When students learn how George Washington vanquished the British at the battle of Yorktown in 1781, striking a decisive blow for American independence and liberty, a few facts often get left out. For starters, he could not have won without the French Navy.
And that ideal of liberty only went so far. Washington made sure that the articles of surrender allowed his Continental Army to take back slaves who had fled to the British side to gain their freedom. Several escaped slaves were found at Yorktown, including those owned by Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and were returned to bondage.
Kenneth Davis, whose readable, breezy “Don’t Know Much About” books on history and science have sold millions of copies since 1990, includes the slavery story in his ambitious new book. His goal, as in previous works, is to shed light on events that have been forgotten, airbrushed or misrepresented.
Davis is partially successful. He debunks what he calls “foundation legends.” A good example is the story of how colonial militias — farmers and other part-time soldiers — stymied the mighty British army. Davis explains how Washington found the militia fighters undependable and relied on immigrants, teenagers and freed slaves desperate for work as the core of his army. The militia legend was promoted later by politicians who feared a standing army.
This is good, corrective history, but it’s not original. Davis cites biographer Ron Chernow for his slavery story. In exploring Washington’s ambivalence about slavery — he witnessed black soldiers’ heroism, considered slavery “repugnant” but did not free his own slaves — Davis credits historian Henry Wiencek.
Throughout The Hidden History of America at War, this is a pattern. Davis focuses on six battles, from Yorktown to Fallujah, Iraq, 223 years later, highlighting neglected corners of American history through the findings of other historians. From James McPherson (the Civil War) to Thomas Ricks (Iraq), these authors and journalists get ample credit, and Davis gets to present an interesting overview.
This is not a conventional military history, though some chapters — such as the siege of Petersburg toward the end of the Civil War — get bogged down in the back-and-forth of tactics and strategy.
The episodes that work best are truly revelatory, touching on the social and political developments of the time. The war against insurgents in the Philippines in 1901, a dark chapter largely forgotten, shows the U.S. Army willing to respond to a massacre of its troops with its own atrocities. You can draw a line from the use of the “water cure” against insurgents to waterboarding used against suspects after the 9/11 attacks.
The inclusion of Fallujah may seem too recent to fall into the category of history. Davis, however, makes a telling point: The horrific deaths of civilian contractors highlighted a trend in how the United States fights modern wars using private armies. By 2007 in Iraq, private contractors outnumbered U.S. service personnel.
At times, Davis skims the surface of history. His distillation of events can by shallow. But he also makes history palatable and intriguing, pointing out what gets left out and drawing parallels. If that motivates readers to delve into McPherson on the Civil War, Chernow on Washington and Alexander Hamilton, and Ricks on the fiasco in Iraq, he will have achieved an important goal. History tells us where we came from, and Davis reminds us it never has to be boring.
Frank Davies is a writer and editor in northern Virginia.