- Rise and Fight Again: The Life of Nathanael Greene
Competent in battle, master of logistics, brilliant strategist, Major General Nathanael Greene was Washington’s greatest lieutenant and one of the great generals of American history. Yet he is the least known of Washington’s senior commanders. A minor player like Ethan Allen has greater name recognition. There are two reasons for his obscurity. It was in the South that Greene became famous in his time, but the Revolutionary War in the South has been a terra incognita since the Civil War and remains unknown to the general public. He also died young, three years after the war, one month before his 44th birthday. Greene was a founder, but his early death deprived him of the chance to play a role with his fellow founders in creating a nation after the war had been won.
In our new century, however, the critical Carolina campaign has taken on new life, and I am aware of the appearance since 2002 of at least four new biographies of Greene. The latest is Spencer Tucker’s, and it is a welcome addition. Tucker devotes a little over half of the book to Greene’s early years and the northern campaign, and I suspect that champions of the southern campaign–I count myself among them–will strain at the bit waiting for the years 1780–1782 and Greene’s brilliant campaign to retake South Carolina and Georgia from the British. But Tucker got the balance right, for it was in the North, from the spring of 1775 until the fall of 1780, that Greene earned his spurs as a soldier. Without those hard years, without that seasoning, he probably would have failed in the South.
Tucker gives close attention to Greene’s tenure as Quartermaster General of the Continental Army. He took over the department during the crucial winter at Valley Forge, when neither the British nor the weather but the wretched supply situation threatened to cripple if not destroy the army. Greene resisted the appointment and hated the job, lamenting that he had been “taken out of the Line of splendor” (p. 93) or, as we would say, combat command. Greene had a “great thirst for military glory” (p. 196), and he described his feelings later to Washington: “Nobody ever heard of a quarter master in history” (p. 93). He spent over two years in that “thankless job” (p. 93) and was traduced without respite by congressmen and others for alleged profiteering. But those years were a vital part of his military education, and he served the cause brilliantly, his “transformation of the Quartermaster Department nothing short of amazing, especially as he accomplished it in only three months” (p. 94).
In the summer of 1780 Greene quit the job he loathed and in October Washington appointed him to the command of the Southern Department. The South had been the graveyard of Continental generals, but it was in the Carolinas that Greene would come into his own as a theater commander and save those states and Georgia for the Republic and set up Cornwallis for his disaster at Yorktown. Greene had experience in the North operating successfully in conjunction with partisan militia, but partisan warfare played an even greater role in the Carolinas prior to Greene’s [End Page 1325] arrival in Charlotte in December 1780. Except for pertinent observations about the Battle of King’s Mountain, Tucker does not cover the crucial partisan war that began shortly after the fall of Charleston to the British in May 1780, with the rising of Rebel partisans in the Carolina Back Country. In a sweeping war of movement, mounted and therefore elusive partisan bands stymied the British pacification effort. The great militia victory at King’s Mountain delayed Cornwallis’s offensive by four months, and by then he faced a American general who had much to teach him about the art of war. But the partisan operations of here-today...