By Col. Cole C. Kingseed
U.S. Army retired
As the sesquicentennial of the Civil War nears its end, an increasing number of historians have turned their attention to the American Revolutionary War era to cast new light on this country’s “greatest generation of the 18th century” and their role in the formation of the American republic. This year, Nathaniel Philbrick (Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution) and Walter R. Borneman (American Spring: Lexington, Concord, and the Road to Revolution) have produced excellent histories of the origin of the American Revolution. Jack Kelly now has written a more comprehensive history of the war and its key military figures in Band of Giants.
Kelly begins his narrative by describing the state of the military art as it existed in 1754, when, in the Ohio Country (now western Pennsylvania), a 21-year-old lieutenant colonel named George Washington ignited the spark that erupted into global war between Great Britain and France. When British man of letters Horace Walpole read the account of what evolved into the Seven Years War (or The French and Indian War in the British North American Colonies), he stated, “The volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire.”
Jump ahead 20 years, and the Colonists still felt the impact of Washington’s war. As King George III confirms that “blows must decide” the growing differences between the Colonies and Great Britain, Kelly carefully introduces his characters, gifted amateurs who had fought the war with “the intensity of youth.” Nathanael Green was 32 when the war started; Anthony Wayne, 30; Henry Knox, 24; and Alexander Hamilton, 20. By war’s end, these amateurs had bested the most professional army in the world.
Not surprisingly, Washington occupies central stage in the military drama. Kelly’s admiration of Washington is readily apparent. He views Washington as a quick learner and a gambler, albeit an inept tactician in the first two years of the war. Tactical defeats at Long Island, Kips Bay and Brandywine gave way to Trenton, Monmouth Courthouse and ultimately Yorktown. Washington “would never be a military genius,” Kelly asserts, “but when it mattered most, his Excellency had cast off indecision, taken a heart-stopping risk, and conquered.”
Three of Washington’s lieutenants merit special praise in Kelly’s opinion. The indispensable Knox, a Bostonian bookseller, transported the heavy cannons from Fort Ticonderoga to Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston and later became Washington’s chief of artillery. Daniel Morgan—the “rising Hero in the South,” according to Abigail Adams—engineered the most decisive patriot victory of the war at Cowpens in January 1781. Finally, the Marquis de Lafayette, “the most luminous of all the Revolutionary fighters,” stands foremost in Washington’s admiration for his charismatic leadership and “his preternatural ability.”
On the debit side, Kelly is prone to hyperbole. He repeatedly describes the British army as “professional killers” to emphasize the contrast with American “amateur soldiers.” John Stark, who destroyed Maj. Gen. John Burgoyne’s supply expedition at Bennington, Vt., in August 1777, emerges as an “Achilles who chose to brood in his tent” until German dragoons threatened his homeland. In describing British Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton’s annihilation of a Continental contingent at the Waxhaws on the North Carolina border in 1780, Kelly notes: “Blades cut into men’s arms, tore their necks, sliced open their faces.”
Aside from these obvious attempts to sensationalize the battles, Kelly is at his best in challenging the conventional interpretation of the Battle of Saratoga. Since the 19th century, historians have customarily called the victory at Saratoga the turning point of the Revolutionary War. Not so, opines Kelly. For the Americans, Saratoga was “only a bright spot in a back-and-forth contest whose end no one could yet predict. The British ministry sent additional reinforcements across the Atlantic. The war continued.”
Kelly concludes his narrative with Lafayette’s triumphant tour of America in 1824–25. President James Monroe had invited Lafayette, then the last living major general of the Continental Army, to tour the country as the “Nation’s Guest.” Lafayette’s tour was bittersweet, balanced between the tumultuous public reception that he received and the “burden that falls on all aging survivors, the death of so many friends and comrades.”
Award-winning historian Willard Sterne Randall (author of George Washington: A Life) credits Kelly with making a monumental contribution to our understanding of the American Revolution by his masterful narrative of the war and its battles. Though Band of Giants is hardly an untold story, it is a well-told one and should be mandatory reading for anyone who seeks to understand the true nature of the Revolutionary era in American history.
Col. Cole C. Kingseed, USA Ret., Ph.D., a former professor of history at the U.S. Military Academy, is a writer and consultant.