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Led by the Continental Congress, the Americans almost lost the war for independence because their military thinking was badly muddled. Following the victory in 1775 at Bunker Hill, patriot leaders were convinced that the key to victory was the home-grown militia — local men defending their families and homes. But the flush of early victory soon turned into a bitter reality as the British routed Americans fleeing New York.
General George Washington knew that having and maintaining an army of professional soldiers was the only way to win independence. As he fought bitterly with the leaders in Congress over the creation of a regular army, he patiently waited until his new army was ready for pitched battle. His first opportunity came late in 1776, following his surprise crossing of the Delaware River. In New Jersey, the strategy of victory was about to unfold.
In The Strategy of Victory, preeminent historian Thomas Fleming examines the battles that created American independence, revealing how the creation of a professional army worked on the battlefield to secure victory, independence, and a lasting peace for the young nation.
For a book of this length and complexity, I have many people to thank.
My first thoughts go to Colonel Charles M. Adams, whom I met during my 1960s years at West Point, while I was writing a history of the military academy. It was Adams who helped me grasp the importance of strategy in a professional soldier’s thinking. Our discussions were supplemented in much briefer style by my conversations with several generals.
Equally helpful were historians who grasped the idea that George Washington was no mere figurehead. He was a thinker who changed the strategy of the war and a leader who had the equanimity to deal with the barrage of criticism that descended on him from men with little or no military insights, such as John Adams and Dr. Benjamin Rush. A good example of this new view is Edward G. Lengel, former director of the George Washington Papers and author of General George Washington: A Military Life.
I have also reached deep into my past and drawn on material on the war in New Jersey by Francis S. Ronalds, former director of Morristown National Historical Park. He generously gave me access to this research, which contained new insights into the British attempt to end the war after the surrender of Charleston in 1780. Equally important were my conversations with the late Don Higginbotham, biographer of Daniel Morgan and author of many other distinguished books, which gave me a new understanding of the importance of the battle of Cowpens. Another friend whose book played a major role in my thinking was Terry Golway, author of Washington’s General, a superb biography of Nathanael Greene.
I also remain indebted to several librarians. One is Gregory S. Gallagher, until recently the head librarian of the Century Association, whose research talents extended far beyond the relatively small library he managed with such skill and charm. Another is Lewis Daniels, head of the Westbrook, Connecticut, library. Once more he displayed his skill at obtaining rare books from distant libraries, enabling me to devote most of my summers to writing rather than travel. The staff of the venerable New York Society library, of which George Washington and Alexander Hamilton were once members, has also been invariably helpful and encouraging.
My deepest thanks go to my son, Richard Fleming, whose computer and research skills continue to grow and shed new light on topics such as the “Fabian” side of George Washington’s generalship. Also helpful was my daughter, Alice, former managing editor of St. Martin’s Press, in pursing obscure endnotes and otherwise advising me against repetitions and similar blemishes in the early drafts of the book. My wife, Alice, a gifted writer in her own right, performed a similar task, at times more drastic, in pointing out how much a supposedly “final” draft could be cut, adding new vitality to the narrative.
At least as important were the advice and encouragement of my editor at Da Capo Press, Robert Pigeon. My agent, Deborah Grosvenor, who brought us together, was also a frequently helpful presence. There are many others who have my thanks, confirming one of my favorite adages: No writer works alone. It only looks that way.
The year is 1783, the date, March 15—the legendary Ides of March—a day forever filled with foreboding since the assassination of a famous general who sought imperial power, Julius Caesar, more than 2,000 years ago. For the Americans of 1783 the foreboding was especially intense because Caesar’s murder led to the destruction of the Roman Republic and to centuries of rule by emperors. Was the fragile new American republic about to experience a similar fate?
We are in the final year of the eight-year struggle that we call the American Revolution. Lieutenant General George Washington is in New Windsor, the American Continental Army’s winter camp near Newburgh on the Hudson River in New York. He is about to walk out onto a stage in a building called the Temple of Virtue and confront a galaxy of faces stained with sullen dislike and distrust of his leadership. These ominous visages belong to the officers of the Continental Army. Dangling in precarious balance is the future of the United States of America.
