Howard Fast's The Unvanquished
by Howard B. Rock
The Unvanquished was published in 1942, during a bleak period for the United States and its citizens. The previous year had ended with the attack on Pearl Harbor, America's declaration of war against Japan, Hitler's declaration of war against the United States, and the United States' declaration of war against Germany. Japan advanced into Singapore and the Philippines, and, despite the Battle of Midway, Americans were barely hanging on in the Pacific. In Europe, Axis forces were dominant. From France to the Urals, the Nazis and Italians held sway. With the invasion of 1941, the eastern Soviet Union was occupied, and Nazi troops were encamped outside Moscow, Leningrad, and Stalingrad. From the Allied viewpoint, the viewpoint of the world's democracies, the very survival of Western civilization was at risk.
Howard Fast, one of America's most distinguished historical novelists, sought to find an event and time in American history that most closely matched this era (he does not use parallel, for, as he notes, "there are no parallels in history"). For that he chose the darkest hour of the American Revolution, a time when the newly formed, poorly organized, and largely undisciplined American army, a force including a few professional soldiers, militia who possessed only rudimentary military skills from Sunday town-square drilling, and recruits who had enlisted for brief periods and were set to return home at any time, stood against the strongest military force in the world. In 1776 the British were thirteen years beyond their remarkable defeat of the forces of France and Spain in the French and Indian War in America (the Seven Years War in Europe). This triumph shattered the balance of power and saw England emerge as the dominant force in Europe, much as the Axis powers were to do in the 1940s. How could a collection of thirteen colonies stand up to the world's superpowers, when each of the colonies identified more with its own particular history from Massachusetts' Puritan heritage to Virginia's cavalier identity to New York's Dutch and polyglot beginnings to Pennsylvania's Quaker roots than with a new entity called the United States?
Where, indeed, did the United States exist? There were only two recognizable components. The first was the Continental Congress, its legislature often bogged down and indecisive, moving about to avoid either disease or the British. The other was the Continental Army. Indeed, for all intents and purposes, the army was the United States. If it had disappeared, there would have been little left of a national entity or identity.
In 1942 the key to an American victory was to hang on until either the enemy weakened or the Allies' position strengthened. The second option was a realistic possibility, because in World War Il the Americans were capable of creating an enormous war machine. In 1776, however, that choice was not available. But time was on the side of the Americans in 1776, not because they could win battles and destroy the opposition, but because the opposition, also the freest and most democratic country in Europe, could not sustain a costly war indefinitely. Still, in 1942 it was not yet known that the Americans would produce their great war machine, so the situations then and in 1776 appeared very much alike. This was the Allies' weakest moment, and so, like Washington, their objective was to remain alive to fight another day.
In the more than fifty years since The Unvanquished was published there has been a wealth of historical scholarship, including many new biographies of Washington as well as the generals surrounding him. There have been studies of the military strategy employed during the Revolution, and a great deal of social history has been written about the state of the American nation during that period. Fast's book still stands up amidst this work, but it is valuable to examine some of his ideas in light of present knowledge.
The Revolutionary War was long and painful, seven difficult years elapsing between the shots fired at Lexington and Concord and the surrender of the British at Yorktown. Also, the theater of battle included all parts of the continent, from Canada to Savannah. However, the most critical moment of the war, the moment when Washington's army was most in danger of total collapse, destruction, and surrender, took place early, in the summer and fall of 1776 in New York, Westchester, and New Jersey.
Following the debacle of Bunker Hill, the British concluded that Boston was both untenable and unsuitable for military headquarters and for suppression of the "rebellion," so they left the area. After a short sojourn at Halifax, they assembled one of the most formidable British expeditionary forces ever seen, involving both land and water, and moved into New York Harbor. The British mobilized 45 percent of all their ships, including 320 transports more than they had used in the French and Indian War. In all, under the general and naval command of Admiral Richard Howe and the army command of his brother William Howe, the forces, including Hessian mercenaries, numbered thirty-two thousand. Opposite this, Washington commanded his largest force, twenty-two thousand soldiers, including enlistees and militia. He, too, marched his forces from New England to New York City. New York, with its central location and excellent harbors and waterways extending northward, was a critical location. The British wanted it, and Washington believed he could hold them off.
