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Oct 29, 2018 11:03 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Tom Clavin Co-Authors 'Valley Forge' About A Key Moment For Washington, And The Fledgling Nation

Washington and Lafayette visiting troops at Valley Forge. COURTESY LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
Nov 5, 2018 5:02 PM

When it comes to the story of the American Revolution, most historians would say that the pivotal event for George Washington, his Continental Army and this fledgling nation came with the crossing of the Delaware on Christmas Day in 1776, and the Battle of Trenton, which followed.

But author Tom Clavin would respectfully disagree.

“After the Battle of Trenton, they came back to fight the next day,” Mr. Clavin said during a recent interview in Sag Harbor, where he lives. “But at Valley Forge, had they not survived and come back, there would be no next day.”

Valley Forge, in eastern Pennsylvania, is where Washington and his 12,000 bedraggled troops bivouacked from December 1777 to June 1778—and it’s where more than 2,000 of those soldiers died. But Valley Forge is also where Washington cemented his reputation as a national leader, a ragtag army was revived and retrained as a formidable fighting force, and the tide of war ultimately turned in favor of the patriots.

“Valley Forge” is also the name of a new book by Mr. Clavin, a columnist for The Press, and his writing partner, Bob Drury. As a team, the pair have worked together on several top-selling nonfiction titles based on little-known episodes in American history—from “Halsey’s Typhoon,” about a tropical cyclone that hit the Pacific Fleet in World War II, and “The Last Stand of Fox Company,” the story of a group of Marines surrounded and outgunned in the Korean War, to “The Heart of Everything That Is,” about Sioux warrior and statesman Red Cloud.

“With Red Cloud, I so enjoyed writing about 1800s America, I wanted to go deeper in American history—even to the Revolution,” Mr. Clavin said when asked what inspired the interest in Valley Forge. He added that the ideas for those previous books had come from either Mr. Drury or their editor at Simon & Schuster, and now it was his turn to pick a topic. “It was a combination of pure luck and curiosity,” he said.

Curiosity, because Mr. Clavin, like many writers, came to the project with scant knowledge of the topic. His view of Valley Forge consisted primarily of an illustration in his middle school social studies book showing Washington and his soldiers huddled in the snow. That was certainly how his writing partner and his editor saw it as well.

“Most of us think it was an interlude, a time-out … winter sitting by fireplace,” Mr. Clavin said. “But it really was a battle to survive and a revelation that Washington was also battling to keep his position as commander in chief.”

Through his research, Mr. Clavin soon came to realize that the six months of Valley Forge were crucial for the Revolution, in that they solidified Washington’s leadership abilities and dovetailed into events going on elsewhere in the world. During that period, Benjamin Franklin was in Paris trying to work out an alliance with the French, who weren’t yet convinced the patriots would succeed, and the British had seized Philadelphia, the nation’s capital, sending the Continental Congress fleeing and essentially disbanding the government.

“But the greatest threat Washington faced was his own Continental Congress and officers who were trying to depose him. You had all these characters crisis-crossing.

“Once I pitched it that way to Bob, he was all in, and our editor said, ‘Go with it,’” said Mr. Clavin, who added that it was during Valley Forge that Washington was first referred to as the “Father of the Country” by a German publication in Pennsylvania.

“The lowest part of his life was Valley Forge. Every day men were starving. Because of the virtual disbanding of the government, George Washington was the government,” Mr. Clavin said. “It was him and an immediate circle of aides—including Alexander Hamilton and Marquis de Lafayette—generating orders, memos, pleas to governors for help to feed the troops. There was no effective government, just Washington and his circle all living in this three-bedroom house.”

“Valley Forge” posed a unique research challenge for Mr. Clavin. For earlier books, he relied on information obtained through firsthand interviews or newspaper accounts. But writing about the American Revolution required different source material: historic journals, diaries and letters.

“You have to go to the originals, and we were very fortunate in that about 2,000 of Washington’s letters, memoirs and orders during the Valley Forge period are now digitized through the Library of Congress,” Mr. Clavin said. “This was different from any other book I’ve done. The hours that weren’t spent traveling to interview people were spent looking at journals.”

Among the best sources Mr. Clavin uncovered were two volumes of letters by Lafayette, and several documents penned by young Hamilton, Washington’s right-hand man. “He would finish Washington’s sentences. He was like a ‘mini-me’ to Washington,” Mr. Clavin said.

Other sources included James Monroe, a fellow founding father and fifth president of the United States; John Marshall, the fourth and longest-serving Chief Justice of the United States in Supreme Court history; and John Laurens, someone Mr. Clavin notes “no one has ever heard of.” He adds that Laurens’s writings to his father, American statesman Henry Laurens, who was president of the Continental Congress at the time, were extremely illuminating and instrumental in sealing Washington’s reputation as a leader.

“Laurens’s letters are about what Washington was doing, and his praise and support was important once the Continental Congress reformed after the war,” Mr. Clavin explained. “His father had become convinced that Washington was the man to lead the country.”

That makes Laurens one of the most important unknown figures of the American Revolution. Mr. Clavin notes that his vociferous support of Washington was vital in the face of challenges by two British-born generals who wanted his job, Horatio Gates and Charles Lee.

“Gates was an incompetent general who at least had the distinction of winning the Battle of Saratoga, which Benedict Arnold really won,” Mr. Clavin said. “Lee had failed at everything he did, all the way to the top. He was a POW for 18 months, and the British couldn’t stand him and let him go. He thought he was a smarter and better general.

“Thankfully, the effort to fire Washington was thwarted,” he added. “Otherwise, one of these jerks would’ve been in charge.”

Another surprise that Mr. Clavin unearthed in his research was the fact that Washington’s army of largely untrained farmers and merchants were mostly immigrants.

“Guys from Ireland, Germany, Wales, France, Poland—they were the ones in the field fighting our war of independence,” he said. “Another part of the untold story is the composition of the army of 750 black soldiers. It was the last time the U.S. Army was integrated until Korea. A black soldier from Connecticut was the first to die at Valley Forge.”

But perhaps the most intriguing figure Mr. Clavin found at Valley Forge was Baron Von Steuben, who single-handedly transformed the soldiers into a professional army. “He’s one of the most exciting characters in the book,” he said. “A con man and a spy, and a captain with the Prussian army who was kicked out for consorting with other men.”

Von Steuben showed up in Paris to ask Benjamin Franklin for a job. Franklin helped him out by inventing a new title for him, as lieutenant general in the Prussian army, and sending him off to America to help Washington. Meanwhile, the French secretly offered him a salary to spy on Washington and his troops so they could discern if they were backing a loser.

“Von Steuben shows up at Valley Forge with his greyhounds, servants and his wagon, and Washington said, ‘I need you,’” Mr. Clavin explained. “Von Steuben falls in love with the American army and decides he’s going to help them. He trains them, and over the next six weeks they become a professional army.”

When the British next encountered the Continental Army at Monmouth Court House in June 1778, they were shocked by their skill level and amazing transformation. The battle marked the beginning of the end for the formidable British Army.

“In the book, we contend Valley Forge was the pivotal moment of the Revolutionary War—but we’ve had some push back from historians,” said Mr. Clavin, who maintains that Valley Forge remained a sacred place to Washington for the remainder of his life.

“In 1796, he’s in his last year as president. He rides out to Valley Forge alone on his horse. He’s old, tired and has lived long enough to see the end of his administration,” Mr. Clavin said. “There, he meets a farmer who was one of his troops. The farmer asked him to stay for dinner. But Washington said, ‘I have to go to Philadelphia and attend to business.’

“That was the last time he saw it. In 1797, John Adams is sworn in as president, and Washington died in December 1799.”

Mr. Clavin notes, “Washington was the first really successful leader of this country. He had great character and integrity.” He adds, “How things have changed in 240 years. Washington has probably spun in his grave so many times he’s worked his way to China by now.”

On Saturday, November 10, at 4 p.m., Tom Clavin will appear at BookHampton, 41 Main Street, East Hampton, to discuss and sign copies of “Valley Forge.” For more information, visit bookhampton.com or call 631-324-4939.

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