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Nathanael Greene: A Biography of the American Revolution

by Gerald M. Carbone, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2008, $27.95.

The Founding Fathers continue to interest writers and readers of early American history. That fascination extends to the military founders of the United States, particularly George Washington, the subject of recent studies by Joseph Ellis, Edward Lengel and others. Gerald Carbone continues the trend, taking up the life of Washington’s most able subordinate during the Revolutionary War, Nathanael Greene, in a brief popular history of this extraordinary Rhode Island general.

Born in 1742, Greene was raised in a pacifist Quaker household, but by early adulthood he became interested enough in martial matters to join a local militia unit and begin a self-study of military writings. This got him expelled from his religious congregation. By then the build-up to hostilities with Great Britain had pushed Greene into more active service. After the fighting at Lexington and Concord, Greene was made a general of Rhode Island troops, despite having no previous active military service. He marched his regiments to besieged Boston and began service under the commander who would become his mentor and friend throughout the war years—George Washington.

After the British left Boston in March 1775, Greene received a promotion to major general in the Continental Line and took up a post commanding American forces on Long Island. Illness caused him to miss the ensuing battle of Long Island, a defeat for the American army. Although he subsequently advocated giving up the city and burning it, Washington decided against such a course. Greene took command of Fort Washington on Manhattan Island, which quickly became the focus of British attention as most of the Continentals withdrew northward. It was here Greene made perhaps his biggest mistake of the war. Washington allowed Greene to use his judgment on whether the fort should be evacuated or held. Greene chose the latter option, with disastrous results: The British and Hessians took the fort and its entire garrison on Nov. 16, 1776. The subsequent fall of Fort Lee across the Hudson River and Washington’s miserable retreat across New Jersey to Pennsylvania marked a low point in the fortunes of America, as well as Greene’s military career.

Regardless, Greene remained in Washington’s good stead and played key roles at the battles of Trenton (1776), Brandywine (1777), Germantown (1777) and Monmouth Courthouse (1778). At Washington’s personal request, Greene in 1778 assumed command of the Continental Army’s Byzantine Quartermaster Department, a thankless position that offered the daunting challenge of feeding, clothing and equipping the ragged and halfstarved American forces with little money and poor transportation assets. Greene largely succeeded in this crucial role, although not without ruffling the feathers of Congress with his frequent criticisms. He resigned his onerous duties in 1780 to become commandant of West Point, where he presided over the legal proceedings against Benedict Arnold’s coconspirator, British Major John André, who was hanged for his role in the infamous affair.

In October 1780, Greene received command of the Continental Army’s Southern Department, a long-awaited appointment that would give him his greatest fame and his most persistent difficulties. Matters in the South were largely chaotic in the wake of crushing American defeats earlier that year. At his new headquarters in North Carolina, he found a depleted, destitute army lacking arms, uniforms, food, wagons and morale. Despite these formidable challenges, over the next two and a half years Greene managed to employ a Fabian strategy to outlast his enemies, despite losses at Guilford Courthouse, Hobkirk Hill, Ninety-Six and Eutaw Springs. By avoiding all-or-nothing engagements against his well-equipped foes, and by utilizing a partisan strategy, Greene forced the British to evacuate all of their interior posts in Georgia and the Carolinas and subdued the numerous Tories in those states. The British eventually left the South for good in December 1782. As Carbone points out, given the logistical and manpower troubles he encountered during his Southern tour, Greene’s achievements are remarkable.

Carbone depicts Greene as “a strategist who helped plot the big picture before battles,” a characterization that rings true for his tenure in the South but is perhaps an overstatement for his role under Washington until late 1780. Carbone nods to Greene’s decision to split his forces before the enemy prior to the January 1781 Battle of Cowpens and his march into South Carolina that April with Cornwallis in his rear, calling the moves “a brilliant, unorthodox campaign orchestrated by a 38-year-old man then at the height of his prowess.” While such praise may be merited, Carbone is rarely critical of the general and at times offers only superficial analysis of some of Greene’s key decisions, such as his orders to withdraw from the field at Guilford Courthouse in 1781.

While Carbone is to be commended for his extensive use of Greene’s published correspondence, his reliance on several outdated sources, inclusion of a few stories of questionable veracity and perpetuation of unfounded myths should have been avoided. Carbone’s prose is also a bit repetitious and breezy for a serious Revolution-era study. While this brief account is an adequate introduction, Greene’s definitive biography has yet to be written.


Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here