Valley Forge plays a fairly simple part in our national narrative, a heroic tale of soldiers enduring a terrible winter out of loyalty to the Revolutionary cause and their great general, George Washington.
In their new book, Valley Forge, journalists and authors Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, whose previous collaborations include the bestselling The Heart of Everything That Is, reveal a much more interesting and complex slice of history.
In December 1777, prospects for the American Revolution were not bright. A year and a half after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the British army occupied Philadelphia, capital of the fledgling United States, and the Continental Congress was in exile in York, Pa.
Washington, a 45-year-old Virginia plantation owner whose military experience was limited, was commander of the Continental Army, a ragged force of about 12,000 soldiers who, as winter approached, were underfed and inadequately clothed - the Revolution had no funds for such things as uniforms. Thousands of the troops marched barefoot for lack of shoes.
Drury and Clavin fill in not only the portrait of Washington but of those who surrounded him. Among the most vivid are his three young aides. Alexander Hamilton, that current pop star of Founding Fathers, was only 22 that winter, as was his best friend, the idealistic John Laurens, whose father would soon be president of the Continental Congress.
Even younger was the French aristocrat Marquis de Lafayette, who was 19. Orphaned at 12, commissioned as a military officer at 13, married at 16, Lafayette did things ahead of the curve. Together, the authors write, they formed "a triad of bright and eager young men who filled a void in the childless general's military family. It is rather astounding that, by the fall of 1777, three men barely out of their teens had become some of the most essential figures of the American Revolution."
Another brightly drawn character is Baron Friedrich von Steuben, a Prussian nobleman recruited in Paris by Benjamin Franklin. Steuben arrived at Valley Forge in February 1778 in a grand sleigh, wearing a fur-lined robe, and proceeded to whip the makeshift Continental Army (those who had survived disease, cold and starvation, at least) into a fighting force.
Washington was not yet the iconic figure we envision; political schemes and military jealousies surrounded him. The authors note two more experienced generals who would "harbor simmering resentments throughout the revolution at having to understudy what they considered a tomahawk-wielding bumpkin from the cow paths of Virginia."
Washington himself is a fascinating figure, notable for his modesty and physical courage and for his belief in listening to many advisers. John Adams noted that he often gained power by not revealing what he wanted; he had, Adams wrote, "the gift of silence."
All of those well-drawn characters play parts in the brutal winter at the Pennsylvania camp and beyond. The authors also sketch key players on the British side and write thrilling battle scenes. Valley Forge is deeply researched but presented in such lively style that it reads like a novel.
Best of all, it gives us a human version of the man who would become the nation's first president. "That the Continental Army still existed in June of 1778 was a miracle of survival," the authors write. "And none of it could have happened without the character, integrity, and empathy demonstrated by George Washington."
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.