In "Victory at Yorktown," historian, bestselling author and former candidate for President Newt Gingrich completes his trilogy about the greatest achievements of George Washington. Read an excerpt.
Headquarters of the Continental Army
Near West Point on the Hudson, New York
September 30, 1780
Darkness blanketed the Hudson River Valley, the glow of hundreds of campfires reflecting off the low scudding clouds, passing in the wake of this afternoon’s rain. He left the window open to admit the fresh evening breeze even though if Martha were here, she would slam it shut, cautioning him about the danger of chills and fever borne on such a breeze.
It was a strange silly notion. As a young man he had spent years out on the edge of the frontier, either campaigning in the last war or surveying after the conflict had ended. He would go for months at time with only a bit of canvas over his head. But once back in a house where Martha held sway and even on the most sweltering of nights, she held religiously to the belief that night air coming in through an open window was dangerous. And of course he indulged her, there were some things, that even though he was commander in chief of all American forces in the field, he nevertheless deferred to his wife and usually did so gladly.
He wished for her presence this evening with a deep longing. Whenever presented with what he felt was not a military question but instead a moral decision it was her advice he always turned to. The decision he had just made, the paper he was about to sign were indeed a military decision, that was and would always be how he defined it, and yet it was, as well, a moral question forced upon him by this never-ending war.
General George Washington stood up, stretching, his towering six foot two height nearly brushing the low beams overhead. Opening the door to his office he stepped out, the guards flanking it snapping to attention. Alexander Hamilton, busy at work in his office across the hallway with the door open looked up, ready to be summoned. Washington shook his head and gestured for him to remain at ease, then headed for the front door, opened it and stepped out into the night, the guards posted outside coming to attention as well.
Hands characteristically clasped behind his back he started into the night had barely taken a dozen paces and then heard footsteps trailing behind him. A bit annoyed Washington turned to see Hamilton racing to catch up, half a dozen guards following.
“Alexander,” he sighed, “I’m just going for a walk.”
“Sir, after the events of the last week, I must insist that a guard accompany you at all times. One cannot be too cautious.”
It was obvious Hamilton was filled with concern for his well-being, at times too much so. But he knew the young man to be right. After the events of the last week. . .
“All right then, Colonel Hamilton,” he sighed and looked at his guard detail. “But no need to hem me in young sir. Indulge me by just following along at a decent interval.”
The men, encamped near his headquarters, having finished their evening meal of salt pork, and whatever they could forage on the sly or barter for from nearby farms, were settling down for the night. He did not enter the encampment area, that would simply trigger all the usual calls to attention, rousting men out, nervous young officers trying to put on a show of having their men properly attired and lined to present arms. When serving with the British during Braddock’s disastrous campaign back at the start of the French and Indian War, he had endured such foolery often enough. British main line infantry were used to such as part of the ordinary annoyances of life, but volunteers, especially militia detested it all, after the first few times, and saw it as yet another bloody officer lording it over them and disturbing the one time of day they could call their own and relax.
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He took a wooded path instead, his usual evening stroll, down to a knoll that looked out over the magnificent Hudson. And he knew that following this routine had set off Hamilton, who softly ordered a couple of the guards to angle off into the woods to either side, run ahead, and act as flankers, in case someone, be it assassin, ambush, or even British agents intent upon snatching him as a prisoner might lay in wait.
Two weeks ago he viewed such as bordering on insanity, but no longer.
A man he had trusted as a brother, a man of whom he had more than once said should replace him in command if he fell in battle, had indeed betrayed him.
He had been unable to dwell on little else these last two weeks, it was almost obsessive but such a base betrayal could not help but wound him to the core, with thoughts of it filling nearly every waking moment.
“Benedict Arnold,” he whispered under his breath, paused and then added “damn your soul, damn your soul.”
It was words he so rarely used. He rarely felt such even towards those whom he saw as his mortal foes, men such as the British Howe, who did attempt to fight an honorable war, or even the now pathetic Hessians, who when they first arrived here had shown such haughty arrogance, and brutal treatment to his captured wounded. . .but now were terrified of their own shadows for fear of falling into the hands of a rebel who might remember the slaughter on battlefields past and slowly take revenge.
But Benedict Arnold? Here was a man he had clasped to his heart like few others. This was the man he had met back in those first heady days of 1775, detailing him off to try and capture Quebec and bring a fourteen colony into their cause. Arnold had set off, leading six hundred gallant men, through the autumn storms of Maine, the freezing cold of Canadian winter, nearly dying in the assault on Quebec with a bullet in his leg, captured and finally exchanged and eager for more action.
Arnold, who had fought the British campaign of 1776 down Lake Champaign to a standstill. Fought them throughout 1777, while saddled, thanks to the politics of Congress with the self-serving Gates as his superior. At the climactic moment of the struggle around Saratoga, Arnold, who technically was under arrest for having dared to argue with Gates, and stricken with illness, had risen from his bed when word came that the battle, typical of Gate’s actions, was turning in the wrong direction, mounted his horse and dashed to the front. Then in a mad display of bravado, had charged straight at the British lines, screaming for any and all with courage to follow him in. He had rallied the men, led them to a smashing victory, only to be wounded at the supreme moment in the leg, the ball striking nearly at the same spot as his wound at Quebec.
He had saved the battle, created victory, that victory had swayed France into the fight. It had saved the Revolution for at nearly that exact same moment his own army was being hammered to pieces by Howe and forced to abandon the national capital of Philadelphia. The news of Saratoga arrived in France before word of his own defeats and had given Benjamin Franklin the argument to bring France into the war. Arnold, in that one gallant moment, had saved the Revolution.
Excerpted from VICTORY AT YORKTOWN by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen. Copyright © 2012 by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive