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In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown by Nathaniel Philbrick, Viking, US $30.00, Pp 384, October 2018, ISBN 978-0525426769

By the fall of 1780, George Washington had come to the conclusion that the only way to defeat the British and snatch independence from them was to get the French involved on his side. But, he had also realized that coordinating his army’s movements with those of a fleet of warships thousands of miles away. He was feeling extremely frustrated because of the unending war when the impossible happened on September 5, 1781, when the Battle of Chesapeake — without the participation of a single American ship — changed the subsequent history by making victory for Americans possible in the subsequent war at Yorktown.  In In the Hurricane’s Eye, Nathaniel Philbrick argues that the fate of the American Revolution depended on Washington and the sea in the final analysis.

The Battle of the Chesapeake has been called the most important naval engagement in the history of the world. Fought outside the entrance of the bay between French admiral Compte de Grasse’s twenty-four ships of the line and a slightly smaller British fleet commanded by Rear Admiral Thomas Graves, the battle inflicted severe enough damage on the British Empire’s ships that Graves returned to New York for repairs. Philbrick argues that by preventing the rescue of seven thousand British and German soldiers under the command of General Cornwallis, de Grasse’s victory on September 5, 1781, made Washington’s subsequent triumph at Yorktown a virtual fait accompli. Peace was not officially declared for another two years, but that does not change the fact that a naval battle fought between the French and the British was largely responsible for the independence of the United States.

Philbrick says that the Battle of the Chesapeake plays only a minor part in most popular accounts of the war despite its undeniable significance, largely because no Americans participated in it. If the sea figures at all in the story of the Revolutionary War, the focus tends to be on the heroics of John Paul Jones of England’s Flamborough Head, even though that two-ship engagement had little impact on the overall direction of the conflict. Instead of concentrating on the sea, the traditional narrative of Yorktown focuses on the allied army’s long overland journey south, with a special emphasis on the collaborative relationship between Washington and his French counterpart Compte de Rochambeau. In this view, the encounter between the French and the British fleets was a mere prelude to the main event. Philbrick has put the sea at the center of the story — where it really belongs.

Philbrick argues that Washington understood clearly that only the intervention of the French Navy could achieve the victory for the Revolutionary forces. Six months before the Battle of the Chesapeake, during the winter of 1781, he had urged the French to send a large fleet of warships to the Chesapeake in an attempt to trap Benedict Arnold in Portsmouth in Virginia. Philbrick argues that the Battle of the Chesapeake was actually a dress rehearsal for the Yorktown campaign. It is essential to understanding the evolving, complex, and the sometimes acrimonious relationship between Washington and Rochambeau. The two leaders were not the selfless military partners of Legend; each had his own jealously guarded agenda, and it was only after Washington reluctantly  — and angrily — acquiesced to French demands that they began to work in concert.

Philbrick argues that, instead of an inevitable march to victory, Yorktown was the result of a hurried rush of seemingly random events — from a hurricane in the Caribbean, to a bloody battle amid the woods near North Carolina’s Guilford Courthouse, to the loan of 500,000 Spanish pesos from the citizens of Havana, Cuba — all of which had to occur before Cornwallis arrived at Yorktown and de Grasse sailed into the Chesapeake. That the pieces finally fell into place in September and October 1781 never ceased to amaze Washington. Philbrick says that the victory at Yorktown was the result of a strategy Washington had been pursuing since the beginning of the French alliance.

In the Hurricane’s Eye provides new insight into the history of the Battle of Chesapeake by shining a light on a most important yet largely unexplored battle of the Revolutionary War. It is probably for the first time that a historian has provided a fresh account of the Battle of Chesapeake in such detail. With his unmatched scholarly credentials, Nathaniel Philbrick shows how the Battle of Chesapeake was a game-changer for the colonists and determined the outcome of the battle at Yorktown. This well-researched book is packed with new knowledge and perspectives on the Battle of Chesapeake and the Revolutionary War. No matter how much you know about the history of the Revolutionary War, In the Hurricane’s Eye will certainly add to your knowledge.

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