Buchanan, John. The Road to Valley Forge: How Washington Built the Army that Won the Revolution. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2004.
John Buchanan details the struggles and triumphs of the heroic, yet humble George Washington in The Road to Valley Forge: How Washington Built the Army that Won the Revolution. Washington’s Continental Army in 1776 had been subjected to numerous thrashings by the well-trained British and Hessian troops. Their morale was low and the army was as close to beaten as it could get. Buchanan tells the journey Washington travels all the way to Valley Forge. British General William Howe could have taken out the rebellion on more than one occasion, but luckily for the Continentals, these missed opportunities allowed Washington the time he needed to pull his army from the ashes.
Buchanan does a fine job of following the education and perseverance of Washington and what made him a commander to rival other leaders of great armies. How the Continental commander takes his undisciplined troops of rabble and transforms them into the men who would defeat the British is an amazing journey. Buchanan writes that this is a book about the men of war and the general who led them to victory during the American Revolution from August 1776 through the winter of 1777-1778. (p. xi) The author is meticulous in taking the reader through the stages of Washington’s growth, from a backwoods soldier to a wise commander-in-chief. Buchanan also spends a fair amount of time detailing Washington’s opponents, specifically General Sir William Howe as well as his older brother, Admiral Richard, Lord Howe. What this book offers is a detailed accounting of the most successful political revolution of modern times in eighteenth-century terms. If the reader, however, has expectations of coming away from this work the wiser, or with a more thoughtful understanding of Washington or his army, it is not to be.
After graduating magna cum laude with highest honors in history from St. Lawrence University, John Buchanan taught high school history in Newark Valley, NY. Later, he was an archivist at Cornell University and then joined The Metropolitan Museum of Art as an archivist and Chief Registrar in charge of worldwide art movements for twenty-two years. As Chief Registrar, Buchanan traveled all over the world, Canada, Mexico, Europe, the former USSR, the Middle East, India, China, Japan, and Australia. The author began his career as a writer producing short stories for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Woodmen of the World. The Wall Street Journal reviewed another of Buchanan’s books, Jackson’s Way: Andrew Jackson and the People of the Western Waters and thought that “…Buchanan writes with style and insight…and, refreshingly, does not attempt to impose modern-day sensibilities on the events. This is history writing at its best.” Buchanan also wrote The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas.
Buchanan is straightforward in the telling and uses well-known sources including papers from Washington, Greene, and Hamilton. Especially appreciated is his use of soldiers’ diaries, like John Peebles’ American War: The Diary of a Scottish Grenadier and The Diary of John Adams. The reader will also appreciate the extensive abbreviations and endnote sections, which encourage further study and where to look. His use of primary evidence gives the reader a narrative, which at times might seem too much, but it leaves you with a nice analysis of both armies.
Buchanan walks the reader through Washington’s early life whose experiences the author says were of soldiering that had been mainly for his home state of Virginia. The author then moves to the first of Washington’s major engagements, the Battle of Long Island, where the Continentals were soundly defeated by General Howe. Here is one of those missed opportunities for Howe to make the most of a victory. Buchanan of course, like many historians before, discusses the Howe brothers’ penchant for a possible reconciliation with the Americans rather than an absolute demolition of them. Here, Buchanan offers nothing new, however, it should be noted that the author never claims to have groundbreaking, new information that changes how the American Revolution is viewed.
Washington’s removal of his troops from Long Island is well documented, though at times the author’s overuse of quotations can muddy the waters a bit. He also touches on Kip’s Bay and Fort Washington. The retreat through the state of New Jersey and the crossing of the Potomac is very interesting due to Buchanan wisely quoting Washington’s words and keeping those to a minimum, with just enough to place the reader in the frame of mind to see what was happening. At one point Washington writes, “Our only dependence now, is upon the Speedy Enlistment of a New Army; if this fails us, I think the game will be pretty well up.” (p. 146) What a great statement to show how close to losing it all that they were in that moment.
When Howe goes into winter quarters Buchanan explained that Washington’s men would use small forces to attack Howe’s foraging parties. This brought morale down for the British but these small digs at the enemy boosted Washington’s men. Espionage is briefly touched upon in Chapter 11. The contacts and information gathered made a very small splash and with so little given, hardly worth the mention here.
The British and Hessians march to take Philadelphia and met Washington’s army first at Brandywine Creek and then at Germantown six miles northwest of Philadelphia. Here Buchanan says the ‘fog ruled the early hours’ through the end of September through early October. (p. 266) Forces could be within thirty to a hundred yards of each other and never see a thing. Washington found several ways to use this dense fog to his advantage. Dramatically, the author says that it would now be Sir William’s “turn to experience the cunning of the fox.” (p. 266)
Finally, Buchanan ends with Valley Forge. Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, a former captain in the Seven Years’ War, helped train the troops. The Prussian was not especially happy or content with the poor troops who lacked clothes, shoes, decent weapons, or that the ‘mounted Guard at the Grand Parade’ wore a dressing gown made from old blankets. (p. 304) He did recognize that the troops were “a tough, dedicated, seasoned force” who only lacked a few basic accouterments that would finish making them an army.
The Continental Army knew quite a bit of hardship while quartered at Valley Forge. Buchanan does the soldiers’ privations justice in the detail of this chapter. An estimated two thousand died due to lack of proper clothing and food. It was a nice addition to include the surgeon at Valley Forge, Albigence Waldo. Waldo is quoted as saying, “The Lord send that our Commissary of Purchases may live on fire cake and water until their glutted guts are turned to pasteboard.” (p. 287) Waldo is referencing the soldiers’ diet of tasteless water, as the author puts it, mixed with dough and cooked over a campfire. Buchanan describes Valley Forge as being either in a feast-or-famine and rarely anything in between. Most of the goods from the rich farms of the area went into British occupied Philadelphia and the British parties could pay “cold hard cash or gold” for. (p. 287)
George Washington is an important military figure whose exploits in the American Revolution are worthy of the infinite number of books written in his honor. That being said, no commander is perfect or impervious to disappointment. In this, Buchanan spends most of the latter half of his book defending Washington from those that would criticize him, past and present. His thoughts are sometimes muddied and not really as concise as they should be given the number of sources available. There are parts of the book that flows nicely with a nice amount of information and quotes from the important players thrown in, however, almost seventy percent of the book is very little of the author’s thoughts. He so prodigiously quotes that following who says what can get very confusing.
It is unfortunate that the author’s final words veer so completely off topic by making a comparison to Robert E. Lee. He notes that sectionalism between northern and southern troops and politicians are making an appearance in the American Revolution but that Washington had no use for such nonsense and strove only to build a national army and to “weld the country into one.” (p. 320) This sentiment is no doubt true, however, his next thought takes it one step too far. “In that regard Washington the nationalist stood head and shoulders above another general from Virginia, Robert E. Lee, who more than eighty years later chose his state over his country.” (p. 320) To some readers, this may seem as ridiculous as comparing apples to oranges.
Buchanan has certainly done what he set out to do, which is write the story of George Washington and the progression of his undisciplined Continentals transforming into a real army. Though the author relies too heavily on expecting quotes from others to make his case, the book is not a difficult read. This rendition would not be my first choice as Washington historiographies go, however, the source list is a wonderful resource.
I hope you enjoyed my review! If you plan on purchasing this title, please support my site and use the link below.