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Omnia reliquit servare rempublicam – Washington’s Secret War is a new and more realistic view of the ordeal at Valley Forge — a new assessment of the man too often simplified into an unreal American legend.

George Washington is featured prominently on the great seal of the Confederate States of America and I have no doubt that his spirit was behind so many, like Lee, who enlisted in a cause that they knew faced formidable odds but that they believed to be both correct and right – and those are two different things.

Unfortunately Washington is largely a whited sepulchre of American history – part of that tradition of the separation of church and state that allows us no saints and therefore requires us to manufacture secular ones, and to suffer all the failures that entails.

One of the most common portraits of Washington at Valley Forge is of him, in full dress uniform beside a spotlessly groomed horse, kneeling in prayer. While we have no doubt that the winter called for many supplications of the Almighty and that Washington addressed Him frequently and fervently the picture seems to attribute an unlikely piety to the man. I prefer the Frederick Coffay Yohn picture that shows a Washington in a bleak winter camp taking the salute of a ragged platoon uncertain of the outcome but determined to continue the good fight – it is easy to replace Washington with Lee in this picture, it is impossible to replace him with Lincoln!

Washington’s secret war : the hidden history of Valley Forge    New York : Smithsonian Books/Collins, 2005 Thomas Fleming Washington, George, 1732-1799 Headquarters Pennsylvania Valley Forge Hardcover. 1st Smithsonian Books ed. xiii, 384 p., [16] p. of plates : ill., maps ; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. [351]-375) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text.  VG/VG  

“Congress does not trust me. I cannot continue thus,” George Washington confided to Congressman Francis Dana of Massachusetts on his first visit to Valley Forge. Though Congressman Dana assured the general that a majority in Congress still had faith in him, he was nonetheless stunned by Washington’s apparent defeatism. George Washington’s threat to resign during the fateful winter at Valley Forge is one of the revelations in Thomas Fleming’s book.

Fleming has returned to the American Revolution, demolishing long-accepted fictions of Valley Forge and cutting through layers of myth to reveal a hitherto unknown side of George Washington.

The defining moments of the Revolutionary War did not occur on the battlefield or at the diplomatic table, claims Fleming, but at Valley Forge. Fleming transports his readers to December 1777. While the British army lives in luxury in conquered Philadelphia, Washington’s troops huddle in the barracks of Valley Forge, fending off starvation and disease even as threats of mutiny swirl through the regiments. Though his army stands on the edge of collapse, Washington must wage a secondary war, this one against the slander of his reputation as a general and a patriot.

In 1777, Gates triumphed over the British at Saratoga, earning a congressional gold medal and a public day of thanksgiving. Later, despite strained relations with Washington over an alleged coup in Gates’s favor, Congress elected him president of the War Board. In 1780, as commander of the army’s southern campaign, Gates misjudged the South Carolina terrain and his troops’ level of readiness. He abandoned the battlefield to Cornwallis near Camden.

Readers watch as Washington strategizes not only against the British army, but against the ambitions of General Horatio Gates, the victor in the battle of Saratoga. Gates has attracted a coterie of ambitious generals who are devising ways to humiliate and embarrass Washington into resignation. Despite his successes on the battlefield, it has been said that General Horatio Gates was suspected of having very little personal courage when it came to fighting. He is perhaps most noted for being in regular competition with   Washington and hatching a plan to have him removed as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army.

It is ironical that after the Revolution, Gates served as vice president of the national Order of the Cincinnati (the organization of former Continental Army officers) and president of its Virginia chapter. The Society was named for Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, who left his farm to accept a term as Roman Consul and served as Magister Populi – which conferred temporary absolute power. Having assumed lawful dictatorial control of Rome to meet a war emergency, when the battle was won, he returned power to the Senate and went back to plowing his fields. The Society’s motto reflects that ethic of selfless service: Omnia reliquit servare rempublicam (“He relinquished everything to save the Republic”) Surely those honors too belong to Washington.

Using diaries and letters, Fleming creates an unforgettable portrait of an embattled Washington. Far from the long-suffering stoic of historical myth, Washington responds to attacks from Gates and his allies with the dexterity of a master politician. He parries the thrusts of his covert enemies and, when necessary, strikes back with ferocity and guile. While many histories portray Washington as a man who transcended politics, Fleming’s Washington is  a man whose political maneuvering allowed him to retain his command, even as he simultaneously struggled to prevent the Continental Army from dissolving into mutiny at Valley Forge.

The Edward P. Moran portrait of Washington at Valley Forge shows a commander setting out to lead on what will be a six-year campaign to victory. There would be another winter at Valley Forge – the harshest of the 18th century – but the desire for self-determination and freedom would prevail.


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