Most twenty-first-century Americans, when and if they learn of this confrontation, can only stare in amazement and disbelief. George Washington, the father of our country, despised and disliked by the men who had spent most of the previous decade risking their lives in obedience to his orders? Why do we celebrate Washington’s birthday and consider his home, Mount Vernon, a shrine? Why have we named the capital of the world’s most powerful nation in his honor? And erected the world’s tallest stone monument to immortalize his name?
The coming pages will provide the answers to these questions. For the moment we can sum them up with the book’s title: The Strategy of Victory. This confrontation in New Windsor was part of the price Washington was paying for the drastic changes he had made in the way America fought the Revolutionary War. He did not foresee this discord; nor was he sure he and the nation would survive it. More important for today’s readers, the crisis forces us to think about the Revolution—and George Washington—in a new way.
My first glimpse of this reality came while I was working on a book about the history of West Point. In the course of my three and a half years at the US Military Academy, I talked to many generals, largely to explore the connection between their educations at the school and their later careers. Beyond this topic our conversations often turned to historical matters, confirming an old aphorism that professional soldiers are all in the history game. They were especially interested when I told them I hoped to write a book about George Washington as a general.
I asked their opinion of him. They all said essentially the same thing: “He was a great general.”
“Why do you say that?” I asked. “He lost more battles than he won.” At that time, I thought of Washington largely as a figurehead.
“Yes,” they replied. “But he changed the strategy of the war. In the middle of the war. That’s the hardest thing for a general to do.”
I soon grasped that strategy is the essence of a general’s job—an idea most civilians may find puzzling or at least surprising. The word derives from the ancient Greek word strategia, meaning “the art of troop leader, office of command.” It did not become part of Western vernacular languages until the eighteenth century.
One military historian has defined strategy as “a pattern in a stream of decisions.” Another scholar describes it as “a system of finding, formulating and developing a doctrine that will ensure long-term success if followed faithfully.” A third has summarized it as a human attempt to achieve “desirable ends with available means.”1
What does all this tell us about Washington’s strategy of victory? Perhaps most importantly, it underscores its profoundly human aspect. A winning strategy was not some dry, abstract theory for professors to teach in university classrooms. It could not fit neatly into a single sentence. Essentially it was a cluster of ideas and insights, all linked to a way of winning a specific war.
For George Washington the war was the revolt of the thirteen American colonies against Great Britain, the most powerful nation in the world of 1776. To win was to open a glorious future for America. To lose was to vanish over one of history’s precipices, never to be seen and scarcely to be mentioned again. Small wonder that Washington’s strategy aroused violent hostility and even more violent affirmations by men who cared passionately about its outcome.
George Washington was one of these caring men. As he would tell the officers he faced in the Temple of Virtue, he had been one of the first to step forward to defend “our common country.” Since that time he had “never left your [the army’s] side.” He was talking about the prime years of his life—from the ages of forty-three to fifty-one. He had devoted most of a decade to creating and maintaining the strategy of victory, sharing it with other soldiers who saw its essential importance, defending it against skeptics and critics, risking it again and again in the most nerve-shredding way imaginable—on battlefields where, veteran soldiers are often inclined to say, if anything can go wrong it will.
This glimpse of the strategy of victory tells us enough about George Washington’s ordeal to grasp its central role in America’s history. Let us become time travelers and learn how this way of fighting a war emerged from the violence that erupted between the men of Massachusetts and the British army on April 19, 1775. Thereafter we will travel through the years of the war while Washington evolved his new strategy and defended it against ignorant and arrogant critics, until we encounter two battles that demonstrate in breathtaking detail how the strategy of victory succeeded against intimidating odds.
The Fırst Stroke
On April 19, 1775, in the grey interval between dawn and sunrise, some thirty-eight Americans formed two uneven lines on the wet, dandelion-speckled grass of the triangular two-acre common in the center of Lexington, Massachusetts. They had answered the summons of the rolling beat of sixteen-year-old William Diamond’s brightly painted drum. Big, burly Captain John Parker, a veteran of the French and Indian War, had given the order to sound this call to arms. Most of the men had spent the night in Buckman’s Tavern, a white clapboard building just east of the green; others hurried from twelve houses that faced its three sides. As more men joined the ranks, Parker’s numbers grew to seventy-seven, still considerably short of the 130 names on his muster list.
William Diamond’s drum had rolled, and the men had formed up in response to a shouted warning from a rider sent out by Captain Parker to scout the road to Boston. A British column, the excited man said, was only fifteen minutes away and marching fast. Parker and his men were on the north end of the common, close to where one branch of the Boston Road led to Bedford. Another branch bent left past the opposite side of the common and continued to Concord. The town’s bulky two-and-a-half-story meeting house—where they gathered each Sunday to hear the minister, the Reverend Jonas Clarke, tell them that the British were plotting to deprive Americans of their liberty and that it was every man’s sacred duty to resist—blocked their view of the fork, from which the road ran to Boston.
The crisis had been gathering momentum for more than a year—ever since a group of Bostonians disguised as Indians had dumped £9,000 worth of British tea into the harbor to protest the three-cent tax on it. The reaction of Britain’s king and parliament had been extreme. They had made the commander of the British army in America, General Thomas Gage, the governor of Massachusetts and passed a series of punitive laws that deprived the people of the state of basic rights, such as the freedom to hold a town meeting without the governor’s permission.
Although they had guns in their hands, these men of Lexington were not regular soldiers. They were part-time warriors, known as militia. Under the royal government, every man between sixteen and sixty belonged to the militia. He was supposed to own a gun and a modest supply of ammunition and had to report for military drill at least once a year on training day. Militiamen wore their everyday clothes—loose brown or grey homespun cloth coats and leather knee breeches. They elected their officers once a year and wrote their own rules and regulations.
Since the tea party crisis began, a third of Lexington’s men had been meeting every week; supposed to be ready to fight on sixty seconds’ notice, they had been designated “minutemen.” The same policy prevailed in the province’s other towns. Everyone was preparing for a surprise attack by the British army in Boston.1
About a quarter of the men were related to Captain Parker by blood or marriage. Most of them came from families that had been living in Lexington for three, four, even six generations, and almost all shared some degree of kinship. The company clerk, Daniel Harrington, whose house stood only a few steps from the common, was a son-in-law of sixty-three-year-old Robert Munroe, one of the company’s ensigns—the eighteenth-century term for second lieutenant. Another Harrington—Jonathan—lived in the house next door with his wife and small son. Thirty-eight-year-old William Tidd, the company’ s lieutenant, was also married to one of Ensign Munroe’s daughters. The men included grandfathers like Jonas Parker, the captain’s cousin, and Moses Harrington, who were there with their married sons. Six younger men such as John Muzzy were also there with sons in their teens or early twenties.
Incongruous among the two rows of white faces was the glistening black skin of the slave Prince Estabrook. He had become a member of the company by majority vote, in accordance with the regulation that stated, “Any Person Desiring to be Admitted… shall have a vote of the Company for the same.”
If Captain Parker and his men had any plan, it was to keep as far away as possible from the Concord Road. Thanks to hardworking spies in Boston, they knew Concord was the British column’s destination. Earlier in the evening, when riders from Boston had brought the first alarm to Lexington, they told the militia that the British numbered between 1,200 and 1,500 men. Captain Parker and his men had conferred and decided “not to… meddle or make with the Regular troops.”
The Lexington men soon heard hundreds of feet striking the ground with military precision. The British were very close. Parker and his company waited, their eyes on the Concord Road. But around that side of the meeting house came only a single British officer on a horse, gesturing with a sword. Around the Bedford Road side of the meeting house came six companies of red-coated British light infantry, three abreast, twelve men to a file. Beside them were several officers on horseback and at least six civilians they had captured on the way, hoping to keep their expedition a secret.
There was a split-second pause in the British pace. Then the light infantrymen raced toward the Americans. Shouting furiously, the two lead companies formed a line of battle twelve abreast and three deep. The officer waving the sword was Major John Pitcairn of the Royal Marines. He commanded these light infantrymen, traditionally the toughest, most aggressive soldiers in their regiments. “Lay down your arms,” he shouted to Parker’s men.
From the other officers on horseback came contradictory commands. “Disperse, ye rebels,” one roared. “Surrender,” cried another. “Damn them we will have them,” bellowed a third.
The appalled Captain Parker turned to his men and told them to disperse without firing. Most of them began to drift away in various directions. Old Jonas Parker and a few others hesitated. Grandfather Parker had vowed never to retreat if the British attacked.
“Surround them,” shouted Pitcairn to the furious light infantrymen. But they were not listening to him or to anyone else. Later, Major Pitcairn said he thought he saw a gun held by a man behind a stone wall on the edge of the green “flash in the pan.” (The powder in the musket’s firing pan flamed but did not ignite the cartridge in the barrel, so the gun failed to go off.) American witnesses—about forty men, women, and children stood around the green or watched from the windows and doorways of the adjacent houses—said one of the British officers on horseback fired a pistol. If either occurred, it only supported the intentions of the light infantrymen from the moment they saw the militia facing them on the common.
The red-coated soldiers in the two lead companies stopped, and the second rank stepped a half pace to the right. The third rank stepped another half pace to the right. The maneuver took the men no more time than it takes to read these words. They had practiced it repeatedly during the preceding winter months. Now every man in the two companies could fire without hitting the soldier in front of him.
Thirty-six muskets crashed on the left, then thirty-six more on the right. A huge billow of white gun smoke swirled in the murky dawn air. Murderous one-and-a-half-ounce bullets tore into Captain Parker’s men. Ensign Robert Munroe was dead when he hit the ground. A cousin, John Munroe, gasped as a bullet smashed his arm. Young Isaac Muzzy died at his father’s feet. Jonathan Harrington, hit in the chest, crawled painfully to the doorstep of his house and died there, before the eyes of his horrified wife and son.
A wild melee erupted as Parker’s men began firing back. A number of men who had lingered in Buckman’s Tavern opened fire from the first- and second-floor windows. More guns boomed from the windows of other houses around the common. The rear companies of light infantry stormed into the fight, some returning the shots from the tavern and houses, others charging Parker’s men, firing from the hip and lowering their bayonets.2
Old Jonas Parker, hit in the first volley, fired his musket from a sitting position and struggled to get a fresh cartridge and flint from his hat, which he had placed on the ground between his feet. A light infantryman stopped him with a bayonet thrust. Asahel Porter of Woburn, one of the men captured on the road, tried to run and was shot dead. He and a Lexington man died north of the common, on the other side of the stone wall. A half dozen more Lexington men were wounded in this vicinity.
“Cease firing. Cease firing,” shouted Major Pitcairn. He rode among the milling light infantrymen, striking up their guns with his sword. But they paid no attention to the marine officer—or to any other officer. “The men were so wild they could hear no orders,” said Lieutenant John Barker of the King’s Own Light Infantry. Squads of furious soldiers rushed toward Buckman’s Tavern and the houses, swearing they would kill every man they found in them.
Into this chaos of swirling gun smoke, shrieking women and children, roaring light infantrymen, and cursing officers rode corpulent Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith. He commanded the seven hundred men who had left Boston at 9:30 P.M. the previous night with orders to destroy the American gunpowder, cannon, and supplies at Concord. Success, they hoped, would cripple resistance to British authority in Massachusetts.
With the help of a lieutenant, Smith found a drummer and ordered him to beat “cease fire.” This familiar sound restored some sanity to the berserk light infantrymen. As the companies reformed, some Lexington men on the third floor of Buckman’s Tavern fired three shots at Lieutenant Colonel Smith. The soldiers begged for permission to go after them. Smith angrily refused and rebuked them for ignoring the commands of their officers and breaking their ranks.
In perhaps ten minutes, the light infantrymen were in marching formation on the common. Near them, four Lexington men lay dead or dying. Four more were in the same condition just off the green, and another ten were staggering or limping to safety with painful wounds. The British had one soldier wounded in the leg. Major Pitcairn’s horse had taken two bullets.3
The British officers held a hurried conference. Should they continue their march to Concord now? They knew that every town had companies of militia like the one they had just routed at Lexington. Lieutenant Colonel Smith saw no reason to deviate from his orders. He told the light infantrymen to give three cheers and fire a volley—a British tradition on winning a victory.
By this time the rest of the seven-hundred-man British force had reached the green. They waited on the Concord Road, eleven companies of grenadiers, the biggest soldiers in their regiments, and four additional companies of light infantry, during the performance of the brief victory ceremony. Major Pitcairn’s six light infantry companies rejoined the column. In a compact body, their drums beating and fifes skirling, the British marched for Concord, five miles away, oblivious of the fact that they had started a war.4
BEFORE TWILIGHT descended on April 19, one in five of these victorious British soldiers would be dead or wounded. Compounding the irony, they found no gunpowder and very few weapons in Concord, whose residents had, with the help of those numerous American spies, anticipated their haphazard searches and hidden well everything the British hoped to find. While redcoats groped through barns and attics, more than 5,000 infuriated minutemen and militia gathered from dozens of towns in the vicinity and made the soldiers’ return to Boston a nightmare. Again and again blasts of bullets hurtled into their ranks from ambushes along the curving road. Only reinforcements from Boston, led by a veteran brigadier, Lord Hugh Percy, rescued them from annihilation. More fierce fighting erupted when the Americans attacked the reinforced column in the final miles to Boston. But they could not pose a serious threat to the British, now over 2,000 men strong.
The British suffered 73 men killed and 174 wounded. Another twenty-six were missing; some had been wounded and left behind along the road; a few had deserted or surrendered. Massachusetts’s losses are more difficult to compute. The colony had no organized system for reporting casualties. We are fairly certain that forty-nine died, but the semiofficial estimate of only forty-one wounded is suspicious. The ratio of killed to wounded is usually one to three in land battles. Many of the wounded may have gone home and never reported their injuries.
As the battle fury died away, men on both sides began assessing the experience. Lieutenant Barker wrote in his diary, “Thus ended this expedition, which from beginning to end was as ill-plan’d and ill-executed as it was possible to be.”5 Captain William Glanville Evelyn of the King’s Own was convinced that the “Yankey scoundrels” were “the most absolute cowards on the face of the earth.” He attributed the valor they had displayed on April 19 to “such a degree of enthusiasm and madness that they are easily persuaded the Lord is to assist them in whatever they undertake, and that they must be invincible.”
The chagrined Lieutenant Colonel Smith could only complain, “Notwithstanding the enemy’s numbers, they did not make one gallant attempt during so long an action.” By gallant attempt he meant a face-to-face confrontation in the traditional battlefield style.
Lord Percy took a more balanced view of Massachusetts’s tactics. It was true that the minutemen and militia had attacked in a “very scattered, irregular manner,” but Percy noted that they did so with “perseverance & resolution, nor did they ever dare to form into any regular body. Indeed they knew too well what was proper, to do so.” Grimly, Percy concluded, “Whoever looks upon them as an irregular mob will find himself much mistaken. They have men amongst them who know very well what they are about.” He was now convinced that “the rebels… are determined to go thro with it, nor will the insurrection here turn out so despicable as it is perhaps imagined at home.”6
Percy recognized, with the eye of an intelligent soldier, one of the least understood realities of April 19. The Americans who responded to the British challenge were not a mass of disorganized individuals; they were a well-supplied rudimentary army that had been organizing and training for six months. They were in a state of battle readiness, much better prepared to fight than the British soldiers who marched out of Boston.
A heavy proportion of the American officers were veterans of previous wars who knew how to lead men into battle. Their training and the knowledge that they outnumbered the British five to one added to the confidence with which they responded to the alarm when the fighting began. In short, April 19, 1775, was a victory of preparedness, not a product of spontaneous enthusiasm. The minutemen and militiamen of Massachusetts knew their superior strength and, more importantly, were confident that their months of training would enable them to use that advantage effectively. Unfortunately, this lesson was lost even before it was learned.
Propaganda Meets Reality in 1776
In reporting their version of Lexington and Concord to the world, Massachusetts’s political leaders strove to give the impression that their stance had not been in the least warlike or hostile before General Thomas Gage launched his men on their midnight march. The Yankees were keenly aware that they needed to use the blood spilled on April 19 to win the support of other Americans—especially those living outside New England.
The Massachusetts version of the day denounced “barbarous murders committed on our innocent brethren” and accused the British troops of “driving into the streets women in childbed, killing old men in their houses.” The Lexington men comprised “a small party of the inhabitants… some with and some without firearms.” At other times they were described as “peaceable spectators.” In Concord, where attacking Americans inflicted heavy casualties on a British company guarding an important bridge, the armed and angry Americans became “inhabitants… collected at the bridge.” At no point was there any mention of minutemen or militia. The Americans were simply “provincials, roused with zeal for the liberties of their country,” who “assumed their native valor” and fought so well that “the loss on the part of the British troops far exceeded” that of the patriots.
