The Perils of Peace: America's Struggle for Survival After Yorktown

The Perils of Peace: America's Struggle for Survival After Yorktown

by Thomas Fleming


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On October 19, 1781, Great Britain's best army surrendered to General George Washington at Yorktown. But the future of the 13 former colonies was far from clear. A 13,000-man British army still occupied New York City, and another 13,000 regulars and armed loyalists were scattered from Canada to Savannah, Georgia. Meanwhile, Congress had declined to a mere 24 members, and the national treasury was empty. The American army had not been paid for years and was on the brink of mutiny.

In Europe, America's only ally, France, teetered on the verge of bankruptcy and was soon reeling from a disastrous naval defeat in the Caribbean. A stubborn George III dismissed Yorktown as a minor defeat and refused to yield an acre of “my dominions” in America. In Paris, Ambassador Benjamin Franklin confronted violent hostility to France among his fellow members of the American peace delegation.

Thomas Fleming moves elegantly between the key players in this riveting drama and shows that the outcome we take for granted was far from certain. With fresh research and masterful storytelling, Fleming breathes new life into this tumultuous but little known period in America's history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061139116
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/30/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 530,577
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.82(d)

About the Author

Thomas Fleming is the author of more than forty books of fiction and nonfiction, most recently, The Perils of Peace. He has been the president of the Society of American Historians and of PEN American Center. Mr. Fleming is a frequent guest on C-SPAN, PBS, A&E, and the History Channel. He lives in New York City.

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The Perils of Peace
America’s Struggle for Survival After Yorktown

Chapter One

A Potentially Ruinous Victory

On October 19, 1781, outside the small tobacco port of York-town, Virginia, on the narrow peninsula that jutted into the York River where it joined Chesapeake Bay, soldiers of two nations faced each other on opposite sides of a narrow dirt road. On the left in two ranks, hefting polished muskets, stood the regiments of the French expeditionary force in gleaming white uniforms and black gaiters. Beside them their officers glittered with gold braid; their cocked hats sprouted white, green, and red plumes.

Facing these European professionals on the opposite side of the road stood the regiments of the Continental Army of the United States, wearing improvised uniforms of fringed white hunting shirts and linen pantaloons, buttoned around the calves. Only their officers wore the blue coats with buff facings and the buff breeches that had recently been designated as their official uniform. The Continentals' posture was nonetheless proudly martial, and their French-made muskets had as much shine as elbow grease could lend them. From the elation gleaming on every face, there was no doubt that they considered themselves equal partners in the momentous event that was about to transpire.

Behind the Continentals stood another line of soldiers—militiamen from Maryland and Virginia. These were temporary warriors, summoned to participate in the military drama by their state governors. Uniforms were nowhere to be seen in this rank; officers and men wore rough work clothes and many of the enlisted men were barefoot.

At thehead of the facing columns of French and American regiments sat two groups of senior officers on horseback. On the right, forty-nine-year-old Lieutenant General George Washington and his aides and subordinate generals were wearing their best blue-and-buff uniforms and their boots gleamed with newly applied polish. Facing them were portly fifty-six-year-old Lieutenant General Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, commander of the French expeditionary force, and his staff—all in uniforms as resplendent as the officers' in their regiments.

The American commander in chief was unquestionably the dominant figure in this tableau. On horseback, Washington looked even taller and more formidable than on foot. Well over six feet, he had huge hands that gripped his horse's reins with a casual authority. His perfectly cut blue coat was devoid of medals or other decorations; only epaulets and a black cockade pinned to his cocked hat designated his rank.

Beside the French army officers, Admiral Louis Comte de Barras perched uncomfortably on a borrowed horse. The admiral was second in command of the French fleet that had played a crucial part in the drama that was about to reach an improbable climax. The masts of several of the fleet's frigates were visible on nearby waters. Out of sight on the Chesapeake were the massive ships of the line that had fought off the British navy in early September and irretrievably trapped a 7,700-man British army in Yorktown. Including the sailors, there were more than 29,000 Frenchmen at Yorktown and about 9,000 Americans.

