Valiant Ambition by Nathaniel Philbrick – notes

George Washington (our hero),  and Benedict Arnold  (the traitorous villain) may not have been all our American history school books have had them cracked up to be –  the 18th and 19th centuries were amazing in their retelling of our heritage so that the union would be shown as proud and brave and always righteous – necessary for nation-building purposes. That said,  Washington really was a pretty good guy in most ways –   even with the last 50 years of revisionism,  I’ve not read anything really unfavorable about him.

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold and the Fate of the American Revolution
by Nathaniel Philbrick
2016 / 443 pages
rating:   9  /  American history – 
And a huge thank you to Penguin Group at Viking  for the ARC via NetGalley

In his excellent Preface Philbrick lays out his job – to show that the story of the real Revolution – which those participating tried hard to get past and which was overwritten by historians   – was one which included cynicism, selfish impulses, and how a traitor may have saved the day and the nation.

Philbrick’s research includes what he could unearth about the


Painting of George Washington by Charles Willson Peale – March 1776 – after removing the British from Boston.

unpublished  and destroyed manuscript of the memoirs of Charles Thompson, the secretary to the Continental Congress between 1774 and 1789.   – His account was entitled “Notes of the Intrigues and Severe Alterations of Quarrels in the Congress”  and would “contradict all the histories of the great events of the Revolution.”  Thompson simply hoped the American public would believe the lies and and “adopt the qualities that have been ascribed to them and thus good may be done.”   He decided NOT ” (to) undeceive future generations.” And much much more – the source notes are excellent.

It’s the same old guys,  the careful and patient Washington up against the dangerously passionate and bitter Arnold.  This is to say nothing of the charming and forever optimistic Marquis de Lafayette or the charming but devious little John Andre.

The British are also involved here – they have a side to the story – Generals Howe and the others were somewhat disconcerted by the fact they were fighting folks they considered their own countrymen – a civil war if you will.   And this is to say nothing of all the unsung – heroes or villains – who tried to twist the results for their own advantage.


Pierre-Eugene Du Simitiere portrait of Benedict Arnold – 1779? –

Chapter 1 – “Demons of Fear and Disorder”

In the very early days of July, 1776,   Admiral  William Howe and his brother General Richard Howe along with General Henry Clinton brought their fleets into New York Harbor to fight the insurgency.   Without a Declaration of Independence this was nothing more than a civil uprising – the Americans were still fellow citizens of England.  Too bad – that document was signed within days and any idea of reconciliation was too late.   Also General Gates and intro type info re Washington.

Chapter 2 – ” The Mosquito Fleet”
Now we have some about Arnold’s personality –   the possibly foolhardy bravery,  damn the costs mixed with compassion –  love him or hate him.  Battle for Lake Champlain – Battle of Valcour Island 

Chapter 3 –   “A Cabinet of Fortitude”
Context of  late fall in 1776 – Continental forces in bad shape with ambitions and character issues starting to show.   Some say  Washington indecisive (true) and others gossip  while Washington crosses  New Jersey in apparent  defeat.  Support of Nathanael Greene,  Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine and James Monroe.  Washington tries to remain positive but with Gates, Reed and Lee waiting for him to fall so they could take over.   Arnold was off to Rhode Island.  Chapter takes reader through crossing Delaware to the battles of Trenton and on until they were positioned in Pennyslvania across from New York.

Chapter 4 – “The Year of the Hangman”
Arnold – in love,  looking to improve his station,  keeps trying to get promoted high enough but to no avail – other do even if he’s doing much for the cause.  Washington is presented as calm and far-thinking,  Arnold as hot-blooded but patriotic,  Gates as an arrogant opportunist.   Arnold resigns,  Washington needs him,  Congress sends him to Washington.

Chapter 5 – “The Dark Eagle”
Burgoyne moving to divide New England – battles – Indians – , Ticonderoga, Howe and Clinton didn’t cooperate,  some traitorous actions –   more Indians.   Jane McRea – Arnold denied promotion again – by vote – Congress and Republicanism.  Fort Stanwix and Arnold – Indians working with Brits but finally left.  Arnold wants to defeat Burgoyne.

