Celebrating 17 years

Books in Review

Washington's Indispensable Men

Washington’s Indispensable Men: The 32 Aides-de-Camp Who Helped Win American Independence. (also listed by some booksellers as Washington's Indispensable Men: The Thirty-Two Doctors, Businessmen, and Planters on George Washington's Staff) by Arthur S. Lefkowitz. Stackpole Books, 2003. 411 pages includes bibliographical references, 8 black and white plates, maps, and index. ISBN: 0-8117-1646-5

Arthur S. Lefkowitz’ is a principal in an architectural hardware firm, who has become an independent researcher and talented historian. He generously supports the Papers of George Washington Project and has used its resources to craft two books about Washington during the Revolutionary War. The first, The Long Retreat: The Calamitous American Defense of New Jersey, 1776, was published in 1998 and was well-received. The Revolutionary War Round Table, of which Lefkowitz is an active member, named The Long Retreat as the best book about the American Revolutionary. The New Jersey Council for the Humanities declared The Long Retreat one of its Honor Books.

Washington’s Indispensable Men is Lefkowitz’ second book. It is a much more ambitious undertaking and it represents only the third such book known to have been written about the subject. In the book’s Preface, Lefkowitz tells us he has read both of the other books and admires the one by Emily Stone Whiteley, Washington and His Aides-de-Camp, for its portrayal of Washington and is aides during the Revolutionary War as a version of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.

There are at least three schools of thought regarding writing about history. In the classical model, the historian performs the role of reporter of information. The goal here is to present the listener/reader with as complete a set of facts about an event as possible in a manner that will stand up to critical scholarly scrutiny. Heavily noted with an extensive bibliography this often is not very entertaining and will generally only interest a small group out of the general population (such as one’s doctoral committee). To the advocates of history-is-a-story-well-told the role of the historian is more that of a storyteller. Embellishment and fact are interwoven into a fabric of beauty and interest. The goal is to captivate the listener/reader as well as to instruct. The trick is to do that without creating a work of historical fiction. Most books classified as non-fiction history fit here. The last of the schools of thought is that history provides the backdrop to a fictional work. Here there is a richness of historical detail provided (sometimes anachronistically) but the central work is mostly imaginative with events and characters presented as larger than life. The goal is to produce a piece that is commercially entertaining more than it is instructive although history-as-current-political-propaganda properly fits here as well.

Washington’s Indispensable Men is a book that seems to flit awkwardly between the first two schools. Lefkowitz tries to confine himself to telling the story of Washington and his aides in a factual but entertaining way. But then, his occasional use of the first person reminds us of reading a thesis or dissertation. Yet, the author cannot resist slipping into the third school of history writing from time to time as he discloses the emotions and thoughts of the participants.

Lefkowitz frequently displays a fine talent for telling a story. When he hits his stride, his style is compelling. Unfortunately that stride is not reached until late in Washington’s Indispensable Men. His telling of the Battles of Monmouth Courthouse and Yorktown is riveting. With an absence of personal opinion or creative supposition those stories become splendid balance of narrative and first person accounts. He even abandons his self-appointed role as spin doctor for his Excellency and hints at Washington’s personal involvement in the character assassination of General Charles Lee following Monmouth. For the first hundred pages or so Lefkowitz however seems to become mired in gossip or genealogical reporting of research that frequently drifts off in tangential directions. The effect is to give the reader a sense that the book, as a complete piece, was written by a committee or by different authors working apart for it seems to lack discipline or focus.

In an attempt to refocus the reader after a sojourn down one of the fascinating but not always relevant alleys, Lefkowitz makes use of redundancy. So in a discussion about John Walker, we find on page 104 is written: “His appointment was mentioned in the general orders for February 19, 1777: ‘John Walker Esqr. Is appointed an extra Aide-De-Camp, to the Commander in Chief, and is to be considered and respected as such by the Army.’” Then after two paragraphs of sketchy biographical information about Walker and his father, on page 105 Lefkowitz informs the reader: “Walker’s appointment appears in the general orders dated Morristown, February 19 1777: ‘John Walker Esqr. Is appointed an extra Aide-De-Camp, to the Commander in Chief, and is to be considered and respected as such by the Army.’” Each quotation has its separate footnote.

