Command of the South
The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone;
it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave.
- Patrick Henry
Nathanael Greene took command of the southern Continental Army from the small fort at Hillsborough, North Carolina, in December 1780. Over the past few years, British General Lord Cornwallis had routed every general he had faced. The war had seen the rise and fall of Generals Robert Howe, Benjamin Lincoln, and most recently Horatio Gates. Cornwallis owned them all.
As Greene took command, Cornwallis owned the south. From his ownership position, he could bring supplies in from England and deploy resources to the weaker British position in the north. At the same time, Cornwallis set out to identify loyalists in the south that could help to reinforce their position of strength.
Greene’s analysis was that his Continental Army was poorly equipped, weak, and lacked inspiration. He knew they could not win battles, so he taught his new command how to use their weakness as a strength. Within weeks, his new strategy began to show success.
His initial meeting with his staff took place in a ragged and tattered tent which had been used by his predecessor, General Gates. Greene studied Brigadier General Isaac Huger, who had been appointed second in command. He was an articulate, well-educated son of a wealthy merchant who had significant military training and experience. Most importantly, he was a general who respected George Washington and the chain of command.
“Our strategy will be to divide our troops, and force Cornwallis to do the same,” began Greene as the two studied a map depicting prior battles fought against the British. He tucked his right index finger behind his ear, while the other three fingers rubbed his cheek, clearly using this gesture to help him finish his thoughts. “We, the men of the Continental Army, know this country, and we will use that to our advantage. We will only engage when forced to do so or when the odds are in our favor. Otherwise, we will divide and conquer.”
“I like this strategy.” General Huger looked over the maps while supporting his weight on his left hand. “I am sure you know we have not had a victory in some time, and any kind of win will improve morale.”
“I do understand. We will dispatch messengers to let everyone know of Colonel Campbell’s victory at Kings Mountain. We will use that as our first victory, and because of the number of British troops captured, it will also spark Cornwallis to engage in a chase which we will not let him win. You see, we know he has us outmanned and outgunned, which means victory on the battlefield is difficult, but where we can win is in quick engagements and constant movement.”
Greene noted that all of the staff was nodding in agreement. “What are our current numbers?”
“On paper, sir, they are just over 2,300,” Huger answered, “but that is only on paper. I believe we have less than a thousand continental regulars and assorted militia and volunteers.”
“Even that will change soon enough. We will send a detachment up the Catawba River with two goals, first to distract Cornwallis and second to improve our position by increasing our numbers, collecting supplies, and consequently improving the morale of our officers and troops.”
“Understood, sir.” They all nodded in agreement.
“Tell everyone along the way that Morgan will attack the fort at Ninety-Six,” Greene added.
“But sir, we cannot win…,” Huger protested.
“You are correct,” Greene interrupted, “and we shall never go there. It is simply a ruse that only you and I will know.” Greene stopped and watched Huger smile in understanding. “Lord Cornwallis knows he has us on our heels and expects us to be in retreat. Gentlemen, retreat is exactly what we shall give him, but we shall call it a strategic retreat. We should also remember that he expects us to ultimately engage under my new command, and that is where we shall keep him guessing.”
* * * *
Over the next forty-five days, Greene orchestrated a series of small victories and fleet-footed retreats. Cornwallis and his men went from clearly owning the south to chasing the elusive Greene. During the month of January and into mid-February, the chase and ruse game continued with Greene’s forces winning almost every skirmish on the field or in the mind. By February 13, 1781, Cornwallis, now exasperated, finally determined the true location of Greene’s full force. Studying the maps, he realized that he could push Greene to the banks of the Dan River and use the river as a wall to prevent Greene’s escape. With this, he and the British army could deliver the fatal blow to the Continental Army of the south.
The sprint for the Dan River had begun!
Greene’s men used every amount of reconnaissance available and moved as quickly as his small army could in the cat-and-mouse contest. He clearly knew that a direct engagement with Cornwallis with their backs to the Dan would mean the end of his army. Not only did he need to arrive at the Dan before Cornwallis caught him, but he needed to get just over 2,000 troops across the swollen river.
With his objective now singularly focused, Cornwallis was quickly closing the gap. Even though his men were feeling the effects of the chase, they correctly concluded that Greene’s men must be exhausted. The British had food and supplies, while Greene’s had little to none. The calculus on both sides now seemed certain. Cornwallis would overcome Greene on the banks of the Dan.
