Valiant Ambition by Nathaniel Philbrick. (History/Nonfiction, 2016)
Veteran historian Philbrick’s latest is an often fascinating and always well-researched examination of the American Revolution, centered on the diverging destinies of two key military figures–George Washington and Benedict Arnold. He provides ample detail and good insights into both men’s personalities and how their essential characters led each to military successes and failures, shaped how they responded to the great sacrifices and frustrations both faced, and especially how and why one could stay true to the cause of American Independence while the other eventually turned traitor.
Readers should note that this book–while providing plenty on the important military events of the Revolution from 1776 till Arnold’s defection in 1780–is by no means a comprehensive battlefield account of the entire war. Indeed, a great deal of the book is about the petty politics, selfish backbiting, clashing personalities and divergent ideologies within 18th century America that threatened to destroy the effort from within.
The opening shots of the war in 1775 are barely touched on, though brief mention is necessarily made of Arnold’s part in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga, whose cannon played a decisive role in Washington’s successful siege of British-occupied Boston, and of the disastrous invasion of Canada (where Arnold suffered his first serious injury then recovered to direct the retreat, saving what was left of that defeated force).
Likewise, the key events after exposure of Arnold’s plot are not much covered, beyond the fact that the British sent Arnold on a destructive (but ultimately meaningless) raid on Virginia and more important, how (with a long-term stalemate around New York assured) General Greene was sent to rebuild the southern army (which led to the campaign that in wore out the British and culminated at Yorktown).
The supreme irony–which Philbrick makes explicitly the key conclusion to this story–is that while Arnold had been a great military hero of a weak and divided United States (perhaps second only to Washington in importance), it was when he became known as a vile traitor that he did the fledgling nation the most good. Arnold became the symbolic villain who united a quarrelsome Congress and a once-apathetic but now outraged population, strengthening their will to fight on to final victory.