Forget Independence

John Ferling, author of "100 Days that Shook the World," imagines an alternate history

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I hadn't realized the difficulties that the British faced. I think all Americans are aware of the travail that American soldiers faced during the war [for example, at Valley Forge], that they often didn't have food or medical supplies or proper housing. They certainly did suffer enormously. But I think the general view has been that the British soldiers had it pretty easy, that they lived pretty high on the hog during the war. And that just wasn't the case. These guys really faced an exhausting regimen. They were marching countless miles every day. They didn't have adequate clothing, it was in the middle of the winter, raining all the time. They had to forage for their food. I think that was the thing, more than anything, that came through for me.

Did you learn anything surprising about Greene?

This article is adapted from my forthcoming book, Almost a Miracle, a general history of the Revolutionary War. When I wrote the first portion of the book, I didn't really care for Greene very much. What changed for me is that I really came to appreciate Greene as I was working on him in this campaign. I think part of it was that when he was in the North he didn't have an independent command—he was always under Washington, taking orders. he seemed to be kind of an obsequious guy. I just didn't find him very likable. But once he became a commander he had to make his own decisions, and he became a very thoughtful, innovative person, a person of great daring and courage, a real human being. After the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, which culminated this 100 day period, he collapsed. I don't know if you would call it a nervous breakdown—probably not, it was probably just fatigue and stress—but he was incapacitated for a few days. It was a physical and emotional breakdown that didn't last very long, but I think it just shows how human he was and how human all of these people were. They had the same reactions to those problems that any of us might have.

You mention in the article that rumor had it, if anything happened to Washington, Greene was next in line. What would have happened if Greene had replaced Washington?

That's the great imponderable. In my book [Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence, released this summer] I try to come to grips with Washington and play around with a few things like that, and essentially what I said was that you never really know how someone is going to respond to power. All through history you have people who appear to be very well trained and they get into power and they're just overwhelmed by it. But then you have someone like Harry Truman. President Truman, when he was in the Senate, was a lackluster Senator. And yet when he became president, he responded to the office and turned out to be a very good president. I think you just never know. In Greene's case, I think if something had happened to Washington and Greene had gotten shoved into power in 1776, the odds are he wouldn't have done as well. By 1781 he'd had 5 years of command experience, so he was much better prepared. But you never know how someone is going to do.

Also, Greene died right at the end of the war. He died in 1786, and he was only 43 years old. Had he lived, I think there's a very strong possibility that he would have served in Congress, wound up being a US Senator or state governor. It's conceivable he could have even been president some day.

About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Boston-based freelance journalist writing about government, education and ideas. Her writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Slate, Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe.

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