On the Edge

The Winter Soldiers by Richard M. Ketchum, published by Doubleday, © B Winter Solder1973.

The short, bitterly cold, beginning days of December 1776 were precarious and demoralizing times for the American rebel army.  The heady days of victory over the British at Concord and Lexington by an improvised and ragtag American militia, were all but forgotten with the landing of 30,000 British and Hessian troops, 10,000 British sailors aboard 300 supply ships and 30 battleships, into the New York during the month of July 1776, necessitating General George Washington and his army to retreat to White Plains, quickly followed by successive calamities: defeats at Fort Washington and Fort Lee, the duplicity of General Lee, and further retreats towards Philadelphia; draining the spirit and potential from the nascent revolution; with the civilian militia counting down their days of enlistment, forewarning the ghosting of the army to a mere shadow of itself on New Years day 1777.

Ketchum’s The Winter Soldiers chronicles these early days of the American Revolution, revolving around maddening prospects of the rebel’s embryonic cause and fight, his narrative mirroring and illustrating the first two sentences in Thomas Paine’s, The American Crises (Number 1) pamphlet; read to George Washington’s troops on 23 December 1776, days before the Battles of Trenton and Princeton:

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 by 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. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to tax) but “to bind us in all cases whatsoever” and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God…

Ketchum’s story is the history of early events in the American Revolutionary War, a history of its armies, a history of its actions and reactions, a history of its participants: George III, General Howe, Admiral Howe, General Washington, Nathanael Greene, Henry Knox, Charles Lee, winners, losers, ambitious men, gentlemen, moral men and scoundrels, above all, a story of grit, guts and gall.

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