Bob Drury and Tom Clavin have spent years writing books, both individually and as a team. Between the two of them, they have explored topics ranging from baseball and golf to the old west and America’s 20th century wars. With Valley Forge (Simon & Schuster, 2018), Clavin and Drury have turned to the American Revolution. The result is another successful collaboration. (I’m biased as I have enjoyed several of their earlier books.)
Valley Forge tackles the Philadelphia Campaign, the winter encampment at Valley Forge (and elsewhere in truth), and the Continental Army’s emergence as a quality army capable of fighting the British on their own terms, which it demonstrated at Monmouth. The focus is on Washington and the main army with him. The reader sees both of them grow as Washington defeats political attempts to undermine his leadership and struggles to hold the army together in the face of harsh conditions and insufficient support from the rebelling states, Continental Congress, and local farmers. Meanwhile, the Army develops into a core of hard-bitten professionals suitably trained in European methods specifically adjusted for their circumstances. After undergoing Steuben’s training program, it had the military skills needed to match its fighting spirit. By and large, it marked a turning point in the war. Thus, at the end, the authors argue, “For those who survived, not least their inspired and inspiring commander in chief, the hardships they overcame had not so much transformed their innate character as revealed it.”[i]
Although their narrative is built around Washington and the army, Clavin and Drury are careful to introduce external developments and individuals relevant to the story. Their character sketches liven the tale and build a better story. Valley Forge offers a conventional interpretation of events and will not appreciably alter our general understanding of 1777-1778 in the mid-Atlantic states. But, because it is intended for a general audience, someone already versed in events will still appreciate the high quality of Clavin and Drury’s writing and the way they’ve integrated several disparate threads.
As much as I enjoyed reading Valley Forge, Clavin and Drury occasionally dropped a clunker that made me scratch my head and rush to the notes section. For example, the authors state that Washington met Henry Knox while inspecting defensive works on “the heights of Charlestown” during the siege of Boston.[ii] The nearest heights to Charlestown are Breed’s Hill and Bunker Hill, which the British occupied at the time. (In his biography of Washington, Ron Chernow places the first meeting between the two on the road to Roxbury, where Washington and Charles Lee were headed to inspect the defensive works Knox had laid out.[iii] Knox biographer Mark Puls also places the first meeting on the road between Cambridge and Roxbury.[iv]) Elsewhere, Clavin and Drury credit George Washington with having performed in his favorite play, Joseph Addison’s Cato: A Tragedy, sometime in 1752/1753.[v] While Washington was familiar with the play and often quoted it in his correspondence, he generally avoided public speaking unless it was necessary. The suggestion that he actually performed, popular as Cato was, seemed odd and is not supported in the available references.[vi] Such things are minor, but they accumulate. An awkward and inadequate reference system may drive some readers to distraction when they come across such things.
That said, I don’t want to end on a low note. Valley Forge is an excellent read that I had trouble putting down. I wouldn’t hesitate to give it as a Christmas gift to a casual reader interested in the period and hope that its publication means Drury and Clavin are turning their considerable narrative talents to the Revolutionary War era.
[i] Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, Valley Forge, Kindle ed., (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), Kindle Loc. 5567.
[ii] Drury and Clavin, Valley Forge, Kindle Loc. 1325.
[iii] Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life, (New York: The Penguin Press, 2010), 204.
[iv] Mark Puls, Henry Knox: Visionary General of the American Revolution, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 30.
[v] Drury and Clavin, Valley Forge, Kindle Loc. 268.
[vi] Just to be sure, I double-checked several of the Washington biographies on my bookshelf and one book about the theater in Revolutionary America. Those that discussed Washington’s fondness for the play never even hinted that he had performed it.