Picks and Pans Review: The First Salute

updated 10/17/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/17/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Barbara W. Tuchman

Nothing in a novel could be more thrilling than the moment in this glorious history when French soldiers arrive on a boat at Chester, Pa., in 1781, look on the dock and see a tall, familiar figure: George Washington. Usually a model of stoicism, Washington is jumping for joy, waving his arms in circles. He has just learned of the French fleet's arrival in Chesapeake Bay and knows he has trapped the British army of Gen. Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, Va. After nearly seven years of grueling war, he is on the verge of victory; soon the world will be forever changed. It is only part of Tuchman's genius that she can reconstitute such scenes with so much precision and passion, providing new perspective on familiar material. Her eye for vivid detail is extraordinary too. This book is devoted primarily to European contributions to the colonials' rebellion, from the first formal recognition of an American ship, by Johannes de Graaff, the Governor of St. Eustatius, a tiny Dutch-controlled island in the Caribbean, on Nov. 16, 1776. Tuchman describes the mixture of practicality and idealism that informed the Europeans' dealings with the Americans. The Dutch sold war materials to the colonials, satisfying both mercantile and democratic impulses. The French eventually agreed to give the colonials money, troops and naval support, serving both admiration for the American cause and France's ancient hostility toward Britain. Tuchman also examines the debilitating effects of politics on Britain's ability to fight. Some of this, she suggests, came from the kind of reservations voiced in the House of Lords in 1777 by William Pitt the Elder. The war, he said, was "unjust in its principles, impractible in its means and ruinous in its consequences.... If I were an American as I am an Englishman, while a foreign troop was landed in my country, I never would lay down my arms—never—never—never." Within a 344-page book, Tuchman outlines the European politics of the war, discusses crucial naval tactics and includes vivid, humanizing sketches of such people as the British admiral George Rodney, an innovative sailor plagued by an excruciating prostate gland problem, in-fighting among navy officers and a personal addiction to gambling. She portrays Benjamin Franklin as distracted by his success with Parisian women when he was Ambassador to France, but also as someone who could write to an English Member of Parliament: "You have begun to burn our towns and murder our people. Look upon your hands! They are stained with the blood of your relations! You and I were long friends. You are now my enemy and I am yours." Tuchman is unstintingly admiring of Washington, noting, for instance, that as he marched his army from New York to the Battle of Yorktown, he took a personal 120-mile detour to his home in Mount Vernon to see his wife, Martha, for the first time in almost seven years. For all its virtues, this book is not as original as other Tuchman works. British indecision and fatal disrespect for the colonials were part of her The March of Folly. More annoyingly, Tuchman fills the book with repetitions, such as citing twice within four pages the same quote—from the memoir of a Swedish officer serving with the French—about Cornwallis "not sparing defenceless women and children" as he fell back on Yorktown. Still, this is an exhilarating book about human greed, foolishness and courage. And it includes the surrender ceremony at York-town, where Cornwallis sent Brig. Gen. Charles O'Hara to represent him. O'Hara, disdainful of the colonials to the end, tried to surrender his sword to the French. The French commander, Viscount de Rochambeau, smiled, shook his head and gestured to his aide, Mathieu Dumas, who said to O'Hara, "You are mistaken. The commander-in-chief of our army is on the right." There, of course, was Washington. (Knopf, $22.95)

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