Read this book.
Nathaniel Philbrick’s just-released “Valiant Ambitions” teaches us that what most of us believed we knew about the American Revolutionary War was scant, and often wrong.
Based on more than three years of digging and deep research into both the matter and the men on both sides of the revolution, Mr. Philbrick has given us a relentlessly gripping and enlightening docudrama.
He has uncovered the words and thoughts of the English and American men who teetered on the brink of victory or disaster for eight years. That work (supported by a mind-boggling 75 pages of notes and bibliography) represents reporting that allows us to observe in real time, as it were, the emerging characters of the best-known players, and also of the supporting cast who played unheralded but crucial roles in the outcome.
“Valiant Ambition” is nominally the story of two men, George Washington and Benedict Arnold, close comrades on the battlefield who diverged late in the Revolutionary War. Washington became the beloved “father of his country,” and Benedict Arnold became the catchword for “traitor” in the American lexicon for the past 230 years.
Mr. Philbrick has wonderfully captured the words and correspondence of men and women, great and small, to paint a detailed tapestry of the events and motivations of the players who shaped, by their bravery and bumbling, the world’s first actual democratic nation.
It is also a story of necessary adaptation, mental and physical suffering, and perseverance in the face of unlikely victory.
The testing crucible for George Washington was to temper his ego and to change his reactions to events. For example, Washington’s predilection was to be on offense, to attack, but he learned from withering defeats that he must play a defensive war game, using tactics he learned fighting the French and Indian War a decade earlier.
For Arnold, the test of his ego came by way of undeserved blows to his pride. Brash, uncouth, and recklessly brave, Arnold was responsible for plucking battlefield victories for timid and muddled American generals.
Arnold devoted body (crippled by two wounds), soul, and his personal fortune to the American effort, yet a diffident, partisan Congress refused him his due. But others had suffered likewise,
and persevered. As Mr. Philbrick concludes, Arnold’s downfall was about money, the railings of his new British loyalist wife, and safe passage guaranteed by the British. So Arnold agreed to turn America’s key stronghold at West Point on the Hudson River over to English hands.
The saga of the developing story, as Mr. Philbrick unreels it, makes a page-turner out of an event we think we knew by heart.
But Mr. Philbrick is not done weaving the fabric of the story. He uses the words of Joseph Plumb Martin, a lowly American soldier from Milford, Conn., early and throughout the text to offer realpolitik perspective of events.
He also uses the actions of three low-born militiamen who apprehended Arnold’s British spymaster, John Andre, at a checkpoint near the British lines as a metaphor for the emerging democracy.
We may have called ourselves Americans, but we were always conscious of our British roots and class distinctions, Mr. Philbrick notes, and he uses the willingness of these men to stand up to a high-born, imperious, disguised Englishman as an indication of the nation we were about to become.
We learn that American ingenuity was important, and critical to the outcome, including use of the first rudimentary “submarine.” The “Turtle,” as it was called, was ultimately unsuccessful as a weapon, but raised hob with the fears of the mighty British Navy.
There are twists and turns and subplots aplenty in this remarkable book. Readers will see modern-day similarities in the self-serving Continental Congress. They did not put country above party politics, even a little, particularly when ignoring the army — on whom they depended — freezing and starving 40 miles away from their own comfort.
There are amazing stories of self-absorbed military leaders who schemed and plotted to unseat
Washington as head of the U.S. forces.
After reading “Valiant Ambition,” one may reasonably conclude that the fact that this republic exists is a miracle, and that conclusion may quicken our motivation to protect our democratic nation. Mr. Philbrick plainly tells us here that in the end, it’s about character.
“Valiant Ambition” by Nathaniel Philbrick. Nonfiction, 425 pages paperback, Penguin Press, $18. Available at Bunch of Grapes bookstore in Vineyard Haven, at area libraries, and online.