The young American nation had lost its first capital, Philadelphia, in the fall of 1777. The army of General George Washington had suffered clear defeats from the British, and retired exhausted to Valley Forge, a wooded area 25 miles west of the former capital. The army was there to rest up for the winter in order to fight again when warmer weather came. Washington had to fight the British once again, but that is not the story in _Washington's Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge_ (Smithsonian Books / Collins) by Thomas Fleming. The war Washington had to wage while in retreat was not against the British, but against the good guys, well known founding fathers like Sam and John Adams and Benjamin Rush. In many ways, it was a matter of regional prejudice. Fleming writes of Washington's opponents, "They had long since decided that Virginians and almost everyone outside New England were morally inferior to high-minded, Harvard-educated descendents of the Puritans." They were insistent on an unrealistically idealized view of how an army of patriots could fight and how a nation of patriots might supply that army with its needs, and they were willing to sacrifice Washington in order to get their views put into practice. It might well have been that they would have sacrificed victory as well. Fleming presents a fascinating view of Washington's work as a consummate politician, using his strong understanding of practical motivations, to thwart the generals and politicians who were conspiring against him.
Mention the words "Valley Forge" and a patriotic mist clouds the vision of many Americans. Fleming does a wonderful job dispelling the myths while never neglecting the importance of the encampment. The troops certainly suffered hardship; they did not freeze to death (the winter was relatively mild) but they did starve, sacrificed to a commissary and quartermaster system that was inefficient at best and fraudulent at worst. The conspiracy against Washington was not just over how the soldiers were to be paid or fed. The radical Whigs were intent upon replacing Washington with General Horatio Gates, one of their own but a timorous intriguer who enjoyed the flattery of the politicians and officers who boosted him as Washington's replacement. Gates's foul mouth and interest in sexual hanky-panky were in stark contrast to the serious, gentlemanly Washington, whose devoted marriage is depicted here since Martha came to stay the winter with him. There were plots to blame Washington for the army's previous defeats, for holing himself up at Valley Forge, and for whatever other ills his enemies could find. There was even a bizarre plot by Gates to have the Marquis de Lafayette lead an invasion into Canada which would have inevitably have failed and ruined the career of Washington's son-like hero. We think of our founding fathers as united in their just cause, but the picture here is of backstabbing and power-grabbing.
Washington himself dealt with his critics openly, and often with generosity they did not deserve. During the six grim months at Valley Forge, he demonstrated not only military but political leadership. He was able to get concessions from Congress to support his army, and he not only remained the commander, but he was able to install men whom he had chosen and who led the troops to further success. The drills led by the colorful Baron von Steuben (who had imaginary credentials dreamed up by that hoaxer Ben Franklin) all worked well. In ten days after breaking camp, the Army was successful in meeting the British at the Battle of Monmouth. Fleming reflects that with the fame of Valley Forge "... came one of memory's favorite historical tricks: the simplification and sentimentalization of the story." Congressional ineptitude and the plot to unseat Washington didn't fit in with our view of the powerful heroes that brought us liberty, but Fleming's book is a wonderful corrective, as well as providing even more reasons to admire a master politician.
on October 17, 2006
Having just finished "1776" and been extremely disappointed, I debated whether I really wanted to follow it up with another American Revolutionary War book.
I'm glad I did.
This book was enjoyable to read, insightful, thought provoking, and again, ENJOYABLE.
If you enjoy history, or even just a good read, pick it up. As you'll gather from the other reviews as well as the book description, you'll learn lots of the back story to the Continental Army's stay in Valley Forge, PA, the politiking of Washington and the Continental Congress, and the "Secret War" that was going on behind that scenes that had the potential of changing the outcome of the war.
All in all, 5 stars and an incredible book to read.
on January 4, 2006
Once again, Thomas Fleming has brought us closer, ever closer, to what has been so vieled in the fog of history. George Washington, icon, marble statue, staring at us through stiff formal portraits and idealized creations in literature, is so much more in his flesh and bones. The more we get to know him the greater he becomes. Fleming is truly a marvel, once again, at bringing history to us in an intimate and marvelously written portrait of Washington's fight to retain his position as commander in chief of the Continental Army. His war against those who would displace him during the winter at Valley Forge shows his political skill at least as good as his military skill, if not better. Fleming's book 1776 Year of Illusions is far and away better than the more recently published 1776 by another author. There, as here with Washington's Secret War, Thomas Fleming teaches us history in a way that is irrisistable. A wonderful book by probably the best writer on American Revolutionary history in America today.
on June 12, 2009
I enjoyed much of the book and part of me wants to rate it much higher. However, 2 things stuck out that bother me. First, the role of Gates in the Conway Cabal is very cloudy in some of the other books I have read while this one insists on his role being a strong one. The author notes when he makes an inference about things but I can't say I always agreed with his conclusions. The second is the timeline issue. The book skips around a few months and backtracks here and there which makes the when and why somewhat confusing. This could have been solved rather easily by including a few more dates when meetings took place etc.
But, I still strongly recommend this book for anyone interested in the Winter at Vallet Forge and the months leading up to it. A perspective much different than you will find in 1776 or John Adams books can be found here.
The Continentals were not just up against the mighty British Empire. They had to fight for food, shelter and supplies at every turn and many Tories, Quakers and "rebels" turned a blind eye to their struggle. Washington's character and his adversities against all kinds of foes including the Adams cousins is well documented and very well explained.
For a novice like me, this was anothe fascinating book on the struggle for liberty.
This book discusses the events of the winter of 1777-78 and into the spring with the battle of Monmouth Courthouse, which are all far from secret. It discusses the following in some detail:
1) The encampment at Valley Forge is the centerpiece of the book, which correctly lays the blame on Congress for the deprivation suffered by the army. The book points out that it was not the winter weather that was the problem (the winter was not particularly harsh), but the failure of commissary system in providing enough food and clothing, which was in turn due to a failure of Congress.
2) Much of the book is concerned with the attempt of Generals Conway, Gates and Mifflin, and their congressional supporters to replace Washington as head of the army. Some historians (for instance, John Ferling in "Almost a Miracle"), deny that there was a conspiracy to replace Washington and that the "Conway Cabal" (as it is often termed) was just a manifestation of Washington insecurity and perhaps paranoia. Fleming presents a strong case that this view is wrong and that, based not only on Washington's letters but also those of many others, there was indeed a serious attempt at replacing him.
3) The training of the army by Barron von Steuben, and his actual background are discussed in some detail.
4) The British occupation of Philadelphia and their departure is also discussed.
5) The book ends with the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse and the court-martial of General Charles Lee.
While these topics are covered in many other books, it is nice to read a well-written book that is devoted to them. The book contains a nice timeline of Revolutionary War events of 1776, 77 and 78. It also contains 25 photographs and two maps, printed on glossy paper. It is nice to see a paperback that shows some respect for the reader and does not print photographs on the same paper as the text, as this often renders them useless.
I recommend this book to those interested in history, especially American Revolutionary War history.
on May 5, 2006
If you believe George Washington was a great man, this book will reinforce that belief. (If you believe otherwise, you have been misinformed.) Washington had no need whatsoever for the Revolutionary War; he was a wealthy man who could have lived in peace and ease under British rule for his entire life. Yet he choose to risk everything he had and sacrifice many years of his life to the War of Independence.
In Washington's Secret War, the author presents Valley Forge, not just as a winter when soldiers fought for their lives against hunger, disease and cold, but as a winter when George Washington fought not only the elements, but also against those who schemed to bring him down.
The book begins with several chapters of set-up wherein we learn who is who and what happened that Washington ended up at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777. We find out who is more interested in profit or position than independence. We see the Quakers in Pennsylvania who tend to act so noble, profit from the British conquest of Philadelphia, while they walk right by American soldiers dying of hunger and cold in British prisons. The author states it thusly: "So the American prisoners in the New Jail and the statehouse froze and starved while Philadelphia's most pious--and wealthiest--citizens went complacently-even self-righteously-about their business only a few blocks away."
Back in Valley Forge, Washington was fighting against corruption and incompetence that kept food and clothing from getting to the soldiers who froze and starved. Congress itself was a huge part of the problem. And while Washington fought for his men, he also fought for his position as command of the American troops against lesser men who conspired against him. Luckily for Washington, there were a few in Congress who were his friends, most notably Henry Laurens, who helped him overcome the attacks of Generals Lee, Gates and other small men wishing to be big.
Fleming spins this altogether into a wonderful story, that were not its finish already known, would make a great thriller. Some contemporary historians tend to slight Washington's intelligence, but Fleming shows us Washington as a man able to "...respond to attacks from Gates and his allies with the dexterity of a master politician."
This is a wonderful book that makes history comes alive. Fleming brings out not only an overview of what was going on, but also digs into details that pulls the reader into the story. This is the best book I have read concerning the attempts of little men to undermine Washington's leadership.
The book was a little slow to get to the main theme, and ended somewhat abruptly (I wanted to keep reading more!), but this is a must read for the Washington fan, and is just a great story besides. This is the type of writing than high schools need to get students interested in history. This is the best book on the attempt to undermine Washington that I have read. Not only do we learn of "Washington's Secret War" from this book, we go away with a deeper appreciation of what men overcame at Valley Forge and what their sacrifice means to us today. Fleming quotes President Ford: "The patriots of Valley Forge send us a single, urgent message. Though prosperity is a good thing, a nation survives only so long as the spirit of sacrifice and self-discipline is strong within its people..."
on February 5, 2016
There is office politics and then there is office politics. General Washington during his time faced office politics that could have destroyed the success of the American Revolution. During the Winter and Spring of 1776, 1777, with the British troops warmly ensconced in Philadelphia, Washington's army shoeless and starving in Valley Forge and Congress in tiny York, Pennsylvania, Washington was the target from multiple groups wanting him out. General Gates, General Charles Lee and others all had their eyesights on the top spot. The Quarter Masters were all incompetent, and each state acting in their own self interest-it appears only Connecticut was concerned enough to send food, clothing and money. Imagine how hard a job Washington had while Congress was in York-barely-only 9 of the Representatives bothered to show up. So unconcerned were the leaders that President John Hancock gave up, resigned and moved back to Boston. How to keep up morale when these acts were going on?
