by Janie B. Cheaney
If all the generals on both sides of the Revolutionary conflict were
piled up and evaluated, Nathanael Greene should probably emerge at the
very top for all-around generalship. Benedict Arnold was a better
field commander; Sir William Howe may have had him beat for overall
strategy; for sheer moral presence and character, nobody tops George
Washington. But Greene combined all these qualities with practicality
and shrewdness. He served his emerging country for eight years, much
of it in poor health, in thankless positions, and under heavy
criticism, and in the final months of the war pulled off an amazing
feat that set the stage for eventual victory. Perpetual stage-setters
and behind-the-scenes servers are never as well known as they deserve
He was born on July 27, 1742 in Potowamut, Rhode Island, an area of the country well-populated with Greenes. His grandfather had built up a number of thriving businesses: besides their individual farms, the Greenes owned two grist mills, a sawmill, a wharf and a small coastal trading vessel, a dam and a sluiceway. Nathanael, as the oldest son of his family, was expected to carry on the family trades. For him, this meant chiefly the ironworks, where he plied the forge and developed a strong set of chest and arm muscles. His health was never good, however: a stiff knee forced him to walk with a limp, and he suffered from asthma all his life.
Another handicap which he felt keenly was the lack of a formal education. His family were strict Quakers, "of the most supersticious kind," as he put it, who believed true piety to be incompatible with worldly learning. All his lessons were self-taught, and chief among them must have been how to find out anything he wanted to know. After the death of his father in 1770, Nathanael was seen less and less at Quaker meetings, and three years later he and a cousin were "read out" of the local meeting for attending a place they shouldn't have been. Tradition identifies this as a militia muster, but the official church resolution called it a "place of Publick Resort," which at that time could have meant anything from a tavern to a bawdy house. We may never know, but there is no indication that Nathanael turned his back on the Quakers with any regret; he was already developing an interest in military matters that would have appalled the pacifist Friends.
Trouble with the mother country had been simmering for many years when an incident at sea pushed several Greenes firmly into the patriot camp. On February 17, 1772, their trading vessel was boarded by a British scouting party from H.M.S. Gaspee, searching for contraband. Smuggling was considered an honorable profession by most Rhode Island merchants, who felt the English excise laws were a gross violation of their God-given rights. That meant nothing to the British, who insulted and knocked around Captain Rufus Greene before seizing his ship. Several months later, a mob attacked the Gaspee and its crew and burned it to the gunwales. It is not clear whether Nathanael himself was in this mob, but some of his relatives probably were.
This celebrated event marked the entire Greene family as rebels in the eyes of the British government, but before the war turned his life upside-down, Nathanael had time to enjoy a personal interlude. He fell in love with Catherine Littlefield, a vivacious brunette with a sparkling personality, and after a swift courtship married her in July of 1774. He was 32, she only 19. Though the war loomed like a massive distraction over most of their marriage, he remained in love with her until he died.
With the shots fired at Lexington, all the colonies began outfitting militia regiments to send to the defense of Boston. Nathanael Greene was so instrumental in raising the "Rhode Island Army of Observation" that he expected to be elected one of its Lieutenants. His mortification was great when the men rejected him, probably because his pronounced limp did not present a proper military appearance. Swallowing his pride, he enlisted as a private, but when the company marched, Nathanael Greene was in command, with the rank of Brigadier General. From private to brigadier in one leap has to be the swiftest promotion in the annals of history, and why the Rhode Island Assembly passed over more senior candidates to settle upon Greene is not known. As subsequent years would show, it was a fortuitous choice.
George Washington met the Rhode Island commander outside Boston, and the two hit it off almost immediately. Greene was soon incorporated into the Continental army with his rank confirmed by Congress, and thereafter kept close to the Commander as one of his most trusted counselors. His grasp of military strategy, combined with an unsentimental practicality, must have appealed to Washington, but so far it was all head knowledge. Greene would soon receive the opportunity to prove himself in the field when, early in 1776, the Continental army hurried from Boston to New York in order to hold that city against the British advance. The many engagements in and around New York served notice on the Americans that they were in for a long, hard war. The King, unwilling to give up his empire without a fight, poured over 20,000 British and Hessian troops into the area, who forced the Americans out of all their positions, from Brooklyn to Harlem Heights to Manhattan.
