Friday, May 20, 2016

Valiant Ambition by Nathaniel Philbrick

Nathaniel Philbrick's new book Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution, like his previous book Bunker Hill (my review found at here), changes how we think about the American Experience.

Philbrick tears away the veil of myth to reveal a far messier path to Democracy, one rife with conflict. We see that Washington was not always right and Arnold was a brash hero who resented being overlooked. The Revolution was, Philbrick points out, in itself an act of treason.

The book started slow for me, then picked up interest and in the end swept me along to its conclusion.

Benedict Arnold was motivated by ruthless self-interest, his betrayal based on a desire to be lauded for bringing peace to the war-weary Americans by reuniting the colony to Britain.

 I am hoping for a next book to continue the American story.

I was just finishing the book when I happened to catch NPR's interview with Philbrick on the book. You can read the interview at

I was visited by an aching nostalgia while reading about so many places I had lived near or had visited. I wished I had understood more deeply the history of these places. Particularly moving for me was the account of the Battle for Fort Mifflin.

We visited Fort Mifflin several times. It sits on Mud Island in the Delaware River south of the city, not far from the airport. The fort is restored to its 1834 condition. The first time we visited was on a warm summer day. The stone powder room was cool and dark. The air hummed with the sounds of nature. We watched a Green Heron sitting on a tree near the water. Suddenly a jet came overhead and at that moment the Heron started and took off, the two flying in tandem. It was an awesome sight that summed up everything I was struggling with at the time: the battle between the man-made and God's nature, the pull between the excitement of the city and the peace of the Maine woods.

Oh, had I realized the blood that had spilled on those grounds! I would have seen ghosts and heard the cries of anguish instead of the frogs and birdsong near the still waters. Reading the account of the Battle of Fort Mifflin I could not connect that summer stillness to the continual bombardment of cannonade, the groan of the wounded, the sleepless weeks under barrage.

After the British took Philadelphia they wanted sea access to bring in supplies. That meant clearing out the Patriot forts. Fort Mifflin's four hundred American soldiers held off thousands of British troops and 250 ships for several months. Philbrick's account is devastating to read, the horrors endured by one soldier accounted the worst he had undergone. The end the British ships drew up to the island and lobbed in grenades. The fort was finally abandoned. 250 of the 400 men were killed.

Valiant Ambition is a complex, controversial, and dramatic portrait of a people in crisis and the war that gave birth to a nation. The focus is on loyalty and personal integrity, evoking a Shakespearean tragedy that unfolds in the key relationship of Washington and Arnold, who is an impulsive but sympathetic hero whose misfortunes at the hands of self-serving politicians fatally destroy his faith in the legitimacy of the rebellion. As a country wary of tyrants suddenly must figure out how it should be led, Washington's unmatched ability to rise above the petty politics of his time enables him to win the war that really matters. from the publisher
I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Valiant Ambition
Nathaniel Philbrick
$30 hard cover

Old Fort Mifflin
by Nancy A. Bekofske

Wide vistas where once colonial soldiers trod
with its perimeter of aged barracks,
the cool dark recesses of powder houses,
slit windows looking out into summer sun,
history's memory, empty and still
but for voyeurs peering on the past's leavings.

Nearby the river ran round like a moat,
catchment of brush and reed, crickets
and frogs singing and leaping,
and looking down in contemplation
sitting on its barren branch, a heron.

Unexpectedly, a mechanical roar disturbed
this Eden of river and fort.
Above us hovered a great silver belly
its mass blocking out the sun,
its labored ascent a mystery.
We believed we could have stroked the silver belly,
it hung so low above us.
Machine made holier than all else
diminishing the heron's tandem flight
parallel under the great belly.
Convergent deities of flight
vying for preeminence.

And when the two had flown
we were left godless on the wide vistas
of a wasteland past.

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