Kenneth (kensmind) wrote in bookish,

Book Review: Valiant Ambition by Nathaniel Philbrick

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold and the Fate of the American Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick is a fascinating tale of the American Revolution told with the infamous Benedict Arnold at the center of the story. Arnold, formerly a wealthy Connecticut merchant, had initially distinguished himself as a very brave and fearless wartime commander, who defended his country at considerable personal sacrifice, both physically and financially. Philbrick tells the story of how Arnold changed from a steadfast patriot into a selfish, greedy and resentful traitor, willing to sacrifice the lives of his countrymen for personal gain.

But there is much more to this story than Arnold's personal transformation. In what is clearly a labor of love, Philbrick tells the story of the American Revolution, and of how George Washington also evolved from a someone who, the author asserts, was in over his head as a military commander, into the leader that he is known to be today. Philbrick also describes the political climate of the Revolutionary era, filled with tension between loyalists and revolutionaries, as well as the political dysfunction that resulted from a legislative body that was supposed to be united, but was really just a collection of thirteen self-interested regions, many clamoring for war, but unwilling to pay for it. We also learn that political interference in military matters is not a recent phenomenon, with generals in this era selected and promoted based on political connection rather than merit, and how generals postured and jostled for position to receive glory whether earned or not.

Philbrick tells us much that we wouldn't necessarily know from popular history. For example, I was amazed to learn that Arnold was not only skilled in fighting land battles, but that he had also enjoyed some success as a naval commander on Lake Champlain. Philbrick also tells us about the significance of the Siege of Fort Mifflin and how the courageous inhabitants of the fort thwarted British plans for control of the Delaware River. An especially interesting character in the book is the teenage soldier Joseph Plumb Martin, a diarist who is ubiquitous in his presence at many of the key moments of the story. His insight, offering the perspective of the rank and file soldier is very helpful in understanding the times. Other fascinating characters include Arnold's wife Peggy Shippen Arnold, British Major John Andre who played a major role in turning Arnold, and many of the other commanders on both sides of the conflict such as Nathaniel Greene, Horatio Gates, Henry Clinton and the Howe brothers.

At times this book reads like an action movie. I found the last part of the book, the story of Arnold's attempt to hand West Point over to the British and the capture of Major Andre, to be especially compelling reading. The author's passion for this story comes through very strongly, and the reader is the beneficiary. This is an outstanding example of how history makes for great reading and great story-telling, especially when written by an author with keen insight and passion for his subject.
Tags: author: p, genre: non-fiction, review, subject: biography, subject: history

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