It is said of Thomas Fleming that he knows more about the American Revolution than any other writer in the U.S. Here’s the great thing: It’s not true.
Why is this great? Because if Fleming already knew everything about the Revolution, well, he wouldn’t be able to write terrific books loaded with new revelations about America’s founding. He wouldn’t be taken by surprise by his own research.
Take Fleming’s latest book sheds new light on an episode most Americans — and Fleming included — thought they understood. After all, what American over the age of 10 hasn’t heard of the terrible winter at Valley Forge (which, by the way, really wasn’t so terrible, at least in terms of the cold)?
When he started this book, Fleming’s intention was to write about the legends and myths of Valley Forge — “the clash between history and memory,” he writes. That surely is a noble project, one worthy of Fleming’s flair for scholarship and storytelling.
But as he researched his topic — and yes, after a dozen books on the Revolution, Fleming still consults the archives — he realized that there was a new story to tell about Valley Forge.
This came as a surprise to him. It will come as a surprise to readers as well.
In this new book, Fleming reveals that even as the Continental Army was in tatters in Valley Forge, let down by its supply system, George Washington and his trusted generals were engaged in a very different sort of struggle.
It was nothing less that the preservation of Washington’s rank as commander in chief of the army.
And, in Fleming’s telling, we see a new and unfamiliar side of Washington — the icon as a shrewd political operative, outflanking his enemies, and we’re not talking about the Howe brothers here. No, we’re talking about the Adams cousins, John and Samuel, and other politicians and military commanders.
During the winter in Valley Forge, George Washington found himself under siege by other Americans who regarded him as a failure. In fact, the opening chapter of Fleming’s book is entitled, “General George Washington: Loser.”
Remember what had preceded the infamous winter camp in Pennsylvania. Washington had lost two battles, Germantown and Brandywine, and the British had marched into Philadelphia unopposed. The Continental Congress was forced to flee to York, which certainly didn’t make the politicians very happy.
Meanwhile, in Upstate New York, British-born Horatio Gates, commander of the Continental Army’s northern army, had just beaten the British in two battles near Saratoga. The contrast was striking: Washington had failed to protect the rebel capital, while Gates was triumphant in New York.
The whispering started, and it grew louder and louder as Washington’s critics began to suggest that the wrong man was at the head of the struggling army.
Fleming makes the case that the civilians who were looking for an excuse to sack Washington had only themselves to blame for the mess. “From 1775 through most of 1776, Congress had pursued a strategy that assumed a short war,” he writes. (Why do politicians always assume a “short war?”) They believed it could be fought not with a professional army, but with militia forces. Indeed, the very idea of a professional army offended the sensibilities of many New England patriots. Fleming refers to them as “true whigs,” a term that should not be read as a compliment.
No question, readers will not find themselves wondering about Fleming’s opinion in this controversy. In fact, his treatment of John Adams serves as a counter-point to the Adams of David McCullough’s recent, and rightly acclaimed, biography. I don’t know what Fleming thinks of Adams as a president, but I do know what he things of him as a meddler in matters military. Fleming points out that Adams never defended Washington as the general was coming under intense criticism from Adams’ s friends. His silence told us all we need to know about his opinion of the great man from Virginia.
There are plenty of other villains in this book: Dr. Benjamin Rush, who was busy trying to undermine Washington; General Thomas Mifflin, who thought he could mount a coup against the commander in chief; Samuel Adams, a true whig extremist who had no business interfering in the running of a war, and several others.
Fleming, suffice to say, is not adverse to tipping over a few pedestals. That’s what makes his writing so engaging. The guy knows his stuff, and he is happy to tell you what he thinks of the great men. In the end, you’ll come away with an even greater appreciation of George Washington. That’s not easy to do, but when you know as much as Tom Fleming does, well, it comes naturally.
Even more admirable than Fleming’s knowledge and writing ability is his productivity. This is a writer who had produced not one but two important books in the last few months. Last spring, Fleming published an elegant memoir of his Irish-American childhood in Jersey City, where his father was an aide to Mayor Frank Hague. The memoir, “Mysteries of My Father,” is a must-read for political buffs as well as students of the Irish-American experience.
What’s more, this year Fleming also contributed the lead essay in a collection of writings about the Revolution in New Jersey.
The guy can’t help himself — he has stories to tell, and we’re the beneficiaries.