Band of Giants: A book review by Bob Morris

Band of GiantsBand of Giants: The Amateur Soldiers Who Won America’s Independence
Jack Kelly
Palgrave Macmillan (2014)

A brilliant analysis of the “founding amateur warriors” who contributed so much to winning America’s independence

Whenever appropriate, I read two or three books in combination if they share several subjects in common and that is certainly true of this book, read with Stephen Brumwell’s George Washington: Gentleman Warrior and Edward Larson’s The Return of George Washington: 1783-1789.

According to Brumwell, the argument of his book is that “whatever else he may have been – surveyor, farmer, politician, elder statesman – and despite appearances, George Washington was first and foremost a soldier; his colossal status rested upon the twin pillars of his character, the gentleman and the warrior.”

Jack Kelly takes a different approach, focusing on the “amateur soldiers who won America’s independence” as well as on the “gentleman warrior” who led them to eventual victory over what was then widely regarded as the most powerful military force in the world, at sea as well as on land. Unlike the seasoned professional troops under the command of Washington’s counterparts – notably Generals Thomas Gage, William Howe, Charles Cornwallis, John Burgoyne, and Henry Clinton — these were citizen soldiers who made up for a lack of formal training with their courage as well as their determination to “live free or die.”

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Kelly’s coverage:

o French and Indian War (Pages 1-14)
o Benedict Arnold and Capture of Fort Ticonderoga (28-31)
o American Revolution: Battle of Bunker/Breeds Hill (33-35)
o George Washington and the Battle of Long Island (68-74)
o Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold (83-85 and 134-140)
o Daniel Morgan, “The Old Wagoner” (39-42, 165-166, 194-202, 208-209)
o William Alexander, Lord Sterling (66-69 and 74-78)
o George Washington and the New York campaign 91-101)
o George Washington and the New Jersey Campaign (103-110)
o George Washington and the Philadelphia campaign (123-130)
o American Revolution: Battle of Bemis Heights (135-141)
o Nathanael Greene (180-183) and the New York Campaign (94-101)
o Anthony (“Dandy”) Wayne (184-186 and 233-235)
o Charles Cornwallis and Southern Campaigns (189-197)
o Charles Cornwallis and Yorktown Campaign (216-220, 222-224, and 228-229)

As Kelly notes, during the French and Indian War and his association with Major General William Braddock, “Washington learned that the principal actor in battle was not the soldier but the officer, who, by moving units of men as one, amplified and directed the power of their violence.” One of Washington’s most significant virtues was his eagerness to learn. “Perhaps the most important lesson he took from Braddock was a basic one: how to sustain an army in the field. In war, logistics could often be more critical than any single victory.” He also learned from his own experiences and what he observed during the war for independence that “discipline may well be the soul of an army” but developing and then sustaining military discipline in the men he commanded — citizen soldiers — posed unique challenges. Kelly examines these challenges with rigor and eloquence. With all due respect to Washington’s prowess as a warrior, it is worth noting that, as one captain told him, his troops “universally think and speak of you with love, pleasure, gratitude, and applause.” One of Washington’s greatest strengths was his highly developed emotional intelligence.

Kelly cites a case in point. The end of the war, a number of officers feared that after eight years of service, back pay and pensions due them would be denied by an ungrateful Congress. They called a meeting Newburgh (New York) to discuss whether or not to lead their troops westward and let members of Congress fight the British, or, seize control of the government with a coup. Washington learned of the meeting and immediately traveled to attend it. His rhetoric failed to convince them to remain loyal and he realized that. Now what?

“He opened from his pocket a pair of spectacles that he had begun wearing. Only a few close aides had seen them perched on his nose. As he slipped them on, he asked the officers’ forgiveness, ‘observing at the same time,’ a witness recorded, ‘that he had grown gray in his service and now felt himself going blind.'” Following this “consummate performance by a skilled actor,” the so-called “Newburgh Conspiracy” was over.

Jack Kelly reminds of what we already know but often forget: Human beings fight wars. Some are killed, others are wounded, and still others are never quite the same again after experiences such as those Braddock’s soldiers when attacked while crossing the Monongahela River en route to Fort Duquesne. Several of the soldiers taken prisoner “lived through a few hours of mind-scalding terror, imagining what was to come. Then it came. That night outside Fort Duquesne, the Indians lashed them to stakes, prodded them with red hot irons, tore their flesh, and finally burned them alive, their screams evaporating in the darkness.”

Human beings fight wars and they are led by other human beings, not stone faces on Mount Rushmore. For me, this is among the most important realities brought to compelling life in this brilliant book.

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