100 Days That Shook the World

The all-but-forgotten story of the unlikely hero who ensured victory in the American Revolution

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Although Greene reentered South Carolina with only 1,300 men (most of his militia had returned home) to oppose nearly 8,000 redcoats there and in Georgia, the British were scattered across the region, many in backcountry forts of between 125 and 900 men. Greene took them on systematically. By the end of the summer, the backcountry had been cleared of redcoats; Greene announced that no "further ravages upon the Country" were expected. What was left of the British Army was holed up in Savannah and Charleston.

Just nine months earlier, it had appeared that the Carolinas and Georgia were lost, leaving the fledgling nation—if it even survived—as a fragile union of no more than ten states. Greene's campaign had saved at least three Southern states. Now Cornwallis' presence in Virginia gave General Washington and America's ally, France, the possibility of a decisive victory.

In August, Washington and his French counterpart, Comte de Rochambeau, learned that a French fleet under Comte de Grasse had sailed from the Caribbean for the Chesapeake with 29 heavy warships and 3,200 troops. Both men knew that Cornwallis' army had camped at Yorktown, on the peninsula below Richmond, near de Grasse's destination. While Franco-American forces headed south from New York, Washington asked the Marquis de Lafayette and his Continental forces to confine Cornwallis to the peninsula. When the combined allied armies arrived outside Yorktown in late September, they found that Lafayette had hemmed in Cornwallis and that de Grasse's fleet had prevented the Royal Navy from entering the Chesapeake and rescuing the beleaguered redcoats.

Cornwallis was trapped. His 9,000 men faced an enemy of 7,800 French soldiers, 8,000 Continentals and 3,100 American militiamen. One American soldier noted that the allies had "holed [Cornwallis] and nothing remained but to dig him out." The allies mounted a siege. Cornwallis held out for three grim weeks, but by mid-October, with disease breaking out in the ranks and his men on half-rations, he opened surrender negotiations. Two days later, on October 19, under a clear autumn sky, Cornwallis' soldiers emerged from the village of Yorktown, marching between a long line of French on their left and Americans on their right, to lay down their arms. It was the decisive outcome Washington had long sought, setting in motion the negotiations that eventually resulted in Britain's recognition of American independence.

In the wake of Cornwallis' surrender, General Washington congratulated the army for "the glorious event" that would bring "general Joy" to "every Breast" in the United States. To General Clinton in New York, Cornwallis wrote: "I have the mortification to inform Your Excellency that I have been forced to...surrender the troops under my command." Pleading illness, he did not attend the surrender ceremony.

Washington understood that Greene's campaign had saved the American Revolution. In December, he told Greene that there "is no man...that does not allow that you have done great things with little means." To "save and serve the Country" was the most noble of attainments, Thomas Paine informed Greene. General Knox declared that Greene, without "an army, without Means, without anything has performed Wonders." No tribute was more important to Greene than the award of a Congressional Medal, bearing his likeness on one side, under the epigraph "The Distinguished Leader"; the reverse was inscribed with a Latin phrase that translated: "The Safety of the Southern Department. The Foe conquered...."

Greene said little of his own achievements, preferring instead to express his gratitude to his men. When he at last left the army in July 1783, Green praised his "illustrious" soldiers: "No Army," he proclaimed, "ever displayed so much obedient fortitude because No army ever suffered such variety of distresses."

At first, when Greene retired from military service, he divided his time between Newport, Rhode Island, and Charleston, South Carolina. The state of Georgia, as a token of gratitude for his role in liberating the South, had given Greene a rice plantation, Mulberry Grove, outside Savannah. In the autumn of 1785, he and Catherine moved to the estate. However, they lived there for only eight months before Greene died, either of an infection or sunstroke, on June 19, 1786. He was 43 years old.

Historian John Ferling is the author of Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence, published this month by Oxford University Press.


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