Nathanael Greene: The Revolution’s Unconventional Mastermind
Short on manpower and equipment, and relying on a loose combination of regular army troops and local militia, Nathanael Greene wrested the South from the British and saved the Revolution.
Arriving at the ramshackle camp of the Continental Army at Charlotte, North Carolina, on Dec. 2, 1781 to take up the reins of command, Major General Nathanael Greene wrote to his commander and confidante, George Washington, “I cannot contemplate my own situation without the greatest degree of anxiety. I have to prosecute a war with almost insurmountable difficulties.”
Greene, surely the most brilliant American strategist you’ve never heard of, was an unlikely general. Born in Rhode Island in 1742, he was the son of a prominent Quaker preacher. An anchorsmith and mill owner by trade, Greene was gifted with penetrating intelligence and stupendous energy. Seized by Revolutionary fervor in his late twenties, he forswore his Quaker faith, and read everything he could get his hands on about military history and science. Before the first shots were fired at Lexington, he’d managed to teach himself a great deal about 18th century tactics and logistics. More importantly, he had begun to form a sophisticated understanding of the relationship between revolutionary politics and warfare.
Although he had no military experience beyond participation in a local militia unit, leaders of the Rhode Island General Assembly sensed his promise: they promoted him from militia private to brigadier general of the little army they sent to support the patriots in the siege of Boston in spring 1775. George Washington, too, recognized Greene’s extraordinary potential, placing him in charge of the defense of Boston after the British departed. The two soldiers formed a mutual admiration society that would last until Greene’s untimely death in 1786 at age 44.
Greene was promoted to Major General in August 1776 and put in charge of the Revolutionary army on Long Island. He went on to fight—and fight very well—at the battles of Trenton, Princeton, Germantown, and Monmouth. “Varied experience… taught him much,” writes historian Robert Middlekauff, “largely because he reflected on it to draw out its meaning and utility.” When Washington was asked to name his own replacement in the event of death or incapacitation, he chose Greene, without equivocation.
As for taking command of the Southern theater of operations, Greene had good reason to be apprehensive. After France’s entry into the war on the American side in early 1778, the campaign in the middle colonies had settled down into an uneventful stalemate. Washington and Gen. Henry Clinton’s forces occasionally skirmished, but there were few real battles. The center of gravity in the War of Independence shifted decidedly to the South, where the British hoped to capitalize on large numbers of loyalists to wrest the entire region from American control. It was widely believed by leading revolutionaries that British victory there would deal a fatal blow to the rebellion.
By late 1781, “the Glorious Cause” in the South appeared on the verge of collapse. Georgia had fallen under crown control in early 1779, and its countryside remained in the firm grip of loyalist militia. Charleston, the jewel of the South and the region’s only large city, was conquered by a British amphibious force under Gen. Clinton in May 1780 after a six-week siege. A Continental army of 2,600 had surrendered, along with 343 artillery pieces and 8,000 muskets. It was a devastating loss to the Revolution’s already skeletal military assets, and civilian morale plummeted to a new low.
The British Army rapidly established a line of small forts and supply bases across the breadth of South Carolina, from Ninety Six deep in the back country to Georgetown on the coast. Britain’s “southern strategy” seemed to be working all too well: North Carolina appeared ripe for the taking; the crown hoped to employ loyalist militia to pacify territory conquered by the army. Once the Carolinas were fully under the King’s peace, the whole region might well serve as a base for a loyalist-led counter-revolutionary political movement.
Not everything went smoothly for the Brits. After the fall of Charleston, Clinton instituted in South Carolina a draconian policy of punishing any and all civilians who would not affirm complete loyalty to the crown. That policy, conjoined with looting by the occupying army, drove hundreds of back country Scots-Irish who would have preferred to remain neutral to join the Revolutionary cause. A truly savage guerrilla war between loyalist and patriot bands emerged, replete with atrocities and wanton acts of destruction on both sides. The conflict—a kind of war within a war—spread to North Carolina, and threatened to destroy the social fabric of both states beyond repair. But the civil war only complicated matters for the Revolutionaries, as well as the crown.
The Continental Congress sent a 4,000-man army under the hero of Saratoga, Horatio Gates, to shatter the British army in South Carolina, and put an end to bloody civil strife there. In a display of tactical ineptitude seldom equaled in American military history, Gates sent a dysentery-plagued, under-trained force against 2,000 experienced British regulars at Camden on Aug. 16, 1780. The town was a key crossroads considered essential for controlling the Carolina back country. The Americans were routed. The British inflicted 900 casualties and took 1,000 more prisoners, along with all of Gates’s heavy equipment and guns.
