books History

A Tale of Two Generals: Nathaniel Philbrick’s “Valiant Ambition”

The two most famous generals of the American Revolution are George Washington and Benedict Arnold. Everyone knows the story: Washington was the heroic savior of a ragtag band of farmers, potters, and boys who managed to defeat the British; Benedict Arnold was the courageous hero turned traitor for some money, the American Judas. But, as Philbrick notes, “The United States had been created through an act of disloyalty. No matter how eloquently the Declaration of Independence had attempted to justify the American rebellion, a residual guilt hovered over the circumstances of the country’s founding. Arnold changed all that. By threatening to destroy the newly created republic through, ironically, his own betrayal, Arnold gave this nation of traitors the greatest of gifts: a myth of creation.”

Nathaniel Philbrick rode his fame as America’s foremost writer of New England history into a four-part history of early America: Mayflower, Bunker Hill, Valiant Ambition, and In the Hurricane’s Eye. Valiant Ambition spiritually picks up where Bunker Hill left off, the American Revolution after the British evacuation of Boston and the pivot to New York in 1776.

As the subtitle makes clear: “George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution,” this book primarily concerns itself with the tale of America’s two most notorious generals of the Revolution. But it is much more than that.

While American characters center prominently, Philbrick also takes us through the whirlwind of British and loyalist figures who populate the American Revolutionary story: William Howe, Richard Howe, John Burgoyne, Henry Clinton, Peggy Shippen, John André, and many others. The British participants were as much a ragtag assembly as their American counterparts. English, Irish, and Germans. Tories and Whigs. Those who wanted to crush the revolution and those who wanted accommodation and reconciliation.

Britain also had its tale of two generals: William Howe and “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne. Both men, it suffices to say, had little love for each other. In 1776, William Howe crushed George Washington in an impressive amphibious landing which saw him drive the Continental Army off the Brooklyn Heights and lead to the capture of New York. At the same time, British forces were proceeding down the New York waterways of Lake Champlain and dangerously posed to cut off New England from the rest of the colonies. It was a brilliant strategy: New England was the rebellious heart of the American Revolution. The middle colonies and the southern colonies were much more lukewarm in their support for American Independence, even after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Howe, however, was a Whig. He was sympathetic to the plight of the Americans whom he genuinely loved having served with them during the French and Indian Wars and the New England colonists paying for the burial and tomb of his brother slain during the French and Indian Wars. Howe may have been a far superior general on the field than Washington, but his personal politics of reconciliation kept him from delivering the decisive knockout blow.

Just as Washington was at his lowest, having retreated from his defensive positions around New York and suffering desertion left and right, the British Army under Sir Guy Carleton had a chance to end the war by Christmas 1776. If the British armada and army from Canada managed to sail down the New York waterways and take Fort Ticonderoga, the war would likely be over. In sails the American Hannibal.

Benedict Arnold is the infinitely fascinating man of the American Revolution. Even though he is hated for his treachery, his act of betrayal never marred his legacy as a brilliant soldier and inspiring general. From his exploits marching thousands of men across the woods and hills of New England to Quebec, earning him the title “American Hannibal,” to his resilient campaign on Lake Champlain in the fall of 1776, Arnold was the do-all can-do American general. In fact, he may well have single-handedly saved the Revolution when his homemade fleet of galleys and gunboats held off the British advance down the New York waterways in 1776 despite being heavily outnumbered. With winter fast approaching and with Arnold and his merry band of soldiers turned sea rats having escaped, the British retired back to Canada to regroup. Try again next year.

Burgoyne, a flamboyant personality, playwright, and Tory, picked up with Carleton left off. Unlike Howe, Burgoyne had no deep affections for the colonies. He wanted to become the great hero of the war. Expecting Howe to support his advance south, Burgoyne dangerously marched south overexposed and without support. We all know how it ended up. Abandoned by Howe, who slighted the pretentious Tory playwright and marched on Philadelphia, Burgoyne found himself in the intense battles we call today Saratoga. And none other than Benedict Arnold thrust himself into the center of these decisive engagements in September 1777.