In a similar way we learn at three widely scattered points in the book that aide-de-camp John Laurens married an English girl while living in England. There are many other examples of what could have been avoided through better editing (shame on Stackpole) or by re-reading the manuscript or galley proofs more critically for repetitious writing (shame on Lefkowitz).

The book however is a trove of interesting trivia and general information. The endnotes occupy nearly one fourth of the book and supply a great deal of detail and additional commentary. The extensive bibliography is outstanding and proposes a great depth of scholarship.

There are many of Washington’s letters quoted in part throughout the book as well as correspondence he received from others. It must be assumed that these were carefully chosen. Lefkowitz is firmly in the camp of Washington admirers and often attempts to be a “spin doctor” for him by inserting bracketed commentary (and generous use of ellipses) that explains to the reader what Washington really meant or which emotion he felt while writing a passage.

For example, after the capture of thousands of patriots at Ft. Washington, his Military Secretary, Joseph Reed, wrote a private note to General Charles Lee, a highly respected professional soldier and second in overall command to Washington, expressing a measure of frustration with what he saw as Washington’s lack of decisiveness. Reed wrote that had Lee been present with Washington at the time (as the commander or as mere advisor is left unclear), the garrison at Ft. Washington would have been saved instead of captured. Lefkowitz tells the reader that Reed slipped his “disloyal” note “critical of Washington” in with other dispatches carried by a courier “when no one was looking”.

When Washington opens and reads the reply to Reed from Lee in which Lee agreed that indecision in war can lead to defeat, here is how Washington’s letter to Reed is presented, the bracketed commentary is Lefkowitz’:

“The inclosed was put into my hands by an express from White Plains. Having no idea of its being a private letter, much less suspecting the tendency of the correspondence, I opened it, as I had done all other letters to you, from the same place and Peekskill, upon the business of your office … [With his emotions in check, Washington continued.] This, as it is the truth, must be my excuse for seeing the contents of a letter which neither inclination or intention would have prompted me to. [The general quickly ended his note to Reed.] I thank you for the trouble and fatigue you have undergone in your journey to Burlington, and sincerely wish that your labors may be crowned with the desired success. My best respects to Mrs. Reed.”

Repeatedly Lefkowitz tells us that Reed’s disgraceful lapse of loyalty cost him Washington’s friendship and patronage for life. If true, that does not speak well of the Great Man’s baser nature. Luckily for Washington, no proof of his eternal hatred for Reed is produced, on the contrary, Joseph Reed went on to serve ably in a number of important positions even rising to hold the office equivalent to being the Governor in Pennsylvania.

This might have been a good place to investigate the circumstances of the defeat at Ft. Washington, but Lefkowitz leaves it and does not mention it again until later in the book when he quotes a letter from Washington’s Secretary Tench Tilghman relating that Washington’s first decision had been to withdraw from the fort. But after he was counseled by General Nathanael Greene that the dirt walled fort was impregnable to British artillery, Washington changed his mind and ordered the patriots there to defend their position. To some first hand observers and under the right circumstances, that vacillating might indeed resemble indecision.

Sometimes a single book tries to be too many things at once.

As a resource or easy reference book, Washington’s Indispensable Men falls short of its goal. There is one list of the aides-de-camp who served under Washington found on page 15 compiled by Worthington Chauncey Ford (the last name on his list, charmingly, is Martha Washington). The biographies of each of the aides-de-camp are scattered through the narrative without any locating note in the book’s table of contents. Sometimes the biographical sketches are whole and sometimes they are very fragmented with a bit here and a bit there scattered throughout the book. The index is of little use in finding biographical information as it lists every page on which the man’s name is located. So finding out about any particular man’s life, though possible, is an effort unless one reads the book and flags the sketches with little sticky bits of paper.

As a narrative retelling of the Great Man’s wartime triumphs the book is a success. However, don’t look for an analysis of Washington’s less than triumphant moments here. The victories are savored and clearly relished as evidence of pure genius while the defeats are summarily retold and dismissed to some dusty corner as irrelevant and immaterial. Nor does Lefkowitz prove his hypothesis, that Washington’s Aides-de-Camp were important advisors to the general instead of merely messengers, clerks, and copyists.

