- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 25, 2005

Is there anything new to be said of George Washington as a military leader? Indeed there is, and Edward G. Lengel, associate editor of the Washington papers, provides fresh insights in his General George Washington: A Military Life (Random House, $29.95, 450 pages, illus.).

From the outset of the Revolution, Washington was destined for high command. Not only was he one of a handful of Americans with military experience, but he came from an important state, Virginia. Mr. Lengel makes it clear, however, that Washington had much to learn. Once the American commander had brought a degree of organization to the colonial forces besieging Boston, his first campaign was deceptively easy. In the autumn of 1775 Washington fortified Dorchester Heights in such a manner as to threaten the city, and forced the British to evacuate.

After Boston, however, Washington attempted to defend New York City and its environs, with very different results. “New York was not only indefensible,” the author writes, “it was an open grave waiting for an occupant.” From Brooklyn across Manhattan, Washington was repeatedly outgeneraled by Gen. William Howe, and the shortcomings of the American militia were exposed. New York fell, and Washington, with a steadily diminishing force, retreated into New Jersey. The 5,000-man Continental army crossed the Delaware River and the British settled into winter quarters. It was then that Washington famously changed the direction of the war with daring strikes against Trenton and Princeton in the bitter cold of December 1776. After so much travail, these two victories did much to sustain popular support for the Revolution.

The traditional view of Washington is that he sought to avoid general actions against his well-trained enemies unless obliged to meet them in the open. The ultimate American victory, it is said, resulted not from successful battles but from Washington’s ability to sustain an army in the field. Mr. Lengel rejects this thesis. His Washington sought decisive engagements “that would kill redcoats, demoralize the British in America and Europe, and speed the end of the war.” But there was a chivalrous side to Washington. He refused to condone looting, even against the hated loyalists. And when one of Gen. Howe’s dogs wandered into the American lines after the battle of Germantown, Washington returned it to its master.

The author concedes that Washington was not a great tactician. On some occasions, he writes, especially during the retreat across New Jersey in the autumn of 1776, “he escaped destruction only by the grace of an overcautious enemy.” At times Washington neglected reconnaissance and was careless in his planning. Nor was Washington anyone’s “GI general.” He did not interact personally with his men, and he discouraged his officers from doing so. But he was a splendid administrator; Mr. Lengel notes, “No detail was too small for his attention if it affected the troops’ comfort.” At Valley Forge, word got around that Washington was totally dedicated to the welfare of his soldiers.

Washington’s soldiers also came to respect his courage on the battlefield. “The sound of gunfire,” the author writes, “drew him like a magnet.” At the battle of Monmouth in June 1778 it was Washington’s appearance on the field that stemmed an American rout and brought about something of a drawn battle.

This excellent book is more than a biography of Washington, it is the story of the American Revolution from the winners’ side. The author’s fine writing is supported by 15 reader-friendly maps. If you have room on your bookshelf for only one book on the Revolution, this may be it.

• • •

There have been many recent books on slaves and slavery, nonfictional and fictional, but for an account of the remarkable life of a freed-slave-turned-evangelist, it would be hard to beat Jon F. Sensbach’s Rebecca’s Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World (Harvard, $22.95, 320 pages, illus.). Working from documents in the German, Danish and West Indian archives, plus a German missionary’s book about Protestant missions in the Danish West Indies (now the U.S. Virgin Islands) published in 1777, Mr. Sensbach has put together a fascinating story that goes well beyond the biography of one brave woman.

Rebecca was born in 1718 on the British island of Antigua, of mixed African and European heritage. At about age six she was sold to a Dutch planter on St. Thomas, where she quickly became literate in Dutch. She also became a devout Christian and gained her freedom as a teenager. Having no other place to go, she continued in wage service to her Dutch family, where she became manager of the household. In 1736, when she was 18, she met Friedrich Martin, one of several German Protestant evangelists who, as members of the Moravian church, had come to the Caribbean to convert the slaves. In Moravian doctrine, the author says, “women were considered spiritually equal to men,” and Rebecca became a leading evangelist on the island, eventually marrying a Moravian selected for her, Matthaus Freundlich.

The evangelists’ success among the slaves aroused fear among the planters, and the authorities imprisoned Rebecca and her husband on charges of blasphemy and inciting the slaves. They were released when a Danish count arrived from Europe to assure the planters not only that God had created slavery but that “everyone must gladly endure the state into which God has placed him.”

In 1742 Rebecca and her ailing husband sailed for Europe. After his death en route to Germany, she joined the Moravian community in Marienborn and was ordained a “deaconess,” apparently, the author says, “the first black woman ordained in western Christianity.” In 1746 Rebecca married Christian Protten, an African-Danish Moravian.

In 1765 the couple was sent to teach mixed-race students in the notorious Christiansborg castle on Africa’s Gold Coast, where captured slaves lived in the dungeons while awaiting passage to America. Three years later, the Moravians sent several missionaries to Christiansborg, but they all died quickly. Rebecca’s husband died in 1769. Although the Moravians offered Rebecca a chance to return to the West Indies, she remained in Christiansborg until her death in 1780.

Mr. Sensbach, an associate professor of history at the University of Florida, has written a biography that is enriched by an analysis of slavery in the Caribbean islands, the establishment of the first black Protestant church in the New World, and the conflicts between Christian and African religious practices — not to mention the history of the Moravian evangelism in Germany, the Western Hemisphere, and Africa.

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va. Mr. Taylor’s “Garfield of Ohio: The Available Man,” first published in 1970, has just been reissued by the American Political Biography Press.

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