Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution,
by Nathaniel Philbrick.
Nathaniel Philbrick writes books on American History that end up on the New York Times Bestseller List. It’s not because his books are revisionist or because he is engaged in new or original research. He has a knack for picking historical stories--with their sidelines and subplots--that are of popular interest, and fashioning them into a fresh and compelling narrative. Another hallmark of his books is that the reader is not flummoxed by arcane military history. Philbrick is able to explain the facts in such a way that the military strategy of a battle can be understood by the general reader, and his books are always accompanied by specially commissioned maps that provide a visual guide to understanding the topography and tactical array. And without being heavy-handed about it, he allows his readers to discover for themselves the instructive lesson of the tale, the ways in which the historical account has something to say of relevance about the cultural and political topics of our day.
Key to his engaging narration is the care Philbrick takes to give us a sense of the character of each of his major protagonists, the way he can reach beyond the iconic and symbolic lineaments, and restore them to life as real people on the historical stage. In Valiant Ambition, the action and character of Benedict Arnold is the subject of extended research and rumination. Philbrick seldom, however, mentions any supporting figure in his cast without giving us a sense of his or her character as well. The British commanders--William Howe, Henry Clinton, and John Burgoyne in America--are all deftly presented, as are the American generals Horatio Gates and Nathaniel Greene. The measure of Philbrick’s skill is reflected in the fact that he leaves the reader intrigued and wanting to know more about some of these people. Nathaniel Greene’s advice to Washington seems intelligent and circumspect, and one comes to appreciate more deeply his role as an important adviser regarding Washington’s tactical decisions. His was often a moderating and cautious voice that got Washington to reconsider his more impulsive plans. If your appetite is whetted to learn more about the enigmatic Howe, there is a fine portrait of him in another book reviewed previously for this blog: The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, The American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire, by Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy.
Portrait of American General Nathaniel Greene
1783 by Charles Wilson Peale
Portrait of Washington, 1776 by Charles Wilson Peale.
Commissioned by the Continental Congress in
appreciation of Washington's successful siege that
drove British troops from Boston.
|Color engraved portrait of Benedict Arnold.|