This unlikely alliance of American Protestants imbued with defiant ideas about the universal importance of individual liberty and French Catholics loyal to a king who ruled by divine right with the backing of titled aristocrats was about to consummate a victory that none of them would have dared to predict two months ago.1

Several dozen yards beyond the fighting men, on both sides of the road, hundreds of civilians sat on horses or in carriages, or stood in neighborly groups. Day and night for almost three weeks they had listened to the booming siege cannon and waited breathlessly for scraps of news from talkative soldiers not on duty in Yorktown's trenches. Among the more distinguished of these noncombatants was twenty-six-year-old John Parke Custis, General George Washington's handsome stepson. Jack had sat out the war on his various plantations in Maryland and Virginia, letting other men his age do the fighting and dying. This did not improve his stepfather's already low opinion of him.

Young Custis had inherited an immense estate from his father; with growing distress Washington had watched him mismanage it. Jack sold thousands of prime acres for depreciating American paper dollars and gambled away not a little of these illusory profits. Washington had written him earnest, often stern letters urging him to handle his affairs more prudently—and got nowhere. Meanwhile Washington had never protested Jack's disinterest in military service; he knew his wife, Martha, would be horrified and even traumatized by a demand that her beloved only son risk his life for the glorious cause.

Jack had joined Washington's staff as a volunteer aide as the French and American armies completed their 450-mile march from New York. This flirtation with military glory did not last long. He had contracted camp fever, a form of typhus caused by poor sanitation and lack of soap in eighteenth century armies. It was a potentially fatal disease, especially when combined with dysentery, which had wracked Jack for several days.

A worried Washington had asked his old friend, Dr. James Craik, chief physician of the Continental Army, to care for Jack. But Martha's spoiled son, used to having his own way since birth, insisted he felt well enough to witness the surrender. He promised Dr. Craik he would then retreat to nearby Eltham, a plantation owned by Burwell Bassett, Martha Washington's brother-in-law. Too weak to sit up, Jack reclined on cushions in an open carriage.2

Among the civilians were several other improbable visitors to Yorktown. They were members of the Oneida nation of the Iroquois Confederacy. Most wore Indian-style clothing. Their leader, the sachem Great Grasshopper, sported a beautiful blue uniform, thick with gold braid. The French ambassador to the United States had given it to him when the sachem and more than forty other Oneidas had visited Philadelphia in September.

The Oneidas had been allied with France in the numerous wars the French had fought with the British in the decades before the Revolution. Influenced by a missionary minister . . .

The Perils of Peace
America’s Struggle for Survival After Yorktown
. Copyright © by Thomas Fleming. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments     IX
Introduction     XIII
A Potentially Ruinous Victory     1
Diplomats in Distress     44
An Empire on the Brink     82
The Art of Making Something Out of Nothing     103
Uncrowning a King     134
Men Talk Peace But There Is No Peace     159
Loose Cannons Front and Center     181
A Peace That Surpasses Understanding     213
Will It Be Peace-Or Civil War?     251
A Runaway Congress vs. A Berserk Parliament     275
George Washington's Tears     299
Abbreviations for Notes     323
Notes     325
Index     343

What People are Saying About This

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“[A] meaningful story about America’s past that compels readers to rethink their understanding of American identity.”

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“A remarkable achievement, brilliant in conception and illuminating in the way in which heroes and villains…walk off the page.”

John C. McManus

“No one understands the Revolutionary Era better. No one brings it to life with such amazing insight and intimacy.”

Richard N. Smith

“As riveting and suspenseful…it is ultimately inspiring, this is history the way we all wish it could be written.”

Tom McGuire

“[A]n engaging and lively narrative.”

