Book Review: The First Salute, by Barbara Tuchman

The Thinker by Rodin

Barbara W. Tuchman (1912 – 1989), a noteworthy historian and author, churned out eleven histories in her career. I have read a couple of them over the years. Some, like A Distant Mirror can be challenging reads but all are flawlessly researched and illuminate periods of history that generally need illumination. Her last book, The First Salute is ostensibly about the American Revolution. In fact, the American Revolution feels sort of shortchanged in this 347-page book published a year before her death. It’s still interesting reading, but it’s just not what you expect from the subtitle: “A View of the American Revolution”.

And a view it is, principally from the Dutch perspective. I certainly had no idea that the Dutch had anything to do with our revolution. So I didn’t get quite what I was hoping for in learning about the American Revolution. Many battles of that war are at best alluded to, such as the Battle of Brandywine, rather than covered. Only the last year or so of the war is covered in any real details. You do get a new perspective of the war. The book’s main contribution is to illuminate who funded our Revolutionary War, and that turned out to be not just the French but also indirectly the Dutch.

To cast light on this part of our history, Tuchman takes us deep into the Dutch empire at the start of the Revolutionary War. You might think the Revolutionary War revolved around Lexington, Concord and Yorktown but much of the action actually happened out of country. Tuchman’s tale takes us frequently to St. Eustatius, a tiny island of just eight square miles in the Dutch West Indies, on the far eastern edge of the Caribbean Sea.

It was at St. Eustatius that the Dutch became the first government to salute a U.S. Navy vessel, thanks to its free-market governor. It was an act that effectively thumbed the Dutch nose at the British government. The Dutch were notorious free traders and St. Eustatius was the principle trading point for vessels of all sorts, mostly going between Europe and the Americas, and hence a strategic location that knitted together its empire. If you know anything about the Revolutionary War, you probably learned that colonists were upset by the British government’s taxation policies. It required that colonists buy British imported goods only. Living in the colonies was expensive, but doubly so when you had to pay usury rates for goods from the British East India Company. Americans involved in commerce quickly used their wide geographical disparity to run around these rules, mostly through smuggling as I noted in 2005 in a review of To Rule the Waves.

Since the Dutch didn’t like the British, but tried not to go to war with them, American vessels found it convenient to trade goods at St. Eustatius, often under the watch of British ships. The British tolerated St. Eustatius for many years but it eventually became too much for them. Sir George Rodney, a British admiral, eventually was given the task of invading St. Eustatius and other Dutch islands in the area, principally to help cripple this illicit trading with the United States. These acts though started a war between the Netherlands and Great Britain, a war Great Britain thought it could win but simply proved to show how overextended its empire had become as it fought wars with many great powers simultaneously.

Great Britain was at least empowered by the weak Dutch government and which had off and on again wars with Spain, which claimed territory nearby. Still, trade was the lifeblood of the Netherlands. Having its trade with America reduced made them angry and caused their economy to tank. The British were liberal boarding its vessels looking for contraband, and these actions too caused a lot of resentment.

Eventually the French allied with America but the Revolutionary War nearly sputtered to a halt simply from lack of funds to feed it. Funds bought what the Colonial Army really needed: basics like guns and gunpowder. Pay for troops was sporadic at best. The American public itself was divided on the war, roughly half supporting those wanting a new nation and half wanting America to remain a colony, but few willing to risk life and limb to achieve it. One of the most interesting aspects of the book was to learn just how precarious our army was, which was mostly a ragtag group of militias and volunteers frequently hungry and impoverished.

The first half of the book sets the stage for the second half, which finally takes us mostly into America and follows George Washington as he tries to maneuver his troops intelligently across the colonies. This was a time that preceded the railroads. Moving troops by sea was usually not an option due to the British blockade, so troops had to walk, often surreptitiously around British strongholds like New York City. With often little more than cattle tracks between cities, movement of troops took a lot of time. Lots of volunteers found it too much and simply went home. Intelligence was spotty at best. It took a lot of British bungling, good fortune and Washington’s strategic thinking to bring the war to its end in Virginia with Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. It also took the French, and French General Lafayette’s help to neatly box the British inside the Chesapeake Bay, to end the war and start a new nation. It’s curious how few of us know that the French army and navy helped win our independence.

Tuchman’s major accomplishment is this backstory, particularly how important the Dutch turned out to be in our revolution. It was not through much in the way of overt aid but in how the British discovered that bloodying the Dutch proved counterproductive, and engaged other macro forces that found it to their advantage to support America. George Washington and his colonial troops (plus troops supplied by Lafayette at the end of the war) certainly won the war in the United States, but it’s unlikely it would have succeeded had not engagement with the Dutch kicked off all sorts of events elsewhere in the world. This would move so many pieces on the chessboard that these actions far from America’s shores would prove pivotal in our eventual victory.

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