The Battle for New York: The City at the Heart of the American Revolution
By Barnet Schecter
Reviewed by Russ Lockwood
Walker, 2002, $30, ISBN 0-8027-1374-2, 454 pages, hardback
The Battle for New York – on September 15, 1776, the British army under General William Howe invaded Manhattan Island, landing at an open field on the banks of the East River, roughly where the United Nations sits today. George Washington’s Continental Army, still in disarray after its miraculous escape following the disastrous Battle of Brooklyn some two weeks earlier, retreated north to Harlem Heights, leaving New York in British hands. Control of the city was Howe’s primary objective; located at the mouth of the strategically vital Hudson River, it had become the centerpiece of England’s strategy for putting down the American rebellion. However, as Barnet Schecter reveals in his stirring narrative, far from furnishing a key to the colonies, New York proved to be the fatal albatross that strangled the British war effort.
I confess I am of two minds about the Battle for New York. On the one hand, it bespeaks of a well-researched, in-depth look at what made New York City the center of the British and American universe during the war. The writing brings a certain crispness to the often dull overtones of local history, and the physical packaging of text, photos, maps, and illustrations throughout harkens back to a most wonderful time of publishing.
On the other hand, from a more military history point of view, Schecter seems uncertain with military maneuverings and needs more of a snap with the “battle” aspect of the tome. There’s nothing explicitly wrong with his descriptions of the Battles of Brooklyn or White Plains, or any others, it’s just that the book turns less upon the battle aspect than the political and social. They make good magazine articles, but the book takes a broader brush to the war. Be advised that since MagWeb.com is primarily for military history, my look at a book contains those particular tinges of emphasis.
Arguably, the battles around New York City were less about battles and more about retreats. In examining the occupation aspects of New York City, Schecter really shines. His discussions of various political players and resulting tensions between loyalist, rebel and British administration bring out the best in the author. This, to me, represents the most fascinating aspect of the book.
Now, a vast chunk of the South and New England will likely object to the importance of New York City. Schecter pounds home the opinion that NYC remained the center of the war, and everything, including Saratoga, Yorktown, and in between occurred because of the importance of New York City.
Well, it’s an interesting proposition, and Schecter makes a good case for much of the northern part of the war. I’m a little less convinced that New York City was the reason for the shift in strategy as the war progressed, but if he wishes to stretch the point, it’s up to you to accept or reject it.
Still, for a first book, Battle for New York shows tremendous promise. The “battle” applies more to political areas than musket and cannon fire. Indeed, I feel the title should be changed to: New York: City at the Heart of the American Revolution. This book is less about the battle for New York or of New York or around New York as it is about the city. The battles are just one aspect of the city’s historical profile.
I did enjoy his reference to modern day places when describing Revolution-era locales. I enjoyed the prose for the most part, and I really enjoyed the art of the presentation.
Now, I hope, you can understand my schizophrenia. It needs to mind more about the heart of a battle, but it’s a good book, indeed, a very good book about the hearts and minds of Revolution-era NYC.
>>>Read about neighboring New Jersey during the Revolutionary War