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
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
“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.