Greene Takes Command

By Shannon S. Schwaller, U. S. Army Heritage and Education CenterNovember 24, 2010

On December 3, 1780, Major General Nathanael Greene took formal command of the Southern Theater of the American Revolutionary War in Charlotte, North Carolina. Greene arrived to find a defeated "shadow of an army" with little equipment, clothing, supplies or will to fight. He faced a daunting task of revitalizing his force during a time when regional support for the American cause was at an all-time low. With meager resources available, Greene's organizational skills and planning would be the keys to his defeat of a larger and better equipped British army in the Southern Colonies.

In early 1780, the British implemented their "Southern Strategy," seizing the initiative in the Southern Colonies to capitalize on the large population of Loyalists. Within the span of four months the American cause in the Southern Theater suffered two devastating defeats: On May 12, 1780, General Benjamin Lincoln surrendered after the Siege of Charleston, South Carolina, with a loss of over 5,000 men along with hard to replace stores of ammunition and supplies. Congress then assigned former British officer, Horatio Gates to salvage the situation, over Washington's recommendation of Greene. Gates promptly marched an unprepared and ill-equipped American army of 4,000 men into battle. The Battle of Camden on August 16, 1780, resulted in the loss of another 1,900 soldiers killed, captured or wounded and the destruction of a second army in only three months. Greene's ability as a field commander as well as his service as the Quartermaster General from 1778-1780, made him one of General Washington's most trusted officers, and Greene was now approved by Congress to defeat the British in the South.

After Greene's appointment on October 14, 1780, his foremost strategic consideration was rebuilding and maintaining an effective field army to counter the British strategy of gaining control of the large Loyalist population in the Southern Colonies. To ensure the American Army's survival and success, Greene paid particular attention to political and logistical considerations. He did much to rebuild his strained relationship with members of Congress resulting from his successful but confrontational service as Quartermaster General. During his travel from West Point, New York, after his appointment, Greene stopped along the way to seek support from Congressional and local legislatures, particularly in Virginia, Maryland and the Carolinas, in order to increase cooperation in the raising and provisioning of his troops, which relied heavily on a decentralized supply system supported by the individual states. Greene also recognized the importance of using colonial militia and partisan troops, despite his apprehension as to the militia's effectiveness compared to the Continental Army, and his personal distaste for the fratricidal nature of partisan warfare.

Greene demonstrated considerable organizational skill and thoroughness in his logistical preparations prior to and immediately after his arrival in North Carolina. He left his able second-in-command Baron Von Steuben in Virginia, to further help in the movement of supplies south to deal with British Army attempts to interdict supply lines. Upon arrival, Greene quickly assessed the transportation system in the Carolinas and realized the importance of the rivers in an area lacking adequate roads. Recognizing the primarily east-west running river system as an important supply network, Greene had his engineers thoroughly survey the rivers and fords in the area.

Throughout the Southern Campaign, Greene's thorough understanding of local political considerations did much to gain the respect of important partisan and militia leaders. Their assistance allowed Greene to spread out the British army as well as harass Tory militias, thus defeating the British strategy in the South. This local support also facilitated his thorough logistical preparation and a highly mobile style of warfare that served to counter British movements yet avoid destruction of his own army.

Greene's skillful, yet risky, withdrawal from North Carolina into Virginia, February 9-14, 1781, was known as the "Race to the Dan." Greene succeeded in drawing the British away from their supply lines and getting battle on his terms. Having destroyed his baggage train in order to speed pursuit of Greene, British General Cornwallis was unable to pursue the American Army across the river. On March 15, 1781, Greene crossed back into North Carolina and engaged Cornwallis at the hard fought Battle of Guilford Courthouse. Although Greene suffered a tactical defeat, the British Army was so depleted that Cornwallis had to withdraw to Wilmington, North Carolina to rebuild his battered army, with Greene in pursuit.

When General Cornwallis decided to turn north into Virginia in late March, Greene headed south into South Carolina to reassert American control and destroy whatever Loyalist support remained in the region. Faced with the failure of the British Southern strategy, Cornwallis was driven to occupy Yorktown, Virginia, hoping for relief from the sea, but he soon found himself besieged when Washington moved his army south. Cornwallis' subsequent surrender effectively ended the American Revolutionary War.

ABOUT THIS STORY: Many of the sources presented in this article are among 400,000 books, 1.7 million photos and 12.5 million manuscripts available for study through the U.S. Army Military History Institute (MHI). The artifacts shown are among nearly 50,000 items of the Army Heritage Museum (AHM) collections. MHI and AHM are part of the U. S. Army Heritage and Education Center, 950 Soldiers Drive, Carlisle, PA, 17013-5021. Website:

Related Links:

Revolutionary War Overview

Southern Campaigns