A wartime observer of Congress once observed that he "supposed that all Americans were united together" but found "parties who hate one another as much as the enemy itself."
One might suppose it to be a modern complaint from proponents against antiwar politicians, especially since it's contained in a book called "Washington's Secret War," the story of an embattled and stubborn commander-in-chief who was labeled as nonintellectual by his critics and who nearly waited too long to openly engage in political battle.
Among his foes was a radical faction of Congress whose regulations got in the way of fighting the war. They meddled with details to make things worse, then tried to make him a scapegoat when disaster loomed.
Some of the bitterness was fostered by the fact that the chief propagandist selling the war had promised an easy and overwhelming victory; while the nation's top journalist publicized every criticism and complaint, no matter how ill-founded.
Furthermore, radicals protested the conduct of the war, saying that it violated the principles of Americanism, while still others slowed needed services to the military to protest the idea that anyone should make a profit because of the war. Meanwhile, retired generals carped about the leader's tactics and said what they would do better. You might be convinced we're talking current affairs.
But proving that the more things change, the more they stay the same, the complete title of popular historian Thomas Fleming's new book is, "Washington's Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge;" and the lead quote is from the Marquis de Lafayette
Unlike Fleming's earlier critiques of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt's wartimne conduct, this book is not an expose of Washington's actions at Valley Forge but an illumination of them, though Fleming does debunk stories of widespread deaths by freezing and a supposed "miraculous" fish catch that saved the men from starvation.
And when Fleming labels George Washington the consummate "hardball politician," some might consider those fighting words - but Fleming means it as a compliment.
Most people's knowledge of Valley Forge consists of the troops' suffering and Washington's praying, but Fleming sheds light on the action was behind the scenes. For the first time, Fleming reveals the extent of a conspiracy by extreme Whig politicians to replace Washington as commander in chief with Gen. Horatio Gates.
Thomas Paine had raised unrealistic expectations of revolutionary success, writing that victory would be easy because of the colonists' access to natural resources, patriotism and home field advantage. After that projection was quickly dashed on the rocks of reality, the bickering set in.
Washington's main enemy was what Fleming calls the "radical Whigs." Their position was that the war would be won by purity of ideology, practicalities of military necessity be damned. Their insistence that no one "profit" from the war led to price controls that throttled the Continental Army's food supply - no one froze to death at Valley Forge, but many starved.
They also refused to pay for what they thought colonists should provide as a patriotic duty, which led to resignations in the officer corps and desertions among the enlisted men because of the need to feed their families.
The radicals also had a fear of standing armies and insisted that civilian militias were the military answer long after that notion had been disproved in battle. This made the Continental Army a less-than-urgent priority at times.
Even Washington's choice to winter at Valley Forge was a source of controversy, but Fleming shows it was the perfect choice. It was remote and defensible enough to not tempt General Howe to leave his plush winter billet in Philadelphia.
This not only gave Washington the chance to respond to his enemies and push for needed reforms, but it also gave him time to run his force into a professional army.
Washington and Ben Franklin recruited Baron Von Stueben, a German professional soldier, to drill the army and make them a disciplined force. The two pulled a fast one on Congress, Fleming writes, inflating Von Stueben's resume in order to get the support they needed from Congress.
Von Stueben was essentially a glorified drill instructor, but that was what the army really needed, and the ruse saved the Revolution. When the Continentals emerged from Valley Forge, they were able to fight on an equal basis with the Redcoats for the first time.
While other historians have dismissed the Gates plot as inconsequential, saying that Washington broke it up with a few well-aimed letters and some deft meetings, Fleming reveals just how far the plot had progressed and how many top officials were involved or sympathetic before Washington acted.
Virtually every history book credits Washington with holding the union together after the Revolution by the sheer force of his good will and exalted status, but Fleming persuades the reader that his political accomplishments during the Valley Forge winter were even greater.
"Washington's Secret War" is essential reading and a must-have for any history buff. Fleming's research should influence how this part of the story is told in future retellings of Valley Forge and examinations of Washington's legacy.