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Book review

‘American Spring’ by Walter R. Borneman

A painting depicting the Battle of Lexington, one of the focal points of Walter Borneman’s “American Spring.”

the library of congress

A painting depicting the Battle of Lexington, one of the focal points of Walter Borneman’s “American Spring.”

Walter R. Borneman opens his “American Spring,’’ which is likely to be one of the enduring accounts of the opening of the American Revolution, with the central question of the time: Who were the patriots in the spring of 1775? Were they the ones who remained loyal to their (mother) country? Or were they the ones who set out to create and claim their own independent nation?

Borneman, who has written popular histories of the French and Indian War and the War of 1812, portrays the beginning of our founding military struggle as a classic American conflict. Indeed, we might think of it as America’s first civil war, one that, like the 1861-1865 conflict, fostered uncertainty about the future, raised questions about the nature of liberty, and produced uneasy relationships in families and communities across the land.

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Many years ago The Boston Globe’s Martin F. Nolan famously described Fenway Park as the Red Sox’s greatest star. Similarly the biggest star of “American Spring’’ is Boston itself, described by Borneman, a Coloradan and thus no provincial Hub chauvinist, as “the focal point of both American rebellion and British resolve.’’

The city was in an economic pincer, punished by a British boycott and its job market clogged by British soldiers permitted to moonlight (and to flirt with the local women). After Lexington and Concord — the focal points of this engaging volume — people surged toward the city, the rebels to press a siege, the loyalists to seek protection under the wings of the British infrastructure.

Bostonians especially will embrace this volume for all of the local references. At one point, for example, Borneman describes Noddle’s Island, where the British were said to have hid away 600 sheep after the conflict at Concord, as being “generally in the direction that the Sumner and Callahan Tunnels run toward Logan Airport today.’’ Not far away sat another important venue in the spring of 1775: the site of the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Borneman’s history, carved into three periods starting in January 1775 through June of that year, is animated by several surprising insights, such as the role the post office played in the Revolution; Benjamin Franklin, who as early as 1735 was postmaster of Philadelphia, helped create a comprehensive and efficient postal system that, Borneman argues, “allowed rebel committees of correspondence to exchange news, formulate cooperative plans, and direct concerted action.’’

And “American Spring’’ is loaded with intriguing details, sort of historical nonpareil candies sprinkled throughout the account (consider that Samuel Adams had at least 25 pseudonyms) and brings to light lesser-known names of the period (such as the writers Mercy Otis Warren, who engaged questions about equal rights, and Cesar Sarter, who was a former slave).

The result is a pleasing marriage of scholarly research (the endnotes choke with references to original sources: manuscripts, letters, government reports) and approachable language (on Thomas Gage, Massachusetts royal governor: “his drooping brown eyes conveyed stability if not daring, comfort if not dash’’). There are a handful of small errors — Marblehead is not 4 miles south of Salem but adjacent to it — but a greater number of large truths, such as the danger, perfected by the British, of repeatedly underestimating the enemy.

Borneman reminds us that even by late winter 1775 the hottest heads accounting for the hottest rhetoric were cool to the idea of independence. The talk was of liberties, not liberation. But that talk was soon merged with the threat of hostilities, heard even in Westminster, where the great Edmund Burke warned: “If you govern America at all . . . it must be by an army . . . [as] they will never consent without force being used.’’

So the two sides moved closer to confrontation, and eventually the two lanterns of legend were hung at the Old North Church and the hoofbeats of Paul Revere’s horse were heard along the road. Borneman provides a detailed and dramatic account of what happened as the men assembled at Lexington Green, both sides worried they were surrounded.

He identifies noon on April 19 as the critical hour. It was then that, as he put it, “the rebel militia went from a posture of limited defense to a state of all-out attack.’’ A preemptive strike by the British was transformed into an armed rebellion by the colonists.

What is perhaps most striking about this account is the attention paid to the unlikely calm after the storm of Lexington and Concord — and the vividness in which it is portrayed:

“Those British troops who had staggered home from Concord saw to their wounded and pondered what had happened to several trained regiments of one of the world’s better armies. Loyalists were aghast at the rebels’ determined show of force. And while a few rebels celebrated, most were as stunned by the violence as their loyalist neighbors were.’’

The “American Spring’’ set in motion many vital questions but did not provide answers to them. Among them: Would George Washington be an adequate “General and Commander in chief, of the army of the United Colonies.’’? How should the rebels reconcile the cries for freedom with the stench of slavery?

The first of those questions was answered decisively and with dispatch. The second — the American tragedy, you might say — remains unanswered, and provides the basis for much of what followed the American spring.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at dshribman@post-gazette.com.
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