Bob Drury and Tom Clavin
Simon and Schuster, New York, 2018, 432 pages
Book Review published on: September 14, 2018
A beleaguered Continental army was on verge of dissolving in December 1777 when it staggered into Valley Forge. The starving and half-naked force was reeling from a string of demoralizing defeats by the British Army at Brandywine and Germantown. That same British Army forced the Continental Congress to flee from an occupied Philadelphia. With the Continental army in tatters, the Continental Congress in exile, and its treasury depleted, the American Revolution appeared lost. Bob Drury and Tom Calvin—New York Times best-selling authors of Lucky 666, The Heart of Everything That Is, Halsey’s Typhon, Last Men Out, and The Last Stand of Fox Company—tell the dramatic story of the Continental army’s darkest days of the Revolution and its transformation in Valley Forge.
Valley Forge goes beyond the traditional works that focus on George Washington or the winter encampment in describing the behind the scene events taking place in shaping the war. The authors reveal that Washington was simultaneously fighting the British Army and another war against members of the Continental Congress, as well as self-serving Continental army officers plotting to unseat him. The authors chronicle a pivotal point of Washington who responded to a Continental Congress missive that argued against a winter cantonment in favor of one last “vigorous effort” to dislodge the British Army from Philadelphia; Washington was astounded and angry. The failure of the Continental Congress to honor its promises to feed and clothe the starving and half-clothed Continental army placed it in great peril. Washington’s response captured the moment: “Unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place in that supply line, this Army must inevitability be reduced to one or other things of these things. Starve, dissolve, or disperse, in order to obtain subsistence.” Washington’s reply had its intended effect in moving the Continental Congress toward addressing the challenges of supply the army.
Drury and Calvin dispel the perception of inactivity during the winter months of the war. Desertions, disease, lack of supplies, and an ever-perceived threat of British forces leaving Philadelphia to destroy the Continental army kept Washington busy. Washington quickly implemented changes in training, discipline, and organization in realizing his vision for the army. It was during the dark days at Valley Forge that his vision was transcribed into developing a disciplined force that would, months later, withstand cannon fire and hold its own against British forces at the Battle of Monmouth.
Valley Forge also describes the British diplomatic efforts to end the conflict following the surrender of British general John Burgoyne’s army at the Battle of Saratoga. England’s war planners correctly suspected that the American victory would hasten France’s entry into the conflict, turning a colonial rebellion into a world war. Britain attempted to forestall or reduce the number of fronts it would have to fight on. England’s Parliament envoy, Paul Wentworth, met with Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane and proposed a reconciliation plan that repealed all offensive parliamentary acts that had passed since 1763 and allowed the Americans to retain their Continental Congress. Furthermore, it provided knighthoods and generous pensions to Franklin and Deane for their efforts in resolving the rebellion.
British military officers were also beginning to realize that service in the colonies was detrimental to their careers. Gen. William Howe requested that he be relieved as a way to shift blame for British setbacks from himself to the British commander in the field. British Gen. Henry Clinton, whose army was wintering in New York, also requested reassignment back to Britain. Adm. Richard Howe, brother of William, used his wife’s well-connected contacts to request that he be allowed to return home and retire. Washington, facing the weight of world in Valley Forge, had no knowledge of what his opponents’ felt in terms of their service.
The strengths of Valley Forge are Drury and Calvin’s exhaustive research, writing style, and inclusion of events outside Valley Forge in shaping it and the war. Valley Forge is more than the story of the Continental army’s winter encampment; it describes Washington’s transformation, the transformation of the Continental army from an unruly mob to a disciplined fighting force, and some of the darkest days in the fight for independence. It is one of the finest works on Valley Forge written in a decade. This book is for military professionals and historians, and would be a great addition to any professional leadership reading list.
Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas