- Historic Sites
The Winter Soldiers,
December 1973 | Volume 25, Issue 1
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!”