John Ferling is the author of the new book Winning Independence: The Decisive Years of the Revolutionary War, 1778-1781. His many other books include The Ascent of George Washington. He is professor emeritus of history at the University of West Georgia, and he lives near Atlanta.
Q: What inspired you to write Winning Independence, and why did you choose to focus on the years 1778-1781?
A: I was drawn to the topic in large measure because the four years of the war after Saratoga, if not forgotten, are not as well remembered as the first 30 months of the war.
Too many people, I think, see Saratoga as the “turning point” of the war, as it is often described, and because of that they look on the American victory as inevitable.
I wanted to show readers that the war became a stalemate soon after Saratoga and it could have ended either with America having failed to win independence or with a U.S. that included perhaps only 10 or 11 states, and facing a bleak future.
I also wanted to reexamine Sir Henry Clinton, who became Britain’s commander in chief in America in May 1778, and who I think had been treated unfairly by historians.
Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, "A traditionalist, Ferling concludes that, but for its blunders, Britain would have defeated the rebels, who made their own blunders—but not enough to lose." What do you think of that description?
A: I more or less agree. I argued that Britain could have won the war in 1775, 1776, or 1777. Had Britain scored a decisive victory on the first day of fighting, the colonists’ ardor for war might have evaporated.
Britain had the capability to score a nearly bloodless victory at Bunker Hill, which might also have led the colonists to think that it was hopeless to fight the British.
Twice during the New York campaign in 1776 – while a Continental army was hopelessly trapped in Brooklyn and later when Washington’s entire army was in essence trapped on Manhattan – the British had it in their power to score colossal victories that almost certainly would have ended the war.
In 1777, had General Howe taken his army northward rather than after Philadelphia, he might not only have saved Burgoyne from his fate at Saratoga, but he had the means to score a decisive victory over the rebel forces. The Allies made few blunders after 1777.
I argue in the book that late in 1780 Britain’s commander in chief, Sir William Clinton, devised a strategy that might well have avoided defeat and led to Britain’s re-conquest of two to three southern colonies, but that Clinton was foiled by London’s intrusiveness, especially that by Lord George Germain, the American secretary.
Q: How would you assess George Washington's performance during this part of the war?
A: Washington, a thoroughly amateur leader who had never previously commanded more than 2,000 men or led an army against a professional European force, committed error after error in 1776 and 1777.
But he learned from his mistakes and after 1777 benefited from the French alliance. He was risk averse after 1777, essentially refusing to act without French consent or cooperation. It was a wise policy.
Washington was clearly an extraordinary leader and the best man for the job of commanding the Continental army, though he was not a great strategic thinker. In another book, I argued that America was lucky to have survived Washington’s mistakes and fortunate to have had him as its commander, and I still hold to that conclusion.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: I hope readers will understand that this was a long, desperate war whose outcome – much like our Civil War and World War I – was in doubt until the very end in 1781.
I also wanted readers to see what Washington and his counterpart, General Clinton, knew and didn’t know while wrestling with incredibly difficult decisions. Things were not as clear-cut to them as they often seem in retrospect.
Finally, Clinton was scapegoated in England following the war and many historians have jumped on that bandwagon, but I hope readers will come to see him differently.
I think he was a good general, though perhaps not a great one, who came close both to avoiding a defeat that had seemed inevitable four years earlier and to reclaiming two to three colonies that since 1776 had been lost to the British Empire.
In other words, Britain’s defeat was not inevitable and Clinton came close to avoiding the defeat that is nowadays too often seen as inevitable.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: The library that I use has been closed since March 2020 due to the pandemic, so I’ve been unable to begin another book or even to dig around enough to come up with a potential book project.
I have spent my time pulling three magazine articles out of Winning Independence. Two have appeared in American History on H-Net and one in the online Journal of the American Revolution. Links to them can be found on my website.
At the moment, I am working on an article that looks at the postwar “war” between Clinton and his subordinate, General Charles Cornwallis, over who was responsible for the catastrophe at Yorktown. Some, but only some, of that article appeared in Winning Independence.
Where I might go thereafter is a mystery to me. I love research and writing and hope that once the library reopens (which is also a mystery to me) I can find a topic to burrow into.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb