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Book Review: George Washington – Gentleman Warrior

By (November 10, 2013) No Comment

George Washington: Gentleman Warriorg washington gen warr

By Stephen Brumwell

Quercus, 2013

“George Washington’s extraordinary reputation as one of the most celebrated men of his own age, or of any other, can be traced back unerringly to his ambition to become both a gentleman and a warrior,” Stephen Brumwell writes at the conclusion of his capaciously researched and almost entirely wrong-headed new book George Washington: Gentleman Warrior, “it was the gradual fusion of those traits that ultimately forged such a formidably balanced fighter.”

That’s the portrait Brumwell does his level best to paint in the 400 pages of his book, and the whole package is so enticing – beautiful design by the folks at Quercus, lots of crisp illustrations, hugely impressive Notes, and most of all the easy, commanding prose style that made the author’s 2001 book Redcoats such a counter-intuitively great story – that any reader (including this one) will be swept along, turning pages for all the world as though the thing were a thrilling piece of historical fiction.

Which it essentially is. The Washington in Brumwell’s pages stands taller than all other men not just physically but almost theologically. Every publishing season furnishes a crop of these hagiographical toadstools (they particularly flourish in the loamy soil of the Holiday season), and some of them are quite lovely to look at, but they can be dangerous if consumed without thorough broiling. Brumwell takes us through the familiar scenes of Washington’s life – prosperous Virginia planter and slave-owner, land surveyor, frontier soldier, British officer, Revolutionary general, victor at Yorktown – more like they were Stations of the Cross than rungs of ambition, and at almost every turn, our author works hard to shift any possible blame for any possible failings onto the narrower shoulders of other men. Take, as one example among many, his summing-up of the victory the rebels won over the British when they hastily fortified Dorchester Heights overlooking besieged Boston in March of 1776:

For all his misgivings and the myriad difficulties he’d faced, Washington had won the first round of the contest, and in fine style. The recapture of Boston, so long the hub of resistance against British tyranny, was both a symbolic and a concrete triumph, and cause for widespread patriot jubilation.

The second part of this is certainly true: Boston held enormous symbolic importance even then as the bravest and most important city in the colonies (and it still celebrates Evacuation Day with that wonderful euphemism, “widespread patriot jubilation”). But it’s more than counterbalanced by the fawning distortions in the first part: Washington had no “misgivings” about what to do with the long line of artillery Henry Knox and his men had hauled overland from Fort Ticonderoga – he wanted to turn them on the city of Boston and lead his little rag of an army across the frozen bay to attack the occupying British forces head-on. This is a bit much even for loyal Brumwell: “Even Providence would have been hard pressed to preserve her favored son under such circumstances: eager to prove his personal courage by leading from the front, Washington would likely have shared the fate of Montgomery at Quebec, depriving the Continental Army of its commander and dealing a potentially lethal blow to the Revolution.”

This tenacious fallacy – this conception of Washington as the indispensible man – is the blight at the heart of virtually every one of this kind of book. It’s annoyingly myopic; circumstances raise men just as often as men rise to circumstances. If Washington had been shot dead in this or any of the dozen other rash, impulsive moves this balanced paragon wanted to make throughout the war, who knows what mighty alchemy chaos and crisis might not have worked in men like Nathanael Greene, John Sullivan, Horatio Gates, Philip Schuyler, or even irascible Charles Lee (whose controversial nature and court-martialed decisions at the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse Brumwell handles with refreshing sensitivity)? Assuming Washington’s solitary indispensability and then working backwards from there to write his history can’t help but produce a warped view of the man.

Stephen Brumwell

Stephen Brumwell

Brumwell can occasionally be stern with his star. The incredibly muddled ‘battle’ of New York, with Washington’s pittance of men and material facing an oncoming wave of well-trained and well-commanded British troops, is one of those occasions:

In truth, American dispositions on Long Island were badly flawed, with the advanced troops too far forward to enjoy support from their comrades at Brooklyn and vulnerable to annihilation piecemeal. Washington, as overall commander, must take the blame. Despite his four months at New York, he had failed to familiarize himself with its geography.

But even here, our author can’t quite bring himself to leave Washington to the wolves, not when he can think up what a lawyer would call extenuating circumstances:

Given the obvious danger of being bottled up on Manhattan Island, Washington’s failure to not only quit New York City but evacuate his entire army to the mainland without delay testifies to the potentially baleful influence of the council of war and the consequences of his misguided belief that it was vested with the authority to dictate strategy. In addition, besides a desire to placate his civilian masters in Congress and an ingrained reluctance to surrender territory without a fight, it is also likely that Washington’s sense of urgency was blunted by his own exhaustion and the enemy’s inactivity.

Those damn meddling civilians! Those heavy, tired eyelids! Those mysteriously inactive British! But Brumwell has already said it: the final responsibility has to rest with Washington the commander, and Manhattan was hardly the only time during the war that a scapegoat had to be found for some daffy tactical gamble or stubborn refusal to accept reality on the part of the man from Mount Vernon. Brumwell hits all the expected emotional high points – first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen, and all that – but such is his mastery of the material and his engaging prose style that you can’t help but daydream of the George Washington book he’d write if he abandoned theology in favor of just plain folks.