Americans have frequently displayed a fascination toward the Founding Fathers that borders on ancestor worship. More than two centuries after the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were written, citizens pore over the Federalist Papers as if they were holy writ. This is as it should be. But Americans won independence not just with lofty ideas and stirring words but also with force of arms.
Three new books remind us, from different angles of vision, that the American War of Independence was, first and foremost, an exceedingly complex conflict. In North America alone, it stretched from Canada to Georgia and the Atlantic seaboard to the Mississippi River. Contending over this vast expanse of territory were Americans, both Patriots battling for independence and Loyalists still true to the crown; British regular troops, assisted by hired German mercenaries; French forces sent to aid the embattled Americans; and assorted Indian allies on both sides. Great Britain ultimately found itself embroiled in a world war, as several European nations in addition to France supported the infant United States. The fighting spread to the West Indies, the Indian subcontinent and other spots around the globe.
The First American Army: The Untold Story of George Washington and the Men Behind America’s First Fight for Freedom, by Bruce Chadwick (Sourcebooks, Inc., Naperville, Ill., 2005, $24.95), explores the war from the standpoint of eight enlisted men and junior officers who, among them, collectively served from Bunker Hill to Yorktown. Seven—including a chaplain and a physician— were “regulars” in the Continental Army, which represented the backbone of the American effort. The eighth held a captain’s commission in the New Jersey militia, making him one of those part-time soldiers whose performance has alternately drawn lavish praise and bitter condemnation from their contemporaries, as well as historians, ever since.
After more than two centuries, it can be difficult to grasp what those soldiers endured. Besides that, the Revolutionary War is simply not as well-documented as later conflicts. Chadwick’s signal achievement, then, is to re-create the 18th-century soldier’s world, based primarily upon his protagonists’ diaries and letters, liberally supplemented with those of their comrades. No sunshine patriots, these men underwent a routine of homesickness, scrounging for food, fatigue details, picket duty, “hurry up and wait” and battle, with all its attendant comradeship, discomfort, tedium and occasional terror. Anyone who has ever worn a uniform will recognize the action and inaction here. What additionally shines through, however, are the soldiers’ idealism and their consciousness of acting on history’s stage at a supremely important moment.
While Chadwick offers a sweeping view of the war from the “sharp end,” Washington’s Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge, by Thomas Fleming (Smithsonian Books, New York, N.Y., 2005, $27.95), focuses on the American high command in 1777-78. To call it a “winter of discontent” would be putting it mildly. The calvary endured by the American army—due not so much to cold and snow as to disease and shocking logistical incompetence—provides the backdrop for seething political intrigue involving the Continental Congress, Washington and the officer corps. The book’s centerpiece is the “Conway Cabal”— a purported plot to replace Washington as commander in chief with Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates. Washington certainly had his share of detractors, in and out of the army, after his disastrous campaign in the summer and fall of 1777, which saw the British seize the Patriot capital at Philadelphia, while Gates had won the great victory at Saratoga.
Most modern scholars doubt that conspiracy ever actually existed. Nevertheless, as the saying goes, even paranoids have enemies, and Fleming expertly disentangles a complicated, shadowy skein of illicit correspondence—including a notorious letter from Brig. Gen. Thomas Conway to Gates that savagely criticized Washington—and in-fighting. Add to the feverish environment common to all revolutions the hair-trigger pride of 18thcentury gentlemen in an era when affairs of honor were not infrequently resolved on the dueling ground, and one has the poisonous atmosphere in which the notion of a plot could thrive. Fleming portrays Washington as more guileful Machiavelli than selfless Cincinnatus in retaining his command while struggling to preserve his army. Indeed, in this account, the two endeavors are inextricably linked. Washington’s success on both fronts—aided in the latter by the exertions of the Prussian drillmaster Friedrich von Steuben—allowed the Continental Army to emerge from the crucible of Valley Forge better prepared.
If Fleming’s book illustrates Washington as much more than a stoic, apolitical “marble man,” The Battle of Yorktown, 1781: A Reassessment, by John D. Grainger (Boydell Press, Rochester, N.Y., 2005, $90) provides yet another dimension of him. Paradoxically, the American commander in chief was a conservative aristocrat who found himself leading a revolutionary struggle. And though he possessed an aggressive disposition, the overarching need to preserve his army at all costs normally forced him into an evasive Fabian strategy. Not until the late summer of 1781 was Washington able to indulge his penchant for offensive action. Then the arrival of a powerful French army led by Marshal Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau, and even more critical, a French fleet in American waters made decisive action possible and revealed yet another impressive side of Washington—successful coalition commander.
In a movement that would be impressive even in the 20th century, the allied armies marched 450 miles from New York to link up with Continental forces already in Virginia and rendezvous with the French fleet. In early September, the combined land forces invested a British army under Lt. Gen. Charles Lord Cornwallis on the Virginia Peninsula at Yorktown, while French ships sealed off any possibility of British escape by sea. Cut off and pounded by allied guns, Cornwallis surrendered his army of more than 8,000 on October 19, 1781.
Two perilous years of battlefield jockeying and diplomatic negotiations remained before the final peace settlement in Paris, but Yorktown signified the beginning of the end. In addition to his meticulous analysis of the campaign itself, Grainger places it in a broader context, to include emphasis on the role played by the French army and especially by sea power. The British author’s analyses provide a useful corrective to star-spangled American renderings, although at times his judgments—for instance, that Yorktown was “a French military victory”—go too far in the other direction for both American amour-propre and the historical record. Even though he is unwilling to award much credit to Washington and his men, the evidence of Grainger’s book, along with the others cited earlier, prove the validity of a declaration by Revolutionary War frontier hero George Rogers Clark: “Great things have been affected by a few Men well Conducted.”
Originally published in the April 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.