Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Washington's Secret War

I'm always annoyed by people who say they don't follow politics, as if the process is somehow beneath them. Honestly, everything is political whether it's the government, the workplace, Hollywood, schools, or children's recreation. A few days ago, I spoke to the head of an executive search firm. He said no matter what the position is and how good you think you are at it, there's always someone who thinks they're more deserving of it and will angle for it.

Looking back on American history, people tend to isolate George Washington from any form of politics. As the Father of the Country, Washington kept himself above that petty process, we've all agreed. However, in his book Washington's Secret War (2005), historian Thomas Fleming, who's written about a dozen books on the American Revolution, argues Washington not only displayed crucial leadership in the country's fight for independence, but he was a cunning political strategist who outmaneuvered his rivals and enemies, both in the Continental Army and Congress. Politician has become a dirty word in America, but Fleming describes how Washington's skill as a politician not only salvaged his reputation, it kept his army intact and helped ensure a young nation's survival.

December 19, 1777, Washington leads his Continentals into what will be their winter encampment, Valley Forge. The army is demoralized. The British under General William Howe have taken Philadelphia and defeated the Americans at the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown. While the Redcoats will live comfortably and be well supplied in the American capital, the Continentals must endure hardship because their broken supply system has left them with an inadequate supply of shoes, clothes, and food. The situation is grim, and a faction formed in Congress, which safely evacuated to York, feels Washington is no longer fit to command. These politicians -including John and Samuel Adams - begin working with certain army officers to displace Washington and install General Horatio Gates, the "victor" at Saratoga, as commander-in-chief. Washington faces three threats: the plot in Congress, the collapse of his army, and the British in Philadelphia.

Fleming covers a lot of ground in a relatively narrow period of the Revolution. The crux of the book is the machinations against Washington, his response and his ultimate victory against them, but we also read about British activities in Philadelphia, the efforts to feed and clothe the American soldiers, state politics in Pennsylvania, the status of the war and the alliance between the U.S. and France, the professionalization of the American army by Baron Freidrich von Steuben, the role of the Marquis de Lafayette, guerrilla warfare and smuggling outside the two armies, and the Battle of Monmouth. Fleming also paints vivid portraits of the figures involved: Washington, Gates, President of Congress Henry Laurens, his son John who served as an aide to Washington, Lafayette, Steuben, and other generals and politicians. It keeps the book from being a dry history lesson.

The Conway Cabal, as the conspiracy against Washington is popularly known (named for General Thomas Conway who participated) makes for fairly involving intrigue. We like to think that when our fledgling country was forming, the patriots joined in common cause for liberty, but that wasn't the case. Many revolutionaries were in it for their own gain, and these particular conspirators politicked to gain power. Through letters, innuendo, and attacks on Washington's subordinates such as Nathaniel Greene, they tried to paint Washington as an indecisive, ineffective leader who would lead the nation to ruin. Washington responded by building allies in Congress such as Laurens (who was swayed in part by his son's admiration for the general) and playing the political game. All the while, he never lost sight of the Revolution's goal. With all these competing interests and hostile parties, he managed a delicate balance.

The most heartbreaking material concerns the suffering of the soldiers. Contrary to popular belief, the winter itself as Valley Forge was not too bad. The men were reasonably warm, and food and supplies were readily available throughout the nation, but Congress' mismanagement of the supply system and its radical members' distrust of a standing army kept them from getting to the army. Additionally, corruption and fraud ran rampant in the supply department with many of the men appointed there by Congress often ignoring complaints from the army and diverting resources and money to their own private interests.Most men who died did so from starvation or disease, not the cold.

When I watch or read the news, I'm often depressed by the petty and self-serving nature of many politicians. After reading Washington's Secret War, I'm more optimistic. Politicians and bureaucrats have always been around, but in spite of them, many great and important tasks have been accomplished. Fleming examines an under reported story of the Revolutionary War and weaves a compelling tale that illustrates how great Americans can get things done.

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