Great Nonfiction: Victory at Yorktown, by Richard M. Ketchum

Victory at Yorktown: The Campaign That Won the RevolutionHow we won the Revolution (and it wasn’t easy)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Richard Ketchum certainly knows the War for Independence, having authored well-received books on Bunker Hill, Saratoga, New York, and Trenton. In Victory at Yorktown, he offers a detailed, well researched, and entertaining account of the events of 1781, when General Washington was required to face that cold, hard truth that, without a decisive victory in the field, the revolution (along with its founders) were doomed. The Continental Army, never large enough to begin with, had dwindled to a mere 3 to 4 thousand hungry, unpaid men. America’s French allies were untrustworthy but indispensable. But the British army was divided, with Clinton in New York and Cornwallis coming north from South Carolina, and with the arrival of the French fleet, there would never be a better chance to strike a decisive blow against them.

Ketchum lays the groundwork for the dramatic climax of the war with factual information enlivened by lesser known details about the personalities and activities of the major players, American, French, and British. The interception of John Andre and exposure of Benedict Arnold’s treachery are described in vivid detail, culminating with the farcical reaction of Arnold’s alluring wife to Washington’s arrival at the house where both were staying. The clandestine motives of the French government (the securing of more American territory for their crown, for instance) are revealed. Naturally, the siege at Yorktown receives considerable attention, but equal importance is granted to the formal surrender ceremonies, which Cornwallis refused to attend, and to the behavior of the French and English toward each other once hostilities has ceased (greeting each other as privileged gentlemen, who understood each other far better than those rustic American commoners ever could.) And who knew that germ warfare was a feature in the war in Virginia?!

If more historical accounts were as readable and interesting as this book, history would be a much more popular subject. Truly, the American victory was close to miraculous, and if you’d like to find out how such a thing could happen, check out Victory at Yorktown.

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