Monday, August 29, 2011


When I began my project to write a Revolutionary War novel my intention was a rather narrow one--to wite a partly factual, partly imagined account of the activities of a maternal ancestor, James Johnson, in that conflict. I had learned of Johnson's service through some materials on family history that my mother had gathered many years before. I supplemented this information by obtaining Johnson's pension records from the National Archives and from them I learned of his service in the Continental Army under Nathanael Greene in the South from late 1781 to early 1783.
I realized that in order to understand my ancestor's experiences I also had to learn about Greene's campaigns during that time, which until recently had been among the least known of the war. Accordingly, I read the relevant volumes of The Papers of Major General Nathanael Greene (University of North Carolina Press) and a number of primary and secondary accounts dealing with his operations in North and South Carolina and Georgia.
I came away from my research profoundly impressed by Greene both as a man and as a commander. He was not just a fine strategist who was, amazingly, self-taught in military science; in mental acuity ahd subtlety of thought and expression he was also one of the most considerable intellectuals of his time. He could, and did, correspond as an equal with the foremost men of Enlightenment America--Thomas Paine the polemecist; educator and Presbyterian divine John Witherspoon; Thomas Jefferson; John Adams; of course George Washington--and in the process showed himself a writer and thinker of remarkable style, wit and penetrating originality.
To illustrate, I'd like to quote from two of his letters, the first demostrating his mischievous wit and and another, his more serious side. On July 18, 1781 at the High Hills of Santee in South Carolina, Greene wrote this delightful passage in a letter to his friend and business partner Jeremiah Wadsworth, in reference to his masterful Fabian strategy during the Guilford Courthouse campaign:
"I had a letter sometime since from Mr John Trumbull wherein he asserts that with all my talents for Warr, I am deficient in the great Art of making a timely retreat. I hope I have convinced the World to the contrary, for there are few Generals that has run oftener, or more lustily than I have done, But I have taken care not to run too farr; and commonly have run as fast forward as backward, to convince our enemy that we were like a Crab, that could run either way."
The next passage, written on March 26, 1781, a few days after the battle of Guilford Courthouse to the Quakers of the New Garden Monthly Meeting, expresses his view of their faith, which had once been his:
"I was born and educated in the profession and principles of your Society; and am perfectly acquainted with your religious sentiments and general good conduct as citizens. I am also sensible from the prejudices of many belonging to other religious societies, and the misconduct of a few of your own, that you are generally considered as enemies to the independence of America. I entertain other sentiments, both of your priciples and wishes. I respect you as a people, and shall always be ready to protect you from every violence and oppression which the confusion of the times afford but too many instances of. Do not be deceived. This is no religious dispute. The contest is for political liberty, without which cannot be enjoyed the free exrecise of your religion."
In making the acquaintance of this remarkable man, the feelings I had were perhaps best described by the General's grandson, G.W. Greene, who in 1871 published a biography of his illustrious forebear and quoted on its title page these lines of Homer, from Book Four of The Iliad:
"After this manner said they, who had seen him toiling; but I ne'er
Met him myself, nor saw him; men say he was greater than others."
Toil Greene did. Few have toiled harder, been more scantily rewarded or more undeservedly neglected. Until quite recently history had all but misplaced him. Only in the last decade have we seen something of a resurgence of his popularity, thanks to the complete publication of his papers and two new biographies. Yet a fair case can be made than it was he, more than any other field commander, who won the War of the Revolution. It's certain that he saved the Southern States from British dominion. As all this came clear to me, Greene began to claim a larger and larger share of the story I wished to tell, though I could not at first see how I could include him, the commanding general, in a book whose other chief character was my ancestor James Johnson, a Scottish immigrant, runaway indentured servant and obscure private of dragoons.
As is so often the case in my writing, it was my wife whose insight resolved my dilemma. The story, Ruth said, should be equally Johnson's and Greene's, the General's point of view giving the reader a top-down perspective on the war as an exercise in command; Johnson's, a bottom-up look at the same war as seen by the ordinary and usually uncomprehending soldier in the ranks. So the first novel--and its sequel when I am able to complete it, hopefully later this year--owe their forms to Ruth. If they succeed in their purposes, the credit is hers. If they do not, the fault is mine for failing to capture the pattern she so clearly saw.
