Times that try men's souls

Nathanael Greene    by Gerald M. Carbone

xiii+ 268 pp, Palgrave MacMillan, New York 2008  ....   reviewed by David P. Stern

The subtitle is ambiguous: "A Biography of the American Revolution." A personal history of a revolutionary figure, or a history of the revolution itself? It may be deliberate, because the book covers both subjects quite thoroughly: Greene was indeed a major figure of the revolution, and as for the other meaning, on p. 214 the author admits
        "Of all the generals in the Continental Army only three had served since the 1775 siege of Boston: Washington, Knox and Greene. Of these Greene had seen far more hardship, battle and bloodshed . Indeed, the story of Nathanael Greene's life during the war reads as a biography of the American Revolution itself."
    Carbone leaves little doubt that had George Washington been taken out of action by British musket ball or grapeshot (a real possibility, considering the personal risks he kept taking), Greene may well have been the only man capable of leading the colonial army. And yet, when Greene died in 1786 in Savannah, Georgia, his grave in a brick vault was not marked and its location was soon forgotten. The book opens with the story of the rediscovery and reburial of Greene's remains in 1901, thanks to determined efforts by Colonel Gardiner.

    Nathanael (no "i") Greene is mostly remembered in association with the southern campaign of the American Revolution, in which a small force harried British General Cornwallis--winning some encounters, losing others, but always pressing on--until Cornwallis was trapped at Yorktown and surrendered, after which the southern states were safe from the British. Actually, he was a Yankee from Rhode Island, where before the war he managed a large iron forge. His involvement with the revolution started with a confiscation of his merchandise by the British revenuer ship "Gaspee", later set on fire by American patriots who were never caught. It continued with his enlistment as private in the Rhode Island militia, soon becoming its commander.

    He narrowly missed the battle of Bunker Hill, but throughout the campaigns that followed--Brooklyn, Manhattan, Fort Lee, Trenton, Morristown, Valley Forge and Monmouth--he may have been the general closest to Washington, who assigned him to whatever task seemed most urgent. In 1778 the urgency was in providing food and arms to colonial soldiers, who throughout the war often suffered hunger and cold. Congress had lacked the power of taxation and therefore left the task of supporting the army to individual states.

    As quartermaster general, Greene did much to improve the situation--until 1780, when an even more urgent task appeared: it seemed as if the British would soon recapture their southern colonies. They forced the surrender of the defenders of Charleston, S.C., a large loss of men and arms, and they inflicted in Camden a serious defeat on Horatio Gates, who had earlier commanded the battle of Saratoga. Furthermore, British loyalists were quite strong in the south. When Gates ignominiously fled the battlefield, Washington appointed Greene to command the south, but only a few thousand soldiers were at his disposal.

    Now Greene showed himself as master of Washington's old tactics: confronted with a much larger enemy, he evaded and attacked, retreated but kept up his threat. At first, results were mixed: Daniel Morgan of Virginia beat the British at Cowpens, but Greene had to dodge Cornwallis until he was safe behind the Dan River (Roanoke River). Cornwallis then prudently marched back to base--he too was overextended, and his troops might have been hungry too. Later Greene failed to take the strongly defended town of Ninety-Six in South Carolina, yet he kept up the pressure and the British evacuated it. Gradually and with much hardship, Greene's small army started dominating the countryside and depriving the British of their supplies.

    After the war ended, Greene's lot was not a happy one. Though acknowledged as a hero and awarded the estate of a British governor (including slaves), his personal resources were hard pressed, especially by merchants to whom he had vouched for army supplies. Congress was of little help, Greene's body was worn out by war, and he died in 1786, at age 43.

    By extensively quoting Greene's letters to his wife, this book captures well the atmosphere and currents of the American Revolution, and the problems of fielding a volunteer army with few resources and a strong professional adversary. The rough spelling and wording of a talented man whose formal education stopped early give it a flavor of authenticity, more than many academic accounts of American history.


Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol)phy6.org .

Last updated 14 July 2009