Winter clouds scudded over New Windsor, New York, some 50 miles up the Hudson River from Manhattan, where Gen. George Washington was headquartered. With trees barren and snow on the ground that January 1781, it was a "dreary station," as Washington put it. The commander in chief's mood was as bleak as the landscape. Six long years into the War of Independence, his army, he admitted to Lt. Col. John Laurens, a former aide, was "now nearly exhausted." The men had not been paid in months. They were short of clothing and blankets; the need for provisions was so pressing that Washington had dispatched patrols to seize flour throughout New York state "at the point of the Bayonet."
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At the same time, many Americans felt that the Revolution was doomed. Waning morale caused Samuel Adams, a Massachusetts delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, to fear that those who had opposed independence in 1776 would gain control of Congress and sue for peace with Britain. During the past two years, three American armies—nearly 8,000 men—had been lost fighting in the South; Georgia and South Carolina appeared to have been reconquered by Great Britain; mutinies had erupted in the Continental Army and the nation's economy was in shambles. Washington was aware, he wrote to Laurens, that the "people are discontented." Convinced that the army was in danger of collapse, Washington predicted darkly that 1781 would prove America's last chance to win the war. Nothing less than the "great revolution" hung in the balance. It had been "brought...to a crisis."
Yet within a matter of months, a decisive October victory at Yorktown in Virginia would transform America's fortunes and save the American Revolution. The victory climaxed a brilliant—now largely forgotten—campaign waged over 100 fateful days by a former foundry manager totally lacking in military experience at the outset of the war. Yet it would be 38-year-old general Nathanael Greene who snatched "a great part of this union from the grasp of Tyranny and oppression," as Virginia founding father Richard Henry Lee would later tell Greene, when the two met in 1783.
In the early days of the war, Britain had focused on conquering New England. By 1778, however, it was clear that this would not be achieved. England's crushing defeat at Saratoga, New York, in October 1777—British general John Burgoyne's attempt to invade from Canada resulted in the loss of 7,600 men—had driven London to a new strategy. The South, as Britain now perceived it, was tied by its cash crops, tobacco and rice, to markets in England. The region, moreover, abounded with Loyalists; that is, Americans who continued to side with the British. Under the so-called Southern Strategy as it emerged in 1778, Britain would seek to reclaim its four former Southern colonies—Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia—by expelling rebel forces there; regiments of Loyalists, also called Tories, would then occupy and pacify the conquered areas. If the plan succeeded, England would gain provinces from the Chesapeake Bay to Florida. Its American empire would remain vast and lucrative, surrounding a much-reduced and fragile United States.
At first, the new strategy met with dramatic success. In December 1778, the British took Savannah, stripping the "first...stripe and star from the rebel flag of Congress," as Lt. Col. Archibald Campbell, the British commander who conquered the city, boasted. Charleston fell 17 months later. In August 1780, the redcoats crushed an army led by Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates at Camden, South Carolina. For the Americans, the desperate situation called for extreme measures. Congress removed Gates and asked Washington to name a successor to command the Continental Army in the South; he chose Greene.
Nathanael Greene's meteoric rise could hardly have been predicted. A Quaker whose only formal schooling had been a brief stint with an itinerant tutor, Nathanael was set to work in his teens in the family-owned sawmill and iron forge. In 1770, he took over management of the foundry. In 1774, the last year of peace, Greene, then 32, married Catherine Littlefield, a 19-year-old local beauty, and won a second term to the Rhode Island assembly.
Later that year, Greene enlisted as a private in a Rhode Island militia company. When hostilities between Britain and the Colonies broke out at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, on April 19, 1775, Greene was suddenly elevated from the rank of private to brigadier general—doubtless a result of his political connections—and named commander of Rhode Island's force. Although he had begun as what his fellow officer Henry Knox called, in a letter to a friend, "the rawest, the most untutored" of the Continental Army generals, he rapidly gained the respect of Washington, who considered Greene's men to be, he wrote, "under much better government than any around Boston." During the first year of the war, Washington came to regard Greene as his most dependable adviser and trusted officer, possessed not only with a superb grasp of military science but also an uncanny facility for assessing rapidly changing situations. By the fall of 1776, rumor had it that should anything happen to Washington, Congress would name Greene as his successor.
It was Washington's confidence in Greene (who, since 1776, had fought in campaigns in New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, and had served two years as the Continental Army's quartermaster general) that caused the commander in chief to turn to him as the war crisis deepened in the autumn of 1780. Greene was commander of the Continental installation at West Point when he learned of his appointment on October 15. He hastened to Preakness, New Jersey, where the Continental Army's main force was camped, to confer with Washington. Soon after Greene's departure from New Jersey, he received a letter in which Washington soberly advised: "I can give you no particular instructions but must leave you to govern yourself intirely [sic], according to your own prudence and judgment and the circumstances in which you find yourself." On December 2, Greene took command of what was left of Gates' army, in Charlotte, North Carolina—some 1,000 thin and hungry Continentals and 1,200 militiamen, all of them, Greene said, "destitute of every thing necessary either for the Comfort or Convenience of Soldiers." He told the governor of North Carolina, Abner Nash, that he had inherited "the Shadow of an Army,...a small force...very incompetent to give Protection" to the Carolinas. Greene, writing to Washington, assessed his prospects for success as "dismal, and truly distressing." But he knew that should he fail, the entire South, as his cavalry commander, Henry Lee, put it, "would be ground to dust" and face "reannexation to the mother country."
Greene was also fully aware that he faced a formidable British opponent. After the fall of Charleston in May 1780, Charles, Earl Cornwallis—usually referred to as Lord Cornwallis—had been ordered to pacify the remainder of South Carolina. The 42-year-old Cornwallis had fought against France in the Seven Years' War (1756-63) and had seen considerable action against the American rebels since 1776. Unassuming and fearless, the British general treated his men with compassion, but expected—and got—much from them in return. By early summer 1780, six months before Greene would arrive in Charlotte, Cornwallis' men had occupied a wide arc of territory, stretching from the Atlantic Coast to the western edge of South Carolina, prompting British headquarters in Charleston to announce that resistance in Georgia and South Carolina had been broken, save for "a few scattering militia." But the mission had not quite been accomplished.
Later that summer, backcountry patriots across South Carolina took up arms. Some of the insurgents were Scotch-Irish Presbyterians who simply longed to be free of British control. Others had been radicalized by an incident that had occurred in late May in the Waxhaws (a region below Charlotte, once home to the Waxhaw Indians). Cornwallis had detached a cavalry force under Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton, by reputation hard and unsparing, to mop up the last remaining Continentals in that area, some 350 Virginians under Col. Abraham Buford. Tarleton's 270-man force had caught up with Buford's retreating soldiers on May 29 and quickly overwhelmed them. But when the Continentals called for quarter—a plea for mercy by men who had laid down their arms—Tarleton's troops hacked and bayoneted three-quarters of them to death. "The virtue of humanity was totally forgotten," a Loyalist witness, Charles Stedman, would recall in his 1794 account of the incident. From then on, the words "Bloody Tarleton" and "Tarleton's quarter" became a rallying cry among Southern rebels.