Nathanael Greene & the Formation of the American Republic

Warrior of the Revolution

In 1815, John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson, “What do we mean by the Revolution?  The war?  That was no part of the Revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it.  The Revolution was in the minds of the people…”16 Although at least partially true, Adams’ assertion also smacks of hindsight.  The ideological revolution had indeed already occurred.  This revolution compelled the colonists to throw off their perceived oppressor’s yolk.  To Greene, the war was the American Revolution.  Although he might have later agreed with Adams, he was not afforded the luxury of leisurely analyzing events.  Nathanael Greene recognized that only a military revolution would secure the liberties that the patriot leaders had determined were theirs. And as such, he had a war to win.

As early as the Intolerable Acts, Greene foresaw events hurtling towards a violent finale.  He wrote, “Soon very soon expect to hear the thirsty Earth drinking in the warm Blood of American sons.”17  Greene realized that rhetoric would not be enough to overcome the overwhelming military power of the British Empire. Despite his Quaker beginnings, he had begun eagerly reading all the military books he could get his hands on.  He came to believe that violence to defeat tyranny or injustice was the very definition of a moral good, much to the horror of his pacifist neighbors.18  He joined a local militia company and six months later, the Rhode Island Assembly offered Greene command of the entire Rhode Island Militia.

General Nathanael Greene eventually became the Continental Army’s ablest field commander.  He loyally and capably served under General Washington in victories at Harlem Heights, Trenton, and Princeton, defeats at Brandywine and Germantown, and strategic victories at Monmouth and Springfield.  He heartily endorsed the Declaration of Independence, wondering why it had not been done sooner.  From March, 1778, to July, 1880, Greene unhappily performed his duties well as Quartermaster General.

He finally received his own command following the rout of General Gates at Camden, taking command of the only active section of the Continental Army in North America. It was the American Revolution’s darkest hour.  Washington was stalemated with Clinton in the North. Inflation had crippled the internal economy of the colonies.  Benedict Arnold had defected to the British.  The Continental Army had lost two armies in four months.  The only patriot resistance in the Deep South was guerrilla units under Generals Thomas Sumter and Francis Marion.

Greene rebuilt his army, and then made the heretical strategic decision to divide his forces in the face of a superior foe.  Greene believed this would allow his army to better live off the land.  Lord Cornwallis, Greene’s able adversary in the South, was left in a quandary.  If he attacked either of Greene’s main forces, they were far enough apart that the other could maneuver around him and attack British posts and sever his supply line.  Cornwallis sent the infamous Colonel Tarleton to attack the section led by Daniel Morgan.  From the battle field at Hannah’s Cowpens, Morgan sent a letter to Greene, stating, “The Troops I had the Honor to command have been so fortunate as to obtain a complete Victory.”19  The Battle of Cowpens was the second turning point of the war.

An enraged Cornwallis pursued Greene, who managed to outdistance him and reach the relative safety of North Carolina.  Cornwallis, realizing he was in the middle of nowhere without provisions or supplies, turned back.  The two later met at Guilford Courthouse.  At the end of the battle, Cornwallis was left with the field and a staggering casualty rate that was among the worst of the war.  Greene had sold Cornwallis another Bunker Hill.  As Cornwallis moved to Virginia, Greene continued fighting in the South, technically losing each battle, but inflicting so many casualties on the British that they had to fall back to Savannah and Charleston, which were eventually abandoned.

In fighting the Revolutionary War in the South, Greene practically revolutionized warfare.  Greene incorporated regular and irregular warfare in a fashion never seen before, but seen often in the 225 years since.  His genius was exemplified by the concept of mobile war.  He understood the value of cavalry and mobile infantry better than previous commanders.20   He realized that highly mobile regular and irregular forces, working in concert, could provide mutual support.  The presence of a large regular army prevented Cornwallis from conducting an effective anti-guerrilla campaign while the guerrillas forced him to protect his supply lines and distracted him from Greene’s main army.21  Greene’s critical strategic victory at Guilford Courthouse, along with attacks by Sumter, Marion, and Colonel “Light-Horse Harry” Lee on Cornwallis’ rear and supply lines led directly to Cornwallis’ decision to abandon the Carolinas and proceed to his date with destiny at Yorktown.  Greene had quickly retaken the South by losing, in the conventional sense, every battle he participated in.

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