Chapter 6 – “Saratoga”
Gates and Arnold against Burgoyne’s troops at Freeman’s farm.  Arnold and Gates work together but it disintegrates their relationship with the help of Wilkinson –   Arnold leaves Gates – Gates was older .   Men respect Arnold –  Arnold hired Schyler’s aides – won’t give them up –  they hate Gates.  No compromise – Wilkerson has created difficulties.   Gates gets more men,  Burgoyne’s army has shrunk.  Arnold hangs around.

Arnold,  who had not been promoted thanks to the methods and partisanship of the  Continental Congress,  was bold to the point of reckless while his superior,  General Gates, was far more risk averse.  They worked well together at first but the difference eventually,  under the stress of battle and with the help of others,  undid their trust and cooperation.

Horatio Gates really comes off looking like the bad guy along with his adjutant James Wilkinson.  Gates had also been passed over when Washington got the job of Commander in Chief – “His Excellency.”

Chapter 7 “The Bite of the Rattlesnake”

One of the interesting things is that Philbrick covers the less known people and battles – the Siege of Fort Mifflin for one quoting from a survivor,  “there was no Washington, Putnam, or Wayne there…. Had there been, the affair would have been extolled to the skies.”

Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga – a turning point – to Gates but thanks in large part to Arnold.  Joseph Plumb Martin – unsung hero – journals including Fort Mifflin and  Valley Forge to keep Brits from taking Philadelphia –  Gates secretive and Wilkinson leaked – spread by Hamilton.   Conway Cabal –  of Conway (French officer)  Gates, Wilkinson,  Mifflin – these guys just basically disagreed with what Washington was doing – not a bit “plot” against the revolution – just that they thought it could be done better – by one of themselves.    Washington could attack to save Philadelphia,   Conway is appointed inspector general,  Gates as president Wilkinson promoted.  Washington  has a spy –  Laurens from South Carolina.  Valley Forge starving and cold – troops leaving and none joining – not born in US  –  this was a long term war.  Washington goes to Congress –  Lafayette appears –  Valley Forge is supplied.  More on Laurens (anti-slavery)  and Hamilton –  Washington reveals source of leak – Gates reconsiders his opposition of Washington –  Bushnell tries “Battle of the Kegs.”  (lol!)

Meanwhile,   Arnold was wounded and has been out of commission all winter and commenced his pursuit of Miss Betsy Deblois.

Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben joins the forces – a huge fraud but totally valuable.  Informed by Franklin and Washington

Washington learns of the treaty with France.

Chapter 8 –  “The Knight of the Burning Mountain”
Arnold is crippled with a leg injury from battles but living it up as governor in Philadelphia where he met Peggy Shippen, young and rich with a loyalist daddy and soldier brother.   Arnold liked to spend money was rebuilding business and  anticipated wealth.  Thought different politics would be no problem between himself and Peggy.

France enters war which makes it a world war with West Indies a concern to Brits and French.  Howe needs to get out of  Philadelphia which was  turning into its own kind of tyranny with the Rebels demanding goods and loyalty oaths (even from military) so now the Loyalists and traders were leaving.  They needed passes and opportunists  were trading for it.  Arnold was still healing in Valley Forge but  he wanted in on the loot – he felt  it was owed him from his war effort and he was okay with smuggling and profiting  from his early years. He wasn’t planning treason he thought of it as a stick in the eye of the Brits.  John Hancock,  Nathanael Greene,  and Arnold –  just three guys in a secret deal and, well …  “discretion had never been Arnold’s long suit.”

Arnold was appointed military governor of Philadelphia and was to restore order and prevent property removal by Brits.   So he had other little deals –

Ben Franklin’s belongings were confiscated (he was not residing there at the time)  and one painting ended up in the collection of the Brits.   Congress orders nothing leaves Philadephia –

Should Washington’s troops just let the Brits go or should they attack them as they were leaving?  Charles Lee, newly released from Brit prison urged let them go – no risk.  Nathanael Green said attack now or regret it.      Washington said attack and Lee changed his mind – wanted to command.  Washington went ahead and Lee would get to look bad -Washington called Lee’s bluff.  Lee retreated in mid attack,  Washington’s  troops behind him – Lee denied suggesting it. Washington  moved his troops to attack and he was at his best –  Battle of Monmouth where  Molly Pitcher’s skirt was blown away.

