Washington's Immortals

"Washington's Immortals" by Patrick K. O'Donnell

WASHINGTON'S IMMORTALS: The Untold Story of an Elite Regiment Who Changed the Course of the Revolution. By Patrick K. O'Donnell. Atlantic Monthly Press. 440 pages. $26.

Like all wars, it was marked by slaughter, brutality, incompetence and privation, as well as valor, restraint, resourcefulness and endurance.

In focusing on a single, if vital, component of America's Revolutionary War army, historian Patrick K. O'Donnell ably reveals the whole, while countering many an oversimplified account of a complex struggle.

O'Donnell's "Band of Brothers"-style chronicle details the exploits of various aggregates of Maryland's citizen soldiers, not only the 400 men who saved the army from annihilation at the Battle of Brooklyn, but those who turned the tide in many a critical battle, becoming the first elite unit of the Continental army. Fighting in both North and South, these “Immortals” proved to be Gen. George Washington's most trusted force.

Believing history had all but forgotten them, O'Donnell felt compelled to revive the story of such stalwarts as William Smallwood, Mordecai Gist, John Eager Howard, Jack Steward, Nathaniel Ramsey and Otho Holland Williams. He also amplifies our appreciation of all the Continental principals: Washington, Nathanael Greene, Henry and Charles Lee, Daniel Morgan,  Marquis de Lafayette, Johann de Kalb, Jean Baptiste de Rochambeau, Allen McLane, Horatio Gates, Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter.

O'Donnell likewise offers fresh evaluations of the leading British figures, particularly commanders Richard and William Howe (who favored a political solution), Lord Cornwallis, Sir Henry Clinton and Banastre Tarleton, while affording us an enhanced perspective on the “vicious civil war that roiled the countryside” — by 1780, nearly 9,000 Tories were serving in the British army — pitting neighbor against neighbor, with gross injustices and atrocities committed by both Rebels and Loyalists.

O'Donnell also spotlights the Delaware Blues, a regiment that supplied veteran troops to various units during the war and often fought side by side with the Marylanders.

In addition to a greater sense of the pivotal role of French support (though not always manifested in the ways or amounts Washington desired), the book provides a better understanding of what the British were up against as the war turned global, and the many missed opportunities by the British army that could have brought the war to a much earlier conclusion. In particular, British strategy helped Washington wage a war of attrition. By the time the British had the upper hand, there were insufficient troops to garrison their holdings or fight on so many fronts.

Carolinians will be drawn to O'Donnell's accounts of the disaster at Camden, a reversal of fortune at Cowpens, the role of Charleston as a British base and the Crown's various outposts in the Palmetto State.

O'Donnell's research is exhaustive, his organization of the material exceptionally skilled. Yet for all the undeniable readability of “Washington's Immortals,” the sheer number and movements of brigades, regiments, companies, divisions and units can be difficult to keep straight. The author owns a firm grasp of tactics and strategy, and although he portrays the horrors and absurdities of war with great effectiveness, he undermines this potency now and then with a romanticist's fascination.

That said, the dissections of battles and campaigns never supersede the human story. O'Donnell notes that, according to some historians, roughly 18,000 of the 30,000 thousand Americans soldiers captured by the British died in captivity, not in battle. He also demonstrates that many of the leading voices of the Revolution were chronically in debt before the war, implying, perhaps, that their motivation for fighting was not merely about independence.

Of special interest is O'Donnell's take on how “the population and the militia would gravitate to whichever side was winning.” In fact, many deserted back and forth between the American and British armies, some multiple times, which led to one of the more bizarre episodes of the war.

As Nathanael Greene's army approached Charleston in 1781 to confront the English forces defending the city, many of Greene's troops were British deserters. But a large portion of Lt. Col. Alexander Stewart's Redcoat contingent were men who formerly had fought for the Patriots. As Greene recalled, “We fought the enemy with British soldiers, and they fought us with those of America.”

Reviewer Bill Thompson is a writer and editor based in Charleston.