As political propaganda, the report was a masterpiece. It aroused an enormous explosion of sympathy and anger throughout America. Some 20,000 men from western Massachusetts and the other three New England colonies rushed to join the minutemen and militia who had pursued Lord Hugh Percy to Charlestown on April 19. They began building fortifications and organizing themselves into an army that effectively blockaded the British inside Boston. “In the course of two days,” wrote one glum British officer, “from a plentiful town we were reduced to the disagreeable necessity of living on salt provisions.”
- "[A] giant of the literature of American history...Thomas Fleming has created a detailed account of the shifting strategic thinking of George Washington as the commander of the Continental Army...Expertly crafted...Entertaining."—Roanoke Times
- "Fleming, who died last July after celebrating his 90th birthday, was the kind of writer who made other writers feel lazy and shiftless...This volume, composed near the end of his ninth decade, is a fitting capstone to a remarkable career...It is an idiosyncratic treatment which celebrates certain key events while passing over others with a quick wave of the pen. Yet it offers great pleasures...Fleming's prose shines."—Washington Independent Review of Books
"Fleming to his credit approaches strategy not from the abstract, theoretical perspective of some international relations scholars, but instead from the perspective of an historian analyzing facts and circumstances at specific times in specific places."—New York Journal of Books
- "Describing him as a 'thinking general,' Fleming follows Washington on the long campaign from north to south battling his own politicians almost as much as the Royal Army."—Milwaukee Shepherd Express
- "There's a lot to like in Thomas Fleming's Strategy of Victory...The book abounds in interesting factoids."—San Francisco Book Review
- "[A] fascinating military history from cover to cover, thoroughly accessible to lay readers and historians alike...Highly recommended especially for public and college library collections."—Midwest Book Review
- "An outstanding example of a short, comprehensive and original discussion of a complicated issue, distilling its essential points into a readable and fascinating tale."—Galveston County Daily News
- "This is classic Fleming, lively and readable and unabashedly pro-George Washington and the American founding. Yet it illuminates the conflicts within the Revolution and debunks several cherished American myths at the same time."—PJ Media
- "In a strong narrative, Fleming illustrates that Washington understood well the need to keep the Continental army alive versus seeking defeat of the British in decisive battle. For as long as the Continental army survived, the British could never claim victory...Fleming does a fine job of showing just how low 'the lows' were for Washington when he was defeated and how fleeting the highs could be."—H-Net
- "Fleming does a masterful job of depicting Washington as a general who learned from his mistakes and changed his strategy in the middle of the war...Fleming's book is an excellent analysis of Washington's expert handling of the American war effort during the American Revolution."—Collected Miscellany
- "There is something special about a book whose author is so at home with the characters and so steeped in the material that the story flows like a conversation between friends around a warm fire...The Strategy of Victory, sets the reader in that neighboring fireside chair...The author's clean, flowing style and his command of detail make The Strategy of Victory a pleasure to read...The Strategy ofVictory is a must-read for Revolutionary War buffs and is also an excellent introduction for those just discovering the subject. Draw up a chair beside the fire and listen to this masterful storyteller."—American Spirit
- "Fleming's work is insightful. It gets right to the heart of Washington's actions in a passionate argument of his virtues as a leader. The author is a leading authority on Washington and this period of American history. His clear language and thoughtful ideas succeed in getting his message across and make this book a pleasure to read. It gives the reader an understanding of the reasons George Washington is considered the father of the United States."—Military Heritage
- "Fleming tells the story well....He emphasizes that Washington was an instinctively aggressive commander, and had to learn the hard way how to pursue an 'indirect' strategy."—Thomas Ricks, New York Times Book Review
- "The Strategy of Victory provides a good summary of Washington's strategy and through it the birth of the Army...A quick and easy read."—On Point (The Journal of Army History)
- "[A] concise military history of the American Revolution...Students of the war will find much that is informative to their greater understanding of the conflict."—The Historian
- On Sale
- Oct 10, 2017
- Page Count
- 328 pages
- Da Capo Press