By Nicholas Voltaggio and Linda Stamato
Would you believe that the man revered as the father of our country once was criticized and nearly deposed?
Or that hundreds of African-American men helped liberate the nation, nearly a century before the abolition of slavery?
Aiming to make “the familiar strange and the strange familiar,” Bob Drury, co-author of Valley Forge, shed light on one of the most significant, yet underappreciated, chapters in the story of America’s independence, at the fifth annual Morristown Festival of Books.
He spoke Saturday to a packed house at the Morristown & Township Library.
While it’s no secret conditions were abysmal for the Continental Army at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-78, Drury explained that things were so bad that many soldiers actually spent much of their time there entirely naked, or next-to-naked in ragged remains of clothing.
Inconsistent weather patterns and rainstorms created “a veritable sea of mud,” causing poorly dug latrines to overflow and a horrible odor to hang over the camp. The fact that the troops persevered despite these hardships — and brutal deprivations in Morristown in 1779-80, local historians point out–was pivotal to American independence.
Drury, a military correspondent who has won a National Magazine Award and been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, closely examined George Washington and the “two-front war” he faced: Against King George of England, and the Continental Congress of the rebellious colonies.
In Congress, John Adams wanted Washington deposed as commander-in-chief, as doubts of the general’s leadership swept across the colonies in the wake of several defeats.
As Washington’s men were slaughtered, disgruntled congressional delegates publicly decried him as a “power-mad dictator.” Facing dire circumstances and attacks from both enemies and allies, Washington was forced to act not only as a military leader, but to “learn to play the political game,” said Drury, who co-authored the book with Tom Clavin.
In 1777, the Americans scored a major victory at the Battle of Saratoga — under the command of General Horatio Gates, not Washington.
Adams and his allies in Congress tried to make Gates commander-in-chief, but could not secure enough votes. Anti-Washington fervor kept growing, however, and Gates was appointed to lead the powerful Board of War.
Gates then moved to institute an inspector general, to supervise Washington.
Yet despite his unpopularity among bureaucrats, Washington continued to be held in high esteem by his starving, naked soldiers, who threatened to mutiny against Gates.
Washington advised patience, and allowed members of Congress to visit Valley Forge. Seeing the devastating scene, the officials understood that Washington’s “steely will was the only thing keeping this army together,” Drury said.
Now politically savvy, Washington dispatched aides Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens to lobby Congressional leaders for greater support and resources. Washington was “playing them like a fife,” the author said.
Laurens, “one of the Founding Fathers we never heard of,” is one of several fascinating supporting characters in Drury’s tale.
The son of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Laurens was studying law in London after graduating from college in Geneva. Against his father’s will, he came home to volunteer in Washington’s army, and fought valiantly at Brandywine Creek and Germantown.
Befriended by Hamilton, then 22, and the Marquis de Lafayette, Laurens helped them provide crucial support to Washington. They comprehended the emotional weight he was shouldering.
Laurens would die in battle, at the age of 27.
Lafayette was 21 when he joined the effort. Washington came to regard him as “my own son.” An able military man, Lafayette also helped bring the French into the war. Benjamin Franklin saw to that as well, of course. Drury noted that Franklin also saw a winner in Baron von Steuben, the competent and fear-inspiring Prussian captain.
Without speaking a word of English, Steuben turned Washington’s bedraggled and listless men into a professional army capable of defeating the world’s greatest military force.
Had the British not taken a winter break from “the fighting season,” and attacked Valley Forge instead of waiting for spring, Drury might be writing a different history today.
Another salient footnote: Former New England slaves were willing to fight in exchange for their freedom. They fought alongside white soldiers. The United States would not mount another integrated army until the Korean War; forces were segregated for all the wars in between.
Drury also spoke of the massacre at Paoli, near Malvern, PA. Mad Anthony Wayne’s troops were slaughtered, an attack Washington declared a “war crime.” But it was not recognized as such, Drury said, because the massacred men were seen as a “ragged bunch of rebels,” not members of “a sovereign army.”
“Remember Paoli!” became a rallying cry.
Drury painted a vivid picture of George Washington as hero and troop-rallier at the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse.
As the general brought reserve troops toward a sea of Redcoats, his men began to retreat. Washington, on horseback, yelled for the soldiers to advance, brandishing his sword, and —
“And if you want to hear the rest, you’ll need to read the book,” Drury concluded, to laughter, and applause, for an hour crammed with insights into the indomitability of the human spirit.