Although he struggles to prove that the aides in Washington’s head quarters family were more, Lefkowitz also quotes Generals Charles Lee and Washington as to the role these “pen men” had to play (at two very different places in the book).

Lee writes of two unsatisfactory aides that “…the duties of an Aid de Camp at Head Quarters cannot be properly discharged by any but Pen-men.” He criticizes the two further: “…They can ride, understand and deliver verbal orders – but you might as well set them the task of translating an Arabick or Irish Manuscript as expect that They shou’d in half a day copy a half sheet of orders.” Apparently, a good aide was expected to do a great deal of copying.

Washington writes that what he looked for in an aide was “…a plodding, methodical Person, whose sole business shd (sic) be to arrange his Papers &ca in such order as to produce any one at any Instant it is called for, & capable at the sametime of composing a Letter, is what you have to consider.”

These are hardly the sort of people one would go to for advice about strategy or tactics. Is it likely that the adoring aide-de-camp John Laurens could have failed to write to his father, Henry Laurens, President of the Continental Congress, that Washington had done him the very great honor of asking for the young man’s advice on the eve of battle? We see other letters from Laurens to his father but none that would give concrete support to Lefkowitz’ hypothesis.

That his research falls short of revealing that Washington depended upon his aides-de-camp as confidants and policy advisors is somewhat admitted to by Lefkowitz on page 306. Intriguingly, he finds however the fact that there is no evidence that he is right merely proves his hypothesis. The lack of any mention of such a relationship in any of the parties’ surviving letters, to Lefkowitz, reveals that all of them were obviously keeping pledges of secrecy not to divulge the information and they all, being men of steadfast integrity and tight-lipped devotion to the Great Man, took their knowledge of the truth to their graves. This sort of proof by lack of evidence, according to Lefkowitz, also explains why his theory that the aides-de-camp ran Washington’s intelligence gathering spy rings is spot-on as well. There is no known evidence that they did so, ergo, they must have done it and kept that fact a perfect secret to their graves. What kind of individual could inspire such perfection of fidelity and loyalty in his disciples but a Great Man cut from the homespun broadcloth of American myth and legend?

Through Lefkowitz’ revealing use of different letters written by the headquarters family, a glimpse of the real George Washington does emerge. We see an incredibly lucky man who eventually learns how to put that luck to work. We see a man doubtful of his own military abilities early in the war learn the hard lessons taught by years of campaigning to emerge as a savvy exploiter of circumstances to become the victor at Yorktown. We see Washington as a consummate politician who understood the advantages of appointing the sons of the influential and wealthy to his staff. We see a Washington of quick temper, testy disposition, and who was a very demanding boss. We see Washington briefly struggle with conflicting feelings about manumitting his slaves, maintaining his position among his peers in the slave society of Virginia if he did so, and the reality of running a successful plantation sans slaves. We see Washington as a man with few close friends but who sought to surround himself with loyal aides (sycophants?) chosen from his own social class. This is a human and understandable Washington we are left with not an American King Arthur. Although that may not have been Lefkowitz’ intention in writing Washington’s Indispensable Men, it is the lesson revealed by him this reviewer found most valuable.

Washington’s Indispensable Men: The 32 Aides-de-Camp Who Helped Win American Independence is worth reading for the details and bits of trivia about Washington’s family (as he referred to his staff). The excessive typographical mistakes, opinionated commentary (is Dumas Malone really Jefferson’s greatest biographer?), inconsistencies, lazy use of language (author, draft, compose, and write really do convey different meanings) occasional attempt as a politically correct spinmeister, the lapses into the first person, the “back-fence” gossip, and the genealogical mazes for some readers may excite recollections of an altogether old-fashioned charm reminiscent of the “great historian” Parson Weems (as Lefkowitz declares him). For others, including this humble reviewer, they tended to be distracting at best and frustrating at worst. So why not read it for yourself and decide?

 

About the Author

Steve Munzel is an educator, historian, consultant, free lance writer, and small town politician. He lives with his wife and daughters in California’s sun-kissed Santa Clara Valley.