Friday, February 22, 2019
Books: Washington's Battles At Valley Forge
By Bob Drury and Tom Clavin
Simon & Schuster; hardcover; $30.00
George Washington was referred to as the "Father of Our Country" 240 years ago, during the winter of 1778, when his political accomplishments were on full display. However, when this is viewed through a military prism, most of the previous historical accounts view this as a bleak period.
Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, in their book Valley Forge, contend that, in the six months Washington, the commander in chief of the Continental Army, spent at the winter encampment, he was actually fighting a two-front war.
Washington was winning this war, as he kept the British at bay on the one hand while summoning up every reserve of character, empathy, and will to vanquish his military and political critics in Congress. In the end, he was equally adept against both enemies while displaying the humility to surround himself with the best and brightest minds regardless of age or experience.
This group included the astonishing trio of Alexander Hamilton, the Marquis de Lafayette, and the nearly forgotten John Laurens, who were barely out of their teens when they strode national stage. Hamilton was 22 years old, de Lafayette was 20, and Laurens was 22.
Washington fought to maintain the civilian control over a nascent nation's armed forces that remains a pillar of America's freedoms today, and along with his lieutenants, managed to transform a bobtail collection of civilian-soldiers into a force strong enough to defeat the most feared army in the world.
The heroes of the American Revolution, both famous and forgotten today, managed to instill in America's political system an ethos of integrity and self-sacrifice sorely lacking on the current national stage.
Drury and Clavin also note, "It was during the Valley Forge encampment that Washington was first referred to as the 'Father of Our Country.' It was an apt epithet, as his charges included young immigrants from all points of Europe, American Indians and, not least, a substantial contingent of freed black men - the last time the United States military would field a fully-integrated force until the Korean War...
"By all rights, that winter alone should have destroyed Washington's army; certainly, the British commanders assumed it would. As it was, the command sustained some 2,000 deaths, by far the single largest loss of life on either side during the war. Yet, instead, what didn't kill the Continental Army made it stronger."
In setting the scene for the brutal winter, Drury and Clavin recount how after losing a series of battles and being driven from New York the previous summer, Washington and his inner circle of advisors had been uncharacteristically flummoxed by British General Sir William Howe, who led the 30,000-strong British expeditionary force in North America. Throughout the spring and summer of 1777, Howe orchestrated a series of feints that forced Washington into exaggerated countermeasures.
Each expedition was for naught, as Howe always pulled his troops back to New York before the Americans arrived. It was all part of the British commander's scheme and he was in no hurry to crush the rebels yet. Howe's superiors in Britain, particularly his friend King George III, hoped that the massive show of British force would bring the colonies to their senses and, subsequently, to the bargaining table.
When General Howe finally did decide to fight, he took the then-American capital of Philadelphia with ease in the autumn of 1777, only days after the Continental Congress retreated from the city. This left most of the congressional representatives either ineffectual, absent from the political body's temporary home in York, Pennsylvania or doubting Washington's leadership.
This was a byproduct of Washington's Pennsylvania campaign of that year. Coming off his surprise victories in Trenton and Princeton in late 1776, a string of military engagements fought from Brandywine to Paoli to Germantown resulted in a mixture of deaths and strategic retreats for the Americans.
Drury and Clavin write, "The Brandywine fiasco in particular breathed new life into the vampirical criticism that had hounded Washington since his appointment as commander in chief - that he was a one-note general unable to adjust his field tactics on the fly and had surrounded himself with a staff of sycophants and toadies."
By the time the Continental Army sought winter refuge, a dark pall hung over both the troops and Washington's reputation. It was these circumstances that combined to foster the conspiratorial political efforts led by his bitter rival General Horatio Gates to topple Washington from his post. Thus, while at Valley Forge, Washington was spending those six months fighting the British as well as battling to retain his position as commander in chief.
Moreover, the unbearable conditions at the encampment, which included a dearth of clothing and shoes; weeks on end where the troops' only protein was derived from the weevils and maggots in their rotting "firecakes;" and the spread of a plethora of diseases; constituted a veritable third front. At no other time during the American Revolution did Washington come so close to being deposed.
It was precisely these multiple hardships that allowed Washington, with the assistance of his fiercely loyal inner circle, to display his brilliance as a political actor, beating back efforts to usurp him and thwarting the blind ambitions of his American rivals in Congress and the military while deftly outmaneuvering his British counterparts.
Drury and Clavin write, "In a brazen act of political jujitsu, Washington decided to turn the criticisms of his leadership skills to his advantage." He sent a stark rebuke to congress, warning the delegates that unless an adequate supply line of food, clothing, and arms was immediately established under competent management, he foresaw no other options for his army other than "starve, dissolve, or disperse." The politicians caved to Washington's demands.
With a focus on the climactic and war-altering Battle of Monmouth Court House, Drury and Clavin conclude, "It was in fact the turning point in the War for American Independence. Though armed conflict would rage for another five years, the winter of 1777-1778 marked the end of the war's classic period. From there on the struggle would move to the southern states, and Washington would not personally participate in another engagement until the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781."
This is one of the most engrossing books you will read on the American Revolution, as Valley Forge provides a perspective on Washington and the Revolutionary War that is too often if not completely overlooked