The Brits thought not much was accomplished at the battle but the Yanks touted it.  Washington figured he beat Lee (who retreated) but Lee said retreat was necessary.  Lee was suspended from the military for a year.

Philadelphia was a shambles,  trashed really,  and those who had left wanted to return.  Arnold didn’t know what to do – asked for a post in the navy to help free slaves and fight Brits in Barbados and Bermuda.  Could have been famous – alas – Washington wasn’t big on the sea – Arnold fell in love.

In July 1777,  Comte Charles Hector d’Estaing of France finally arrived at the mouth of the Delaware River with a very small fleet.   A storm came up and ruined the plans – he later took off for the Caribbean.

Clinton’s Brit armies holed up in NY –  it’s turning into a very long war and it’s costing a lot – Brit had more to spend than America and could just wait it out.  Washington needed better intelligence.

The sides of the Americans –  The Republicans were mostly rich and enjoyed life wanted more.   The Constitutionalists were poorer and promoted austerity and zeal.  Arnold favored the Republican style of life,  like Philip Schuyler – NOT like Horatio Gates who was far more of a Constitutionalist.

Back to the Peggy Shippen and Arnold story –  while New York is held by the Brits,  Arnold is making and spending the bucks in Philly by various methods but he was also watching his PR by giving nicely and socializing. He pursued Peggy – he was handsome, powerful and apparently rich but her father,  Edward Shippen had concerns.

Chapter 9  “Unmerciful Fangs”
Joseph Reed – prominent Philadephia lawyer and judge of state Supreme Executive Council.   His pious wife gossiped about Peggy Shippen.  Joseph was very, very harsh on “traitors” and “loyalists,” even condemning Quakers and the Continental Congress  – won only 2 cases – they hanged.  John Cadwalader proposed amnesty for all and healing.  Arnold sided with Cadwalader and showed it.

And Benedict Arnold was the touchstone – anathema to Reed, hero to Cadwalader –

Washington came to Philadelphia with his wife and he was appalled at the lavish displays the upper crust put on for him.  He was dismayed by the lack of authority or even interest in affairs of state.  There was no central government,  even the Articles were as yet un-ratified (nd a couple states sent their own ambassadors to France).   Also, Washington was put out by Arnold’s attitude toward government and lavish spending.  Washington may have had a streak of Joseph Reed in him.  Charles Thomson thought it was Reed who was possibly the traitor.

Charges flew back and forth but precious little evidence. Was Reed bribed by the Brits?  But he was certainly focused on  (obsessed with?)  bringing down Arnold and the Congress with it if needs be. – Did Reed drive Arnold over the line to actual treason?

Arnold needed money,  borrowed money to marry Peggy,  bought a mansion,  married Peggy,  was harassed by Reed with witnesses being found, leg not healed,   he was in serious trouble.

The national attitude toward armies or paying for them was very negative.  Lots of places were involved in “ugly internal struggles.”  There was even a generally  lawless area in Westchester County,  north of New York – and similar situations in Connecticut,  Long Island and New Jersey – the Whaleboat Wars.

Chapter 10 “The Chasm”
Time drags on.  Starts writing secret messages to English through a British officer named John Andres – Arnold was hugely concerned about his court martial and finally agrees to reveal military secrets.    Peggy has also pushed him.  He provides info to Clinton who is waiting for Washington –   Arnold has turned traitor.  Right here.  Betraying  both his country and his friends – and it was for money basically.

Washington is waiting for d’Estang to arrive with a fleet to help him fight Clinton who is still in NY,  but he never gets there.

In Philadelphia the citizens have banded against the loyalist, wives and families who remained.   Arnold shows up and is pelted by rocks in his carriage.  His court martial was delayed – Reed seeking more info.   Arnold was giving more info to the Brits and he might very well be suspended or cashiered out of the army at the court hearings.

Chapter 11 “The Pangs of a Dying Man”
Winter weather in 1779-1780 was fierce.  Washington’s army not fit to fight. Martin’s journals. Arnold’s court martial:  he defended himself convincingly (even though he was doing worse things at the time).  He admitted to only 1 thing – while in office he was buying prohibited goods when he was doing so – abuse of office.  He attacked Reed for peace-making with the enemy. Complete hypocrisy.   He was given a reprimand by Robert Howe and Henry Knox.    Arnold outraged and proud at the same time.  By this point public opinion was not so against Arnold – the Supreme Executive Council (Reed) allowed the count to stand.

Now he wanted a naval expedition but Washington refused and sent him the reprimand about the 1 charge which was upheld and then advised Arnold to moderate his tone and some goodies would be his.  Ha – Arnold couldn’t moderate.  He wanted West Point. (He wanted it to surrender it.)  He lets the Brits know he expects to have it based on really flimsy evidence.

Washington’s Continental army is now starving to death without supplies – there was a near mutiny.   Charleston was surrendered to the Brits.  “I see one head gradually turning into thirteen.”  –  This was basically because of taxes – no one was willing to be taxed by anyone – Brits or for the army.   Arnold was seeing the Americans couldn’t do it and there were others in the army who were dejected –  Ebenezer Huntington

Arnold visited West Point and advised the Brits. Peggy was convincing a delegate from NY to let Arnold have West Point spending quite a lot of time with him.  Arnold is  playing both sides for reals.

With Charlestown down,  Clinton returned to New York  – BUT! it was only after the Hessian general he had left in command started an attack and lost.  BUT! troops were on their way from France and due to a bit of spying,  Clinton now trusted Arnold’s info.  BUT!  English troops were also coming and the the French troops were not ready.  BUT!  Maybe Washington could attack New York himself – with Arnold ?  BUT!   Arnold has gone ahead to West Point thinking the Brits would pay him.  And whom should he meet en route but Washington –  it gets complicated.

Washington offers Arnold the lead command for the attack rather than West Point, but Arnold is not overjoyed – rather,  he appeared ill.  lol –  (no doubt).  Washington appointed him anyway. Peggy was informed and she had hysterics (as usual when something was not to her liking).

So the forces are ready – kind of – BUT! (again)  Clinton, not having naval back-up,  alled off the attack.  And so did Washington.   And Arnold got West Point.

Chapter 12 – “The Crash”
The Brits still controlled New York and Arnold was near West Point – however Arnold has no way of getting messages back and forth to New York and Clinton,  so he has no real idea of if his offer has been accepted.  Peggy is still in Philadelphia.  Arnold has to be careful especially around his aides, David Franks and Richard Varick who were both suspicious of the government stores there as well as his correspondence.  The Robinson house was small and Varick was not tolerant.

Arnold tried for more info to give Brits but neither Howe nor Lafayette would reveal the names of their spies.   Varick shared info with Arnold’s other aide,  Franks.


“Joshua Hett Smith House, Treason Hill,” circa 1909

Peggy sent info re Clinton’s agreement,  but Clinton wanted 3000 Americans when he captured West Point.

South Carolina was lost even though  Gates was sent there.  Now America looks doomed.

John Andre who had started as a spy was now an adjutant general with Clinton in  New York – he worked with Arnold and was also very concerned about money.  Andre will go to meet Arnold.

Little plans for Andre and Arnold to meet were hard because Andres would be easily recognized so Clinton would not allow it. Robinson, whose house Arnold is in,  is now a Brit colonel in New York –  Andre is a Brit officer and will be called Anderson.  Might be recognized by Americans because he was in Philadelphia.  Arnold wants to meet with Robinson rather than Andre.

But Andres let Arnold know he was coming as himself, so Arnold almost didn’t go and when he did he had to hide and was seen by Private Joseph Martin on the American side of the Hudson.  Martin thought this was strange – Arnold acted suspicious – guilty. And Andre did not get to meet Arnold that day.

It gets complicated what with Washington coming up to join the battle,  so Arnold had to get the information to Clinton and get over to West Point quickly so that Arnold could hand the fort over to him.   Arnold finally met with Andre / Anderson but had wanted to hand the info over to Robinson,  the owner of the house Washington was using as headquarters.  Robinson was now a colonel for the Brits in NY. –

The first thing Arnold wants to know from Andre (who is dressed in Brit uniform with blue cloak)  is what he’ll be paid  because  he wants more.  Andre assures him and the two talk into the morning when they go to the house of Joshua Hett Smith house to finish up. Smith had been helping with crossings   On the way to the house Arnold and Andre met an unexpected sentry  –  Arnold gives the password but Andre is dressed as a Brit and is in American territory.  Meanwhile,  a  little battle breaks out  about the Brit ship in the Hudson and the vessel which brought Andre over is now leaving the area.  –  oops.

