SCOTT SIMON, host:
With the Fourth of July at hand, we've thought it would be a good time to remember some of the sometime overlooked episodes of the American Revolution. The best scholar for that wasn't available. So instead, once again we turn to A.J. Jacobs, the Esquire magazine writer who became a famous self-described know-it-all when he read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica.
Now, we moved to our New York bureau and told A.J. but there was no forwarding address but he found it anyway, intemperate as he is.
A.J., thanks for being with us.
Mr. A.J. JACOBS (Columnist, Esquire Magazine; Author, "The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible"): Thank you for having me.
SIMON: The famous painting of Washington at Valley Forge standing at the prow of the boat, what was on the other side?
Mr. JACOBS: The Battle of Trenton. They were going to fight the Hessians.
SIMON: The Hessians were German guys, mercenaries...
Mr. JACOBS: Right.
Mr. JACOBS: And Washington chose to cross the Delaware on Christmas night and it turned out to be a good decision because the Hessians had been celebrating Christmas in a festive way with a little - a good amount of rum. According to some, when Washington attacked the troops were still drunk, or at least hung over. Alcohol definitely helped us in that battle.
I will say, though, in fairness to the Hessians, there are scholars who say there was no proof that there were hang over (unintelligible) excessive drinking.
SIMON: But they just might have been rotten soldiers, you mean?
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: That's your version of being fair to the Hessians? Let me ask you about a hero famous for his purse.
Mr. JACOBS: Yes. Haym Solomon. I love him. He's the angel investor of the patriot cause. He was a Polish-Jewish immigrant who made a lot of money in banking. And he lent $600,000 to the early American government to pay for supplies. And that's in 18th-century dollars, by the way, so we're talking millions. Most of the money was never repaid to him and he died broke - but a good man.
SIMON: Do you think that there's something to be said for Benedict Arnold?
Mr. JACOBS: Arnold's big mistake was that he didn't die early enough. If he had died after, say, the Battle of Saratoga, he would be an enormous(ph) American hero because early on, he was a great general and he won some very crucial battles for us.
SIMON: Tell me about the slave who became a spy for the colonists?
Mr. JACOBS: He was a fascinating man named James Armistead who was a slave in Virginia and who became a very important spy for the American cause. He asked his master if he could fight for the patriots and he was allowed to go to Benedict Arnold's camp - this was after Benedict Arnold had crossed over - and he pretended that he was a freed slave.
He was able to gather crucial information including the fact that the Brits had sent a lot of troops of Yorktown, so that allowed Washington to win that battle. So without James Armistead, we might all be eating kidney pie and watching the British version of "The Office."
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: I like the British version of "The Office," and they don't eat kidney pie anymore, my gosh.
A.J., thanks so much.
Mr. JACOBS: Thank you, Scott.
SIMON: A.J. Jacobs. His next book, "The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible."
This is NPR News.