Greene & Cornwallis in the Carolinas
Sometimes the best stories are those lurking behind the bigger stories. That’s what I found as the genesis of this book took form in my American History classroom in 2009. As I was reviewing my Revolution unit, I noticed that the southern theatre of the war had only three paragraphs in my textbook in the three chapters that encompassed the subject matter. For some reason it never occurred to me before as to why the section was so short, but now it did. I began reading more on the subject matter, and as I read my level of interest piqued.
Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown was a direct result of the southern campaign of the American Revolution! This was the story behind the story. Nathanael Greene, Washington’s chief lieutenant in the northern campaigns, was sent South to make sense of a disastrous theatre and one in which no American commander had been successful.
The British had landed at Charleston and were infiltrating the backcountry, hoping to roll up America from the South. With few supplies and fewer men, Greene masterminded an incredible campaign that was masterful in a unique way. He lost every battle he was in, but at the same time the attrition of British forces made it impossible for the enemy to keep the field in 1781. I was fortunate to receive a grant from my school system to do research and visit the battlefields in the Carolinas the following year. I sketched an outline of the campaign, and then decided I wanted to write a story about the two main characters: Greene and Cornwallis. With my co-author John Walsh, we crafted a story that few Americans, and I venture to say few readers of American History, know fully. I made a second trip down to the Carolinas in 2017, and traveled 800 miles visiting battlefields and following armies on their marches. What I experienced first hand was incredible. It was a story of an American force overcoming long odds and a British army failing to defeat a rag-tag group of soldiers and militiamen. I thought of the soldiers on both sides. The British soldier, three thousand miles from home, in a climate unsuited for any northern European, and a dwindling supply line that left them with little hope. For the Americans, retreating two hundred and fifty miles across the Carolinas with the British in hot pursuit, and crossing the Dan River into Virginia as their saving grace. Standing on the banks of the Dan River, I pondered this retreat, and realized that this one has never lived up to Washington’s famous retreat across the Delaware. But, I knew at that moment standing on the edge of the Dan River, that this retreat was an incredible military, engineering and human feat. This is the story of extraordinary leadership by Nathanael Greene, encountering disease, severe hardships, fatigue, hunger and the ultimate test of the human spirit. In order to tell this story, we have relied on a plethora of primary source documentation, particularly Greene and Cornwallis’s letters and orders, as well as their subordinates and those of the common soldier. Even though the southern campaign included many other places and countless other people, we have limited the scope of the book to the actions of these two protagonists.
As Cornwallis wins his final battle in the Carolinas at Guilford Courthouse in March of 1781, his army has virtually disintegrated, necessitating a retreat to the coast for refitting, but ultimately deciding to head into Virginia to hopefully end the war there. Greene, taking full advantage, re-entered the Carolinas and drove the remainder of the British forces into Charleston, and forced the evacuation of Charleston in 1782. Washington and Rochambeau, sensing an opportunity to trap Cornwallis at Yorktown, with the help of the French fleet, accomplish the impossible.
This is an important story, and one that every reader of American History should be familiar with to round out the story of Washington’s defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown, because that defeat had its origins in the Carolinas with Nathanael Greene as the architect of one of the greatest victories in American military history.