Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution

by Nathaniel Philbrick
Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution

by Nathaniel Philbrick


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A New York Times Bestseller
Winner of the George Washington Prize

A surprising account of the middle years of the American Revolution and the tragic relationship between George Washington and Benedict Arnold, from the New York Times bestselling author of In The Heart of the Sea, Mayflower, and In the Hurricane's Eye.

"May be one of the greatest what-if books of the age—a volume that turns one of America’s best-known narratives on its head.”—Boston Globe

"Clear and insightful, [Valiant Ambition] consolidates Philbrick's reputation as one of America's foremost practitioners of narrative nonfiction."Wall Street Journal

In the second book of his acclaimed American Revolution series, Nathaniel Philbrick turns to the tragic relationship between George Washington and Benedict Arnold. In September 1776, the vulnerable Continental army under an unsure George Washington evacuated New York after a devastating defeat by the British army. Three weeks later, one of his favorite generals, Benedict Arnold, miraculously succeeded in postponing the British naval advance down Lake Champlain that might have lost the war. As this book ends, four years later Washington has vanquished his demons, and Arnold has fled to the enemy. America was forced at last to realize that the real threat to its liberties might not come from without but from withinComplex, controversial, and dramatic, Valiant Ambition is a portrait of a people in crisis and the war that gave birth to a nation.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593511398
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/28/2022
Series: The American Revolution Series , #2
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 534,812
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Nathaniel Philbrick is the author of In the Heart of the Sea, winner of the National Book Award; Mayflower, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; Bunker Hill, winner of the New England Book Award; Sea of Glory; The Last Stand; Why Read Moby Dick?; and Away Off Shore. He lives in Nantucket.


Nantucket, Massachusetts

Date of Birth:

June 11, 1956

Place of Birth:

Boston, Massachusetts


B.A., Brown University, 1978; M.A., Duke University

Table of Contents

Preface: The Fault Line xiii

Part I The Wilderness of Untried Things 1

Chapter 1 Demons of Fear and Disorder 3

Chapter 2 The Mosquito Fleet 32

Chapter 3 A Cabinet of Fortitude 58

Chapter 4 The Year of the Hangman 87

Chapter 5 The Dark Eagle 108

Chapter 6 Saratoga 141

Part II Secret Motives and Designs 169

Chapter 7 The Bite of a Rattlesnake 171

Chapter 8 The Knight of the Burning Mountain 200

Chapter 9 Unmerciful Fangs 226

Chapter 10 The Chasm 242

Chapter 11 The Pangs of a Dying Man 256

Chapter 12 The Crash 277

Chapter 13 No Time for Remorse 293

Epilogue: A Nation of Traitors 321

Acknowledgments 327

Notes 329

Bibliography 375

Illustration Credits 404

Index 407


Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Nathaniel Philbrick

The name Benedict Arnold has long been a stand-in for the word "traitor," but before Arnold's failed attempt to surrender the strategically crucial West Point military stronghold to the British in 1780, he was one of George Washington's most courageous and trusted generals. In Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution, historian Nathaniel Philbrick chronicles Arnold's turn to treason with striking compassion. By the time he switched sides, Arnold had sacrificed both his health and his wealth to the Patriot cause yet was repeatedly victimized by the petty political maneuverings of the ineffectual Continental Congress. With the Revolution at its nadir, and with much of the country having lost its appetite for the war, Arnold came to believe, in Philbrick's words, "that the experiment in independence had failed." In prose as vivid as that of Philbrick's previous books — Mayflower, Bunker Hill, and the National Book Award winner In the Heart of the Sea among them — the author dramatically charts Arnold's descent, contrasting it with Washington's maturation into the revered leader we remember today. I spoke to Philbrick, who was at his home in Nantucket, by phone. — Barbara Spindel

The Barnes & Noble Review: You write in your acknowledgements that your mother had a lifelong fascination with Benedict Arnold. Having grown up hearing some version of his story, what surprised you most once you began working on this book?

