Exactly eighteen out of fifty states have a Greene or Greenville County and there are twenty-three cities with some form of Greene in their name. Yet not many know where the name of their place of residence comes from. Nathanael Greene can certainly be called one of America’s forgotten generals because he is not widely known despite his vast contributions as one of our first military masterminds. My book, Nathanael Greene in South Carolina: Hero of the American Revolution
, is about Greene’s unlikely rise to power, his military successes in South Carolina, and ultimate act of freeing Charleston from British occupation.
I have been asked how I decided to write about Greene since he is so unknown. The answer is that actually I originally wanted to write about Francis Marion, the “swamp fox,” but my graduate thesis advisor suggested I take a look at Greene. He explained that historians have overlooked the time period between the Battle of Eutaw Springs and the actual end of the war, which was much after the surrender at Yorktown. Even as a history student who loved studying the American Revolution, I had no idea that the British did not evacuate Charleston until December 14, 1782. Becoming extremely interested in finding out what happened during these fourteen months, I began my research.
Nathanael Greene’s papers proved to be my best source as I could see the actual correspondences between Greene and characters like Washington, Jefferson, Marion, Lee, and Laurens. It was fascinating to see what Greene was like from his own hand and not just from secondary accounts of his life. What I found most interesting is that Greene grew up as a Quaker with no formal education and certainly no military experience. Despite his family’s wishes, Greene taught himself and enlisted in the local militia. Almost overnight Greene rose from a private to a general in Rhode Island. Greene was determined to prove himself, which was a trait he carried with him throughout his life.
When leadership had failed time after time in the southern states, Washington only thought of one man to take control of the southern states. Greene had previously served in several cities in the northeast and as quartermaster general and definitely had proven himself to Washington. The situation in the south became dire as Savannah, Charleston, and Camden all fell to the British. Greene was asked to leave command of West Point to go to unfamiliar terrain and bring hope to a hopeless situation. The underdog story of Nathanael Greene is fascinating and the way he found success was just as unlikely as the hero who brought it.
Greene came south and immediately shook things up with new strategies that led to victory right away starting with the Battle of Cowpens. The most curious thing I found was that Greene himself never technically won a battle in South Carolina but he did win tactically. Each defeat led to his ultimate goal of freeing Charleston from the British. After every battle the British consolidated their forces and retreated further towards the coast. Greene’s last major battle was Eutaw Springs which was the last time the British would be in the interior of the state. However, Cornwallis’ surrender a month later in October 1781 did not end the war contrary to public knowledge. Greene still had a big job to do and it would take him until December 1782 to rid Charleston of the British.
So why is he forgotten? The answer is not simple. You’ll just have to read the book
to find out just what Greene means to America and exactly how his actions in South Carolina gave us our independence, and ultimately, freed Charleston.