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America’s Founding Fighters
If George Washington had fallen in battle, would the limping former Quaker Nathanael Greene have been the father of our country?

by Stephen Brumwell
Nov. 5, 2014

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.

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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.

Mr. Brumwell’s books include “George Washington: Gentleman Warrior.”

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Wall Street Journal

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Wall Street Journal November 5, 2014

America’s Founding Fighters
by
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.

U.S. Army Magazine

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Band of Giants:The Amateur Soldiers
Who Won America’s Independence.

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.

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Journal of the American Revolution

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Book Review: Band of Giants: The Amateur Soldiers Who Won America’s Independence by Jack Kelly

It is difficult to condense the Revolutionary War into one volume and make it readable, informative, entertaining and even fascinating. Jack Kelly has done just that by focusing on the key players and the events surrounding them. This is not an in-depth look at any individual or event but rather an overview of the war aimed at the general reader.

The enticing narrative takes the reader from man to man and scene to scene in a very pleasing style. The war-time characters are shown facing decisions which generally were new and unknown to them. Their responses to those situations make for some exciting reading. Men like Washington, John Stark or Dan Morgan become more real than is often the case in similar books. The on-the-job training these amateurs faced and the bloody cost of errors will be enlightening to many. The American leaders were rarely “military men” but rather civilians in uniforms…and, often those uniforms carried a rank far surpassing the abilities of the men wearing them. But, often these same men rose above their backgrounds and experience to excel.

To its credit the book covers the war in the South, although only briefly, as well as the George Rogers Clark expedition in the West. There are also several very useful maps.

The pace of the book is quick and pleasing. It is much like reading a good novel. There are sporadic footnotes which add very little. Either they should be omitted altogether or there should be far more of them to lead the novice Revolutionary War reader to good sources of further information. I would prefer to have seen far more footnotes. Oddly, all references are to secondary sources even when superior primary sources are readily available. The dependence upon secondary sources brings both accurate and questionable history into the book. The casual reader may not notice the problems but many could have been avoided.

There is a long bibliography, unfortunately including only secondary sources, intended to give the reader places to go for further reading. The bibliography could be greatly enhanced with a simple line or two of annotation for each source indicating the author’s opinion as to the quality of the source and noting strengths and weaknesses. The bibliography would have benefitted by the addition of published primary sources and other than general-reader secondary sources, including journal articles.

Band of Giants will make a fine first book on the American Revolution and should be well received.

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Histocrat’s Bookshelf

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The Histocrats’ Bookshelf
Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Band of Giants, The Amateur Soldiers Who Won America’s Independence

By Nina Kendall

The American mythos is marked with celebration of the great acts of ordinary individuals. The leaders of the American Revolution are often portrayed as heroic figures fighting together in the name of liberty. Band of Giants, The Amateur Soldiers Who Won America’s Independence by Jack Kelly is a fast paced account of early American leaders from the French and Indian War to the Treaty of Paris, 1783. Kelly uses a unique blend of personal accounts and military strategy to engage the reader and reveal the lives of military leaders in the late 18th century. If the American Revolution serves as the origin story for America’s early leaders, Jack Kelly is going to introduce them to you in a whole new way.

Band of Giants offers the reader as chance to follow the Continental Army into battle.  You can march with Benedict Arnold into Canada and learn about Knox’s rescue of cannon for the Colonists. This book is a chance to get inside the head of America’s first military leaders. Kelly helps you get to know the leaders of American forces and their challenges as he mixes military maneuvers with excerpts from correspondence. What led Henry Knox and Nathaniel Greene to choose to go to war?  How did untested soldiers learn the practice of war?

What did George Washington know of war? In Band of Giants, you can come to know George Washington as a general. Learn of his early experience in the Ohio territory. How did he emerge as a leader in the Revolution? With careful research, Kelly reveals Washington’s growth as a leader and internal struggle during the war. Jack Kelly illustrates the relationships Washington has with key figures in the American Revolution that shape the course of the war. The strife with Charles Lee and the betrayal of Benedict Arnold strain Washington’s reserves. Yet, he draws strength from the support of the Marquis de Lafayette.

Jack Kelly gives the reader insight into to circumstances that influenced many of America’s military leaders.  Military leaders whose names dot the American landscape like Lafayette, DeKalb, and Greene emerge from the page as historical figures. Carefully woven prose makes clear the vital support America received from abroad and the risk is commanders faced on the front.  Who helped the Continental Army? What risks did they take? Delve into the mind of the young Marquis de Lafayette who risks his life and wealth in support of liberty during the American Revolution. Kelly clearly connects the contributions of men like Baron von Steuben to the success of the Continental Army.

Take the opportunity to read Band of Giants and dig into the lives of ordinary men who helped fight for American independence.  See leaders of the American Revolution as you never have before.

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Portraits in Revolution

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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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