Review: Almost a Miracle by John Ferling

by Rebeca on May 7, 2009

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ALMOST A MIRACLE: The American Victory in the War of Independence
By John Ferling
Oxford University Press, 2007
$29.95

Reviewed by Randall Radic

The title of John Ferling’s unrestrained work is Almost A Miracle. Drop the adverb from the title and the sheer virtuosity and genius of the book is accurately expressed. For Ferling’s book is indeed ‘a miracle.’

Almost A Miracle takes the reader inside the War of Independence, and reveals the difficulties faced by commanding officers on both sides of the conflict, along with the courage, steadfastness and suffering of common soldiers – the men who did most of the dying. And die they did, in astonishing numbers. Until the book is digested, the average reader probably has no frame of reference for the pure bloodiness of the war. Much of the blood was shed in the South, Georgia and the Carolinas – a theater rarely mentioned in most histories of the war – which was where, according to Ferling, that the war was actually won.

Ferling points out that, in effect, the British were fighting a battle on two fronts: the northeast and the southeast. The defeat of the British in the South – a defeat that cost both sides dearly – led to Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown.

What makes Ferling’s book so real is his portrayal of the leading players in the war. Men like Washington, Hamilton, Lafayette, and Franklin. When gazing at these historical figures, Ferling doesn’t just narrate facts. He goes deeper, examining and analyzing personalities and abilities. As Ferling states in his Introduction, “I came to see both more flaws and greater virtues in Washington’s leadership, arrived at a deeper appreciation of Nathanael Greene, and grew to see Charles Lee as an especially tragic figure, a man at once possessed of superlative soldierly qualities and laden with ruinous character defects.”

Indeed, Ferling provides Benedict Arnold with one of the most fair and accurate appraisals ever written. He rightly points out that Arnold was probably a military genius and a master manipulator of men. Benedict Arnold was a man full of energy and determination. Sadly, though, along with tremendous talent, Arnold swarmed with a whole congerie of neuroses.

Such insights take Ferling’s book beyond merely being adequate and make it wonderful. Because wars are fought by people, and it’s the human aspect – in all its immediacy and emotion – that gives history meaning and pizzazz. People, with all their flaws and strengths, are what make the story interesting. If the stories that come out of the War for Independence were not populated by real people, who would care?

Ferling’s book makes readers care, that’s how absorbing it is. And because they care, they cavil.

Some reviewers have taken Ferling to task for his insights, saying they are a biased example of shallow hero-bashing. Such assertions are balderdash. Ferling has the intestinal fortitude to call it as he sees it, which in other terms is called “academic honesty.” The historian’s job is not to candy-coat history so it tastes sweet can be swallowed easily. Rather, the historian opens the doors and windows to past events, exposing them to light and fresh air. Ferling accomplishes this task.

Not only does Ferling unmask his subject matter, telling it like it is, but he then writes about it in a clear lucid style. He avoids the usual stuffy, boring academic phraseology, eschewing recondite terminology. Ferling is not trying to impress the reader with his vocabulary. Instead, he communicates, which is what good writing is all about. Shunning long, convoluted sentences, Ferling uses what was once the gold standard of the English language: subject, verb, object. And every so often he throws in some adverbs and adjectives to add action and color to the text.

Almost A Miracle is a stunningly good book, one that every student of the War for Independence should read. More than that, it’s a book that any amateur historian will love, because it’s entertaining to read. In fact, for anyone who wants to know how and why and when and where America to be America, this book is essential reading. Besides that – it’s got zest. Which means it’s rated E for everyone.

About Randall Radic

Randall Radic, a former Old Catholic priest and a convicted felon, lives in Northern California where he reads, writes and smokes cigars. He is the author of A Priest in Hell: Gangs, Murderers and Snitching in a California Jail, and the forthcoming Gone To Hell: True Crimes of America’s Clergy.     

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