Writing this book review and commenting on The Strategy of Victory by Thomas Fleming fills me with lots of mixed feelings, but it is sadness that predominates. This was Fleming’s last book, finished just months before he died back in July of 2017. The sadness is compounded because I had several occasions where Mr. Fleming and I corresponded over the past six or more years. He was gracious to have review copies of some of his later books sent to me. Even more so, he was always complimentary toward the reviews and articles where I referenced his books. My unfulfilled hope was to meet him.
The Strategy of Victory is published by De Capo Press.
As the subtitle states, this is the story of how General George Washington succeeded on the battlefield and won the American Revolution. George Washington’s battles have been a recurring topic in Mr. Fleming’s writings. There were almost always two different battles going. The clearly discernible enemy was the British army (whether that of British soldiers themselves or their Hessian mercenary counterparts). That enemy was powerful and laden with advantages in terms of numbers, supplies, and leadership. But the more subtle, devious, and dangerous enemy Washington faced was within the American patriot organization.
Let’s call them Washington’s enemy-friends. By that, I mean that these were men on the Patriot side, but who were scheming and plotting to remove or discredit Washington. Since Washington spent lots of time losing battles, retreating from place to place, and trying to hold the army together, he was vulnerable to lots of criticism. There were military men who were angling for Washington’s job. Horatio Gates was the prime candidate who thought he deserved Washington’s position. Having the victory of Saratoga on his resume certainly indicated that Gates was first rate. (Gates’s successes as a general were more the result of other generals around him, such as Benedict Arnold–before he turned–and Daniel Morgan.)
Some members of the Continental Congress were also anxious to replace Washington. Victories on the battlefield would certainly have stopped the mouths of the critics, but such wins were few. Moreover, it is hard to win battles without an army. And it is hard to have an army without proper training. A strong current among the Patriots was the favoring of militia over trained troops. The militiamen truly put up some powerful fights, but they operated on short term enlistments causing Washington’s army to sometimes nearly vanish.
From early on, part of the challenge was what Fleming calls Bunker Hillism. The battle of Bunker Hill (of which Fleming wrote his first book–Now We Are Enemies) was a victory or success story of sorts for the Continental Army. There at that battle, it was the tough defense that made spiked the butcher’s bill for the British. That convinced many on the Patriot side that fighting similar defensive battles could win the war.
Washington disagreed. He recognized that he needed a trained army that could operate under discipline and function like their red-coated opponents on the field. With time and circumstances, he was able to build up at least some strong professional-level troops. The successes were generally small, but the troops proved their worth on many an occasion.
As the war progressed, it was the commanders that Washington had mentored or recognized who succeeded along with him. Nathaniel Greene was the best example of a Washington-man who proved his battlefield savvy. Greene was one of the primary commanders in the southern campaigns that culminated at Yorktown.
Washington now had a new set of enemy-friends in the French allies. Working with the French or just succeeding in getting help from the French was challenging. Once again, with patience (and sometimes the loss of it) and fortitude, Washington succeeded. The war was won, Mr. Fleming contends, due to Washington’s style of fighting, training, and maintaining the army. Early in his own writing career, he was not so convinced of that. After speaking at West Point, he had several military men there who credited Washington’s strategy as being the key to the American victory. His years of study and writing on the War for Independence confirmed what the West Pointers had told him.
Thomas Fleming was a historian and an author. My preferred title for him is “story teller.” The successful historian, in many respects, is the person who takes the events and tells them in such a way as to spark love, interest, and even debate. Some historians are more precise or scholarly than Fleming, but few match him for conveying the drama and excitement of the events.
He is gone now. The Strategy of Victory was his last labor of love in the field of historical writing. I did feel that some parts evidenced the rush to finish as time was closing in. Mr. Fleming barely touched on the battles of Trenton and Princeton. When he discussed the southern battles, he mentioned King’s Mountain only in passing. Maybe a younger Thomas Fleming would have been encouraged by his editor to expand the book another 50 to 100 pages. But that was not to be. We could all wish that we could write something even half this enjoyable and good if and when we get near the ninety year mark.
I miss Thomas Fleming, along with many others I have lost in the past few years. But I treasure the books he wrote. His writing conveys the enthusiasm he had for history. You can even see the twinkle in his eyes, the grin, and the excitement of telling the story just by reading his words. Like Homer, like the great narrative historians through the years, Thomas Fleming knew how to tell a story. He left us a great inheritance.
Thomas Fleming obituary–from The New York Times