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This article originally appeared in Mount Vernon magazine, published three times a year by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association.
Rick Atkinson shifts gears to focus on the American Revolution.
To date, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and historian Rick Atkinson’s six outstanding military history books have covered four wars in the 20th and 21st centuries. After spending 15 years immersed in World War II, researching and writing his acclaimed Liberation Trilogy, Atkinson has turned his attention to the 18th century for a new series focused on the Revolutionary War.
Certainly, for many Americans, it is as remote as the Peloponnesian Wars, and I think that one of the challenges for any historian, any narrative writer, is to remind people that it is, in fact, current. One of the issues about the Revolution that I think many scholars have wrestled with is that the heart of any war is tragedy. It’s hard to find tragedy in the Revolution, and I think my task is trying to make the emotional resonance of the Revolution—not just in political terms, but also in human terms—something that speaks to readers in the 21st century.
Having to master the historiography is one thing, having to master the archival troves is another challenge. If you’re an archive rat like I am, it’s a challenge you enjoy because it’s the mystery of the next unopened box and that’s the same whether you’re researching World War II, or the Revolution, or anything else. The scope of material that’s available is quite different from World War II, where there were 16 million Americans in uniform. They were mostly semi-literate in World War II. That’s not necessarily the case with the Revolution. They had typewriters in World War II. It’s all quill pens and pencils in the 18th century. There’s not nearly as much first-hand account information, from ordinary soldiers particularly. There are different problems for a historian with each period.
I do think about the parallels between the two—it’s kind of inevitable if you’re in my position. They come into the job because they’ve been chosen largely as political generals. Franklin Roosevelt chooses Dwight Eisenhower to be the commander of the allied expeditionary force for the final campaign beginning in Normandy because, as Roosevelt says, he’s the best politician among the generals.
Washington is chosen for somewhat similar reasons. He is a compromise: a Virginian in an army which at that point is entirely New Englanders. He’s chosen because there’s recognition that he’s got political skills, which are enormously important for any general of a large coalition force like the colonial army. You see their ability to handle subordinates with similar deft touches. It’s fascinating to live with the two of them together.
I read about war not because I’m particularly interested in battles per se or the hardware involved, but because war is a great revealer of character. The incredible stress of combat reveals the inner mettle of the combatants in a way a prism reveals the inner spectrum of light. It flays it open. You see that in the Revolution. There are characters that I just find my head swiveling toward inevitably. Benedict Arnold is an obvious, completely mesmerizing figure. Greene and Knox. I’m spending a lot of time looking at the Brits. I find the British absolutely beguiling—they remind me a bit of us today in some fundamental ways. There’s no shortage of fantastically interesting, complex, arresting characters that I’m finding.
Rick Atkinson is a Pulitzer-Prize winning historian and journalist who worked for many years as a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post. Here, he discusses his new book series on the Revolutionary War.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Mount Vernon magazine. Subscribe to the magazine by becoming a member today.Learn More