Personally disobeying orders, and having felt slighted by the Continental Congress for not promoting him to the rank of major general he undoubtedly deserved, Arnold led the decisive action that would bring Burgoyne to surrender. Storming a Hessian redoubt and demanding their surrender, he was shot through the same leg that was injured in Canada. Though his men followed him into the breach, a saddened Arnold wept, “I wish it had passed my heart.” He was, by the end of 1777, a broken man.

Just as Arnold went from meteoric hero to broken soul, to traitor, George Washington charted the exact opposite course. From his lowest point after retreating from New York and seeing his army disintegrate and desert, Washington scored much needed victories at Trenton and Princeton in his famous winter raids. But he tumbled again when Howe out-generaled him during the Philadelphia Campaign and took the capital without a battle. Washington once again sank low until the summer of 1778, with Howe resigning his commission, and the reformed and retrained army displaying itself valiantly at the Battle of Monmouth. Washington managed to keep that ragtag, lice-infested, and freezing army of farmers, sailors, men, and boys from disbanding. He was now the undisputed commandant of the American army despite all the clandestine cabals and political scheming from junior officers, staff officers (like Joseph Reed), and high ranking competitors (Horatio Gates and Charles Lee) from seizing the reins of command from him. No one, Philbrick makes clear, could have done what Washington did.

But for a tale of treachery, Philbrick shines in pointing out all the backchannel cabals and treacherous planning on the American side of things. Washington was being subverted by his own staff officers plotting to install Charles Lee or abandoning him to the British altogether. Likewise, Horatio Gates—with his political connections—was angling to become commander-in-chief if Washington failed his attacks at Trenton and Princeton. And, as we all know, a bankrupt and slighted Benedict Arnold used Washington’s trust to become the country’s most infamous traitor.

“By the end of July,” Philbrick writes, “Arnold had staked everything on the West Point gambit. From what he could tell, Henry Clinton was enthusiastic about the idea. However, Arnold’s travels had made communication with the British difficult.” These communication problems turned out to be his own undoing. Major John André, a British officer who had an erotic passion for Peggy Shippen, Arnold’s now beautiful and “good in bed” teenage wife, was eventually captured with the details of Arnold’s treachery. Compromised, Arnold had to flee to New York, barely escaping the Americans just as he had barely escaped the British earlier in the war.

With Arnold on the run, and the British holed up in New York, Washington turned his attention to capturing Arnold to hang him. Washington had his man in sight. He couldn’t allow this betrayal of trust, and patriotic duty, go without pursuit. As we know, however, Arnold escaped the clutches of justice and died an ignominious in England.

In Valiant Ambition, Philbrick once again demonstrates why he is one of America’s foremost popular historians. He writes gracefully that makes reading pleasurable. His fast-paced history is filled with many faces and stories that don’t distract but add to the overarching narrative. An old story is made fresh with new insights. Lastly, in detailing the rise and fall of Benedict Arnold contrasted with the lowness of Washington to his meteoric recovery, we witness a tale of two generals who couldn’t have been more different.

Arnold, great as he was, was always angling to advance his own career—from the greatness of 1776 and 1777, to being persecuted by his opponents in 1778 and 1779, to falling into treachery in 1780, Arnolds trajectory is the quintessential what-no-to-do. Washington, by contrast, was at his lowest in 1776 as officers and generals conspired against him. Recovering after Trenton and Princeton, Washington managed to save his army from destruction and desertion despite the setbacks of 1777. By 1778, Washington was now commanding a reformed American army that could stand up to the British and would, in time, prove itself capable of winning the war. Washington’s story is the quintessential iconic tale of what-to-do. And through the pen of Nathaniel Philbrick, America has been given its own version of parallel lives.

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