What Was Washington's Secret War?
Did Washington wage a secret war while he was at Valley Forge? Yes and no. Against the British he had to maintain a vigorous war of outposts while they occupied Philadelphia. But the other war he had to fight was against his own generals. In Thomas Fleming's Washington's Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge (Smithsonian Books, 2005) Washington was not only threatened from the British, but from increasing political enemies as well. Conway, Mifflin and Gates were all ambitious officers with little military talent, but great scheming abilities off the battlefield. Together this trio of military politicos formed what would be known as the Conway Cabal. With Congress discontented with Washington's recent combat record, the way seemed open to bring about his downfall. Fleming is unabashed in his worship of Washington. He never ceases in admiration of his patience, long suffering and ability to sustain personal and political injury, in addition to military defeats. In a sense the author praises him with the same admiration that scared many of the general's contemporaries. Some in Congress felt that Washington was being hailed as a Demigod, and were fearful of the powers they had given him to run the army. As Fleming carefully points out, the General never misused these powers, but in a new state struggling to remove any kind of central authority, such influence was widely feared. The Conway Conspiracy sought to capitalize on these fears and to gain power for them. They had many followers in Congress. What would have resulted if Washy had been removed from command in early 1778? Who would have replaced him? Gates, Lee, Conway, or Hancock? Even John Adams thought his revolutionary zeal was sufficient in itself to run the army! None would have proven equal to the task, and the Revolution might easily have taken a different course. The military ineptness of any of these men likely would have brought about a quick accommodation with the British, resulting in a semi-independence with a different group of men in charge. This presents a whole different course for the United States. One that would not have been any better, and likely significantly worse! Fleming spends a lot of time discussing the mechanics of the conspiracy, at the risk of losing track of what was at stake. The story of Valley Forge is told aginst the background of this plot. Some discussion of what might have happened had these men seized power in America at that time might have added depth to the story. The constant details of the plotters plans and schemes become somewhat tedious after a while, and then the quick, almost remarkable evaporation of their plans seems amazingly sudden. Still, the author provides strong portraits of all involved. Washington, Baron Von Stueben, Layfayette, Gates, Lee and many others all get their due. We see them within the context of their times, with all their foibles and attributes. They come across as human, with all their ambitions and weaknesses. To the author only Washington seems consistent in his goals, and his constant self-sacrifice is seen by some as political ploy, and by others as sainthood - depending on your point of view. Fleming basically reinforces the national mythology of the Revolution, but he does so in a convincing fashion. The story ends with the crisis at Monmouth Courthouse where Charles Lee is removed from command after botching the initial American advance. Washington removes him from command in celebrated fashion, and in so doing eliminates a major political adversary. Fleming is weak on details of the battle itself, and those looking for much new material on this confusing action won't find it here. Fleming is primarily one of those great American story tellers that abound in our history books today. He tells a great tale, but leaves to the reader the task of finding out many of the details.