Valley Forge to Monmouth: Six Transformational Months of the American Revolution by Jim Stempel (McFarland, 2021)
Captivated by the short preface, it was evident this was just not another history addressing a brief period of conflict during the American Revolution, but an effort by the author to place the events of a formative six-month period (December 1777 to June 1778) of the young army of the United States in perspective through detailed research and analysis. Using a creditable mix of primary and secondary sources, the author does a nice job of addressing the internal and external challenges contributing to the changes and development of the Continental Army, highlighting the role of key individuals contributing to this process.
The author organized his text into twenty short chapters chronologically addressing the army’s evolution, and weaves creditable research and analysis into his story. His organization and writing style allow the reader to digest the book in a series of short sessions or in longer segments if desired. The reader will not be disappointed in the author’s efforts.
The Continental Army that entered Valley Forge represented the third evolution of that army; the eighty-eight-battalion army created for the 1777 campaign season. The author provides an excellent description of an army that was demoralized but not defeated upon wintering at Valley Forge. The first half of the book addresses the complex challenges faced by General Washington and the Continental Army during the winter and spring of 1777-78, highlighting how conditions changed when the army emerged as a more effective fighting force.
One may consider the army that emerged from Valley Forge as the fourth evolution of the Continental Army and one that faced a different strategic environment than the army that entered cantonment in December. Post Valley Forge, the British government faced not only the rebellious colonies; the Franco-American alliance of 1778 presented a global war with a traditional competitor.
With imprecise intelligence on the intentions of the British army occupying Philadelphia, Washington needed to employ his revitalized and retrained Continental force emerging from its winter encampment at Valley Forge, yet not overextend its capabilities in attacking a more disciplined and capable British force. The author provides a good description of the first attempt to probe the British posture, outlining Lafayette’s near-disaster at Barren Hill on the banks of the Schuylkill River.
As the Continental Army emerges from Valley Forge and takes the offense the text becomes more captivating, helping to hold the readers attention. While the first half of the book addressing Valley Forge is interesting, the second half is livelier. The reader gains an appreciation for Stempel’s research and analysis skills as he describes the Washington’s decision-making process leading to the action at Monmouth Courthouse. One develops and understanding of Washington’s desire to engage a portion of the British army at the most opportune time, contrasted with his inability to adequately influence the actions of his key subordinates short of direct on-scene supervision as highlighted by the court-martial of General Charles Lee.
Readers will find this text an even-handed description and analysis of an important six-month period in the existence of the Continental Army by an author who clearly thinks about warfare and appreciates its human complexities.