Regular readers of this blog will know that in 2008 I published a historical novel, Nor the Battle to the Strong, based in part on the service of Major General Nathanael Greene, commander of the Southern Continental Army during the last years of the American Revolution, and that I'm now working on its sequel, The Sunshine of Better Fortune. Recently I was privileged to address the Nathanael Greene Chapter of the Sons of the Revolution in Atlanta, GA. I chose the topic "Nathanael Greene: The Forgotten Years." Some of the material in the speech has appeared before in this space and others, but I attempted to weave that material into a broader and more comprehensive whole. I thought it might be of interest here. Part One of the text follows:
When I was a child, my family lived for a time in Greensboro, North Carolina. We used to picnic in a public park there called the Battleground. Of course this was the site of the battle of Guilford Courthouse during the American Revolution, but to me it was jusy a place to eat relish sandwiches and drink Cokes and, later, to play softball. It was also memorable as the place where I hit the one and only home run of my life.
One fixture of the place did command my attention, though. It was the great equestrian statue of Greene that stands on the spot where the General stood as he directed the battle. I used to linger at the foot of that magnificent monument and admire the handsome figure in his great metal horse. I would read the names of his Southern engagements emblazoned on the pedestal: Guilford Courthouse; Hobkirk's Hill; Ninety-Six; Eutaw Springs. I wondered what those words meant and who the man was who fought in the places bearing such exotic names.
Now, of course, I know. And looking back on my boyhood, I marvel at the strangeness of fate. It never occurred to me then that I would grow up and in late middle age I would immerse myself in the life of Greene and come to admire him as I've seldom admired any leader of my own time--much less that I would live to write two novels about him. I guess all these years later I'm still, in some ways, that same little boy gazing up at that mighty figure on horseback.
Back then, in about 1951, I, like most Southern-born males of my generation--indeed, like many Americans still--knew very little about the Revolutionary War. For me the watershed event of the collective history of the South was The Civil War, or what we were then wont to call The War between the States. For most of my life I studies that war and found in it my heroes such as Robert E. lee, Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart.
My own Confederate credentials, I discovered, were impeccable. My paternal great-great grandfather served throughout the conflict in the 39th Georgia Volunteers, an outfit recruited in Gilmer County, GA, and was wounded in the battle of Bentonville in Eastern North Carolina in March 1865. My great-great uncles, from Clay County in Western North Carolina, also served, two in the 39th North Carolina State Troops amd the third in the 65th North Carolina Cavalry; briefly, at Chickamauga, this ancestor was under the command of Nathan Bedford Forrest. Two of my forebears gave their lives in that war and another, suffering from what we would now call post-traumnatic stress disorder, was so severely disabled that in later life he had to be committed to an insane asylum, where he died.
A vigorous debate flourishes to this day over the purpose and meaning of the war those men fought. But however one construes these issues, during this Sesquicentennial of The Civil War, it seems to me impossible to regard that struggle as anything but an immense tragedy, especially for the South.
Please don't misunderstand me. My respect for my Confederate ancestors is so great that I devoted my first four novels to their lives and the lives of their families during and after The Civil War. But what I realized when I came to write about Nathanael Greene was that we Southerners too often disregard the American Revolution--the only successful, enduring national revolution in world history that has continued to grow and flourish over time by re-inventing, re-interpreting and striving always to perfect the essential values laid down by its Founders.
And the fact is that the South won the War of the American Revolution. In my opinion it is that achievement which represents our finest and most positive contribution to American history. It was that belief, confirmed by long and intense study, that led me to write Nor the Battle to the Strong. I hope it won't diminish the seriousness of my theory if I confess that my wife Ruth devised a promotional handout when the book debuted in 2009 poking a bit of fun at the persisting (and competing) popularity of Civil War fiction. Its title was, "Why Not Read about the War the South Won?"
If the claim sounds extreme, pause and consider the history. The Revolutionary War stalemated in the North after the French alliance and the battle of Monmouth. The British then unveiled their Southern Strategy, believing Loyalist support in the region and alliances with Native Americans would help them reclaim Virginia, North and South Carolina and Georgia. Success in the South would then allow them either to sweep northward on a tide of victory and defeat George Washington or, under less propitious circumstances, approach the peace table and at least hold the Southern colonies for England.
This strategy succeeded admirably at first with the fall of Savannah and then of Charleston, the conquest of South Carolina and the defeat of General Gates' American army at Camden. But then, owing to incessant attacks by Southern partisan leaders like Marion, Sumter, Pickens, Clarke and Davie, together with the battlefield victories of the Overmountain Men at Kings Mountain and Daniel Morgan at The Cowpens, fortune began to turn against Cornwallis.
The decisive event of the Southern War was Washington's appointment of Nathanael Greene to the command vacated by Gates. Greene, a Rhode Island-born ex-Quaker, self-taught in military affairs, proved an adroit and wily strategist. So thoroughly did he outmaneuver and exhaust the army of Cornwallis in North Carolina that--though the Earl won the engagement at Guilford Courthouse--his force was virtually incapacitated and he chose, rather than try conclusions again with Greene, to limp off to Wilmington to lick his wounds. Eventually he marched north into Virginia to meet his fate at Yorktown in October 1781.
Americans are generally taught that ther surrender of Cornwallis ended the Revolution. We know this is untrue; Greene's Southern army, suffering defeat after defeat in places like Ninety-Six, Hobkirk's Hill and, debatably, Eutaw Springs, still, by stubborn perseverance and in the face of terrible want, during late 1781, all of 1782 and through the spring of 1783, succeded in winning back the Southern states and penning up the British in Charleston and Savannah, where they languished until their government concluded a peace based on American independence. It is this latter story that I tell in my forthcoming sequel The Sunshine of Better Fortune.
(End of Part One; Part Two will appear in my next blog posting.)