There has been much historical debate over Washington's strategy as well as Howe's in this pivotal battle. Washington has been criticized for his decision to divide his forces, putting a large body of men across the East River in Brooklyn Heights and the hills in front of the Heights. There was, however, considerable wisdom in the decision. Holding both sides of the East River and putting sunken boats and other obstacles in the river would prevent the British from gaining passage through this essential waterway. Also, the American position in Brooklyn Heights was strong, and the Americans undoubtedly hoped that the British would mount a straight-on attack, as they had done on Bunker Hill. This would again result in numerous British casualties and relatively small American losses.
The British, however, did not repeat their mistakes. Relying upon Tory spies, they learned that one of the gaps through the hills surrounding Brooklyn Heights, Jamaica Pass on the American far left, was lightly guarded. In a dramatic all-night secret march, they drove through the breach and caught the Americans from the right. This produced both a slaughter and a rout. Over a thousand American men including three generals were captured, and the rest of the troops were forced into the fortifications in Brooklyn Heights. At their rear were the British forces, and in front of them was the mile-wide East River. If the British had brought their navy up the river, the army would have been trapped and lost.
Fast portrays Washington as being in New York when the battle began, but he was in Brooklyn rallying the troops. He went without sleeping for nearly six days during this perilous time, telling his troops that any man who ran would be shot, that he would not ask of them more than he would ask of himself, and that they must "quit" themselves "like men, like soldiers, for all that is worth living for is at stake."1
Fast also portrays Washington as filled with doubt, reviewing in his mind his early days with Braddock when that English general was killed and Washington's horse was shot out from beneath him while bullets whistled through his hat. There is little question that Washington made mistakes dividing an army is a cardinal sin militarily, although there were reasons for it and that he was at times indecisive in his handling of Generals Putnam and Sullivan, but he was in full control at this moment. The idea to abandon Brooklyn Heights was his, and it made good military sense. Washington executed the retreat brilliantly, not allowing the men to know and thus avoiding any panic or any word leaking out to Howe.
Still, despite this excellent maneuver that saved his army to fight another day and the good fortune that Howe had not decided to use a river blockade to defeat the American forces but instead had laid in siege equipment in Brooklyn, the army that fell back into New York was a demoralized and disorganized lot. Fast deftly captures the mood in chapter 5, "The Army of Liberty." Also, his descriptions of the retreat and Washington's thoughts are very much the skillful interpretation of the novelist. Were these the actual words, thoughts, and feelings of the commanding general? The historian cannot say, but the novelist may speculate.
During this difficult time in New York while the army lay in disarray anticipating Howe's next move, Washington wrote a letter to Congress in which he laid out his strategy. It was a well-thought-out plan that emerged from the situation. Correctly anticipating that "all our Troops will not do their duty," being amateurs in the area of war compared with the professionally trained and disciplined British and Hessians, he declared that it would be necessary to fight a war of "posts." In so doing the Americans would fall back when necessary into major fortifications. But the army would stay together as an army instead of fighting as partisans or guerrillas harassing the British army. 2
Washington was, as Fast describes him, an "aristocrat," and as an aristocrat he believed in strong ideals and a professional army. He distrusted a militia or any kind of people's army. He understood that as long as the Continental Army existed, so did the United States, and so did the cause of the revolution, which, to him, was a movement towards fulfillment of the Whig concept of freedom and liberty. However, Fast's emphasis on Washington as "the Foxhunter" goes too far. American southern gentlemen differed greatly from their English counterparts, most notably in having had much less time for gentlemanly sports like foxhunting. The majority of their time was taken up in overseeing the debt-ridden and complex plantations for which they were personally responsible.
The rest of The Unvanquished describes Washington's ultimately successful attempt to implement the war of posts. It was not easily accomplished. In New York the Americans were again vulnerable to being cut off by a drive across the island. Washington removed all but five thousand troops from the city and attempted to reinforce the island with Fort Washington and Fort Lee on the Hudson and with garrisons and breastworks at other strategic places on the island of Manhattan. These proved inadequate against artillery when the British landed at Kips Bay. Once again, had Howe continued across the island he might have cut off the five thousand men remaining in the city. Unwilling to risk the loss of large numbers of men unless absolutely necessary, and not thinking it necessary because Washington's army was once more put to flight, Howe moved very deliberately.
