Washington's Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forgeby Thomas Fleming
The defining moments of the Revolutionary War did not occur on the battlefield or at the diplomatic table, claims Thomas Fleming, but at Valley Forge, where the Continental Army overwintered in 1777-78. A Sacred Place tells the dramatic story of how those several critical months transformed a beaten, bedraggled group of recruits into a professional army capable of defeating the world's most formidable military power.
While the British Army relaxed in Philadelphia only 20 miles away, George Washington trained his army under brutal conditions, while also fighting for his political life as members of the Continental Congress hatched a plot to unseat him and others plotted to betray him. For the first time, A Sacred Place reveals how Washington's genius at negotiating the gray world of spies, double agents, and palace intrigue vaulted him from losing general to the charismatic father of his country.
Fleming delivers a fresh and provocative take on the Revolution, using Valley Forge as a point of departure to discuss the larger context of the war, including the negotiations with the French, the British occupation of Philadelphia, and the maneuvering of the Continental Congress. A Sacred Place is not only a story about the clash of aristocracy and democracy, but the amazing tale of how the American will to endure and win triumphed over nearly impossible odds.
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Washington's Secret WarThe Hidden History of Valley Forge
By Thomas Fleming
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Thomas Fleming
All right reserved.
General George Washington: Loser
On December 19, 1777, beneath lowering gray skies, with snow swirling in a savage north wind, soldiers of the Continental Army of the United States of America trudged up the narrow sloping Gulph Road--a rutted dirt track whose modern concrete descendant bears the same eerily symbolic name. Their destination was a mix of wooded tableland and forbidding hills called "the Valley-Forge."
The marchers were coming from the very Gulph itself, a name 1726 roadbuilders had fastened on a brooding chasm in the southeastern Pennsylvania hills where the army had spent the previous five days.1 Connecticut surgeon's mate Albigence Waldo thought it was "not an improper name . . . for this Gulph seems well adapted . . . to keep us from the pleasures & enjoyments of this world."2
Behind the marchers in the wintry Pennsylvania countryside lay a landscape of defeat. At Brandywine Creek and Germantown, these soldiers had given battle to George III's redcoated battalions and lost. They had marched and countermarched across the autumn countryside until they were groggy with fatigue--while their shoes disintegrated and their rations dwindled to the vanishing point. Now, while these half-starved sons of liberty bent into the icy wind,their misery was redoubled by thoughts of the victorious devotees of royal authority in Philadelphia, feasting and drinking at its numerous taverns, enjoying the comforts of feather beds and warm fires in its hundreds of handsome houses.
This city of more than thirty thousand wealthy merchants and prosperous artisans and charming women had been the prize that the Americans had struggled to defend--and failed. It was a painful, demoralizing loss. Philadelphia was the largest city in America and the third largest in the British empire. Only Dublin and of course London were bigger and more splendid examples of Great Britain's global wealth and power.
In the previous three tumultuous years, the City of Brotherly Love, as its Quaker founders had optimistically christened Philadelphia, had become the capital of the rebellious American confederacy. From the redbrick Pennsylvania statehouse, eighteen months ago the Continental Congress had issued the Declaration of Independence, creating a new country out of thirteen disparate and often disputatious colonies--and inspiring many people to begin calling Philadelphia "the Rome of America."
Almost as important as its political significance was Philadelphia's role as the engine of a regional economy that included the farmers of western New Jersey, southeastern Pennsylvania, Delaware, and northern Maryland. In the early 1770s, the city had exported staggering amounts of wheat--as much as fifty-seven thousand tons (114 million pounds) in a single year--to a Europe struggling with growing populations and poor harvests. (This was enough flour to feed an army of 240,000 men.) Add to this annual avalanche of grain thousands of tons of salted meat and bar iron from numerous nearby forges, plus lumber and other products. Philadelphia's exports frequently totaled $40 million (roughly $600 million in modern money) a year--a potent glimpse of why an overtaxed England thought it was time for the Americans to pay a share of the costs of running the empire. More pertinent to the fate of the plodding soldiers on the Gulph Road was the likelihood that a British grip on Philadelphia could lead to the demoralization--even the capitulation--of the entire region, which had become dependent on the city's ability to turn farm and forge surpluses into ready money.3
This dismaying possibility was not a primary or even a secondary thought in the minds of the trudging rank and file. They were concerned with more mundane matters, such as the bitter cold and the absence of food in their gnawing bellies. One of the youngest marchers, seventeen-year-old Private Joseph Plumb Martin of Connecticut, remembered the Gulph as a place where "starvation rioted in its glory."4
While the army camped in this chasm in the hills, the Continental Congress ordered the men to join the rest of their embryo nation in a day of Thanksgiving on December 18, 1777. The reason for this seemingly improbable summons? Two months earlier, near Saratoga in the state of New York, a British army led by an overconfident general named John Burgoyne had been defeated and forced to surrender by a "Northern" American army, led by a British-born general named Horatio Gates. The men on the march from the Gulph felt scarcely a glimmer of gratitude for this victory. They were too acutely conscious of their own military disappointments. Along with the two battlefield defeats, they had lost painful lesser encounters. At Paoli, an American division had been ambushed and massacred. On the Delaware River, two forts that had tried to deny the Royal Navy access to Philadelphia had been blasted into rubble by British men-of-war after weeks of heroic resistance.
A glum Lieutenant Colonel Henry Dearborn of Massachusetts told his journal: "God knows we have little to keep it [Thanksgiving] with this being the third day we have been without flour or bread--& are . . . laying on the cold ground, upon the whole I think all we have to be thankful for is that we are alive and not in the grave with most of our friends."5
Lieutenant Samuel Armstrong of the Ninth Massachusetts Regiment was no less unhappy but took a more positive approach toward rectifying his discontents. "We had neither bread nor meat 'till just before night when we had some fresh beef, without any bread or flour. . . . Mr. Commissary did not intend we shou'd keep a day of rejoicing--but however we sent out a scout for some fowls and by night he return'd with one dozen: we distributed them among our fellow sufferers three we roast'd two we boil'd and borrowed a few potatoes upon those we supp'd without any bread or anything stronger than water to drink!"6
Private Joseph Plumb Martin was not so fortunate as Armstrong and his fellow officers. "We had nothing to eat for two or three days previous," he recalled . . .
Excerpted from Washington's Secret War by Thomas Fleming Copyright © 2006 by Thomas Fleming. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Thomas Fleming is the author of more than forty books of fiction and nonfiction, most recently, The Perils of Peace. He has been the president of the Society of American Historians and of PEN American Center. Mr. Fleming is a frequent guest on C-SPAN, PBS, A&E, and the History Channel. He lives in New York City.
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