Chapter 13 – No Time for Remorse
Smith returns to his house and sees Andre there – he believes Arnold’s explanation but now they have to get Andre back to NY.  Arnold and Andre are both in it for themselves but Arnold is the more cunning.  Andre is disguised for a land trip and cross at King’s Ferry.  Arnold is not careful about Andre’s safety and he wants to get back to his own people at Robinson’s.   Arnold does give Andre and Smith the necessary passes.

Arnold is getting ready to hand over West Point.  The Brits have their warship loaded and ready.  Smith is taking Andre back to his ship and rather than taking a boat – he goes across the American areas to get to the Ferry – then comes the “Neutral Ground” –  it’s night.  Smith is a talker.  The mention of Cowboys is verified by Martin (the private 1st hand journals)  but the Skinners may be a myth from James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving tales – it’s not sourced by Philbrick –   see:

They spend the night with Cowboys but Andre is nervous (no doubt).  The next day he loosens up a bit as they get closer to the ferry and Andre reveals his true colors (hoping to fight the French).   Smith didn’t make any waves at that point.

They come upon a lone American officer and Andre recognizes him –  Colonel Blachley Webb –  they all pass – Andre is scared and at some point continues alone.

He comes upon a man dressed as a Hessian and two others who say they are loyalists.  Andre says he is a Brit officer who has to hurry  –  big oops!   Too bad,  the three announce themselves as Americans.

The Americans search him.  They  find the papers and march him off to Colonel John Jameson –  Andre tries a bribe – too bad.    The jig was really up and it was the fault of Andre.

Jameson doesn’t know what to do with him so he sends Andre under guard to Arnold and the documents to Washington.  Benjamin Tallmadge, head of American spy network,  shows up at Jameson’s .  Wants Andre returned – not sent to Arnold –  very suspicious. They send a note to Arnold that Andre/Anderson has been captured.

They caught Andre in time and sent him back.  Andre sent a note to Washington that he was the poor hapless victim of Arnold.  Alexander Hamilton was convinced.  Andre was humiliated he’d been betrayed by bumpkins –  Tallmadge was also irritated at the bumpkins –  Andre was the kind of guy they liked – not the traitor Arnold.

The documents didn’t get to Washington who had taken a different route. They were back in South Salem to be delivered with Andre’s new letter.   This time to Robinson’s house where Washington was to meet with Arnold. –  Eeks!

Washington was preempted at the house by his servant and messengers,  Arnold was warned and they showed him the letters.  He knew.  He argued with Peggy and left for the boat back to New York.

Washington caught up to his actions,  got the letters, the maps and documents.  He knew the whole story.

Arnold was taken as a prisoner and released in New York.

Washington was really upset.

Peggy went stark raving mad – convinced everyone in the house,  was taken to her family but on the way confessed to a loyalist lady that she was acting and it was she who convinced Arnold to turn traitor.

Washington got two letters – one from Arnold who was totally  unapologetic.  The other letter was from Robinson telling him that Andre had been taken to another prison.  Andre was pleading he was a prisoner of war.

Washington would trade Andre for Arnold.  Clinton refused and Washington stood firm,  Andre was hanged.

Arnold was a lonely brigadier general for the Brits.  Washington thought he had no remorse.

EPILOGUE  “A Nation of Traitors”

Reaction in Philadelphia was horrible – they felt personally betrayed.  Reed was vindicated. An effigy was created,  toured through town and set on fire.  They realized they could darned well lose the war.

The US had to learn a lesson about independence and disloyalty – (beautiful chapter).

Peggy was exiled to New York by the Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council  – she got there and was shortly pregnant.

Arnold pursued a bloodbath by way of massacres in Paoli and Old Tappan – avenging the death of Andre.

Joseph Plumb Martin joined David Bushnell’s Core of Sappers and Miners – difficult job.

Arnold tried to get a group of loyalists to support him – didn’t go too well.  Washington wanted him kidnapped and brought to justice.  Clinton sent him to Virginia for a major battle.

Nathanael Greene was to be the commander of American forces – he’d seen Andre’s execution and was commander of West Point –  they move on to the South to fight against the Brits with Arnold.