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Washington's Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge Hardcover – October 25, 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Fleming enhances his position as a leading general-audience historian of the American Revolution in this convincing argument for the importance of internal diplomacy in the conflict's development. Like David McCullough's 1776, Fleming's volume depicts Valley Forge as the revolution's turning point, with the fulcrum being George Washington's ability to develop "a new kind of leadership" that combined military and political elements. Recognizing the limited applicability of European precedents in the new republic, Washington simultaneously had to revitalize an army on the point of collapse and energize a Continental Congress ignorant of how to conduct a war. He performed both feats while maintaining both his authority as commander-in-chief and the principle of military subordination to political authority. And, all the while, he managed to keep the British believing that conciliation was preferable to battle. Fleming credits Washington's achievement to a force of character that increasingly impressed soldiers and politicians alike, but even more to Washington's ability to persuade waverers and opponents to his point of view by using a "series of positive proposals, well researched and closely argued." Fleming's use of short chapters (one- to three-pages each) and lively prose helps keep the complicated political maneuvers easy to follow. (Oct. 25)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
George Washington's contemporaries regularly referred to his aura of gravitas, part of which was as an apparent ability to remain above the petty squabbles that characterize democratic politics. Yet, as Fleming indicates, that detachment from political warfare was mostly illusion. He focuses on the winter and spring of 1777-78, when the Continental Army was encamped in deprived, brutal conditions at Valley Forge. This, of course, was a turning point for both Washington and his army. Aided by Baron Von Steuben, the army emerged from their travails as a disciplined, professional fighting force. In Fleming's view, this was also the period when Washington honed his skills at political warfare. He was the target of constant criticism from members of the Continental Congress, and ambitious subordinates hoped to replace him. But Washington learned to give as good as he got, while still maintaining the appearance of aristocratic distance from the fray. Fleming has provided an original and provocative reinterpretation of a critical period in the struggle for independence. Jay Freeman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Washington is painted with a new brush (and not one that endeavors to find all the faults of the man destined to become our first President). The author demonstrates the tact, patience, and frustration that had to be a constant part of Washington's life. Washington not only had to worry about the British, he had to concern himself with outfitting and feeding his army while dealing with men (in Congress and in the army) who wanted him ousted from his position.
The only thing that kept me from giving that fifth star was the lack of footnotes. The author did reference his sources in the text, noting that this information came from a letter or from a diary entry or from a conversation documented by one of the participants. This is a departure from many other history books, and footnotes would have been welcome with all insights I have never seen elsewhere. This is not to be taken that I feel the author was not truthful (I feel he was), but it would have served as verification to any doubters.
As far as writing style, I felt the flow was very good. This could have been a dry read, and the author performed admirably by creating a book that was not only interesting but also enjoyable.
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.
Most recent customer reviews
Am sure few know the problems that faced George Washington in the fight for Independence.