Tired and exhausted, Greene’s men made one final, impossible push, marching most of the night on February 13 and into the 14th. What Greene knew, but Cornwallis did not, was that Greene had arranged for dozens of boats and ferries to carry his men and meager supplies across the Dan.
Cornwallis arrived at the Dan as the last of Greene’s troops were arriving on the opposite bank. The river was too swollen to cross without bridge or boat, and thanks to the strategic planning of Greene, no bridges were intact and all boats were on the opposite bank along with the Continental Army of the south. Greene had not only achieved a victory in a decisive race, but had accomplished one of the most masterful military achievements of all time.
The race to the Dan had been won.
Cornwallis was left with only one path, and that was a march all the way back to the coast. In spite of the fact that not a single shot had been fired at the Dan, Cornwallis and his troops, along with the southern Continental Army all knew that Greene had outsmarted the British and won a decisive victory.
On the northeast banks of the Dan, after only a short rest, Greene called his senior officers together.
“I think that we should now cross the Dan and engage Cornwallis,” Greene announced.
“But General, we are outnumbered three-to-one. They have more cannon and dry powder than we. We could not possibly win such an engagement,” Huger countered.
“These things are true, but I remind you that we are not here fighting this war for our personal safety. We fight for the liberty and freedom of our children and generations to come,” Greene responded in a thoughtful tone.
“And how would our demise accomplish this?” Huger argued, noticing that the other officers were supporting his position.
“It is simple General Huger; we shall not die. No one expects us to cross the Dan and engage. We shall begin with the element of surprise, and we shall fight like we outnumber them. In their confusion, we will strike a blow from which they cannot recover.” Greene paused for a moment and stood so the next part of his argument would have impact.
“As it now stands, Cornwallis will march to the sea, where he will re-provision. During that march, he will develop a new and deadly strategy. We have seen his tactical and strategic abilities during this war and I for one, do not wish to give him time to prepare,” Greene looked from one man to the next.
“Gentlemen, now is the time to strike the blow that changes the course of the war,” Greene continued. “Our alternative of resting and building resources can never match that of the British war machine. If we rest, they also rest. If we take time to find dry powder, they have time to deliver five times our amount collected.”
Greene slammed his fist down on the table, “This must be our strategy, but it cannot prevail unless everyone agrees that now is the time to strike!” Greene could see all of the men were now nodding in agreement. He could see that they realized what was about to happen was not just another battle in a long war, but instead a blow that would change the course of the war.
General Huger could feel the energy in the room explode into agreement with the strategy presented by Greene. “Yes, General Greene, I think you are right. With surprise and passion for our cause, we can win a battle with Cornwallis at this time! I shall have my men ready at your command.”
Greene’s army did what no one expected; he crossed back over the Dan River and in a surprise attack, engaged the British at Guilford Court House in North Carolina. This became an extremely bloody battle with both sides taking heavy casualties. At one point, in desperation, Cornwallis ordered the cannons be filled with shot rather than cannon balls. While that move would have a deadly impact, more British soldiers would be killed from that move than Continental.
For the second time in a matter of just a few days, the British were forced to recognize the brilliance of Nathanael Greene, and how he had now changed the tide on the southern front.
Cornwallis’ march to the sea had started as a period to regroup and develop a strategy that would deliver a fatal blow to Greene. After the battle at Guilford Court House, the British fled to the coast. More importantly, for the first time, British regulars came to realize that this rag-tag group of patriots might actually win the war.
* * * *
Over the next three months, as the spring of 1781 led into the summer, Greene’s army would retake the Carolinas and force Cornwallis to the banks of the Atlantic Ocean. More importantly, his tactics had turned the tide of the war. Cornwallis went from being oversupplied and confident of victory to frayed and in a constant defensive posture. At the same time, Greene’s Army transformed itself from a tattered militia, hanging by a thread, awaiting inevitable defeat, to a confident and strong force to be reckoned with.
General Greene’s efforts pushed Cornwallis into the vice grip that Greene and Washington had formed in Yorktown Virginia. Washington, for the first time in the war, held a strategic and numbers advantage. Washington brought 17,000 troops to the siege while Cornwallis’ numbers were down to 9,000.
With Cornwallis holding the town, the siege began on September 28, and ended with his surrender on October 17.
Excerpted from "Forefathers and Founding Fathers" by Michael Gorton. Copyright © 2016 by Michael Gorton. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.