I want to speak now about what a good friend of mine describes as Greene's Forgotten Years. If he is remembered at all, Greene is known for his remarkable campaign in the spring of 1781 culminating in the battle of Guilford Courthouse. His later campaigns--the ones in South Carolina cited on the pedestal of his monument in Greensboro and so mysterious to me as a boy--are not so well known, even though his last, the bitter struggle at Eutaw Springs, was in fact the bloodiest battle of the Revolution for the numbers engaged.
Even less understood are his months of arduous service in the South from January 1782 through July 1783. Though major combat operations were over, Greene still had to arrange for the conquest of Georgia. Few Americans know that he sent a small contingent of troops into Georgia under the command of Brigadier General "Mad Anthony" Wayne; or that Wayne, in a seven-month campaign, defeated a coalition of British, Hessian and Loyalist troops as well as allied Creek and Cherokee Indians (I might mention that James Johnson was a part of this force). Ironically, we think of Wayne as a hero of the Northern War but his service to the South has largely gone unrecognized, as has the knowledge that he operated under the command of Nathanael Greene.
Greene also involved himself deeply in statecraft, working hard as the war wound down to reconcile Patriots and Loyalists who, in the Southern states, had been at each others' throats in a frightful internal struggle ever since the outbreak of war. It is thanks to Greene that when the war did end, these contending parties were able largely to compose their differences.
Sickness and want if every kind afflicted Greene's army during these last grueling months of the war as everyone waited for peace to be concluded. Under the Articles of Confederation there was no mechanism to compel the states to furnish money or supplies to the Continental Army, and after Yorktown Greene's army struggled on without pay or adequate food, clothing or necessary equipments. During this trying period Greene had to contend with several mutinies and with at least one plot on his life. I'm sorry to say that one of the mutinies involved the First Regiment of Continental Light Dragoons--Greene's cavalry force--and that one of the mutineers was my ancestor, James Johnson.
When there was no national source for supplying his army, Greene arranged for a private contractor to do so, with the understanding that the contractor would be reimbursed by the Congress. But this did not happen and, in order to keep his army supplied, Greene pledged his own resources. Regrettably, the contractor turned out to be an unscrupulous scoundrel, misspent the money and then died, leaving Greene holding a debt that plagued him for the rest of his days. Not until many years after his death was his widow finally reimbursed by Congress. Cruelly, the mutiny in which my ancestor participated was brought on, in part, by the unfounded suspicion that Greene, while his army starved, had enriched himself by lining his pockets with money intended to supply the troops.
But the country never paid Greene his salary as a Major General of the Continental Army, nor did he realize any profit from his arrangement with the contractor. The Southern States, in gratitude for his services but also impoverished by war, did give him some confiscated Loyalist plantations, the largest at Mulberry grove in Georgia.
So at war's end Greene, whose Quaker teachings condemned human slavery, had to scrape up enough money to purchase slave labor to work his rice fields in hopes of providing for his wife and five children. We do not know what inner conflict this may have caused him. Sadly, despite all his toils and this compromise of his early principles, he never managed to make Mulberry Grove pay, and he died of sunstroke after visiting a neighbor's plantation one hot summer's day in 1786. He was forty-four years of age.
He did not live to write his memoirs and make himself famous, as did his troublesome former subordinate "Light Horse Harry" Lee. He did not live to serve his country further, in Congress or perhaps even as President of the United States, though he was certainly qualified to have done so. And because he did not live, he and his works--and the contribution of the South to the winning of independence--have been largely ignored.
So, to return to my earlier theme, victory in the Revolution and liberty for the United States were the South's gifts to the thirteen colonies struggling to become a nation. Those gifts deserve to be remembered, especially by Southerners who should know their own history better than they do. We have allowed the Civil War to stand like an impenetrable wall across the Southern memory. But if we can climb that wall and look eighty years farther into the past, we will see glory.
We should honor that glory and we should also honor the great patriot Nathanael Greene--the former Quaker from Rhode Island--who led us to achieve it.

No comments:

Post a Comment