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He was the only man in the Continental Army who served as a general throughout the whole Revolutionary War, except for George Washington. He never won a major battle. One of his early decisions cost Washington almost half his army. A good part of the war, he was a “desk soldier,” champing at the bit to be allowed another battle command. Outside of Washington, there is no one more responsible for the army’s success.
On the surface, it would have seemed that Nathanael Greene had little chance to become a great military leader. He was born into a Quaker sect that not only opposed war but discouraged “literary accomplishments.” From childhood, he walked with a decided limp. His father was a successful farmer and smith with a large foundry.
The young Nathanael found ways around his faith’s boundaries. He became self-taught in the classics, mathematics, law, and yes, military science. Shortly before his father’s death, he was given charge of the family business.
He was thirty when his father died and it proved a liberating moment for him. Between 1770 and 1775, he helped establish a school, was elected to the Rhode Island General Assembly, married, helped to organize a local militia, and managed to get both himself and his cousin expelled from the Quaker faith. He was on a committee appointed by the assembly to revise militia laws. At one point, he offered to resign from the militia he had helped to form and train because of its members saw his limp as a problem on the parade field.
In May of 1775, he was promoted (perhaps because of political connections) from private in the militia to major general in command of the militia when it was sent to help respond to the siege of Boston. Forty-four days later, he was made a brigadier general in the new regular Continental Army.
By October of 1776, Greene was a major general and considered perhaps Washington’s most trusted officer. He was in command of the last American stronghold in New York City. His decision to defend Fort Washington against overwhelming odds resulted in not only the loss of the fort and New York City but also what constituted almost half of the Continental Army at the time. More than half of the prisoners would die in the prison ships of the British. It would be more than four years before the Continental Army suffered a defeat to match the loss at Fort Washington.
It would be 1780 before Greene would again be the overall commander of troops in the field but, for the present, he was responsible for important command moments under Washington at the battles of Trenton, Brandywine, and Germantown. He was re-proving his ability to lead men and make important command decisions in the heat of battle. But it would be in the misery of Valley Forge where he would make his greatest contribution to that point.
Washington knew he needed both organizational skills and administrative ability in a Quarter Master General if the army was to survive the winter. Greene became that man. It would fall to him to feed and supply an army with almost nothing. Food was not the only issue. Supplies of all sorts were badly needed. Clothes for the soldiers, forage for the animals, firewood, and gun powder were only a few of the items which Greene’s skills brought in.
He was so successful that Washington called upon him to take the position of Quarter Master General of the entire army. His abilities probably saved the army at that point.
He had moved from behind the cannons to being behind the “spreadsheet” and he hated it. He was very good at it and the passion with which he performed this duty spoke well of both his devotion to the cause and to Washington’s ability to persuade.
He hated dealing with Congress. Perhaps this we can forgive him! He fought with them constantly and asked to resign more than once.
When Cornwallis was tearing through the southern colonies to divide the Revolution, Congress refused to appoint Greene as the commander as Washington asked for and instead sent Horatio Gates. In short order, the Americans were handed an embarrassing loss at Camden.
This time, Congress relented and allowed Greene to take command of what was left of the southern command. It was not much. It consisted of less than one thousand men who had just suffered two terrible defeats.
With the addition of Daniel Morgan’s men, the southern forces were barely over one thousand men while Cornwallis commanded over forty-five hundred battle-tested troops. Undersupplied and outmanned, Greene did the last thing most would advise. He divided his command. Morgan would take the “light troops” and head into the backcountry and draw part of the British after him while Greene headed south to find supplies and train.
After Morgan’s classic victory at Cowpens, both Morgan and Greene began a chase across North Carolina to rejoin each other. Morgan was carrying over 800 British prisoners as well. Angered and embarrassed by losses at King’s Mountain and Cowpens, Cornwallis was determined to catch the smaller Continental force and crush it. Together, Morgan and Greene began a race to the Dan River to cross over into Virginia.
In a desperate move to catch the fleeing rebels, Cornwallis burned his supply wagons and anything he thought would slow him down. The great general was beginning to make frustrated mistakes. This one would not be his last.
The Continentals beat Cornwallis to the Dan by mere hours and were able to cross ahead of the British because of Greene’s planning and organization. He had made sure that the route to the Dan was well scouted and planned and that boats were made in advance and waiting.
Cornwallis turned back into North Carolina and declared it cleared of rebels. Across the Dan, Greene supplied and trained for the return trip.
Within a week, with more supplies and additional troops, Greene crossed back into North Carolina to pick his ground for a fight. It was a defensive position near Guilford Court House. His battle plan would be much like Morgan’s at Cowpens. There would be two lines of militia to fire and fall back to be supported by a line of regulars.
The plan worked again. When the British reached the third line, the regulars fired a volley and crossed bayonets with the Redcoats. Greene gave the command and the right flank began to close on the British.
Cornwallis saw that the day was lost if he did not act quickly. He had his cannon turn to the right flank and fire grapeshot (think large, really large, buckshot) into the masses of soldiers. At least half or more of the troops who would be hit were to be British but it was the only chance Cornwallis had to halt the flanking movement.
This time, Greene made the right move in a moment of decision. He had taken a terrible toll on Cornwallis. The ground was of no value to him. He stopped the bloodbath and ordered a retreat.
By the standards of the day, Cornwallis could call it a victory. He controlled the field. But he had taken a much heavier toll than Greene. He was without supplies in a hostile country. Many of his best troops were gone. Even across an entire ocean in Parliament it was noted that another such victory would “spell the ruin of the entire army.”
Disgusted with the Carolinas, Cornwallis crossed into Virginia and began a trek to the coast in hopes of getting supplies and reinforcements. The trek would take him to the port city of Yorktown and the end of the war. His fate had been sealed by a self-trained colonial general with a stiff knee, a bookkeeper’s mind, and a warrior’s heart who finished the war without a battlefield victory to his name.Published in