Early on, Greene advised that the city be evacuated and burned; it seemed impossible to hold, and there was no point in leaving its buildings and farms to supply the enemy. But he was overruled, and by the time the rest of the staff came around to his way of thinking, it was too late. Greene himself suffered a suspension of judgment when he advised that Fort Washington, on the cliffs of north Manhattan overlooking the Hudson, be held as a deterrent to British ships. General Washington was ambivalent about the proposal, since the fort had already failed to stop four British ships. He left the matter to Greene's judgment. Fort Washington fell on November 12 to an assault force of 8000 British and Hessians, who captured over 3100 American defenders with all their arms and provisions. Many of these prisoners died under confinement in the infamous prison ships anchored in New York Harbor. "I feel mad, vext, sick, and sorry," Greene wrote the next day--probably an understatement. But the experience had taught him valuable lessons that he would not forget.
At the very end of the year, Washington snatched a morale boost from the jaws of despair by his brilliant actions at Trenton and Princeton. Greene commanded one of the advance columns that surprised the Hessians in Trenton. The following summer he proved his worth again at Brandywine, when Sir William Howe slipped around the Continental army's defense of Philadelphia and put himself in a position to attack their unprotected rear. Greene rushed a column to the rear, arriving just in time to save the army, if not Philadelphia. Howe moved his troops into the city, while Washington established winter quarters at Valley Forge and Greene was prevailed upon to take the post of quartermaster general. It was the last thing on earth he wanted to do; "no body ever heard of a quarter master in History," he complained to Washington--but someone had to do it.
Once he accepted the job, he set about it with his usual clear-headedness and lack of sentiment, urging his officers to "forage the country naked" in order to supply the soldiers who were fighting for it. Greene held the post from the winter of 1777 to August of 1780, his most frustrating and controversial service--frustrating by the very nature of the job, and controversial by the use he made of it. He was accused of using the position to feather his own nest, and there was much truth to the accusations. Quartermasters received a commission of one percent on all the goods they supplied, and Greene awarded contracts to members of his own family while turning over his profits to them to invest in shipping and privateering. There is no evidence that he took more than his one percent, or that the army was shortchanged in any way. Nor did he do anything illegal (a familiar refrain today). But every man in a public position is a target for criticism, and Greene came in for his share during this period.
Serving in the battle of Monmouth was almost a vacation for him, if such could be said of that long inconclusive battle fought on a day so hot that soldiers on both sides dropped from heatstroke. Greene repulsed a strong assault from Lord Cornwallis in the course of the day, thus preventing a cave-in of the American flank. Then it was back to quartermastering. In August of 1780 a disaster occurred for the Americans that opened a door of opportunity for Greene. General Horatio Gates, in command of the Southern Department, lost the battle of Camden so thoroughly that his entire army was almost swept away with it.
George Washington had wanted Greene in command of the Southern department ever since the fall of Charleston in May of that year, but Congress had liked Gates better. Now Gates was dust, and Washington had his way. Nathanael Greene was less than thrilled; if nothing else, the Southern command would take him even farther away from his beloved Caty. One consolation was that the task held the possibility of enrolling his name in history books. Accordingly, he set off at the end of October in the company of a small guard and a few advisors. He stopped to request (or beg) supplies from influential persons along the way, such as the governors of Virginia and North Carolina--with indifferent success. Jefferson must have tried his patience, for the governor was so finely attuned to the civil rights of his fellow Virginians he didn't see how any of their property could be conscripted for the war effort.
