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Why the American Revolution was 'Almost a Miracle'

The American victory was achieved by the narrowest of margins, argues a historian.

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If it wasn't for a bit of bad timing, the most infamous traitor in American history might have snuffed the life of a certain general by the name of George Washington.

On a September night in 1780, a matter of moments prevented turncoat Benedict Arnold from reaching a British ship in time to set in motion the kidnapping and possible assassination of the American commander in chief. General Washington escaped without a scratch or a clue, reaching his destination and dining with one of his favorite and most trusted underlings – Mr. Arnold himself.

It was yet another in a series of fortunate events that helped the American cause in the Revolutionary War. As revealed in a masterful new military history, the home team was often on the very edge of disaster.

Ultimately, "the war came much closer to ending short of a great American victory than many now realize," argues historian John Ferling in Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence.

At many times, an American victory appeared hopeless. Generals made strategic errors, troops fled during combat, and battles were lost across the Eastern Seaboard.

On the other hand, the British made countless errors and miscalculations from the beginning to the end of the war, often dismissing the Continental Army as ragtag when it was, to use a modern phrase, just differently abled.

Meanwhile, a constellation of fickle factors from the weather to the French turned things around when it counted. And thankfully, the Americans were aided by daring generals, oblivious British leaders, and thousands of stubborn soldiers.

The famous battles (Bunker Hill, Yorktown) and familiar names (Paul Revere, John Paul Jones) are all in "Almost a Miracle." (The book's title comes from Washington's own description of the war.) But Ferling brings something new – a sense of the intense struggles, the multiple turning points, and the vital roles played by overcaution (frequently disastrous) and audacity (frequently decisive).

In his richly detailed battle-by-battle account of the war, Ferling succeeds where other military histories fail by providing helpful background for those who don't know their flanks from their feints. He also brings the military leaders to life, exploring their backgrounds, their dispositions, their willingness to take risks.

Some are eccentric, like the top general who preferred the company of his entourage of dogs to people and claimed to speak the "language of dogissm."

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