Valley Forge by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018)
Americans refer to many of their nation’s most iconic events by simple reference. The Alamo. Pearl Harbor. The Fourth of July. They are etched in our collective memories and once invoked are still capable of unleashing emotion and memory. Valley Forge, the Pennsylvania encampment of the Continental Army during the winter of 1777-1778, conjures images of misery and deprivation, but coupled with determination and resolve, as powerful as any in our nation’s history.
Bob Drury’s and Tom Clavin’s simply titled Valley Forge is actually a superb account of the Revolutionary War from the Battle of Brandywine in the fall of 1777 to Monmouth Courthouse in the summer of 1778. Using these two major encounters of the war as bookends, they are able to demonstrate how the Valley Forge winter permanently altered the Continental Army from a gaffe prone, undisciplined, largely amateur force into a one that could hold its own with one of the world’s finest militaries. Their account of political and diplomatic events on both sides of the Atlantic help bolster the military tale.
Among the book’s many virtues are the biographical pauses the authors take when a new actor appears on its pages. On page six we meet not only Gen. Sir William Howe, but his brother, the admiral Richard “Black Dick” Howe, whose expertise is related to readers: “so attuned to the world’s tides that he was known as ‘the human sea chanty.’” In describing British Gen. John Burgoyne, they rely on “English Whig Antiquarian” Horace Walpole’s description: “all sail and no ballast.” On the American side, well-penned portraits appear of the Marquis de Lafayette, Alexander Hamilton, John Laurens, and Henry Knox among many others. As a result, even a Revolutionary War novice can read Valley Forge with great interest.
Although the book focuses largely on Washington and the Continental Army, its scope is broad enough to cover the Battle of Saratoga, and the battle’s long-standing impact on Washington and his forces even though they were not present. The momentary rise of Horatio Gates and the shadow “his” victory threw on Washington in Congress is assessed, as well as the role the battle played in the disaffection of one of America’s truly great warriors, Benedict Arnold.
The work is divided neatly into three parts, with the first covering the fall of 1777 before the Americans settled into Valley Forge and the third the aftermath of its experience there. Of course the middle covers the Valley Forge winter itself and this is the heart of the book. Washington remains at the center of the narrative, and the authors skillfully lay out the pressures that he faced in explaining his decision making during the period.
One topic that receives close particularly close attention is the multi-pronged attempts to wrest control of the Revolution’s military leadership from Washington that is often referred to by the short hand phrase “the Conway Conspiracy.” This conspiracy was really a series of efforts by Horatio Gates, trading on the unjust acclaim that had befallen him as the commander at Saratoga, and others such as Thomas Mifflin and George Conway, to bolster his own standing at Washington’s expense. Drury and Clavin cover their thrusts and the counter thrusts by Washington and his subordinates in great detail.
Particularly interesting is their relation of Washington’s report A Representation to the Committee of Congress. As Washington’s leadership began to be questioned in Congress, a small committee of members paid a visit upon the commander in chief. With the help of Hamilton and others, Washington laid out detailed proposals for reorganizing the army, utilizing free blacks as teamsters and Native Americans as scouts, and even giving pensions for the soldiers. His presentation to the committee, largely orchestrated by Hamilton, was so powerful that the Congressmen who had come to judge Washington’s suitability to continue in command left determined to carry out his proposed reforms. As Drury and Clavin note, “Washington the solder-statesman had captured the hearts and minds of the visiting delegates.”
The other great story of the period of course is the arrival of Baron von Steuben and the herculean task of reforming the army’s operations from soup to nuts. Fortunately, von Steuben was as accomplished in the arts of military science as he was in embellishing his resume. By the time the “errors in translation” had been corrected regarding the latter, he was so far along in transforming the American army into something resembling a professional European fighting force that Washington and others were able to overlook any “misunderstandings” regarding his credentials.
Drury and Clavin are the authors of several military histories covering episodes from World War II (Lucky 666, Halsey’s Typhoon), the Korean War (The Last Stand of Fox Company), and Vietnam (Last Men Out). This is their first foray into the Revolution but people and events are generally covered fluently and their descriptions of combat easy to follow. An exception is the somewhat disjointed, rambling epilogue, which attempts to cover in thirty-five pages decades worth of events that followed the war, particularly as they pertain to the book’s main characters. It would have been better to have spent more space on the Battle of Monmouth, which is covered in only about half the space as the epilogue.
Although Valley Forge does not claim to break new ground, its well written account of the events and personalities from this storied period in American history is most welcome. A bibliography, index and endnotes are included as well.