Book Review: Brothers at Arms
American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It
by Larrie D. Ferreiro
Roughly half-way through George Mason University professor Larrie Ferreiro’s invaluable new book Brothers at Arms, there occurs a sentence that serves as an excellent indicator – if any reader having reached that point still requires one – that this is not a typical account of the American Revolution: “Of the six nation-states that fought in the War of American Independence, four of them – France, Spain, Great Britain, and the Dutch Republic – were in Europe, and it was in European waters that some of the fiercest fighting occurred during and after the campaign at Yorktown.”
It’s a safe bet – indeed, a lock-solid certainty – that most Americans today weren’t aware that six nation-states participated in the American Revolution, and a further certainty that not one in a million of those Americans could name the sixth, unnamed, nation-state alluded to in Ferreiro’s quote. But the sentence isn’t posturing in any way; it simply rolls forward into the next and the next, methodically and grippingly filling in the details of a world war whose nature is all but unknown to its principal beneficiaries:
Catherine II’s formation of the League of Armed Neutrality in 1780, with the promise of an armed fleet to protect the shipping rights of neutral nations, had done nothing to stop Britain from preemptively declaring war on the Dutch Republic in December 1780, nor had the league come to the Dutch Republic’s aid after it joined in February 1781. Britain moved quickly to neutralize what it saw as the Dutch threat, seizing Saint Eustatius in a lightning raid, blockading the Dutch coast, and sealing off the approaches from the North Sea and English Channel.
Ferreiro’s goal, obviously, is to create a narrative counter-weight to the endless potted Revolution histories that pour off American presses without even mentioning that Great Britain in 1776 was a world-straddling imperial superpower dealing with trade and conflict all over the hemisphere, not merely the Bad Guy in an American comic book. In these pages, the fighting colonials and their leaders are no less brave and nervy, but their quest to create a new nation by force of arms is resolutely fitted into the broader context in which old and wise world powers like France and Spain were eager to use that bravery as a tool against the British in a complex game of geopolitics that might, just might, have had objectives beyond freeing American merchants from British taxation.
In creating his narrative – densely-packed and yet smoothly readable – Ferreiro tends to follow the money, tracing the disruptions to the world trade that was to a large extent dominated by a badly-overextended London. The commercial defiance of the American colonies created a crack in that economic hegemony, and again, Ferreiro casts a wide net in exploring this creative destruction:
As the American colonials became more brazen in their desire to buy or trade for arms and powder, the British navy further tightened the noose around Amsterdam. In response, merchants began consigning shipments of arms and powder to other European ports, where they could be secretly reloaded aboard vessels bound for North America. Lisbon and Nantes soon became favored transshipment ports for contraband munitions, since they already furnished arms for the slaving trade to Portuguese and French plantations in Brazil and Saint-Domingue. Slaving was an incredibly violent trade that annually absorbed thousands of the guns manufactured in Liège and other centers, many of which were then traded as currency for the slaves themselves.
It’s a canvas stretching from St. Eustatius to Archangel, a sprawling narrative in which – I checked – Lexington & Concord aren’t even mentioned, let alone redundantly celebrated for an entire chapter of patriotic fumigation. Calling this refreshing is doing it a great understatement; this is the most involving and challenging investigation of a previously-comfortable bastion of American civic catechism to appear in many a season. Every reader who’s ever picked up a new work of American history titled something like Brothers at Arms and heaved a weary sigh, completely certain of what they’d be encountering in its pages, owes it to themselves to read Ferreiro’s fantastic book.
Even the illustrations don’t offer any comfort for the pious! Diego Maria de Gardoqui? Bernardo de Galvez? Louis Lebègue de Presle Duportail? Who are these guys? Wonderful.