An interview with Jack Kelly, author of BAND OF GIANTS: The Amateur Soldiers Who Won America’s Independence, conducted by journalist Luke Hayes.
Q. What prompted you to write Band of Giants?
A. As a novelist, I’m always on the lookout for a great story. The narrative of the Revolutionary War has more vivid characters, more fascinating twists and cliffhanger moments than almost any story in world history.
Q. In your subtitle, you refer to the amateur soldiers who won our independence. What do mean by that?
A. Some American officers, including George Washington, had acquired a bit of military experience in the French & Indian War in the 1750s. But many had no familiarity with combat at all and very few were military professionals. Not only did they have to learn their trade as they went along, but they had to do so without any structures or institutions to guide them. No supply system. No uniforms. No systematic training. No war chest. No medical corps. No navy.
Q. And presumably the British had all these things.
A. Exactly. Not only did the British have competent officer and a trained fighting force, they had in place a complex organization to supply, transport, pay and care for their men. It’s easy to understand why they thought the American rebellion could be quickly smothered.
Q. You’ve mentioned that the men you write about in the book are the unknown founders. What does that mean?
A. The names of the founders are known to almost everyone: Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, Adams. The names of the fighting men–Morgan, Greene, Knox, Wayne–are far less familiar. We know that Fort Knox is where they keep the gold, but what did Henry Knox contribute to our heritage? We’ve heard of Montgomery, Alabama, but who is Richard Montgomery? Most of us know Paul Revere, who played a very small role in the war, but how many are familiar with Nathanael Greene, who was second only the Washington in importance to the birth of our country?
Q. Why do you think the discrepancy exists?
A. It’s natural that the authors of our iconic documents, like the Declaration of Independence, should be remembered. The deeds of war are more ephemeral. Knox and Greene were overshadowed by Grant and Sherman, and later by Eisenhower and Patton. The men who took up arms in 1775 believed that their actions, if successful, would win them immortality. But time moves on.
Q. And you think they deserve more recognition?
A. I don’t think we owe it to them to keep their memory alive. I think we owe it to ourselves to understand the part of our heritage that these men represent. We certainly owe it to ourselves to learn something of the Revolutionary story, which is a very heartening tale of triumph over extreme adversity.
Q. How have you tried to bring these forgotten founders to life in Band of Giants?
A. I’ve integrated the stories of individuals into a fast-paced narrative of the war. The book is not a series of mini-biographies. The reader encounters each character within the context of the war as it progresses. We see the characters develop, watch how they change as they confront different challenges.
Q. Is the story of the Revolutionary War a difficult one to tell?
A. Before Vietnam, the war for independence was our longest military conflict. It went on officially for more than eight years. It was fought in various parts of the country and followed strategies that shifted on both sides. It’s not easy to produce a clear and succinct account of the fighting. I’ve tried to make the narrative more accessible to readers by focusing on individuals. We encounter George Washington as an untried twenty-one-year-old facing his first combat, then see him evolve as commander in chief. We meet Henry Knox as a Boston street fighter, then watch as he acquires the knowledge and judgment that makes him one of the key Revolutionary commanders.
Q. You’ve included some pretty graphic details about the fighting.
A. . The Revolutionary War is sometimes thought of as a kind of costume drama. In fact, like all wars, it was often cruel, nightmarish and degrading. Even between battles, the troops lived on the edge of starvation, poorly clothed and ravaged by disease. We can only approach the truth of the war by looking at its grim details.
Q. What was it about George Washington that made him such a central figure in the entire Revolution?
A. Washington was not a great military strategist or battlefield commander. I think two qualities made him such an imposing presence in our history. The first was his ability to learn. Washington adapted very well. He learned from his many set-backs. He listened to advice, he thought, he changed. The second was his uncanny ability to judge men. It was extremely risky to put faith in someone like Nathanael Greene, who had no military experience whatever, or to entrust the command of troops to Lafayette, a twenty-year-old French nobleman. But in so many cases, Washington’s judgment paid off.
Q. Of all the characters you cover, who’s your favorite?
A. Daniel Morgan is in many ways the most appealing and most remarkable of the patriot leaders. A simple backwoodsman and farmer, he displayed both a superhuman ability to withstand hardship and a subtle mind that made him one of the most innovative generals on the American side. He was a giant in physical stature as well as in his impact on the course of the war.
Q. What was the origin of the term “Band of Giants”?
A. In 1781 Lafayette was having a hard time countering the invasion of Virginia by the forces of British General Cornwallis. He begged local militiamen to turn out to help. Daniel Morgan organized a corps of frontier fighters, choosing the largest, toughest men he could find. “What a people are these Americans,” Lafayette exclaimed, “they have reinforced me with a band of giants!” Figuratively, all those who fought to create a country during the Revolution were historical giants.
Q. Did your research into the war give you a greater sympathy for the fighting men?
A. Washington once said of the soldiers fighting under him, “I feel for them superabundantly.” I think that when you look at the human side of the fighting men, at their fears and foibles, their perseverance, the sacrifices they made, it’s hard not to experience a deep emotional connection to them.
Q. Any lessons here for our own time?
A. Many of the men who went into battle in the Revolutionary War stitched into their shirts or wrote on pieces of paper in their hats the motto: Liberty or Death. They were serious. Liberty, human dignity and the rights of men and women are precious and often costly. Many “sunshine patriots” of 1776 were unwilling to pay the price. Many Americans of the twenty-first century are equally reluctant to bear their fair share. If too much of the burden of today’s wars is carried by a small minority of the population, so it was then. If politicians today are venal, so were they then. But cynicism is not an option. I think a look back at the men and women of the Revolutionary era who faced enormous hardships with courage and hope can be a tonic for all of us.