In the chapter "The Gracious Mrs. Murray," the elegant Quaker lady beguiles the British general and his staff with her conversation and wine as the Americans escape up the western side of the island. But Howe was not so lacking in military skills as to fall for such a trap. He was only following the British strategy of taking the metropolis with detachments of soldiers sent south and avoiding large numbers of casualties. America was not Europe; the capture of a major city did not signal imminent defeat. But could Howe be expected to understand that so early in the war? The British would not realize this lesson until 1777, when they used up even more valuable time and treasure in taking Philadelphia, the American capital, only to return to New York the following year.
It was at this time, during the Battle of Kips Bay, that Washington famously lost his temper at the sight of the cowardly behavior of his troops, and, in his fury and despair was nearly captured by the British. Overlooking the site where the New York Public Library now resides, he pleaded with, ordered, and snarled at the troops to stand and fight. But the Americans, who might have been able to acquit themselves against ground troops, had been terrorized by the guns of the British frigates. Hot grape shot and cannon balls flying from nowhere had taken their toll. According to one officer, Washington resisted officers fleeing the battle, shouting, "Good God, have I got such troops as these?" 3
He was rescued by remaining officers and taken back to headquarters, never again to succumb to such emotion in the six years of war remaining. Fast adroitly captures the panic and fear of that day.
After Kips Bay, Washington gathered his army in Harlem Heights, a north-central section of Manhattan that was reasonably well protected. The Battle of Harlem Heights, as it is known, was really only a skirmish against a British patrol that had moved beyond the protection of the British army. However, it is true that the Americans fought well under Colonel Knowlton (who died in the skirmish), giving some confidence to Washington and the army.
The encampment in Harlem Heights was still unsafe from Howe. If he had cut off the escape route to Westchester either by blocking the Harlem River or by moving an army to obstruct Washington's escape route, the American army would once more have been trapped. Washington's flight to White Plains was made possible by Howe's leisurely pace in landing troops and by the same men who had taken the American troops from Brooklyn Heights in a single night, the remarkable Marblehead fishermen, who held off the British at Throgs Neck. This was partly helped by the British decision to land at a site that was not passable if guarded, thus forcing them to delay and land at Pell's Point a few miles north, allowing the Continental Army time to escape.
Following Washington's removal to White Plains, the British established a camp in New Rochelle. Washington could have fled to New Jersey immediately, but, despite his commitment to the war of posts, he did not want to escape battle entirely, only to avoid large pivotal engagements. So followed the Battle of White Plains, which was actually another skirmish in which the British were held off long enough for Washington to move north. Howe decided to divide his army and keep Washington in flight while also moving against Fort Washington.
Washington's decision to hold Fort Washington, with its three thousand soldiers, was made against his better judgment and in respect of his admiration for General Nathanael Greene. Greene, with far less experience, argued that the fort could be held and that its elevation of two hundred feet would turn it into a Bunker Hill if the British chose to attack. Moreover, to give it up, and inevitably to give up Fort Lee across the river in New Jersey, would be to give the British total control of the Hudson River, cutting off New England. Also, Greene and his supporters argued that, if the fort could not be held, the men could escape quickly across the Hudson by boat. Washington's accession to this advice, despite his awareness that the fort was isolated on an island (Manhattan) that was under the full control of the enemy, who also held naval superiority, allowed the British to invest the fort skillfully by both sea and land, forcing an American retreat into crudely built fortifications. There was no possibility of evacuation, and the entire fort, its men, and valuable ammunition and artillery were totally lost a devastating defeat.
Washington had only one hope now: to keep the army together somehow and stay out of British hands. Sending three thousand men to Rhode Island to safeguard New England and leaving seventy-five hundred with General Lee, Washington took four thousand men and hastily began to retreat across New Jersey, closely followed by the British general Cornwallis. Destroying all unneeded boats, Washington crossed the Delaware into Pennsylvania. Meanwhile Lee slowly moved towards Washington, whose army was rapidly disintegrating from desertions and expiration of enlistments.
