Washington's Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge


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 wintered in 1777–78. WASHINGTON'S SECRET WAR 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 ...

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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 wintered in 1777–78. WASHINGTON'S SECRET WAR 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. Fleming reveals that during this difficult winter Washington was simultaneously fighting another war – one 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, WASHINGTON'S SECRET WAR 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.

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Editorial Reviews

Boston Globe
Solid account of the political intrigue that threatened the American cause during the winter of 1777-78.
Publishers Weekly
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 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Prolific author Fleming (Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America) writes of the trials and tribulations of George Washington as he led the Continental Army during the infamous Valley Forge winter of 1777-78. The "secret war" was Washington's ultimately successful battle to preserve his army against all odds. Fleming's point is that he was not simply fighting the elements and attacks by the nearby British; he was also reckoning with members of the Continental Congress and fellow army officers who deemed him inadequate. Certain generals, known as the "Conway Cabal," attempted to remove Washington from command, and Congress openly meddled in military affairs. Fleming's subtitle is sensational and overdramatic, as none of this information has been "hidden"; much of it has been covered in other Valley Forge titles over the last 50 years. However, Fleming writes strong prose that can command the reader's attention, and he provides good, accessible descriptions of the winter's events. The book's primary weakness is the author's overtly negative tone, which can make it read like a tabloid. Fleming dislikes nearly everyone-New Englanders, Virginians, and Quakers are frequent targets. Only Washington, portrayed as a master politician, and such close confidants as Lafayette escape relatively unscathed. Despite its flaws, Fleming's latest should prove entertaining to patrons of academic and large public libraries.-Matthew J. Wayman, Pennsylvania State Univ., Abington Coll. Lib. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A revisitation of that American creche, 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 resume, 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 Irishnewcomers, 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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060872939
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 11/7/2006
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 7.98 (w) x 8.02 (h) x 0.99 (d)

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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Read an Excerpt

Washington's Secret War

The Hidden History of Valley Forge
By Thomas Fleming

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Thomas Fleming
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060872934

Chapter One

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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

Picture Credits VI
Acknowledgments VII
Timeline IX
Introduction XI
1 General George Washington: Loser 1
2 Revels and Redcoats 36
3 Ideologues Front and Center 69
4 Playing the Insult Card 107
5 Enter the Committee in Camp 129
6 "Congress Does Not Trust Me" 166
7 Discipline from a Baron 206
8 From Anxiety to Exultation 234
9 The Follies of Spring 254
10 General Double Trouble 276
11 A Moment at Monmouth 311
Epilogue: Two Visits to Valley Forge 341
Notes 351
Index 376
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 27, 2008

    Our Country's Greatest President

    I picked up 'Washington's Secret War' during a recent visit to Valley Forge. After reading this book, it is easy to see why Washington is called the Father of our Country. He held the army together at Valley Forge, fought a fickle congress, put up with insubordinate generals and a large portion of the general public 'sitting on the fence,' and did the best he could to supply his troops and keep them from starving. The book provides an accurate discription of what Washington and his troops endured at Valley Forge.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted November 7, 2008

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    Posted July 11, 2009

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    Posted October 31, 2008

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