Wall Street Journal

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Wall Street Journal November 5, 2014

America’s Founding Fighters
Stephen Brumwell

The dust jacket of Jack Kelly ’s “Band of Giants: The Amateur Soldiers Who Won America’s Independence” depicts a group of steely-eyed, square-jawed militiamen, dressed in homespun clothing and staring unflinchingly at an unseen foe. Their inexorable enemies will of course be minions of the tyrannical British Empire bent on crushing American liberties: redcoats advancing in solid ranks with robotic precision, presenting a menacing hedge of bayonet-tipped muskets.

Thankfully, “Band of Giants” (the title comes from a remark made by the Marquis de Lafayette, who volunteered for the American cause) is far more balanced than such first impressions suggest. Its lively narrative of the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) realistically assesses the motley collection of men who led the military struggle against Britain, revealing both their strengths and weaknesses.

Pitched squarely at the general-interest reader, “Band of Giants” offers no research revelations for the specialist, and at less than 250 pages of text, it is a short book for such a sprawling topic. Yet Mr. Kelly packs in a remarkable amount of information, thanks to his lean, readable prose and a smoothly integrated structure. Rather than a series of distinct, potted biographies, inevitably leading to some repetition,
Mr. Kelly’s chronological account weaves in enough background to provide context for his “giants” before each of them gets his moment in the spotlight.

For instance, by the time “the Old Waggoner” Daniel Morgan thrashes the ruthless cavalryman Banastre Tarleton at the Battle of Cowpens in South Carolina in January 1781, we have already encountered him as a hard-drinking, fist-fighting teamster under British Gen. Edward Braddock in 1755 and as a determined leader of frontier riflemen on the epic march to Quebec 20 years later and at Saratoga in 1777.

Morgan’s example reminds us that by no means all of the men who achieved general’s rank were military tyros. John Stark of New Hampshire, who led local militiamen to a telling victory over German mercenaries near Bennington, Vt., in August 1777, and Connecticut’s burly hero Israel Putnam had both fought as “rangers” during the French and Indian War (1754-1763), surviving years of savage frontier skirmishing.

Meanwhile, Richard Montgomery, whose death at Quebec on Dec. 31, 1775, gave the patriot cause one of its first martyrs, was a former British army officer. Hugh Mercer, who died of wounds suffered during George Washington ’s victory at Princeton in January 1777, was another seasoned veteran, having served in the Jacobite forces of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1746 before forging a formidable reputation with Pennsylvania’s troops a decade later.

And not least, Washington’s appointment to command the Continental Army in 1775 owed much to the reputation he had acquired fighting the French and Indians during his 20s, years in which he had sampled both the visceral shock of combat and the grinding frustrations of administration.

Others, however, were rank amateurs when war with Britain erupted. The portly Bostonian bookseller Henry Knox, soon to become Washington’s chief of artillery, and his friend the Rhode Islander Nathanael Greene, ultimately destined for a crucial command in the south, learned their soldiering on the job. Both proved apt pupils, winning Washington’s unstinting respect.

Mr. Kelly devotes evenhanded coverage to another Washington favorite, Benedict Arnold. Before his attempt to betray West Point to the British in September 1780 earned him enduring infamy, Arnold was among Washington’s most esteemed commanders. Uniquely among the Revolution’s military leaders, Arnold notched significant achievements as both an admiral and a general. His defiance of a British flotilla on Lake Champlain in 1776 fended off invasion from Canada for a vital year. When Gen. John Burgoyne ’s expedition finally marched south, Arnold inflicted damage that ultimately obliged “Gentleman Johnny” to surrender at Saratoga, an outcome that brought France into the war as America’s ally.

With its mixed bag of leaders, “Band of Giants” raises an intriguing question. If Washington had been killed in action, as he might well have been, who among the “giants” could have inherited his mantle as commander in chief?

Instinctive, feisty fighters like Morgan and Stark were certainly capable of motivating their men for a short-term effort, but they lacked the patient temperament for prolonged high command. By contrast, Horatio Gates (another former British officer) was a skillful organizer whose meticulous logistics underpinned Burgoyne’s downfall at Saratoga, but, as his own catastrophic defeat at Camden, S.C., in August 1780 demonstrated, he was a woeful tactician.

As Mr. Kelly notes, the man who most closely matched Washington’s own all-round combination of qualities, capable of both offering inspired battlefield leadership and tackling the grinding paperwork necessary to keep an army in the field, was the limping former Quaker Greene. Like Washington, Greene thirsted for glory, yet he was realistic enough to understand that what mattered most was the survival of the veteran Continental Army that increasingly kept the cause alive.

No longer the band of part-time militias that had harassed the redcoats around Boston in 1775, the Continental Army by 1778 had evolved into a disciplined body of regular troops. Neglected by Congress and an apathetic civilian population, it was sustained by esprit de corps and the leadership of a devoted corps of battle-hardened officers.

Men like Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox might have begun their war for American independence as amateurs, but they ended it as professionals.

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