It was with the remnants of this army of about 1,000 men that Greene was called on to accomplish precisely what Gates had so spectacularly failed to do. “Nothing can be more wretched and distressing that the condition of the troops, starving with cold and hunger, without tents and camp equipage,” reported Greene soon after his arrival at its camp in Charlotte. Yet the Rhode Islander, a veritable whirlwind of activity, had already begun to turn things around as he rode south from his last billet at West Point, stopping en route at every state capital to beg, borrow, and steal the horses, wagons, muskets, uniforms, and fresh militia units he needed to build a viable fighting force. No state, nor the Continental Congress, had much to give, but Greene was almost as good a pleader as he was a logistician, and he was able to get just enough men and equipment to put a small, highly mobile force back into the action.
In the Carolinas there were more rivers and streams than good roads, and the Continental army’s survival would hinge on using them well. Greene immediately dispatched a team of officers under engineer Thaddeus Kosciuszko to make a survey of the topography, noting with special care river currents and fording points. Greene’s supply master was ordered to hire a team of shipwrights to build a large number of flat-bottom boats with wheels that could be transported overland by horses. According to Lt. Col. “Light Horse Harry” Lee, who would play a leading part in the campaign to follow, Greene at once turned confusion into order, “and infused a spirit of exalted patriotism” into the ranks, earning him “the durable attachment and esteem of all.”
Lt. Gen. Charles Lord Cornwallis, the new commander of British forces in the South, had 8,000 regulars and at least 2,000 Tory militia under his command. Cornwallis was a gifted tactician, and unlike many British generals in the War of Independence, he liked to fight. Greene built up a force of 2,200 troops, a bit more than half of them untried state militia. He also made it his business to be in very close communication with a handful of partisan bands that had continued to harass the enemy since the debacle at Camden in August.
He could not fight a conventional campaign. It would have been an act of suicide. “Don’t be surprised if my movements don’t correspond with your ideas of military propriety,” he told one of his regular officers. “War is an intricate business, and people are often saved by ways and means they least expect.” His only chance—and it was a slim chance by his own reckoning—lay in an unconventional campaign that integrated operations by his small army with wide-ranging action by partisan irregulars. These light but lethal marauders, sometimes supplemented by detachments from Greene’s regulars, would cut British lines of communication, hinder their movement, provide Greene with timely intelligence, and perhaps most important, rekindle faith in the war effort among the populace at large simply by their presence.
From the outset Greene expected to engage in a few set-piece battles against Cornwallis’ powerful army. He hoped he might win one or two of these encounters, but he never expected to win, in the traditional tactical sense of commanding the battlefield once the fighting was over. Holding ground wasn’t important. Rather, his chief objectives were to wear down British strength and patience by inflicting casualties and engaging in long marches across difficult, hostile terrain. To withdraw from major clashes with an army ready to fight another day, Greene told his troops, would be a kind of victory in itself.
Among the forces the fighting former Quaker had (loosely) under his command were several masters of the art of guerrilla war. Francis Marion, aka “the swamp fox,” learned the soldier’s trade in the war against the Cherokee Indians in 1761. From that conflict he emerged with a reputation as a relentlessly cagey fighter and gifted small-unit commander. After Camden, Marion and his band of about 80 men ruthlessly terrorized both Tory militia and British supply trains. Cornwallis said in disgust that Marion’s threats of punishment and promise of plunder had turned all of South Carolina’s countryside against the crown.
Thomas Sumter—for whom Fort Sumter was named—was a brigadier of the South Carolina militia. Aggressive to a fault and highly temperamental, he had proven as able at recruiting as he had in disrupting Lord Cornwallis’ plans to pacify all of South Carolina after Camden. At Blackstock’s Farm on Nov. 20, Sumter’s forces had eviscerated 500 men under Cornwallis’s most able cavalryman, Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton. Cornwallis referred to Sumter as “my greatest plague.”
A broad-shouldered 6-footer, Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan was a hard-drinking brawler with vast fighting experience in both the French and Indian War and earlier Revolutionary War campaigns. Morgan’s men were usually kitted out with long rifles, which had far greater range and accuracy than the muskets used by most Revolutionary war troops. His Special Corps of 500 light infantry had performed brilliantly in the defeat of Burgoyne at Saratoga. By 1781, the leather-tough Morgan was widely recognized as one of the ablest combat commanders on either side of the war.