General Charles Lee is treated very roughly by Fast. While Lee does deserve harsh criticism for his unwillingness to follow orders strictly, his denigration of Washington's skills, and his belief in his own superiority, there is more to the story than Fast allows. Fast makes much of Lee's love of dogs and his having so many hounds in his retinue. This was part of a troubled personality. Lee had great difficulties in his encounters with women and trusted few fellow humans. Animals were another thing. But it was not from any English snobbery quite the contrary. Lee was a brilliant student of the art of war and tactics. He had probably read more of martial strategy than any man in America, and his advice was generally well taken. Prior to Washington's arrival he had organized the best possible defense of New York. His mission in Charleston to organize that city's defenses, undertaken before the Battle of New York, was a great success. Because of his understanding of military strategy, he was, according to Colonel William Moultrie, "equal to a reinforcement of 1000 men4
More than that, Lee was far more of a radical revolutionary than Washington. He attacked the very concept of monarchy. He was versed in Rousseau and advocated a people's army. He disdained traditional eighteenth-century tactics and battle plans, preferring a war of mass resistance in quest of the rights of free men. In this sense Washington was the conservative traditionalist, preferring wellknown military strategy and organization. Lee, unlike Washington, believed that the militia were well suited to fight the British and that, as a popular-based fighting force, they were most representative of true revolutionary fervor.
Lee's advice to Washington was accurate. He told the general that he could not stay in Harlem Heights and that Fort Washington should be abandoned as indefensible. Washington's decision not to take this advice and then the loss of that fort and the retreat from Fort Lee saw Lee lose confidence in Washington and place himself as both the superior strategist and the man to keep the American cause alive. Moreover, his decision not to join Washington immediately but to remain in northern New Jersey was based on different military assumptions from Washington's. Lee believed that militia could best fight the war; his idea was to use the army to inspire and mobilize the militias to defend their localities in New Jersey against the British. As he slowly made his way towards Washington, ignoring his commander's order to make haste, he did fight the Tories and called out militia and established a successful militia base in Morristown.
While it is possible that Lee's strategy was a good one, better perhaps than Washington's, this is no excuse for his refusal to follow Washington's order or his opportunistic use of Washington's ambiguous language to delay interminably. His capture was a blow to Washington, but it also gave Washington unprecedented command. Washington no longer had to deal with his own inadequacy in relation to Lee's knowledge of military science; however, along with his new freedom to make his own decision came the requirement that he do so. Still, Fast is unfair in his decision to dwell on what he imagines to have been Lee's sexual peccadillos, which may have been real, rather than on his ideological differences.
Ultimately, The Unvanquished is about leadership in general and George Washington in particular. Although he penned hundreds of thousands of words, gathered today in multivolume collections, Washington is not an easy man to get to know. He intensely disliked personal intimacy with his comrades. A story is told of how Gouverneur Morris, himself a respected aristocrat, bet Alexander Hamilton that he could walk up to the general and slap his shoulder, declaring "How happy am I to see you so well." When the prominent Morris tried this, he was met with the removal of his hand from the accosted shoulder and an "immediate and icy" response that sent him reeling. 5
It is not so much that Washington did not like to be touched he did not as that he believed aloofness was required with subordinates in order to gain the "respect" necessary to "support a proper command." With this belief as commander-in-chief, he could not allow familiarity with anyone. He did not reveal his feelings, so it is difficult to get inside Washington. But, again, where a historian ought not to enter, a novelist may, and this is Fast's endeavor.
The Unvanquished reveals a Washington of noble spirit and stature. About his physical stature, there is no doubt. Washington was six feet two at a time in which very few men were even near six feet. In a period of constant illness, he was never sick and had indefatigable energy. All this is true. But what about Fast's interpretation that Washington appeared to be locked in internal struggle, filled with self doubt about his adequacy? Was Washington as lost as he sometimes appears in the book? There is one letter that seems to support Fast; in it the general wonders if it would be better if he were to resign. After the Battle of Harlem Heights he wrote to his cousin and estate manager, Lund Washington:
If I were to wish the bitterest curse to enemy on this side of the grave, I should put him in my stead with my feelings; and yet I do not know what plan of conduct to pursue. I see the impossibility of serving with reputation, or doing any essential service to the cause by continuing in command, and yet I am told that if I quit the command, inevitable ruin will follow from the distraction that will ensue. In confidence, I tell you that I never was in such an unhappy, divided state since I was born. To lose all comfort and happiness on the one hand, whilst I am fully persuaded that under such a system as has been adopted, I cannot have the least chance for reputation, nor those allowances made which the nature of the case requires; and to be told, on the other, that if I leave the service all will be lost, is, at the same time that I am bereft of every peaceful moment, distressing to a degree. But I will be done with the subject with the precaution to you that it is not a fit one to be publicly known or discussed. 6
Here we do find Washington, in a private moment, doubting his position. But we very seldom observe these sentiments in his official life and conduct. In the New York campaign, there are perhaps two examples: Washington's decision to go with General Greene's advice and remain in Fort Washington against his own instinct, and Washington's reluctance to unequivocally order General Lee to join him. In the latter he used deferential and ambiguous language, allowing Lee the latitude to pursue his own ends.
