Portraits in Revolution

band of giants cover 1

Amateur Soldiers, Giant Legacy

I was recently alerted to a book about the battles of the American Revolution — and it just came out. At 288 pages, I thought it a little slim to do justice to the eight years of the Revolutionary War, which is a big, complicated topic. The last full treatment, John Ferling’s excellent Almost a Miracle (2007), has nearly two and a half times as many pages.

But Jack Kelly’s Band of Giants is almost a miracle itself. It is fleet and at times reads like an historical novel. It tells stories, reveals character, swoops close to give details of a battle, then swoops up to move the story forward. It is necessarily impressionistic in places but it repeatedly brings to focus a telling detail that makes us care about and fulfill the promise of its subtitle: “The Amateur Soldiers Who Won America’s Independence.”

Of course not all were amateurs. George Washington, who almost single-handedly started the French and Indian War, was battle-tested previously — as were Horatio Gates, Daniel Morgan and Charles Lee. They had all participated in the disastrous “Braddock’s March” to Fort Duquesne in 1755 and survived. (In fact Washington had wanted a commission in the British Army; when he realized he’d never get it he quit the militia in 1758, well before the War was over.) Others had had military experience in Europe, including Baron von Steuben.

By and large, however, almost everyone on the American side had never seen combat or even soldiered. Two of Washington’s most capable generals, Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox, learned everything they knew about military science from books. Henry (“Light-Horse Harry”) Lee, father of Robert E. Lee, was pursuing a legal career when the American Revolution broke out. Lord Stirling, a New York colonist who styled himself a nobleman, was a wealthy socialite. “Mad Anthony” Wayne was a surveyor from Pennsylvania.

And then there were the common soldiers — militia who joined the cause to protect their homes, or as the Continental Army developed and relied on long-term enlistees, young men without prospects who had no where else to go. These men had no ties to communities, but joined the Army for the promise of money and land, forgiveness of debt, or release from prison. Ironically, few of them were ever paid what they were owed. Americans distrusted a standing army, and after victory against the British, they simply wanted the Army to disappear.

In particulars, Kelly reveals much. Two telling details from his account of the Second Battle of Saratoga:

Daniel Morgan recognized that [British General Simon] Fraser was stiffening the resistance in front of his riflemen. According to an often repeated story, he ordered an illiterate young Pennsylvania sergeant named Timothy Murphy to kill the scarlet-clad general. … He fired a ball into Fraser’s stomach. As the general slumped, the British position began to crumble. The loss of Fraser “helped to turn the fate of the day,” a British officer later admitted.

And —
American artillery captain John Henry, the twenty-year-old son of Virginia governor Patrick Henry, had distinguished himself in battle. After the cataclysm died down, he wandered the field, staring at the faces, the blue lips, dead staring eyes and glistening teeth, of men he had known. The sight unhinged him. He broke his sword in half and went “raving mad.” He disappeared for months and never fought again.

Kelly is especially fine on the southern theater battles from late 1778 to 1781. Whereas the northern war can be told as an orderly progression of battles with British Generals Howe and Clinton against Washington — and with Horatio Gates dramatically winning the key Battles of Saratoga in 1777 — the war in the South was much more like a civil war, with Patriots against Loyalists, neighbor against neighbor, militia, Continental Army, and British Regulars all combusting together.

Deftly told; exciting.

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