On Dec. 16 Greene proved he was no by-the-book general. He divided his small army into three parts, despite facing a much stronger force than his own. He himself led about 1,200 men southeast to a camp at Cheraw Hill, where the provisions were ample. Meanwhile, Daniel Morgan with 600 of the most seasoned fighters in the army headed southwest to show the Revolutionary flag and harass the British in the vicinity of their westernmost fort at Ninety Six. Finally, Lt. Col. Lee’s Legion of 200 headed east to conduct a series of hit-and run raids near the coast in cooperation with Marion.
At Cheraw Greene explained the rationale for his decision to split up his small army: “It makes the most of my inferior force, for it compels my adversary to divide his, and holds him in doubt as to his own line of conduct. He cannot leave Morgan behind him and come to me, or his posts of Ninety Six and Augusta would be exposed. And he cannot chase Morgan far, or prosecute his views on Virginia, while I am here with the whole country open before me.”
Cornwallis did indeed split his forces, sending the gifted but impetuous Tarleton to destroy Morgan, whom he believed (wrongly) to be preparing an attack against Ninety Six. Cornwallis remained with the lion’s share of his army in the center of the state at Winnsboro. Tarleton closed in on Morgan near the border between the Carolinas at a well-known cattle-gazing field on Jan. 17, 1781. It was called Cowpens.
There Morgan prepared a very clever defense in depth of three lines, on ground that seemed to favor the attackers: riflemen skirmishers were placed well out front of a line of South Carolina militia. Behind the militia stood the main line of seasoned Continentals on the crest of a low hill. Eighty cavalry under Col. William Washington, cousin of George, were held well back in reserve.
The riflemen were crack shots. They turned back the opening charge by Tarleton’s dragoons, felling most of their officers in a matter of a few minutes. Tarleton immediately ordered his infantry to mount a second attack; the American militia men fired just two rounds, and then—as Morgan instructed—they beat a hasty retreat behind the main line and reformed in good order, out of sight of the British.
The Redcoats mistook this tactical withdrawal for the beginnings of a rout, and charged wildly into the American lines, at which point Morgan executed a classic double envelopment. Washington’s cavalry swept around the enemy’s right flank into the rear. Then the “routed” militiamen charged out from behind the hill and invested the British left flank. Before the battle was an hour old, British resistance utterly crumbled. More than 700 crack British regulars were taken prisoner; another 300 were killed or wounded.
Morgan’s victory was a tactical masterpiece, the only successful double envelopment of the entire war. Morale in Greene’s army—morale throughout the colonies—soared.
Enraged by Tarleton’s defeat, Cornwallis burned virtually all his wagons and tents, and resolved to crush Morgan and Greene in turn. Morgan moved out from Cowpens within hours, barely escaping annihilation at the hands of Cornwallis’s force.
Greene wisely decided to unite with Morgan’s little army and make a dash across the breadth of North Carolina, into Virginia, where ample stores and reinforcements were waiting for him. The Rhode Island general sent word to partisan bands in North Carolina to confiscate or burn all provisions along Cornwallis’s line of march. He would take the British on a long, debilitating ride to nowhere, refusing to give battle, and with luck, breaking their will to carry on with the chase.
Between January 16 and February 14, the American forces crossed four major rivers and countless streams, with Cornwallis nipping at their heels most of the way. On February 10, Greene and Morgan linked up at Guilford Courthouse. Seventy miles lay between them and the Dan River. Cornwallis tried desperately to close in for the kill, pushing his men to march as much as 30 miles a day. Greene detached 700 light troops under Col. Otho Williams to serve as a screening force. Over the next four days the adversaries marched at breakneck speed. Cornwallis’s forage parties returned to the main column bereft of provisions. Scores of Redcoats dropped out of the race due to exhaustion and hunger.
As they approached the Dan, Williams feinted toward one of the upper fords of the river, now heavily swollen with rain. Cornwallis followed, thinking he was chasing Greene’s entire army. In fact, Greene’s column was marching toward one of the lower fording points.
On February 14, Greene’s army reached the southern bank of the Dan, with Williams’s column in the rear. There boats were waiting to ferry them across the big river into the safety of Virginia. Cornwallis’s van arrived just hours after the American crossing. But the British, writes historian Russell Weighley, were “worn to a frazzle, 500 of 2,500 having dropped out” of the march, and the rest in no condition to continue the chase.
After resting and taking on about 2,500 reinforcements, mostly untested militia units, Greene’s army crossed the Dan once again, determined to go head to head with Cornwallis’s depleted force at last. Greene chose the place—Guilford Courthouse, where Greene and Morgan had linked up on the way north—and the date: March 15, 1781. The American forces once again established a three-line defense in depth. Several of the untried militia units broke and ran, but Washington’s cavalry stepped into the breach, and prevented catastrophe.
