The Thrill of Rebellion and the Grinding Reality of the Revolutionary War -Spring 2016
by: John Stanton
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
Nat Philbrick’s books have a sort of polite subversion woven into them. This does not mean that he topples any statues. But he does have a way of turning those statues into flesh and blood, men and women, who may or may not act well in the face of their moment in history. Even the ones who do rise to the occasion come with as complete a set of foibles as anyone on the national scene today. National-origin stories often slip into the fog of myth – every schoolboy can imagine the minutemen rising out of the New England landscape to defeat the redcoats – but Philbrick finds his stories along the crooked path that history sometimes walks. “Bunker Hill,” the first book of his trilogy on the Revolutionary War, centered on a Boston crowded with radical ideas and occupied by British troops. Its main character was a local doctor and revolutionary who, if he had not been killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill, might have become the man who ended up with his face on the dollar bill.
“Valiant Ambition” tells the story of what happens after the cries of tyranny die down and the thrill of revolution gives way to the grinding reality of war. It is the story of a dysfunctional congress, duplicitous generals, and a populous so worn down by war that a good many of them supported working out a deal to remain a British colony.
“In this book I wanted to get at the Revolutionary War that most people don’t know,” Philbrick said. “We have this tendency to see it as a war everybody in the colonies wanted, and that they all rallied to fight the British. But that’s not the case. The war went on for a very long span of time and the American people really lost interest. I wanted to get at how divided we were.”
“The typical chapter is three weeks of researching that particular chapter, even though I have done a good deal of research before that, and then there’s a week of writing,” he said.
“The process helps internalize what’s going on in a way so that I can write it. When that happens I get very emotionally involved with what’s going on. The challenge is to convey it as a narrative, to winnow it down to what makes it a story you can follow and that you care about and characters you can care about.”
At the center of this story are George Washington and Benedict Arnold: the commander of the nascent American forces and his most effective battlefield general.
“Throughout my research I was amazed at how divisive the war was,” Philbrick said. “I wanted to bring that to life by focusing on George Washington, the man who held the country together, and Benedict Arnold, our greatest fighting general who finally decided it was his duty to tear the country apart.”
Philbrick sat down with Nantucket Today to talk about his new book and his writing process. “Valiant Ambition” is due in bookstores in early May.
NANTUCKET TODAY: The story begins with a huge British force arriving in New York, and with the Howe brothers – General William Howe and Admiral Richard Howe – and you get he feeling the war could have ended right there.
NAT PHILBRICK: “That is one of the great conundrums of the war. They had the opportunity to wipe the Continental Army off the face of the Earth. But Massachusetts had been great to their older, revered brother, who died in the French and Indian War, and the Howes sincerely felt the best way forward for the empire and the colonies was through a negotiated peace. And the way to do this was not to wipe out their army, but to get them to the point where they would agree to negotiate. Then the Declaration of Independence came through just as they arrived and got in their way. They couldn’t grant America independence, and so they couldn’t negotiate. You just can’t make this stuff up. They could have so easily won it, but they didn’t.
NT: How do you develop characters within a historical perspective?
Philbrick: “What drives me is when I find a story that is surprising to me. For this book it was how good a general Arnold was and how much like Washington he was, and so how could they then end up like they did? The other thing was this tawdry internal struggle. The process of the relationship between Washington and Arnold dramatized what was going on in the country itself. What was fun was toward the end, as the story narrows into Arnold’s treason, the pace accelerates until it just comes down to that one thing. I’ve never had a book like that. It was a different kind of narrative to write. To put those pieces together was a challenge but it was really fun.”
NT: Early in the book it becomes obvious that Arnold is a skilled and daring battle commander. The British already called him “The American Hannibal” for scaling the cliffs of Quebec to attack the British there. He had taken Fort Ticonderoga. He had won a naval battle that stopped the British from coming down from Canada and cutting the country in two. Meanwhile, Washington was mired in several military blunders, which led one of his officers to write (after the Battle of Long Island) that, “...less leadership never was shown in any army since the art of war was understood.”
Philbrick: “Washington’s lowest point was almost simultaneously the time of one of Arnold’s greatest feats, which nobody really knows about, the Battle of Valcour Island, which was fought on Lake Champlain. By focusing on those two men I wanted to follow the path to how Arnold ended up being the arch traitor and while Washington, after being completely out-battled in the Battle of Long Island, became our savior.
