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The disconnect between popular history and scholarly history often shows up in how events and individuals are remembered.Communities in the United States are filled with memorials to events of just a few decades ago, that are now barely noticed and are on the path towards obscurity and decay. Such is the case when the history of the present, popular mindset has little scholarly or grounded foundation to it. And I think that is the case with the life and actions of American Continental Army General, Nathaniel Greene.

I was born in the mid-sized community of Greenville, SC, in the county of Greenville, not far from the county and town of Greenwood. I have ancestors who lived not far from Greeneville, TN. I have driven through Greenville, NC on the way to the beach, and through Greenville, AL. It is not hard to find someplace in the Southern United States named Green(e), and virtually all of them are there to honor Gen. Nathaniel Greene of Rhode Island, perhaps the most unlikely Major General in US Army history, and without whom, the winning of the Revolution would have been much less likely. Terry Golway’s attempt in this biography is to turn popular attention again to this significant, and at times forgotten, figure in American history with an excellently researched book that places Greene squarely in the context of his times.

Greene was a walking contradiction. He was born to a pacifist Quaker family, yet aspired to be a great general. He had little formal education, but was able to converse with the intellectuals of the day due to his self-taught education. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment for someone who wanted to be remembered for battlefield action was as Washington’s supply officer. He wanted nothing more than to be asuccessful Yankee businessman, and ended up being a Southern plantation owner. He could be full of self-pity and defensive with other officers and he hated dealing with Congressional politicians; yet he was admired for his selflessness and his ability to work the political situation for the gain of his men under arms. (read more)

Golway’s biography follows Greene from his resistance as a youth to his pacifist Quaker background and self-taught education, to his final success into obscurity outside of Savannah, GA and his early death in his mid-40’s. He does an adequate job of explaining what motivated Greene to join the rebellion against Britain, (a mix of Enlightened idealism and crimped business oportunities), and how his leadership abilities made him the only man in US Army history to rise from private to general in one day.

The thesis of the book, as is evident in the title, was that Greene was General Washington’s most trusted adviser, Washington’s designated second had he fallen in battle. Greene’s dedication to the cause of American liberty and to the person of Washington was his foundation during moments of his 7 years active duty of war, when he was just as tempted to give in and return home.

What made Greene successful was his ability to adapt and learn under circumstances, take initiative without being told what to do and to never forget or deviate from his mission. In other words, he was someone that could always be trusted, even when he made mistakes, as he did during the American Army’s retreat fromManhattan Island in 1776. He hated being Army quartermaster, but Washington had no one else he could trust to do the thankless, necessary job.

And finally, what Greene was most remembered for, his success as commander of American forces in the Southern colonies from 1780 – 1783, was because he was among the first to realise that the American Revolution was to be won by depleting the British forces, and keeping his Army in the field, not by taking and holding territory; a mistake the British military never adapted from. From his strategic retreat north in the winter of 1781 to the Virginia border, to his retreat from Guilford Courthouse, to his siege of Ninety-Six, SC to the Battle of Eutaw Springs in SC; Greene only lost or drew battles he commanded, but he was the General that finally drove the British out of the South and into Washington’s trap at Yorktown.

Golway’s book draws heavily on Greene’s personal papers, unfortunately lacks a lot of maps but has enough for the general reader. It is areadable book that is accessible and would be of value to those who have interests in American military history, early American history or leadership studies.

New statue of Gen. Greene just off Greenville, SC’s Main Street. 

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