What most Americans do not understand is the large percentage of citizens that were either neutral or loyalists. The Loyalists had almost as many soldiers as Washington had and worked hard to make life miserable for those stuck at Valley Forge. Furthermore, what most Americans do not understand is the governments of each Colony. Delaware was in the hands of the Loyalists, Pennsylvania had a mini revolution which threw out the elected government and did not do much to assist the Continental Congress or the Army.
All of which General Washington had to deal with while maintaining an army.
A very insightful book that covers so much not dealt with in schools, making the success of the Revolution so much more miraculous.
Thomas Fleming's "Washington's Secret War" is an excellent work of history that looks behind the scenes, beyond the battles, the starvation of Valley Forge", the stories we've all been told.
The author gives us an eyes-wide-open view of the founding fathers at odds with each other and, most importantly, at odds with their commander-in-chief. Most Americans aren't aware of the crisis in confidence the Congress had in regard to George Washington'd leadership of the Continental Army and, indeed, the strategy of meeting the British army in formal battles. There were even some proposing a war of partisan bands and guerrillas.
I think Fleming does a good job of showing how George Washington's leadership was being questioned after the previous year's defeats and the loss of Philadelphia - the continental Capital. Add to this the victory at Saratoga which elevated (wrongly) the status of Gen. Horatio Gates, and the infant nation faced a real dilemma.
There was a cabal trying to replace Washington with Gates and this had more support than most Americans now realize. There were officers within the army, most notably Thomas Conway and Thomas Mifflin, who disliked Washington and saw him as weak and ineffectual. There were members of Congress who would have joined with these men to replace Washington.
In the meantime, Congress was almost completely incapable of helping Washington keep his army together. Congress had printed so much currency that it became worthless and difficulties arose in trying to purchase enough supplies to feed, cloth and keep the army in shoes, gunpowder and rum (more important that you'd expect!). The stories of men naked, shoeless and freezing are mostly true, at least initially. The fact of the matter is that the Continental Army was disintegrating due to desertions, disease and enlistments ending for large numbers of troops.
What was amazing is that the author reveals how Washington became a masterful politician in order to keep the army together, prevent his authority from being stripped and preventing the Congress from diverting from his strategy of meeting the British in face-to-face engagements and maintaining the initiative.
This is a good book that shows the battles behind the curtain that could have easily derailed the revolution. A great read and great history. Five stars.
This author has been described elsewhere as a layman's historian and without being derogatory in any way - I agree. Mr. Fleming examines critical moments in history and without necessarily shining any new light, does shine a brighter light on the participants in his topics. In this case the focus is on George Washington's battles during the winter of 1777-78, (while encamped at Valley Forge), not with his British military opponents but with his fellow "patriots", many of whom were trying, at the very least, to minimize his responsibilties and at the most, remove him from command.
If names from history such as Mifflin, Laurens, Rush, Gates, Lee, Conway, von Steuben, Greene ring a bell, the author distinguishes the good guys from the bad guys and puts all of them into the context of this pivotal moment in US history - assigning appropriate blame to those who allowed the condition of the Revolutionary Army to deteriorate to its dismal condition in 1777 and praising those indivduals who not only held the army together but also made it stronger after Valley Forge.
There are a few digressions in this book - for instance one reads of the Brirish theatrical productions in camp in more detail than may be necessary. And I can't recall the last history book where the terms "blabbermouth" and "whiner" were used. On the other hand and at the risk of raising some hackles I would recommend this book as a follow-up to McCullough's "1776". For just as in that book, the central character is George Washington and one can't help but gain a further appreciation and respect for his leadership.
on July 10, 2012
This book opened a new vista for me regarding the persons and events surrounding Washington's winter sojourn at Valley Forge. I never realized that so many so-called patriotic figures were skeptical and, in some instances, had strong aversion to Washington's continued command of the colonial forces. John Hancock, Samuel Adams, Horatio Gates, Charles Lee, led the pack seeking Washington's ouster, along with Conway, Lovell, Mifflin, and DeKalb. The military infighting and political intrigue came from all quarters. Were it not for the support of Lafayette, Von Steuben, Greene, Knox, Laurens, Wayne and Hamilton, Washington would never have survived the onslaught of nonsupport. As if the weather, short supplies of clothing, food, arms, gunpowder were not enough, the local populous, particularly Pennsylvanian,withheld necessary goods and supplies to the exclusion of bargaining with the British and their Loyalist sympathizers.
The particulars of the men who remained and outlasted those 6 months of hardship and privation at Valley Forge was story worth telling and retelling. Fleming has certainly enlightened this reviewer as to the extremities that confronted Continental Army, facing not only the threat of a surprise British attack but the mismanagement of those responsible for supplying the bare necessities to the beleaguered troops. The valor and tenacity of Washington and his men at Valley Forge is a story that stirs the hearts and minds of those of us who cherish freedom so courageously won in that winter of 1777-78.