Greene's own subordinates served him better. Colonel Carrington, his quartermaster, was dispatched to survey the terrain with a particular eye to mapping out possible routes of retreat. Another aide, the Polish volunteer Thaddaus Kosuisko, took on the task of locating fords and building boats. Greene arrived at army headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina, with a clear perception of geography; soon he received a clear perception of the army and its needs. Morale was low, supply lines poor and discipline almost nonexistent. Resistance to the British invasion of the south was coming almost entirely from the various partisan groups, such as Francis Marion's and Thomas Sumter's. Greene reached out to these irregulars, proposing their cooperation in the most diplomatic terms. Marion agreed, and would be a great help during the coming months, but Sumter preferred rowing his own boat.
After two weeks, Greene determined upon a bold move: the countryside could no longer feed the approximately 2000 regular soldiers and militia men quartered in Charlotte; he would have to move them. Accordingly he split them up, one part to march west under his very able second-in-command, General Daniel Morgan, and the other to move east to a suitable camp on the Peedee River. By dividing his army he hoped to confuse his adversary Lord Cornwallis and force a similar division on the other side.
The plan worked, in that it stirred up some action. Cornwallis dispatched his cavalry commander, Colonel Tarleton, with about 1100 men to take care of Morgan, after which the reunited British army could go after Greene. Events did not fall out as Cornwallis expected, for Tarleton was so soundly defeated at the Battle of Cowpens (January 17, 1781) that he lost almost all of His Majesty's light troops. Frantic to get his regiments back, Cornwallis burned his army's baggage, in effect turning all his remaining men into light troops, and made ready for a sprint after Morgan. For Nathanael Greene, three months of preparation were over; now it was time for action. Leaving his army under a subordinate to await orders, he set off across country with a guide and two officers, catching up with Daniel Morgan on January 30.
The news that Cornwallis had burned his stores and was setting off in hot pursuit intrigued Greene, and he saw how to take advantage of the situation. He would begin a retreat, drawing the British farther into enemy territory and stretching their resources to the limit. He knew the routes, the fords, already had the boats lined up--when the time was right, Greene might even be able to turn and fight Cornwallis on favorable ground. Morgan was less confident that the scheme could work, and severe back problems precluded his participating in it; his commanding officer accepted his resignation with great reluctance, for Morgan was a fine battle captain. But Greene found an able replacement in Colonel Otho Williams, who took over Morgan's command when the latter could no longer set a horse.
Thus began one of the great adventures of the Revolution, the "race to the Dan." The route across North Carolina was threaded with rivers and creeks, mostly running southeast and all flooded after weeks of steady rain. There were no bridges and many of the fords were unfordable, but here Greene's foresight in arranging for boats paid off; Americans were often treading the high ground while their enemies were still floundering in the swells. Through the first two weeks of February, three columns raced toward Virginia: the main American army under Greene, a regiment of light troops under Otho Williams who covered for them, and the British, strung out behind and suffering cold and privation but never slacking off. Various militia and partisan groups performed bravely at the fords, holding off the British advance until the Americans could cover a little more ground. Even so, it was close--at times, especially toward the end, the space between British vanguard and American rear guard could be measured in yards, not miles.
But Cornwallis could not keep it up, and was forced to stop more often just to keep his men alive. By noon on February 14, the Americans were crossing the Dan River into Virginia. When Colonel Williams, still holding off the British van, received word that all the army was across he passed the word on to his men. The cheer they raised could be heard by the advancing British less than a mile away, and they knew they had lost the race. Greene had defeated them as decisively on the march as he could have on a battlefield. Three weeks later, with a rested and reinforced army, he crossed the River back into North Carolina in a direct challenge to Lord Cornwallis, who was then camped at Hillsboro.
The two armies met at Guilford Courthouse on the morning of March 15, in a battle that some historians have termed the hardest-fought of the entire war. By now the American army numbered over 4400, but most of them were militia, raw and untried. Though Cornwallis could bring only half that number to the battlefield, he could not afford to back down from the confrontation. Greene had already decided to copy the plan Daniel Morgan used so successfully at the Cowpens: he placed his militia in front with orders to fall back after firing only two volleys, and lined up the Continental soldiers in a main battle line about 400 yards behind them. The arrangement did not work as well here, though; there was too much space between the militia and the regulars, and when the militia retreated (broke and ran, to be frank) there was no effective way to collar them. The Continentals performed exceptionally well. At the center of the field the fighting was so fierce that Cornwallis, seeing no other way to settle the issue, ordered his artillery turned on British and Americans alike.
