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The Hidden History of Valley Forge

by Thomas Fleming

Pub Date: Oct. 25th, 2005
ISBN: 0-06-082962-1
Publisher: Smithsonian/Collins

A revisitation of that American crèche, the wintry encampment at Valley Forge, where stalwart Continentals created a nation.

Prolific historian and novelist Fleming (A Passionate Girl, 2004, etc.) isn’t a revisionist as such; he has no interest in diminishing the heroism of the revolutionary soldiers who served with Washington and company in a time when victory seemed unlikely, certainly no interest in questioning the validity of their cause. Yet he does a solid job of showing that their weaknesses were institutional. In its wisdom, Congress had enacted legislation that made it impossible to profit from supplying the army, a disincentive even to a patriot, and it “insisted on trying to manage all aspects of running the war, without the knowledge or skill to do the job,” which included second-guessing Washington’s chain of command. Part of Washington’s task during his unwanted but necessary layover was to do a little old-fashioned politicking to lose the micromanagement. He had other challenges, of course: securing provisions, getting a sick and hungry army back on its feet, learning how to fight effectively against a much better-trained, better-paid and better-led enemy. In the last matter, Washington had inestimable help from the legendary Baron von Steuben, whose name is still honored among American soldiers today; no matter, as Fleming nicely reveals, that the good baron more or less made up his résumé, for Ben Franklin had “concocted his imaginary career and the idea of offering his services as a volunteer” just when such a person was most needed. Another surprise, courtesy of Fleming, is his account of the ethnic composition of the Continental forces, filled with German and Irish newcomers, with Indians and blacks—all of whom were tested the following spring and acquitted themselves well at places like Monmouth, where the tide of war turned.

Though without the flair of a McCullough or Ambrose or Brands, another solid work from Fleming.