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Perils of Peace: America's Struggle for Survival After Yorktown 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
GeoffSmock More than 1 year ago
Flemming does well to fill in a void that history has left. When we look at the American Revolution we usually skip from the victory at Yorktown in '81 to the Treaty of Paris in '83 as if the only thing that passed within that two year period was time. In fact a lot happened in that biennium, with political turmoil in Great Britain and a near collapse of the Continental structure in America. Immediately after Yorktown it was not at all clear that the war was over, as you may have been led to believe. That period is a compelling story of its own, and Flemming aptly tells it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
WORST BOOK EVER!!!! It's by far, the most boring book i ve ever read. Feels as if you are reading a textbook. No plot or character development. It's just a bunch of facts about the Revolutionary war put in chronological order.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Great stuff! For those who love a good story, and a well-written piece of history, 'The Perils of Peace' is just your huckleberry. Fleming's tour de force takes you to the time, circumstances, people and places, where dreams of a free and independent United States arrived nearly stillborn -- for all the human nature at work. Written in a flowing, readable style, Flemming delivers his narrative devoid of the usual glittering platitudes and 'fulsome' hagiography that so often fabricates the most revolting wort into a thing of beauty. Basically, Fleming's scholarship is impecable so, do yourself a favor -- read this book. And once you do, you'll understand a lot more about the 'Great Experiement' than you ever did before. Promise!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Excellent work. Primarily all we hear nowadays is the "issue" of slavery. And yet, the emancipation proclamation was not issued until January of 1863, due to the violence and riots in all major northetn cities.
Tillman More than 1 year ago
Mr. Fleming has added much needed historical detail and perspective to that period of the American Revolution between Yorktown and the peace treaty. His thoughts are presented in a very readable style. The story is balanced between both sides of the Atlantic. I highly recommend The Perils of Peace for anyone who likes American history and especially the revolutionary period.
libri_amor on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I recently finished Thomas Fleming¿s book, The Perils of Peace. If you are not familiar with Thomas Fleming, he is a Pulitzer Prize winning historian and the author of over forty nonfiction and fiction titles, including Liberty! The American Revolution companion to the PBS series, Washington¿s Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge, and The Officers¿ Wives. He is the only author ever to have won main selections for the Book-of-the-Month Club in both fiction and nonfiction.Thomas Fleming is a Fellow of the Society of American Historians. He has been president of the American branch of PEN, the international writers¿ organization. He has also been chairman of the American Revolution Round Table. He is a the senior scholar at the National Center for the American Revolution at Valley Forge. Born in Jersey City, NJ on July 5, 1927; he is a graduate of St. Peter¿s Prep and Fordham University (1950) he lives in New York with his wife, Alice, a distinguished writer of books for young readers.The Perils of Peace is a historical account of the revolutionary war period from the defeat of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown (Oct 1781) to George Washington¿s farewell to the troops in Dec 1784. In our concentrated and abbreviated high school American history lessons we normally learn of Cornwallis¿ defeat as the end of the war and skip directly to Treaty of Paris signaling the final peace. In truth the 3-year period from 1781 to 1784 was one of the most perilous in America¿s early history. For example, major English armies still occupied Charleston, Savannah and New York city. The French fleet led by Admiral de Grasse, key to Cornwallis¿ defeat, left America and were defeated in the Caribbean. Many Englishmen wanted to continue the war at all costs. The Continental Army was understrength, under fed, under clothed and almost always under armed.Fleming narrates the events in historical sequence addressing events in America, England, France and others. Fleming describes the contributions of many lesser known players on both sides of the Atlantic that played crucial roles in America achieving its independence.New knowledge to this reader was that Congress had NO power to raise money through ANY form of taxation. Only inidividual states had taxation powers. Congress (and George Washington) were left to writing ineffectual letters literally begging for funds to support the Continental Army. Feeding and clothing the army was always on the edge of a disaster. We learn from Fleming that some of the real patriots were the men that fought the early financial as well as military battles. People like General Nathanael Greene who during the southern campaign in South Carolina personally cosigned 30,000£ to feed his men.Non-combatant patriots included Superintendent of Finance, Robert Morris. In dealing with an ineffective Congress and the only self-interested states, Morris was creative and daring in his interpretations of the powers of his office. At one point Morse nearly created his own form of currency by issuing ¿Morse notes¿, personally signed by him and representing nearly $1M of personal debt. But because of his actions we were able to dodge numerous financial bullets. When Congress did finally take up an ¿impost¿ tax of 5% on imports under the rules all 13 states had to approve the tax. The opposition of little Rhode Island doomed the tax.On the other side of the Atlantic, we learn that during this 3-year period of one English government fell, their were nearly violent debates in Parliament, and arguments (both public and private) broke out over the word ¿independence¿. We also learn of English strategies to split the southern states from the others and have them remain a colony in the Irish model. While we well know of our battles aided by the French, England simultaneously was at war with the Spanish and Dutch with significant battles in the Caribbean and India.Overall, The Perils of Peace is an excellent history. Even if you think you are k
shadowofthewind on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was a rather dry book. It's attempt is to explain the difficult period between the British surrender at Yorktown and the establishment of the Articles of Confederation (the first version of the United States Constitution). This was difficult read and I would recommend other books on the topic. Instead of focusing on one or two major characters or theaters, it attempts to cover them all. The result is just as you are getting into a certain segment, you are then dragged over to another area where the action is. It is very informative as to emphasize how far away peace really was after Yorktown (a peace treaty wasn't sign until two years later), but it was just hard to get through. The parts I enjoyed most were about George Washington and his critical role in achieving victory, peace, and democracy, but I can get a better version in a different book.
nbmars on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
On October 19, 1781, Lord Cornwallis and his entire 13,000 man army surrendered at Yorktown to George Washington's Continental Army and its French allies led by Comte de Rochambeau. Most people in the new United States thought that the war was now over. Thomas Fleming's "The Perils of Peace" tells the story of just how wrong they were.It took another 2 full years of negotiation and haggling to convince George III and the British to sign the Treaty of Versailles ending the war. The last British soldiers did not leave New York until early 1784!Fleming's tale is well told, almost like an historical novel in its pace and denoument. It contains numerous fascinating factoids and vignettes: Alexander Hamilton leading a bayonet charge in the early phase of the Yorktown battle; thousands of black soldiers seeking refuge with the British in Charlestown (of whom about 1000 were relocated to Nova Scotia); Congress promising, but failing to pay Washington's officers one half of their salaries for life; the officers on the verge of mutiny; the chicanery and pettiness of Robert E. Lee's forefathers; Ben Franklin's skill as a negotiator and his bitter rivalry with John Adams; the complicated in-fighting among the members of the British cabinet, just to name a few.As in just about every other serious book written in the past 100 years on the subject, Washington comes across as quite wise and heroic. Robert Morris as Superintendent of Finance performs miracles of finance and illusion (of solvency) to somehow pay for the war. Edmund Burke and Charles James Fox engineer a palace coup of sorts to replace Lord North with a government that finally convinces George III to acknowledge independence. The King, it seems, thought that the Americans were setting a very bad precedent for Ireland. In high school, we were taught that it took a long time to negotiate the peace treaty because "communications were slow." Yes, but in addition, the respective bargaining power of the parties kept changing as the Continental army dissolved, the English vanquished the same French fleet that had beaten them at Yorktown, the Irish question was temporarily solved, and the British eastern army experienced major successes in India.Fleming does an excellent job of tying many various strands of the complex tale together. One quibble is that he does not do a good job of quantifying the monetary amounts in a proper modern perspective. For example, how reasonable were the officers' demands that they be paid one half their war time salaries for life? Would that have made them rich men, or would it just have been a nice fillip to help them earn a decent living? How big were the national debts of the various countries in terms of their cost per person?I rate the book excellent in all other respects--thanks for showing some of John Adams's less savory characteristics--but since its scope is quite limited, I hesitate to award it 5 stars. Nevertheless, I warmly recommended it to be read. (JAB)
Saint-GermainBS More than 1 year ago
Given such intrigue, congressional back-biting and international diplomatic one-upmanship, it is amazing that the USA came about at all. Contrasting 1782-83 with the present day, it seems not much has changed in politics. The text is easy to read and follow.
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JoeS More than 1 year ago
This book is very well written. The author describes a tenuous series of events that against all odds led to a peace treaty. For the first time, I read a comprehensive description of the political and diplomatic battles not only in America, but in Europe. These non military battles were every bit as threatening to the survival of this infant nation as the full combat battles. Speaking of combat, the author provides details of the ongoing near civil war in the southern states between many different factions, and the continued military actions. The author additionally provides insight into the lesser known roles of Holland, Austria, and Russia. The personal descriptions of the many diplomats, politicians, and military figures is excellent. It leads to an understanding of why the individuals acted the way they did. I found that the author was able to convey numerous emotions. Fear, anger, suspicion, contempt, exhilaration, dejection, loyalty, etc. The author carefully constructs the complete story and provides detailed reasons to explain why some events were so important and what might have been different if communication was instant rather than being measured in months. I highly recommend this book to anyone wanting more than the battles and the fairly common descriptions of the main figures.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Leave it to Tom Fleming, writer & historian, to pursue a previuosly-neglected Washington as the stratgist determined to fashion an effective government in peacetime beyond his against-all-odds military victory. This illumination is unique -and its' scholarship is a breath of fresh air. The insight which he brings to Edmund Burke alone is worth the price of admission!