Nathaniel Philbrick: What kind of surprised me was that Mom was right! My mom always felt that Benedict Arnold had gotten a bum rap. He contributed so much to the American cause early on in the Revolution. To be a Benedict Arnold is to be the worst thing you can possibly be, but there's more to the story than that.

BNR: Tracing his path from war hero to traitor, you treat Arnold with sympathy — and it does seem like he couldn't catch a break. He fought heroically and suffered significant injuries, but he rarely received the credit he was due. He also saw inferior men promoted above him because of their political connections.

NP: After the Battle of Valcour Island, he's done an amazing job and quite rightly expects to be rewarded in some way, and just the opposite occurs. To be a military officer in his position and to not only not get promoted but to have five people promoted past you was pretty darn outrageous. He wasn't being thin-skinned to be upset about it. In fact, when that happened to others in the Continental Army, they quit. They just folded their tents and left. To Arnold's credit, he complained, but he didn't quit. He continued to contribute.

BNR: Was he unlucky, or did his unlikability — you describe him as antagonistic and arrogant — contribute to his problems?

NP: A bit of both, but the fact that he was overlooked for promotion in the winter of 1777 was an entirely political thing. It's kind of outrageous for us today to think that Washington, as commander in chief, did not have any control over who became his major generals, the men he depended upon the most. Those appointments were made by the Continental Congress. In every other revolution, at some point the army would take over the civil government. That was the fear in America at that point, so Congress retained control of a lot of aspects of the military operation. Washington can't believe that Arnold has been left out, and he works very hard to try to rectify the situation, but there's not much he can do about it, given the way the government was structured.

BNR: Washington trusted Arnold until presented with evidence of his treason. You describe a sad moment when Washington turned to Lafayette and asked, "Whom can we trust now?"

NP: For me that was such a poignant moment. Washington wasn't one of these leaders who was suspicious of everyone. A good leader has to at some point trust those around him; otherwise nothing constructive is going to get done. I think he had a blind spot when it came to Arnold because Arnold had been so maligned and so beaten up by the political process, and Washington had great sympathy for Arnold's situation. He did recognize that Arnold could be volatile; he was very aggressive. But he really didn't suspect anything until the very end.

BNR: In assessing Arnold's significance, you say that a hero like Washington wasn't enough to bring the republic together, that a villain was necessary, too. Can you talk about how Benedict Arnold's treason galvanized the country?

NP: It's the great irony, isn't it? Here he is doing so much for the American cause as a general, but it's his failed attempt to turn over West Point that really makes the difference when it comes to the American people. The Revolution had hit a real low point; the steam seemed to be coming out of the balloon. People had assumed that with the entry of the French everything would happen, and the fact of the matter was that nothing was happening. Arnold, this hero, by being revealed to be a traitor, was a real wake-up call for people. While a lot of other things had to fall into place, I don't think it's a coincidence that within the next year there is [the Battle of] Yorktown and the true changing of the tide.

As I talk about in the book, all Americans were in a sense traitors, because they had disavowed their loyalty to King George to declare their independence. It was Arnold who changed that residual guilt through an act of betrayal. He wasn't just betraying Washington, he was betraying all Americans, because we were trying to form a republic. Everyone took that very personally. It was something that I think was in retrospect quite well timed, given how disastrously the War of Independence was going in October 1780.

BNR: If he had succeeded in turning over West Point to the British, things might have gone very differently.

NP: Things could have gone very differently. The "what if" game can drive you crazy, but just think of the potential havoc that could have been wreaked. The fact of the matter is that Arnold came very close to pulling it off, and I think that added to the electric sense of "Oh my gosh, this almost happened" that rippled across the country.

BNR: The book's epigraph comes from Julius Caesar, so I assume you consider this a Shakespearean tale?

NP: I really feel there are Shakespearean elements in it — characters like Iago, Othello, and King Lear. This is early on, we're barely a nation, it's our Genesis — a myth of creation, and Arnold is the snake in the garden. He is the one that gives the Revolution a personal force that it hadn't had. We're not just trying to overthrow Britain, we're trying to stop men like Arnold that have confused patriotism with self-interest.