Yet, regardless of so little evidence on the surface, Fast explores the inner Washington in depth, finding an intense internal battle. This gives considerable richness to the narrative. Certainly the inner Washington did exist. But the greatness in Washington, of which Fast was, of course, aware, was manifested in his actions: his demeanor, his physical and emotional strength, and his sense of honor. Washington did not desire dictatorial power. He disdained such influence or command for himself. What counted was honor, respect, and fame. It was this immovable integrity that so lifted the soldiers and kept the army together amidst the indecision of Congress, the power of the enemy, and the flight and desertion and abandonment of so many soldiers and citizens alike. It is Fast's intention to amplify this greatness through his explorations of Washington's possible internal struggles. By exploring and perhaps enhancing the general's emotions and inner conflicts, Fast allows these other unquestioned attributes to appear ever the greater, in a way few historians can.
Finally, in a way Fast inserts himself into the narrative and into the current situation. Tom Paine was a writer, not a soldier. A year after he had left England for his new home in the colonies he wrote Common Sense, a radical pamphlet ridiculing the institution of monarchy, disparaging the British Constitution with divided government, defending pure republicanism, and declaring that it was only "common sense" that the United States should lose its ties with corrupt Europe and go its own way. Written in plain English, the pamphlet had had enormous impact on the populace. Now when times were hardest, with the army marching in ragged retreat in New Jersey, he wrote his famous American Crisis articles:
These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like Hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.
Paine the writer was calling on Americans to be strong in their bleakest hour. Fast the writer was doing the same in 1942, when he once more told the tale of how Washington and his soldiers weathered the hard days of 1776.
The great value of a historical novel when it is written well is that it allows the reader to go beyond the historical record, limited as it often is, and venture into the minds and homes of historical figures, great and small. It can make an eighteenth-century city come alive, including its streets and alleys, its homes, churches, and synagogues. By putting words in the mouths of figures that at this distance appear as demigods, men such as Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, it can give a sense of the common humanity that they shared with their generation and the current one. To a great extent The Unvanquished succeeds in doing this. Many of its best moments take place in the scenes in the city and in the councils of war. Fast knew his history and had a vibrant imagination.
What then would the historical novelist write of the Washingtons of 1942 and their council meetings and internal struggles? In 1776 General Washington endured great devastation: thirty-six hundred killed and wounded; four thousand taken prisoner, including three hundred officers; thousands of desertions and huge losses of equipment and ammunition. Yet he survived and kept the cause alive and ultimately triumphed. Would Churchill and Roosevelt and Eisenhower find their greatness as well in these hours of peril? The decision to reprint this book fifty years after its original publication may indicate the answer to this question.
Howard B. Rock
Professor of History
Florida International University
1. James T. Flexner, George Washington in the American Revolution (Boston, 1968), p.110.
2. Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution 1763-1789 (New York, 1982), p. 333.
3. Page Smith, A New Age Now Begins: A People's History of the
American Revolution (New York, 1976)1, 763.
4. John W. Shy, "Charles Lee, the Soldier as Radical," in George A.
Billias, ed., George Washington's Generals (New York, 1964), p. 31.
5. Edmund S. Morgan, The Genius of George Washington (New
York, 1980) pp. 5-6.
6. Flexner, George Washington, pp. 131-132.
Bliven, Bruce, Jr. Under the Guns: New York: 1775-1779. New York, 1972.
Billias, George Athan, ed. George Washington's Generals. New York, 1964.
Calderhead, William. "British Naval Failure at Long Island: A Lost Opportunity in The American Revolution." New York History. July 1976.
Flexner, James T. George Washington in the American Revolution,
1775-1783. Boston, 1968.
Higginbotham, Don. The War of American Independence: Military
Attitudes, Policies and Practices, 1763-1789. Bloomington, 197 1.
Middlekauff, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789. New York, 1982.
Morgan, Edmund S. The Genius of George Washington. New York, 1980.
Smith, Page. A New Age Now Begins: A People's History of the American Revolution. 2 vols. New York, 1976.