Revolutionary: George Washington at War
By Robert L. O’Connell
Random House, 2019
Military historian Robert O’Connell is probably best known to the general reading public for Fierce Patriot, his biography of American Civil War general and high-functioning psychopath William Tecumseh Sherman, and his new book Revolutionary: George Washington at War he looks to another American military leader, the most famous of them all: George Washington, who had the luckless job of commanding the Continental Army against the British forces amassing against the Colonies.
The fact that Washington immediately proceeded to make that job even harder through an exorbitant combination of stupidity and incompetence is usually politely overlooked by the man’s legion of hagiographers, and O’Connell is mostly willing to overlook it as well. But his book is at least more tempered than most; he admits that “there is no turning Washington into anything resembling an egalitarian,” and, more crucially, he cites an element most Washington biographers avoid like a radiation zone: “It would be imprudent to state flatly that George Washington was the luckiest human being who ever lived,” O’Connell writes with the light tone of wry humor that runs throughout the book. “But surely he remains at the pinnacle of good fortune.” This would be promising enough, but of course it’s followed by: “GW was an exemplary person; it was natural that others treated him well and things broke his way.”
Like chronicles of Washington’s military career, Revolutionary is a long account of things not breaking Washington’s way. For 300 pages, readers follow “GW” from bungle to blunder, from overreach to incomprehension, with our hero either failing upward through no merit of his own or saved by his staff from charging into catastrophe. And at every turn, O’Connell is on hand to smooth things over and put their good profile toward the sunniest window. Even at the end of the book, when a 60-something Washington is dealing with a farmers’ revolt in Pennsylvania in 1794, His Excellency gets a pass:
Even in the face of a threat he considered critical enough to militarize himself, Washington behaved with emblematic moderation. He simply wanted to overawe and deter; it a all an exercise in political theater. He might have been ready to shed blood; but that was never his objective. He always minimized violence, and that was at the heart of his genius as a revolutionary.
O’Connell is so persuasive that readers will have to squint a little to remember that this is a description of a United States President leading thousands of armed and mounted soldiers in person against American citizens. Probably those miserable debtors had it coming.
When O’Connell isn’t engaged in this kind of public relations, when he’s writing about Washington’s world instead of Washington’s military record, his book is brightly energetic, although often curiously refracted. His account of the Colonies on the eve of rebellion, for instance, is effectively evoked:
It was a time of taking sides and taking names, a time of paranoia and fear, one of emotions strung tight enough for friends to denounce friends of a lifetime. Suspicion of trading with the British, not showing up for militia muster, or simply loose talk could land you in front of a committee of safety to explain yourself, sign a loyalty oath, or face the consequences. Most complied, but a minority of under 20 percent never would; they could not countenance the suppression of royal authority and ultimately independence.
“For many their sole crime was a failure of imagination,” O’Connell writes, “they simply could not conceive of life without king and empire.” This is odd, and not merely because that “under 20 percent” reference is, to put it euphemistically, intensely debatable; it appears not to conceive the possibility that this minority had plenty of imagination but just didn’t agree with the rebels.
Ultimately Revolutionary presents an insightful overview of the birth of the United States right alongside the usual starry-eyed heroic poem about Washington himself. Readers will need to assess the balance between the two for themselves, but those readers are unlikely to get a better Washington book this year.
--Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The National, The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.