The fight along the main, i.e., third, line, where Greene had positioned four seasoned Continental regiments, was fierce, and might well have gone either way, as control of the battlefield shifted several times. At a crucial point in the fighting, writes Middlekauff, British assault troops “were sucked into a compressed, savage struggle—much of it hand to hand with the Americans gradually gaining control.” Cornwallis took the draconian step of firing grapeshot directly into the mass of entangled troops, blunting the Americans’ momentum, but killing a great many of his own men, as well as the enemy’s, in the process.
The British formed up for yet another attack, at which point Greene wisely ordered a retreat. Cornwallis had prevailed, but his was a Pyrrhic victory in every sense of the term. He had suffered more than 500 casualties. He could not gamble on another battle—he had too few men, and his supply situation was abysmal.
“I am quite tired of marching about the country in search of adventures,” the British general wrote to a brother officer after the battle. He had had quite enough of the Carolinas, and quite enough of Nathanael Greene, too. Lord Cornwallis was already planning a march into Virginia in search of a decisive battle. At Yorktown that October, he would find one.
As Cornwallis’s battered army withdrew to Wilmington and the coast, pro-revolutionary partisans swelled in numbers and strength, and began to re-assert Revolutionary authority throughout North Carolina. With Cornwallis out of the way, Greene saw that South Carolina was ripe for the taking. The British posts across the state were lightly garrisoned and too far apart to support one another in the event of attack. Greene orchestrated a masterful campaign to take the posts back in detail—one at a time—sometimes deploying partisan forces independently, sometimes combining partisans with units of the regular army.
First, Marion linked up with Light Horse Harry Lee’s Legion in the center of the state and besieged 80 Redcoats and 40 Loyalists at Fort Watson. Unable to counter the plunging fire of American sharpshooters from atop a custom-made 30-foot tower, the enemy surrendered on April 23.
Menaced on one flank by Greene’s army and on the other by Sumter’s militia, Lt. Col. Francis Lord Rawdon, now commander of all British forces in South Carolina, reluctantly withdrew from Camden to Charleston with 800 troops in tow on May 10. The next day, Sumter took the surrender of the fort at Orangeburg, along with 85 enemy troops. Light Horse Harry Lee and Marion struck next at Fort Motte. It fell on May 12. Lee alone captured Fort Granby three days later.
Marion forced the British to abandon Georgetown, the eastern anchor of the line of posts, on May 28. The British garrison there retired to ships on Winyah Bay. Andrew Pickens’s raiders joined with Lt. Col. Lee to wrest Augusta and several other small British forts in Georgia in early June.
Greene along with 1,000 troops took Ninety Six under siege on May 22. There 500 combat-tested loyalists repulsed Greene’s assault on June 18. Rawdon marched out of Charleston with a powerful rescue column. As Rawdon approached Ninety Six, Greene knew he must withdraw. But immediately after Rawdon arrived, the British commander came to the conclusion that Ninety Six was an indefensible island in a sea swimming with patriotic forces. He burned the fort and marched back to the Charleston.
By early summer, the British and their loyalist allies were bottled up in coastal enclaves at Wilmington, Charleston, and Savannah. The units in those towns were too weak to venture out into the countryside. All they could do was wait out the end of the war. The rest of the deep South belonged to the Revolutionaries, and to General Greene.
In apt summary of his remarkable way of war, Greene wrote, “There are few generals that have run oftener, or more lustily than I have done… But I have taken care not to run too far, and commonly have run as fast forward as backward, to convince our enemy that we were like a crab, that could run either way.” Greene did his running with partisan bands and regular army troops alike, and historian Russell Weighley is surely right to say that Greene’s genius as a strategist stemmed “from his ability to weave the maraudings of partisan raiders into a coherent pattern, coordinating them with the maneuvers of a field army otherwise too weak to accomplish much, and making the combination a deadly one.” It helped, too, that he was a superb planner, who did much with little, and refused to quit despite suffering more than his share of setbacks.
In many ways Greene’s strategy and mindset anticipates that of another great self-taught soldier: Vietnam’s Vo Nguyen Giap. Like Greene, Giap had unshakable belief in the cause for which he fought, and was able to transmit that faith to his officers and men. And like Greene, Giap integrated the activities of local militia, guerrilla bands, and conventional army forces to wear down adversaries with greater military skill and strength than his own forces possessed. Giap, too, suffered many setbacks. But by the time the U.S. Army squared off against Giap in 1965, it had all but forgotten Greene’s extraordinary achievement in the South—and thus was largely tone deaf to the perils and possibilities of unconventional war.