Wall Street Journal November 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.
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.
CHRONOGRAM OCTOBER 1, 2014
By Robert Burke Warren
Most US citizens know the basic facts of the American Revolution: Hardscrabble settlers, led by George Washington, wrested control of the colonies from England. To leave it at that is a shame, however, especially when the details, as rendered by journalist, novelist, and historian Jack Kelly, are so riveting. His Band of Giants: The Amateur Soldiers Who Won America’s Independence reads like an adventure novel, with complex characters, awe-inspiring heroism, crusty-but-lovable rascals, and men seemingly chosen by Providence to rise above dismal circumstances and pull off one of the more unlikely “David vs. Goliath” upsets in history. Naturally, there’s also lots and lots of blood, which you will sense, perhaps for the first time, in the ground on which you walk.
Kelly’s vibrant prose reanimates the primeval terrain—the “glacier-clawed landscape” of Maine, for instance—and conjures a palpable atmosphere of sodden tents, waist-deep mud, and whizzing musket balls. The distinctive voices of the characters ring particularly clear, to a haunting degree. To accomplish this, Kelly, an impressive researcher, interweaves emotional correspondences from George Washington, as well as missives home from dangerously inexperienced soldiers picked from farms, townships, and backwoods. (Thankfully, many felt compelled to record the drama.)
These previously unsung voices lend Band of Giants its unique gravitas. As its subtitle makes clear, this book isn’t just about major players like Washington, Ethan Allen, Benedict Arnold, and John Adams—all well represented—but the “wild outlanders” of Delaware, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. These were wielders of the newly invented rifle, men who’d learned from the Natives how to hunt, trap, and wait patiently to ambush, all traits that would prove both useful and dangerous. Although they were colorful and fearless, Kelly notes, “the spirit that induced men to take up arms for freedom stood in the way of their becoming effective soldiers.” Simply put, they were a mess.
Kelly introduces us to the commanders who, after much trial and error, and some crippling losses, transformed the rebels into an army that bested the superpower of the age. Men like tanner and farmer “Mad Anthony” Wayne and bearish Virginia backwoodsman Daniel Morgan possessed the mettle to whip starved, scared, raggedy men into fighting shape. Also notable are Nathaniel Greene, Washington’s second in command and a pacifist Quaker-turned-fighter, and street-tough Henry Knox, a Boston bookseller who, at 25, took over the American artillery. Each of these men commandeered crucial tipping-point aspects of the war, and without them, we’d all have English accents.
As Kelly points out, the savagery of the soldiers was necessary, but, like unstable fuel, it needed governance of a very particular bent, and Washington et al., through a mix of luck and pluck, found the men for the job. Washington himself was a renowned motivator, but he hardly won the war alone. He leaned on these memorable gents, whose exploits, heretofore lost in the glare of the American Revolution’s “stars,” now get their due.
Beyond the sheer thrill of Kelly’s storytelling and lively character sketches, Band of Giants explores the genesis of American character traits still noticeable today: The beloved, often fetishized wildness of the rebel spirit and the passion for liberty, Second Amendment rights, and individualism all began here, with these men. Crucially, however, Band of Giants makes clear that someone must harness that wildness. Otherwise, all is lost.
Army Magazine, November 2014
Association of the United States Army
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.