The story begins on a bloody battlefield one cold foggy morning in October. A huge battle rages all around in a small place called Germantown. Men by the thousands are engaged in the fighting. Chaos is everywhere among the muskets and canons. Washington has eleven-thousand men against the British’s nine-thousand soldiers. A little dog is lost in the aftermath…
In continuing my most recent kick on the American Revolutionary War, I look at New York Times bestselling author Jeff Shaara’s, The Glorious Cause. Piggybacking off his own, Rise to Rebellion, Shaara’s second and final novel of the two-part series begins about a month after the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Although a robust 680 pages, The Glorious Cause is an addicting page turner that, despite my hectic lifestyle, only took me a couple of weeks to finish.
Shaara tells the story in chronological order from the point of view of several key players in the cause for American independence, with the four headliners consisting of George Washington, Nathaniel Greene, Benjamin Franklin, and even British General Charles Cornwallis. He brings life to these characters, depicting their strategies, frustrations, and fears. That the author can make a sympathetic figure out of Cornwallis speaks to Shaara’s ability to assist the reader in understanding that while the British general was in fact fighting for the “other side,” Cornwallis was simply a human being with the same feelings and problems in his personal life who was doing what his king wished for him to do.
Of course, the reader is enlightened on Washington’s feelings of despair and anguish, reeling from the losses at Long Island and New York City, as well his first-hand account of the defeat at Fort Washington. We ride along with the American general on his tour of redemption at Trenton and Princeton, victories that were crucial to building some sort of American morale. Shaara, in a stroke of finesse, weaves in Martha Washington, who’s tough, but motherly disposition perfectly complements the general and drastically brightens up the culture during a tough winter at Valley Forge.
Shaara brings us across the Atlantic with Benjamin Franklin to persuade the French to align with the colonies. We get to see inside Franklin’s brain, the methods he utilized to interact with King Louis’ right-hand men. Franklin’s ability to play the part of the elder spokesman of a startup (hopefully) nation with a ragtag army, despite his lofty status, as well as his zany sense of humor are in full display, as well.
The book provides firsthand accounts of some of those on the undercard, so to speak, those no less important to the outcome of the war. Some of these people include, the Marquis de Lafayette, Nathan Hale, Prussian General Frederich von Steuben, and even the traitor, Benedict Arnold. We are given a sense of understanding of how these and other characters play key supporting roles in how it all shaped out.
Shaara escorts us to all the key battles along the way: Trenton, Brandywine, Yorktown, as well as many lesser-known clashes. Battle scenes are vividly captured, the reader entrenched side by side with the combatants. We’re in both camps and tents, drinking their rum and writing letters home. All in all, The Glorious Cause checks off all the boxes a reader of the Revolutionary War could ask for, and then some.
1776 was a difficult year in the American cause for independence. Crushing battlefield defeats, declining morale, and scores of defections threatened to halt the objective not terribly long after the first shots rang out at Lexington and Concord were just part of the issues. Undoubtedly, the most disturbing event was the loss of New York City to the British. No one felt the burden more than General George Washington.
With the British showing its might, Washington was fully aware that his army was incapable of beating the king’s army head-to-head. Rather, the general realized his only hope was to outsmart his opponent. Truly believing that his hopes of turning the tides of the war depended on taking back New York, Washington recruited a major in the Continental Army, Benjamin Tallmadge.
In George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution, authors Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger take us on a journey from the formation of what became the Culper Spy Ring through the war that ended with the ragtag Patriot army somehow emerging victorious. In contrast to the secretive nature of the ring, the identity of its members, and its role in helping the American cause, the reader obtains concrete knowledge of each member, prior to, during, and after the war. We are informed of duties carried out under dangerous circumstances that played a deciding factor in the outcome of the war.
The first half of the book primarily provides the setting and introduces to us the main players, its fears, near misses during the ring’s infancy stages, and takes us through a period of fits and starts where the knowledge gained, perhaps does not warrant the dangerous nature of the work. It is here where it is said that key members went almost completely silent, fearing their lives were threatened. Up to this point, the book meanders along a rigid timeline, almost setting us up for the thrilling climax.
As promised, it is the second half where things rapidly pick up. Here, we find out how the ring was able to thwart Benedict Arnold’s plan to turn over West Point to the enemy. Furthermore, intelligence from the ring garnered that the British were going to attack the incoming French navy, who had recently agreed to align with the Americans. This led to Washington planting false evidence that he was going to assault New York, forcing the British to call off their plans with France and return to fight a fictitious battle against Washington. We also learn how the Culper’s intelligence played a key role in the American victory of the decisive battle of Yorktown. The ring’s efforts were so paramount, it led to Washington winning the war without achieving his main goal of taking back New York.
Secret Six is a spy thriller in the deepest sense. Upon reading, this reviewer finished the last 150 plus pages in an afternoon, unable to put the book down. This book is recommended for any lover of history who wishes to discover a network of American heroes that textbooks were unaware of for more than two centuries.
George Washington has long been hailed the hero of the American Revolution, and with valid reason. His patience, perseverance, and ability to push past major disappointment and crushing defeats to see his undermanned army to the end provide the blueprint for all of us who face substantial obstacles in our daily lives. Washington, despite personal doubts of his own ability, never let his men see his insecurities.
In his novel, 1776, Pulitzer Prize winning author David McCullough takes us directly into the mind of Washington. We see his indecision and, at times, crippling lack of confidence, things that could have easily led to the demise of American independence. We begin to understand that heroes, including iconic figures such as Washington, are straddled with faults and warts just like the rest of us.
The reader learns of several trusted confidants in Washington’s inner circle that eventually, in one way or another, through incompetence or treason, let the general down. That said, the story makes superstars out of Henry Knox and Nathaniel Greene, who stuck by Washington from beginning to end. The mutual admiration and respect between these three men are as big a reason for the outcome of the war as any.
We find out about the British side, as well. We begin to correlate specific decisions made by British generals that allowed a ragtag outfit, the so-called, “Rabble in Arms,” to hang around when it could have been annihilated several times over. Despite boasting a plethora of seasoned generals and leaders, the fact that British leaders were rarely on the same page or could hardly work together somewhat levelled a playing field that was overwhelmingly stacked in favor of the redcoats.
Finally, it is worth noting that McCullough, for the most part, keeps the story within the specific parameters of its title. While the reader has the advantage of knowing how everything played out, it is important to understand how intimidating it must have seemed to be a soldier in the American army at that time. 1776 handed the Patriots several lopsided losses and subjected them to embarrassing retreats of supposed strongholds. Morale was extremely low, and people were deserting the army in droves. Washington’s leadership ability itself was very much in question, and despite a nice rally at the end of the year, especially the defeat of the Hessians at Trenton, he was hardly thought of as a hero. Seeing the situation as those in the army at that time allows the reader to better understand the how perilous things were.