Image courtesy of Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Meeting Notes: November 16, 2011

"Nathanael Greene's Northern Apprenticeship," Curtis Morgan

Major General Nathanael Greene was the most successful combat commander of the American Revolution. Between December 1780 and December January 1782, a period of just two years, he effectively expelled all British forces from North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia; the British soon abandoned Savannah and Charleston, the premier port cities of the South, because they were no longer able to feed themselves from country districts under patriot control. In the space of seven months Greene fought three major battles (Guilford Courthouse, Hobkirk’s Hill, and Eutaw Springs) and besieged the British backcountry strongpoint at Ninety Six, South Carolina. On each occasion, although unsuccessful in driving British forces from the field of battle, he inflicted such grievous casualties on them that they withdrew from Greene’s vicinity soon afterwards, to refit and regroup. In each instance, Greene was in possession of the original battlefield soon after, and permanently.

Like almost all of America’s battlefield commanders, Greene was self-taught in the art of war. But nothing instructs like experience; and he was not bereft of human teachers. He quickly became an acolyte of General George Washington, whose military skills he would surpass by the war’s end. The essay examines the lessons Greene learned at Washington’s side from the war’s beginning in the summer of 1775 to his appointment to command the disintegrated Southern Army in the fall of 1780. Over five years Greene was a student in America’s very first “war college,” and in the South he would apply what he had learned in several crucial “classes”: leadership of independent-minded troops; conduct of operations against a more experienced, better-led and –equipped enemy; and finally the burdens of logistics.

1) The working relationship between Greene and Gen. George Washington. Greene’s retreat across North Carolina and flight across the Dan in early 1781, and his decision to turn and fight at Guilford Courthouse, were based on his experiences during Washington’s fighting retreat through New Jersey in 1776 and his decision to turn and fight at Trenton and Princeton. Also involved here is Greene’s personal devotion and loyalty to Washington, a trait Washington found very rare in his subordinates.

2) Greene’s management of Army supply and logistics matters. Greene was Washington’s supply chief at Valley Forge, saved the Army logistically and prepared it for its test at Monmouth.

3) Strategy & Tactics. Greene had observed at first hand the utility of a well-conducted withdrawal. The American strategy for the remainder of the war was established: withdraw before superior British forces; look for opportunities to strike the enemy; above all, never forget that the American army was the Revolution. Although useful as supply centers, cities and towns were also traps. They tied armies down, and seduced commanders into ceding the initiative to a more mobile enemy.

Greene’s “northern apprenticeship” had equipped him well to conduct the decisive American campaign of the war: the operations in the Carolinas in 1780-1782. The key to that triumph is the fact that Greene kept his army fed and cavalry foraged, while striving to deny these things to his British opponents. In this he succeeded brilliantly, and saved the American Revolution.