BNR: Readers might be surprised by how much infighting there was.

NP: Yes, absolutely, and you begin to wonder what is loyalty during a revolution, particularly in a young republic that hasn't figured out how it's going to function. It was such an interesting time, not only with the Revolution but with the political formation of our government.

BNR: Your preface concerns Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress, who wrote a 1,000-plus- page account of the Revolution but eventually destroyed the manuscript because he didn't want the world to learn the extent of the Patriots' cynicism and self-interest. Does that kill you?

NP: Oh, it does. That kills me because to have had an insider's view of what was being said would have been fascinating. There are letters we have from the delegates and there are official proceedings, but so much of it was never recorded. The other source to be regretted is all the letters that Washington wrote to [his wife] Martha where he must have said a lot of things that he never expressed anywhere else. What a window that would have been.

BNR: Did she destroy them?

NP: Yes, she burned them, with one or two exceptions. It was not uncommon for someone late in life to do that to very personal correspondence, particularly with someone in such a public position as Washington. Washington worked very hard to create his legacy. Even before the War of Independence was over, he was assembling his papers and making sure they were going to be in a state of preservation that would represent as best he could the official side of what occurred during the Revolution.

But to have the correspondence between Arnold and [British officer] John Andre was really interesting, and that came to light relatively late because it was part of the papers of Henry Clinton, the British commander in chief at that point during the war. Those were brought over to America in the twentieth century — in the 1930s, I think — and they're now at the Clements Library on the campus of the University of Michigan.

BNR: You can actually see Arnold's and Andre's letters written in code?

NP: Yeah, that's really neat, and then to see how they're decoded and all that. History is obviously dependent on the evidence, and it's always amazing to me how much evidence there is. Given the fact that none of us write letters anymore, you think, what will we have for a record when it comes to people expressing themselves? At that time letters were how people communicated, and as a consequence you have an amazing record. And yet there are always gaps.

BNR: We're lucky to have a source like Joseph Plumb Martin, a soldier you describe as "conveniently ubiquitous." He's like the Forrest Gump of the Revolution. He's everywhere at once.

NP: Oh, he's amazing. He wrote his account late in life but clearly had kept a notebook of some sort throughout the Revolution, which was very common. He was pretty well educated, clearly a very bright guy, but he had a wonderful, fairly cynical point of view. He's not worshipful of his superior officers by any means, and he provides a clear-eyed look at the realities and the sufferings of the Continental Army that otherwise I don't think we would have adequate evidence of. For me he became kind of the Greek chorus of this book. We're talking Shakespeare, we might as well throw in Greek tragedy. He is the voice of the common man.

BNR: He's the one who observed soldiers roasting their shoes and eating them.

NP: That kind of thing, yeah. I was obviously focusing on Washington and Arnold, but I really wanted to get as wide a view as possible.

BNR: You have all these different primary and secondary sources, but your narrative moves around, depending on where Arnold is, where Washington is, where the British are. How did you figure out how to structure the book?

NP: That was the real challenge, because of the time frame: four years, during which a lot happened, with a cast of thousands. The focus on Washington and Arnold was important, because that gave me something to limit the view. But I didn't want this to be a relentless "battle after battle after battle." I wanted the human element to be as forward as possible. We think of Washington as this Rock of Gibraltar from the start, but he had a lot to learn, and it took him a while to figure out how to conduct the war. Then there's Arnold, who is the greatest battlefield general we have, going through so much turmoil and physical trauma and coming out on the other side. I knew I wanted to begin with the arrival of the British at New York Harbor and to end with Arnold's treason; those became the parameters around which I structured the narrative.

BNR: You have a reputation for dispelling the myths surrounding celebrated episodes in American history. Is that something you set out to do?

