The American Revolution is populated by so many intriguing personalities that the inquiring student may find the sheer number of these remarkable individuals somewhat daunting, while at the same time wondrous. There were genuine heroes, veritable scoundrels, and everything in between. In the genuine hero category is General Nathaniel Greene. Based on his merit, he rose from militia private to the rank of Major General and became George Washington’s most gifted and dependable officer.
He was a Quaker who was fascinated by war. This may have been one reason his fellow Quakers ejected him from their church in 1773. In 1774 he helped form a Rhode Island militia group known as the Kentish guards. He saw the need to drill with them despite a lame leg that caused him to limp. He was also an autodidact of the first order. He taught himself military tactics by purchasing numerous expensive books on warfare. (He was similar in this respect to his colleague Henry Knox, the Boston bookseller turned soldier.) It was quickly evident that his talents were wasted as a militia private. Joining the militia as an enlisted man was a noble gesture, but he was simply too smart – and too valuable. On May 8, 1775, he was promoted from private to Brigadier General of the Rhode Island Army of Observation!
In June of that year, the Second Continental Congress promoted him to Brigadier of the Continental Army. The country had not yet declared its independence from Britain. There were still those who hoped for reconciliation in spite of the battles being fought. Greene was not one of them. The letter below is one of several he sent to his fellow Rhode Islander, Samuel Ward, a member of the Second Continental Congress. Greene’s use of language is spellbinding, and some of his observations can be applied to today. The emphasized sections are those that this writer especially appreciated.
Camp on Prospect-Hill, January 4, 1776.
DEAR SIR: Your kind favour of the 23d last, is now before me. I am extremely happy to find your views so affectionately extended to the combined interests of the United Colonies. Your apprehensions that George III, is determined, at all hazards to carry his plan of despotism into execution, is fully confirmed by his late gracious speech to both Houses of Parliament. In that, you will find, he breathes revenge, and threatens us with destruction. Indeed, it is no more than common sense must have foreseen long since, had we not been blinded by a too fond attachment to the parent state. We have consulted our wishes, rather than our reason, in indulging the idea of accommodation. Heaven has decreed that tottering empire to irretrievable ruin, and, thanks to God, since Providence has so determined it, America must raise an empire of permanent duration, supported upon the grand pillars of truth, freedom, and religion, based upon justice, and defended by her own patriotick sons.
No doubt a large army must be raised in addition to the forces upon the present establishment. You are acquainted with my sentiments upon that head already. How they must be divided, and where stationed, is a matter at present problematical. However, one thing is certain, the grand body must be superior in number to any force the enemy can send. All the forces in America should be under one commander, raised and appointed by the same authority, subjected to the same regulations, and ready to be detached wherever occasion may require. Your observation with regard to the Canadians has often struck me; that their attachment to the one party or the other will greatly depend upon the superiority of force. To prevent which in some measure, and fix them to the common interest, let us raise one or more regiments of Canadians to serve in New-England, and send an equal number into Canada from the Colonies, in addition to what you have proposed. With regard to the scanty measure dealt out to the Army upon the new establishment, we are not altogether different in sentiment; yet I am convinced the regiments will fill to their full complement. I believe they are more, upon an average, than half full already. Undoubtedly, the detaining of arms, being private property, is repugnant to many principles of civil and natural law, and hath disgusted many. But the great law of necessity must justify the expedient, till we can be otherwise furnished. The pay of the soldiers is certainly generous, and the officers likewise, except the field officers, whose pay is much below that of any others, considering their rank and experience, and it will operate to excite an opinion derogatory to their merit.
My dear, sir, I am now to open my mind a little more freely. It hath been said that Canada, in the late war, was conquered in Germany. Who knows but that Britain may be, in the present controversy! I take it for granted, that France and Spain have made overtures, to the Congress. Let us embrace them as brothers. We want not their land force in America; their navy we do. Their commerce will be mutually beneficial; they will doubtless pay the expense of their fleet, as it will be employed in protecting their own trade. Their military stores we want amazingly. Those will be articles of commerce. The Elector of Hanover has ordered his German troops to relieve the garrisons of Gibraltar and Port-Mahon, France will, of consequence, attack and subdue Hanover with little trouble. This will bring on a very severe war in Germany, and turn Great Britain’ s attention that way. This may prevent immense expense, and innumerable calamities in America.
Permit me, then, to recommend from the sincerity of my heart, ready at all times to bleed in my country’ s cause, a declaration of independence; and call upon the world, and the great God who governs it, to witness the necessity, propriety, and rectitude thereof.
My worthy friend, the interests of mankind hang upon that truly worthy body of which you are a member. You stand the representatives, not of America only, but of the whole world; the friends of liberty, and the supporters of the rights of human nature.
How will posterity, millions yet unborn, bless the memory of those brave patriots who are now hastening the consummation of freedom, truth, and religion! But want of decision renders wisdom in council insignificant, as want of power hath prevented us here from destroying the mercenary troops now in Boston. Frugality, a most amiable domestick virtue, becomes a vice, of the most enormous kind, when opposed to the common good. The tyrant, by his last speech, has convinced us, that to be free or not, depends upon ourselves. Nothing, therefore, but the most vigorous exertions on our part, can shelter us from the evils intended us. How can we, then, startle at the idea of expense, when our whole property, our dearest connexions, our liberty, nay! life itself is at stake; let us, therefore, act like men inspired with a resolution that nothing but the frowns of Heaven shall conquer us. It is no time for deliberation; the hour is swiftly rolling on when the plains of America will be deluged with human blood. Resolves, declarations, and all the parade of heroism in words, will not obtain a victory. Arms and ammunition are as necessary as men, and must be had at the expense of every thing short of Britain’ s claims.
An army unequipped, will ever feel the want of spirit and courage; but properly furnished, fighting in the best of causes, will bid defiance to the united force of men and devils. When a finishing period will be put to the present dispute, God only knows. We have just experienced the inconveniences of disbanding an army within cannon shot of the enemy, and forming a new one in its stead. An instance never before known. Had the enemy been fully acquainted with our situation, I cannot pretend to say what might have been the consequence. A large body of troops will probably be wanted for a considerable time. It will be infinitely safer, and not more expensive in the end, for the Continent to give a large bounty to any number of troops in addition to what may be ordered on the present establishment, that will engage during the war, than to inlist them from year to year without a bounty. And should the present regiments be inclined to engage for the same term, let them receive the same encouragement. There is not the least prospect of our being able to disband and form a new army again, without the enemy’ s availing himself of the advantage.
I have taken the liberty to show your last letter to General Lee, whose knowledge of Europe, and American genius and learning, enable him to give you the advice you want. He has written you fully on the subject; it would be mere arrogance in me to say any thing upon the subject, after he has taken up the pen.
I this day manned the lines upon this hill, and feel a degree of pleasure that I have not felt for several days. Our situation has been critical. We have no part of the militia here, and the night after the old troops went away, I could not have mustered seven hundred men, notwithstanding the returns of the new inlisted troops amounted to nineteen hundred and upwards. I am now strong enough to defend myself against all the force in Boston. God bless you and preserve you. Adieu, &c.