Most US citizens know the basic facts of the American Revolution: Hardscrabble settlers, led by George Washington, wrested control of the colonies from England. To leave it at that is a shame, however, especially when the details, as rendered by journalist, novelist, and historian Jack Kelly, are so riveting. His Band of Giants: The Amateur Soldiers Who Won America's Independence reads like an adventure novel, with complex characters, awe-inspiring heroism, crusty-but-lovable rascals, and men seemingly chosen by Providence to rise above dismal circumstances and pull off one of the more unlikely "David vs. Goliath" upsets in history. Naturally, there's also lots and lots of blood, which you will sense, perhaps for the first time, in the ground on which you walk.
Kelly's vibrant prose reanimates the primeval terrain—the "glacier-clawed landscape" of Maine, for instance—and conjures a palpable atmosphere of sodden tents, waist-deep mud, and whizzing musket balls. The distinctive voices of the characters ring particularly clear, to a haunting degree. To accomplish this, Kelly, an impressive researcher, interweaves emotional correspondences from George Washington, as well as missives home from dangerously inexperienced soldiers picked from farms, townships, and backwoods. (Thankfully, many felt compelled to record the drama.)
These previously unsung voices lend Band of Giants its unique gravitas. As its subtitle makes clear, this book isn't just about major players like Washington, Ethan Allen, Benedict Arnold, and John Adams—all well represented—but the "wild outlanders" of Delaware, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. These were wielders of the newly invented rifle, men who'd learned from the Natives how to hunt, trap, and wait patiently to ambush, all traits that would prove both useful and dangerous. Although they were colorful and fearless, Kelly notes, "the spirit that induced men to take up arms for freedom stood in the way of their becoming effective soldiers." Simply put, they were a mess.
Kelly introduces us to the commanders who, after much trial and error, and some crippling losses, transformed the rebels into an army that bested the superpower of the age. Men like tanner and farmer "Mad Anthony" Wayne and bearish Virginia backwoodsman Daniel Morgan possessed the mettle to whip starved, scared, raggedy men into fighting shape. Also notable are Nathaniel Greene, Washington's second in command and a pacifist Quaker-turned-fighter, and street-tough Henry Knox, a Boston bookseller who, at 25, took over the American artillery. Each of these men commandeered crucial tipping-point aspects of the war, and without them, we'd all have English accents.
As Kelly points out, the savagery of the soldiers was necessary, but, like unstable fuel, it needed governance of a very particular bent, and Washington et al., through a mix of luck and pluck, found the men for the job. Washington himself was a renowned motivator, but he hardly won the war alone. He leaned on these memorable gents, whose exploits, heretofore lost in the glare of the American Revolution's "stars," now get their due.
Beyond the sheer thrill of Kelly's storytelling and lively character sketches, Band of Giants explores the genesis of American character traits still noticeable today: The beloved, often fetishized wildness of the rebel spirit and the passion for liberty, Second Amendment rights, and individualism all began here, with these men. Crucially, however, Band of Giants makes clear that someone must harness that wildness. Otherwise, all is lost.
Appearing 10/2 at 7pm, Elmendorf Inn, Red Hook; 10/5 at 2pm, Chatham Bookstore; 10/7 at 6pm, Northshire Bookstore, Saratoga.
—Robert Burke Warren