At this point, General Greene decided that enough was enough. The disaster at Fort Washington had taught him that saving his army was more important than winning a few square yards of contested ground, and he could see for himself how severe a blow Cornwallis had been dealt. He ordered a retreat, leaving the British in possession of ground that would lend them absolutely no strategic advantage. Cornwallis probably realized this himself after a few days. Though he had technically won the battle, he was still deep in enemy territory with nothing but trouble on his hands until he reached a safe haven. Accordingly he turned south and marched his famished, exhausted redcoats toward Wilmington, where he could at least obtain supplies.
Greene followed him for three weeks, then abruptly changed course and headed into South Carolina. This was "a splendid move," according to at least one historian, for it recognized that Cornwallis was no longer a threat to the south. This judgment was sound; late in April Cornwallis started north for Virginia and the series of events that would lead to his final surrender at Yorktown. He left behind him two British garrisons at Charleston and Savannah and three major outposts in South Carolina: Ninety-Six in the west, Camden in the center, and Georgetown near the coast. These three were well-defended but vulnerable--it was to Camden that Greene next turned his attention. Just north of the town, on April 25, he and his men were surprised by a British force of about 800 commanded by Francis Lord Rawdon. Though the Americans outnumbered their foes they never managed to pull an adequate defense together, and the Battle of Hobkirk's Hill scored a technical point for the British.
But again, it turned out to be an empty victory; early in May Lord Rawdon abandoned the post at Camden and retreated to Charleston. One by one, smaller British outposts began falling as American guerilla bands lay siege to them, and Georgetown was evacuated at the end of May. Rawdon, a very capable officer, led a desperate march across country with fresh troops to save the British garrison at Ninety-Six, but even after that victory all he could do was evacuate the post. Interior South Carolina was again in American hands, and Greene decided to close in on Charleston.
On September 7 at Eutaw Springs, fifty miles northwest of the city, the Americans attacked a British camp and soon held the upper hand. That is, until they stopped to raid the British officers' tents. Months of deprivation made the flesh weak; in short order many of them were so drunk they couldn't carry on. Once again, Greene had the choice of contesting ground or saving his army, and chose the latter. Eutaw Springs was the last major battle of the southern campaign, and succeeded in penning the British back in Charleston where they had started over eighteen months before.
A little farther north, Lord Cornwallis was digging himself a trap in Yorktown, where he would be forced to surrender his entire army on October 17. Raiding, looting and skirmishing would continue for a year or more, especially in the south. But from now on the fighting would be between patriots and Tories; Washington's victory in Virginia and Greene's in South Carolina sealed the British army in New York and Charleston, where they could do no more damage.
When speaking of Greene's southern campaign, "victory" is a word that must be qualified. Strange to say, he never won a single engagement in the south--not at Guilford Court House, nor at Eutaw Springs, nor at the siege of Ninety-Six--but never has an "unsuccessful" campaign met with such success. In gratitude, the state of Georgia gave him a plantation near Savannah named Mulberry Grove, where he moved with his wife and two sons when the war was over. The gift of this property was a mixed blessing. Because he refused to work it with slaves, he was beset by labor problems from the beginning and always in debt. Also, he may never have adapted to the climate. On June 19, 1786, he developed a fearful headache (probably sunstroke), took to his bed and was dead by midnight. He was only 45.
In one of those ironies that history loves, it was the tutor for Caty Greene's children who developed an invention for removing seeds from cotton at Mulberry Grove. Thereby Eli Whitney helped establish cotton as the primary cash crop of the south and slavery as the primary means of cultivating it.
Flood, Charles Bracelen. Rise, And Fight Again. New York, 1976
Buchanan, John. The Road to Guilford Court House: the American Revolution in the Carolinas. New York, 1997