NP: Not really. I'm not one of these people who want to tear down our heroes and that kind of thing. But I find an element of curiosity. When it came to this particular story, it dates back to when I first started researching the history of Nantucket. There's a writer named John de Crevecoeur, a Frenchman who ended up becoming an American citizen and living in the Hudson River Valley area. He would travel around the Colonies and come to Nantucket a lot. His Letters from an American Farmer is a classic; it was published during the Revolution. He loved America prior to the war, but then the war hits and from his perspective, it's a disaster. All of the freedoms he had enjoyed were destroyed by the measures that the Patriots were taking, completely disrupting the society he had known. That was a different view for me; I had always viewed the Revolution as this great bestowal of freedom. The sense that Patriots could use their newfound power to impoverish and tyrannize those fellow Americans who weren't so onboard was new to me. After finishing Bunker Hill, I really wanted to explore that sense of the civil war within the Revolution.

BNR: That perspective ended up being relevant to Arnold, because he later claimed he wanted to be the hero who brought us back to the good old days by reuniting America with England.

NP: Absolutely. Arnold was for me the flashlight, the perspective to explore this dark underbelly. I had little understanding that there was such a war zone around New York, this wasteland of gangs ransacking the towns and terrorizing the people. This kept going on and on, to the point that people were getting completely exhausted and had lost that ardent zeal for getting this revolution accomplished. Arnold was a way to personify that sense of growing alarm and ultimately, in Arnold's case, the decision that this country no longer deserved his loyalty.

BNR: The Continental Congress during this period of the Revolution was mired in petty politics and was totally dysfunctional. It's possible to see parallels to today's government. Do you look for ways that our history is relevant to today?

NP: I don't look for ways to find a parallel to where we are now, but what's amazing to me, and it's a theme throughout all my books, is I think there's a tendency to look at the past and think it was a simpler time when people like George Washington knew what they were doing. That's baloney. It was not a simpler time: it was just as complicated and messed up as today, if not more so. The people operating at that time, including Washington, didn't know what was going to happen next. They were making it up as they went along. It's only in hindsight that you can begin to see this as preordained.

What I'm trying to do in my books is to create a sense of life as lived rather than the past as a function of hindsight. The past is important to investigate not because we can learn from it — I'm afraid we're never going to learn from history. But what we can learn is that the shared sense of being alive at any specific time is full of wonder, terror, and not knowing. I'm trying to achieve a kind of collective sympathy between where we are today and those who lived before us.

BNR: You write so vividly about this low point in the Revolution, when far from seeming preordained, the American victory seems downright unlikely.

NP: I'll tell you, when I'm writing these books, I really lose a sense of where it's going. I find myself thinking, Well, maybe Arnold's going to pull it off! My focus becomes so narrowed on trying to communicate what is happening at that historical moment that the sense of where it will go seems up in the air to me.

BNR: To me as a reader, too. You created so much suspense even though I knew the ending going in.

NP: That's great to hear.

BNR: The Broadway show Hamilton has breathed new life into the story of the Founding Fathers. Have you seen it?

NP: I had the privilege of seeing it this winter, and I was absolutely blown away. It does a lot of the things I was just describing, creating a sense of the past as so contemporary. These aren't statues with dust upon them, these are living, breathing people. They don't go into the Arnold plot in the play, but Hamilton is a character in my book, and I was so taken with his role after the revelation of Arnold's treason. It was interesting to see the play after having been so involved in a portion of Hamilton's life as it relates to Washington and Arnold. Talk about history being delivered in a dynamic way — it's really a wonderful thing to see.

BNR: Your book In the Heart of the Sea was adapted into a movie directed by Ron Howard. Are any of your other books bound for the screen?

NP: Bunker Hill is being adapted by Ben Affleck's production company. I think the screenplay is being written now. It's so different from writing a book; it's such a collaborative process and it's visual in a way that obviously is different from the written word, even though you're trying to create images with words.

BNR: Will you help out with the movie?

NP: It's really what the director wants. Ron Howard would ask me questions as they were writing the screenplay and production was approaching, and he invited my wife and me to the set outside England, which was fascinating. But I've come to realize it was my vision that wrote the book, and it's the director's vision that governs the movie. Ultimately he or she has to have the freedom to see that vision through.

May 10, 2016

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