Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the fate of the American Revolution

I listened today to an interview with author Nathaniel Philbrick on NPR, and was impressed with his fresh take on the social dynamics of the Revolutionary War, portrayed in his book, Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American RevolutionHis account of the Revolution and the tragic relationship between George Washington and Benedict Arnold challenges our commonly held narrative of the nation’s patriotic but bloody founding.

In September 1776, the vulnerable Continental Army under George Washington evacuates New York after a devastating defeat by the British Army. One of Washington’s favorite generals, Benedict Arnold, miraculously succeeds in postponing the British naval advance down Lake Champlain that might have ended the war.

Thomas Franklin Waters wrote about Arnold’s march through Ipswich on the way to Quebec

“The patriot army lay encamped for weary months, while the siege of Boston dragged on, neither party making any active assault. In September, Gen. Montgomery set out to take Quebec. A force of 1100 men, consisting of two battalions of musketmen and 3 companies of riflemen as Light Infantry under the command of Col. Benedict Arnold, was detached for this service. The little army marched in several separate bodies. They reached Ipswich on September 15, and all day the stillness of the summer air was broken by the shrill notes of fifes and the roll of drums, as company after company marched along the old Bay Road, followed by the rumbling wagon trains with their camp equipment.”

Benedict Arnold’s forces cross the Choate Bridge on the way to Quebec. Image from the Ipswich Riverwalk Mural by Alan Pearsall.

Yet, four years later, Arnold attempted to surrender the American fortress at West Point to the British, was discovered, and he fled. Waters wrote about the defection:

Col Nathaniel Wade’s regiment, which included many Ipswich men, was stationed at West Point. Gen. Benedict Arnold, the commander of the post, had made overtures to the British officers to surrender it to them. Upon the arrest of Major Andre, who acted as agent in the secret communications, Arnold fled precipitately to the British ship, “Vulture” lying in the Hudson. A family tradition has always affirmed that Stephen Pearson of the Village was one of the crew which rowed the traitor’s boat. Indeed, the whole boat’s crew may have been detached from Col. Wade’s command. The defection of Arnold was a crushing blow.”

Valiant Ambition focuses on the uncertainty of the times, and Washington’s ability to succeed in the face of betrayal and despair, enabling him to win the war. Listen to an interview with author Nathaniel Philbrick at npr.org/.

Categories: History

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3 replies »

  1. I read Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill A City, A Siege, A Revolution as one of many of the books I read as research for my upcoming historical fantasy novel. I love his writing and I’ve heard of Valiant Ambition. Thanks for the book review. I’ll definitely read it now.

  2. I could listen to gifted historians all day! Thanks Gordon! It’s important to think about a moment in time that the future is not known yet. We could easily have lost the revolutionary war.

  3. Gordon, thanks for the links. I am planning to read VALIANT AMBITION. Read Philbrick’s MAYFLOWER and BUNKER HILL a few years back. One might say, “Oh I know all about that,” but Philbrick’s research and narrative skills are amazing. Obviously, Arnold’s mystique survives.

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