Monday, May 9, 2016

Valiant Ambition- Nathaniel Philbrick

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution- Nathaniel Philbrick
Penguin Group: Viking
Release Date: May 10, 2016

Synopsis: In September 1776, the vulnerable Continental Army under an unsure George Washington (who had never commanded a large force in battle) evacuates New York after a devastating defeat by the British Army. Three weeks later, near the Canadian border, one of his favorite generals, Benedict Arnold, miraculously succeeds in postponing the British naval advance down Lake Champlain that might have ended the war. Four years later, as the book ends, Washington has vanquished his demons and Arnold has fled to the enemy after a foiled attempt to surrender the American fortress at West Point to the British. After four years of war, America is forced to realize that the real threat to its liberties might not come from without but from within.

Valiant Ambition looks at not only the battles and armies that comprised the American Revolution, but individual characters and personalities.  Written for the general audience, Philbrick splits Ambition between following General George Washington- who he believes to be a somewhat ineffectual general, inexperienced, and a slow learner who eventually learns from his mistakes and pushes down his personal feelings for the greater good- and Benedict Arnold. Philbrick portrays Arnold as a brilliant general with the kind of personality who either drew loyal supporters or made deadly enemies.   

The contrast created between the two leaders is often striking, with Washington and his armies suffering defeats, retreats, and harsh conditions while Arnold is a key player in the defeat of British General Burgoyne at Saratoga.  While Washington encourages the Continental Congress to support his troops: to move from militia to a standing army, to provide money, food, and supplies for men literally starving to death over the winter; Arnold is constantly sending letters to Congress to complain that they are not supporting him enough: he is overlooked for a promotion, he is not recompensed the money he claims to have used to support his early militia in Quebec, other generals are taking credit for his glorious actions.

Arnold comes across as something of a sociopath, completely unable to use tact or subtley to get what he wants from others, and completely disregarding all others as nothing more than steps to further his personal ambition.  His obsession over what he perceives as Congress's slights against him explodes when he is made military governor of Philadelphia after the British evacuate the city.  Living beyond his means, making backroom deals to profit from the chaos of rebuilding the city, and socially slighting Americans while supporting British loyalists make him the target of military and civilian backlashes.  The great irony is that Arnold defends himself against all charges, then goes on to do even worse.  With the support of his new, young wife Arnold begins to believe that, since America is going to lose the war anyway, it is his duty to bring about the end of the war and the reconciliation with Britain as quickly as possible. And make money and rise in the ranks while doing it.  His complete disregard for others and his  belief that what he is doing is not treason but is for his own good (and anything for his own good is therefore good for the country) is amazing to read.

Through much of the book the reader finds themselves wondering how America won the war at all given the poor training and military defeats they experienced.  The personality clashes of individual generals and Congressmen as they sought to gain personal glory and profit with America coming in second to their ambition, seems like it should have destroyed the country before the first year of war was out.  In the end Philbrick believes that it was Arnold's treachery that in fact brought America together.  It is not enough to have a great hero like Washington. The country also needed a villain to unite them.

While I wish the epilogue ended with a brief summary of Washington and Arnold's later military careers (I was especially curious to find out how Arnold faired as a general in the British army facing his former soldiers and what happened to him after the war), instead of the "to be continued" feel that the book ends on, Valiant Ambition is an enjoyable read with great attention to detail and fascinating looks into the psyches of some of the Revolutionary War's greatest men, and how the individual is pivotal in shaping both military and national outcomes.  

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley for an honest review.

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