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'Brothers at Arms' reminds us how much the US owes to others

The author makes a solid case for the enormous debt, literal and figurative, that an independent America owes to France, Spain, and Holland.

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Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It
By Larrie D. Ferreiro
Knopf
464 pp.

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Many Americans like to think that their great nation won independence from Britain largely on its own, with citizen militias leading the way, steadfastly fighting for “The Cause.” Americans are known for self-reliance, after all, almost as much as they are for opposing taxation without representation or, as it turns out, with representation.

High school history texts do note the contributions of a few prominent foreigners, like Lafayette, Kosciuszko, and Pulaski, but often seemingly as the exceptions that prove the rule of Americans freeing themselves from tyranny.

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In Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It, Larrie D. Ferreiro seeks to set the record straight. His aim is to document how needy the fledgling colonies were in 1775 – and right up to 1783 when the Treaty of Paris was signed – and how copious was the foreign aid they received in money, manpower, munitions, and military expertise. It was an early coalition of the willing.

When the colonists waxed rebellious at Lexington and Concord, and then at Bunker Hill, they were woefully unprepared to take on the superpower of that era. For starters, they had no Navy, few canons, and hardly any gunpowder (and no factories to produce it). No less an authority than Benjamin Franklin testified that American soldiers at Bunker Hill had but five rounds of powder each. The colonial forces there, not surprisingly, had to retreat when they ran out of gunpowder.

Early in the war, before military materiel began to flow from France and Spain, American soldiers often brought their own muskets to the fight; their diverse weaponry required seven different types of ammunition, Ferreiro writes. Some men without their own arms were issued spears. In addition to a dearth of arms, other necessities, such as uniforms, clothing, tents, and shoes, were in short supply as well.

If many Americans volunteered to serve in not-so-well-regulated militias, regular army soldiers became de facto volunteers in 1777 when their essentially bankrupt national government, which did not have the power to tax, stopped paying their salaries. Later on in the war, pensions were promised to keep patriots from deserting, but these pledges were kept only grudgingly, and not until well into the next century for most who served.

In his introduction, Ferreiro, who is a professor at George Mason University and the author of two other books, makes the claim that the Declaration of Independence was not written for a domestic audience, but rather “as a call for help from France and Spain.” Copies immediately were dispatched to those nations to show these potential allies that Americans were serious about independence and were not simply impulsive rebels who eventually would return to the embrace of King George III.

Ferreiro adds, “Americans today celebrate the July Fourth holiday under somewhat false pretenses.” This assertion seems overwrought, but the author does make a solid case for the debt, literal and figurative, that America owes to France, Spain, and even the Dutch. In 1780, Britain declared war on the Netherlands, which was trading and lending money to the colonies.

In the beginning of the war there was trade, on credit. France funded dummy companies to ship military wherewithal to the America. Other merchants took their chances on getting paid back, hopefully in shipments of tobacco. And then there were the volunteers, idealists and thrill-seekers who crossed the Atlantic to join the battle. At times there were too many, and many who had precious little experience.

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But it is hard to underestimate what the likes of Frederick William Augustus, Baron von Steuben, meant to the war effort. This accomplished immigrant helped to turn Washington’s ragtag and dispirited Continental Army at Valley Forge into a more disciplined, well-drilled fighting force. He wrote the book on training soldiers that would be used by his new nation for three decades: He became an American citizen after the war.

Soon France was both lending and giving hard currency outright to the colonists. The more the Americans tormented and distracted its nemesis, Britain, the less mischief that nation could inflict upon Europe. In 1778, France jumped in with both feet, signing a treaty with the colonists that would lead to war between it and Britain. News of the treaty buoyed the spirits of the desperate men at Valley Forge.

Ferreiro’s narrative is certainly well researched, and well detailed to a fault. He is wont to ramble on throughout: for example, a lengthy section on the planned invasion of Britain by combined French and Spanish forces that never got off the ground. The narrative flow too often is disrupted by exhaustive excursions into backwater battles, to show how distracted Britain was by fighting a multi-front war. On the other hand, such side jaunts probably won’t bother serious history buffs in the least.


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