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The Winter Soldiers

July 2024
7min read

by Richard M. Ketchum

Doubleday & Company, Inc., 435 pp. $10.00

“Long after the event,” writes Richard Ketchum in The Winter Soldiers , “it would become the stuff of legend, and little boys would sit at the knees of garrulous old men, listening to heroic tales of the ‘Grand Army’ that put the redcoats to rout. At every Fourth of July celebration white-haired veterans would be shepherded onto platforms draped with flags and bunting, to nod and doze through the long orations while their minds drifted back to that long ago day when the world was young and eager and alive with brave comrades.” This legend is with us yet; the two hundred years that have passed since a group of farmers and shopkeepers won our independence have conferred a sort of inevitability on the success of their distant struggle. We know it was tough and bitter, but we also tend to feel that once the spirit of liberty was loose in the land, there could have been no quenching it. So we see the men as they saw themselves in the afterglow of memory: brave, optimistic soldiers toiling through a winter landscape uphill into glory.

Ketchum’s book, which traces the course of the American Revolution to just beyond the close of the critical year of 1776, shows us a very different picture of the war; there was nothing inevitable about its outcome, and in fact we very nearly lost it at the outset.

After the heartening early successes—Bunker Hill, Ticonderoga, and the siege of Boston—General Washington and his amateur army of twenty thousand men occupied Manhattan and found themselves facing the largest expeditionary force ever to leave the shores of England. In late August of 1776 anxious men with inadequate equipment watched thirtytwo thousand of the finest line troops in the world come against them. By all rights it should have ended right there. They were beaten on Long Island, escaped back to Manhattan by a miracle, were beaten again at Kip’s Bay, lost the city, fled into Westehester, where they stood at White Plains, and were beaten once more. For ten weeks they were whipped wherever they made a stand. There were some bright spots—such as the terrific holding action fought by Colonel John Glover and his indestructible Marbleheaders at Pell’s Point—but they were pitifully few.

The Americans still held one small plot of ground in Manhattan—Fort Washington at the northern end of the island. George Washington, across the Hudson in New Jersey, wanted to evacuate the works, but Nathanael Greene persuaded him that the fort could withstand a siege. So it was that on November 16, after an autumn of defeats, Washington watched from across the river the single greatest blow to American arms in the war. The British and Hessians carried the works in a day, taking three thousand prisoners and an enormous quantity of irreplaceable materiel.

The redcoats wasted little time in crossing the Hudson and giving chase to Washington’s shrunken, dispirited army. The American soldiers now were far from a dedicated band of veterans convinced of the eventual triumph of their cause; in fact, there seemed very little reason why it should triumph at all. They had never won a big battle, they had seen their friends spitted against trees by Hessian bayonets on Long Island, and now they were flying south across New Jersey in their worn summer clothes a half day’s march ahead of well-fed, competent men who wanted to kill them. They did not even have the sympathy of a revolutionary nation to solace them through the terrible days of marching. Even when the American cause was waxing, a nation with a free white population of over two million was never able to field an army of more than twenty-five thousand men, nor did those at home ever adequately feed and supply the relative few who went off to fight. Most people wanted to save their own skins, as most people always do, and there seemed to be scant purpose in supporting the handful of scarecrows that tottered through the tidy New Jersey towns that season.

And yet within a month these same dirty, frightened men would turn on their pursuers and win two extraordinary victories that would save their cause. These victories would not be the work of Providence; they would be the work of a very few men who were willing to hang on for another week or two when their comrades had gone home and their cause seemed dead. What sort of men were they? Ketchum’s book brings us very close to them, for it is the story of people rather than campaigns. He has gone through innumerable contemporary papers and journals and brings forth a group of ordinary men who could rise to extraordinary courage in a harrowing time. But they were men—not just ancestors—and it is a good thing to see them as they were before they froze into the stilted poses of the formal portraits. Ketchum brings them to life in brief, lucid sketches: fat, affable Henry Knox, with a liking for luxury, who taught himself the rudiments of artillery from books in his Boston bookstore and learned’the rest in the field; Nathanael Greene, a Quaker blacksmith who found his pacifist beliefs impracticable in this “business of necessity”; John Haslet, a burly Irishman who raised a command of Delaware patriots who gave as good as they got on Long Island and whose stubborn stand in the face of frightful odds caused Washington to exclaim: “Good God! What brave fellows I must this day lose!”

The one man who kept the army together is hard to separate from his legend. Washington’s contemporaries seem to have held him in as much awe as succeeding generations have; nobody gave him a nickname, and nobody made jokes about him. A French volunteer remarked that he seemed “intended for a great position—his appearance alone gave confidence to the timid and imposed respect on the bold.” He was not a great strategist, but he was blessed with the uncommon quality of being able to improvise brilliantly under the worst kind of pressure. Most of all, he was patient—for years he drafted calm, balanced, heartbreaking letters vainly trying to coax a few more shoes or a little additional gunpowder out of a bankrupt Congress. His lieutenants saw him as a man almost without emotion, but his private correspondence shows him to have been vital, irascible, frustrated, passionate, and obsessively concerned with his reputation. And yet when he had to, he was able to gamble both his reputation and the last forlorn dregs of his army.

Finally the Americans were driven clear out of New Jersey and came to rest on the Pennsylvania shore of the Delaware River. Here Washington surveyed the remnants of his army and bitterly concluded: “I think the game is pretty near up.” All of his cold, sickly soldiers must have thought so too, but there they were on Christmas night, setting out across the ice-choked Delaware in a gale to march against the Hessian garrison at Trenton. Twenty-four hundred men at the limits of their endurance came booming through the blizzard into Trenton and forced the sleepy, disorganized Hessians out of the town into a wintry orchard, where a thousand men surrendered to the Continentals.

The victors were far too tired to exult, and they still had a long journey back across the Delaware ahead of them. But all of them were aware that, after all the months of defeat and rout, they had won a great victory.

We think of these men, many without shoes and some without trousers, leading their sturdy, well-dressed prisoners down to the landing and again wonder what sort of men they were. Ketchum tells us. Take, for instance, Sergeant Joseph White. He had picked up an “elegant sword” from a dead German officer (later he would be induced to part with it for eight dollars), and now he was back at his battery staring mournfully at his favorite gun. Its axletree had been shattered by enemy fire, and he was trying to decide what to do about it when Henry Knox came riding up out of the storm, peered at the damage, and told White to abandon the piece. But White liked his cannon—“the best in the regiment,” he boasted— and was damned if he was going to leave it behind. He rounded up four men, and they managed to patch up the axle and began to push the heavy piece toward the river. It was slow, wretched work, and the rest of the army slogged by them and disappeared into the gloom ahead.

“Joseph White,” writes Ketchum, “was a matter-of-fact sort of fellow who took things pretty much as they came, but he was beginning to realize what this war was going to be. It wasn’t quite the same as advertised on that bright morning in May 1775 when he had signed up for an eight-month hitch, when all the talk was of liberty and the glory to be won and you marched to the skirl of fife and drum and the promise of pretty girls’ smiles. No, what it amounted to in the long run was unutterable weariness and discomfort and the bone-breaking effort of hauling and shoving a cranky, uncooperative cannon down a lonely road in a blizzard.”

White saved his gun, and a week later he was once again crossing the Delaware with it, on his way to a coup every bit as remarkable as the last one. The battle of Princeton has been somewhat eclipsed by the triumph at Trenton, but it displays, if anything, even more of Washington’s genius for superb improvisation. Washington did not reckon with the energy of British General Cornwallis, who, as soon as he got news of Trenton, took after the Americans with eight thousand men. He moved fast, and January 2 of 1777 found Washington and his five thousand soldiers trapped with their backs to the Delaware, facing certain defeat at the hands of Cornwallis’ redcoats. Cornwallis airily remarked: “We’ve got the old fox safe now. We’ll go over and bag him in the morning.” But in the morning there was nobody there. Using a little-known back road, Washington had led his men straight around the British lines and on into New Jersey.

A little later three British regiments in Princeton saw a glitter of metal in the distance and swung around to attack General Hugh Mercer’s Continentals, many of whom had never been in a fight before. The Americans formed a shaky line behind a hedge, and when the English came pounding toward them, they broke and ran. Once again it seemed as though everything was lost, and once again vast events pivoted on one man.

Captain Joseph Moulder had joined Washington’s army a month before with three guns and a few sailors that he had coaxed to come along and work them. Now he had two of his guns trained on the advancing redcoats, and he began to fire just as the British were about to charge the fleeing rebels. For a few moments Moulder represented the entire martial strength of the revolutionary army—two guns, all by themselves, banging away on a hill. It wasn’t much, but it was enough. The charge faltered for a minute, and then American reinforcements poured into the fighting. Washington arrived on the field and watched the red lines dissolve and the soldiers of the king run pell-mell for safety. In a rare moment of open exultation Washington yelled “It’s a fine fox chase, boys!” and galloped after them, a jubilant figure in the cold, bright day.

That was the end of the campaigning in 1776. Washington went into winter quarters and waited for a spring that would bring new hardships. Most of his soldiers went home, to be replaced by unpromising recruits. But now, for the rest of the war, there would be among these green men a leavening of veterans who had seen Hessians surrender and British regulars run from a pitched battle and who would not forget the sight. As Ketchum writes, “The Americans’ revolution survived—survived in some mysterious way that no one could quite fathom—in no small part because of what George Washington and his soldiers achieved against all the odds that nature and a vastly superior military force could pit against them. … Because of their accomplishments, the waning days of 1776 were not the end of everything, but a new beginning.”

The Winter Soldiers is the story of the men who brought about that new beginning; it is a story that cannot be told too often and has rarely been told so well.

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