis. Charleston. Camden. Washington. Yorktown. Victory. But Philbrick’s book brings forth another aspect of the story that is often forgotten: how Mother Nature played a role in America’s independence, how a Spanish diplomat secured the funds necessary for the Yorktown Campaign, and how Washington was willing to forego three years of planning conquering New York to march south and capture Cornwallis at Yorktown.

In fact, if it wasn’t for the brutal hurricanes of 1780 and the financial savvy of Francisco Saavedra, the famous story of Yorktown may have never happened.

Unwilling to be battered in port again, the French navy set sail for the American coast in the summer of 1781. Comte De Grasse had secret orders to help the American war effort, but should the tide turn against America, he was to evacuate the French army in North America. Washington, with his own secret cabal in French headquarters, learned that after three long years of failure his dream of winning the war with French naval support may finally materialize. His plans for recapturing New York, it seemed, were about to come true.

But Virginia, not New York, would be the sight of the final showdown in North America. Rochambeau had tactfully been arguing for a southern strategy to capture Cornwallis. Washington, eventually, relented on his New York plans and agreed to march south. Thus began the final act of smoke and cover which would help win the war. As Philbrick makes clear, “It may have been Rochambeau’s idea to head south, but without Washington’s insistence on secrecy and subterfuge, they never would have gotten out of New Jersey.” With intense secrecy, the allied army slipped passed New York, Philadelphia, and began marching toward Cornwallis at Yorktown before the British in New York realized what was happening. Instead of coming to attack New York, Cornwallis’s isolated army in Virginia was now dangerously overexposed.

De Grasse’s fleet secured a tactically indecisive but strategically consequential victory at the Battle of the Chesapeake as the American and French armies assembled in Virginia. The British fleet sent to help Cornwallis had been turned back. De Grasse gave chase but returned to the Chesapeake. Finally, the French navy had secured coastal supremacy. The rest, as we know, became history.

In the Hurricanes’ Eye brings to life the final years of the American Revolution, principally 1780-1781. Throughout the pages Philbrick highlights how close both sides came to winning and losing the war in this final year of struggle. But it may well have been a series of hurricanes that scared off the French from campaigning in the Caribbean and turning them to North America that finally sealed the deal.

Washington’s “genius,” as the subtitle alludes, was twofold. First, he had long recognized that winning the war depended on French naval support. After three long years of waiting and failures, he finally received the gift he had long hoped for. Second, his ability to let go of his New York plan and out-fox Clinton to slip south deserves all the commendations possible; rather than remain unmovable with three years of planning, Washington showed his adaptability and generalship in swinging south, avoiding Clinton’s spies, and surrounding Cornwallis. Lesser men may have well been too stubborn to be persuaded to give up long expected plans of victory for a campaign that may not quite win the war.

There was no guarantee, heading into the Yorktown Campaign, that the capture of Cornwallis would hasten the end of the war. But it did. The damage of the British fleet at the Chesapeake and the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown finally convinced the British to cut their losses and defend their besieged empire against the machinations of the French, Dutch, and Spanish. It turned out to be the right move. Although America was, now, essentially free, the British secured a series of devastating naval victories in 1782 and 1783 that moved the great powers to the Peace of Paris.

In 1783, the British finally evacuated New York. Without a shot being fired, Washington finally strode into the city he was humiliated in abandoning in 1776. Now a national hero, and with all the disfunction of the American government still around him, rather than become the American Caesar he resigned and returned to Mount Vernon. Washington’s final act of genius was seeing that the disfunction of the continental congress and the Articles of Confederation would demand a stronger centralized government. As we know, he became the President of that stronger centralized government after the ratification of the Constitution in 1787.

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