“What I enjoyed about this was that the focus on those two people was a way for me to bring the social history to life. Their lives were intertwined. I began to think that Washington and Arnold were wired the same way.”
NT: Arnold had very opposite personality traits.
Philbrick: “He was who he was. He was a warrior. He didn’t have any tact. He told people just what he thought and so made many enemies. This being a new nation without a formalized military structure, he ended up being the victim of people who were jealous or angry at how he had treated them.
“At one point he just reached a point and said ‘screw it.’ The problem is he could have just said, ‘This is wrong. I will go over to the British.’ But he spent a year and a half negotiating the terms so he would get the most money.
“But I had great sympathy for him. In many ways his downfall was his own doing. But the fact is he had so many military talents and if he had been insulated from the backbiting and personal politics, he could have been one of Washington’s greatest assets in winning the war. He really could have been one of America’s important generals or admirals.”
NT: The big question is, did Arnold really think betraying the revolution would save the country, or did he do it for the money? Did he really believe it was best for the country to remain under British rule?
Philbrick: “I don’t think even in his own mind he could say. What happened was the war went on too long. The spirit of ’76 had lagged. People began to suffer, to question their initial beliefs. Arnold, who had been beaten up on so many fronts, finally threw in the towel and said it’s time to go back.
“He said later that he had reached the point where he thought there was no way for the Continental Army to win and he was going to save America by putting an end to the fighting. That, of course, did not prove to be the case. And that’s the great irony. His treason helped turn around the war for America. People began to say, ‘whoa, look what could happen.’ You could argue he was our greatest fighting general, who did more to win the revolution as a general, then once again did more to help America win the war as a traitor.
“What made it unconscionable on his part was that he was only going to change sides if he made as much money as possible. It’s something he was doing for the benefit of Arnold and not the benefit of his country.”
NT: The lesser-known character who runs through the book is Joseph Plumb Martin. How did you find him?
Philbrick: “Late in life, in Maine, he wrote a narrative of his time in the revolution. He had almost certainly carried a notebook with him, because the accounts were so detailed. He was not educated, but he was a very bright man. That account was the source I used. It’s unique in that it is somebody who was there, but not someone who was out to turn the revolution into a myth. He’s an everyman, writing about how it actually was. It was amazing that whenever anything was happening he was there.
“For me, Martin was the foil. There is Washington and Arnold, the giants battling for the fate of America. Then there is the little man, who is actually doing the work in many ways, who has this wonderfully-jaundiced view of human nature. He’s as much of a character as Washington and Arnold.”
NT: There is a feeling in your book that, had there been modern polling during the revolution, the country would have been split about 50/50 on the question of whether it was worth it.
Philbrick: “You had people who just wanted to live their lives and didn’t really care who won. Americans had it pretty good before the revolution. And once the war began to drag on they realized how good they had it prior to the war. After a while they were just sick of it and wanted it to end. We were deeply divided. It came down to issues of money. The revolution started because we didn’t want to pay taxes to the British, but then when it came time to finance our revolution the states were very reluctant to contribute.”
NT: What are we missing in our understanding of the Revolutionary War?
Philbrick: “People don’t realize how much it became an internal struggle. Neighbor against neighbor. Supposedly with political affiliation driving it, but people were really so desperate that they were out to make money. It was awful. It was not pretty. The reality is the revolution turned into an ugly, squalid, internal struggle. It was only noble in the beginning. It was on the verge of collapsing until Arnold’s treason. Within a year, there’s Yorktown. I don’t think that’s an accident.”
NT: Do you see a link to today in the story?
Philbrick: “One thing is that a dysfunctional congress is nothing new. There is a moment when Washington visits Philadelphia with Martha. His men are starving, he and Martha are attending all these grand balls and people are more worried about entertaining him than addressing the real issues of the day. And it is appalling to him. He has to leave. He can’t handle it.
“What Washington knew and Arnold didn’t was if you are going to have a democratic republic it is never going to work perfectly. The discourse and the arguments are what eventually make this country great, but it is also extremely frustrating. In this book I realized we were that way from the beginning. That push and pull is the essence of this country.” ///
John Stanton is a writer and documentary filmmaker living on Nantucket. His latest film is “The Last Nantucket Bay Scallop?” which premiered at the Annapolis Film Festival in April.