The Brilliance of General Nathaniel Greene

This blog is posted 242 years and three days after Cornwallis surrendered his army at Yorktown. While this battle did not end the American Revolution, it caused the British government under Lord North to be replaced with one willing to negotiate a peace treaty. Washington’s victory at Yorktown was the culmination of a brilliant campaign in North and South Carolina by General Nathaniel Greene. Beginning in October 1780, Greene forced Cornwallis to chase his army and only engaged in set-piece battles at a time and place of his choosing.

So how did it unfold>The British commander in North American, General Sir Henry Clinton was based in New York where, a short distance away, the Continental Army under Washington was camped. Any movement by land would force him to confront Washington and the French Army supporting the Americans.

When Lord Cornwallis set out from Charleston, S.C., in the spring of 1781 he believed he was following General Sir Henry Clinton’s orders to finish what he started at the Battle of Camden in August 1780. There, Gate’s Continentals outnumbered Cornwallis’ redcoats two to one. Despite the advantage, Gate mismanaged the battle, and the Continental Army was routed.

In the middle of the fight at Camden, Gates left the battlefield and fled 120 miles north leaving Colonel Charles Armand Tuffin, marquis de la Rouërie to pick up the pieces. Armand was a French cavalry officer who emigrated to the U.S. in 1777 (before the French officially joined the war) to help fight the British.

To replace the discredited Gates, Washington sent Generals Nathaniel Greene and Daniel Morgan to take command of the Continental Army in the south. Greene took command in October 1780, and his subordinates included Daniel Morgan, Wilhelm von Steuben, Francis Marion, and Henry Lee.

At the battle of Kings Mountain in early October 1780, right after he took command, General Greene decimated a British Army regiment of Loyalists, killing almost 300 and capturing or capturing nearly 670. Three months later, at Cowpens, General Morgan soundly defeated the British Legion under Banestre Tarleton when over 100 Redcoats were killed and 600+ were captured.

While the battle at Guilford Courthouse could be considered a draw and Greene pulled the Continental Army away from the battlefield, the Continental Army left a badly battered and bruised British Army that suffered more casualties than the Americans. Low on supplies, with almost half of his army either killed, wounded, or captured, Cornwallis started marching toward Wilmington, N.C. to be re-supplied and reinforced.

Once Greene was sure Cornwallis was headed to Wilmington, he assigned local militia units to harass the British column while he and Morgan took on British General Rawdon and his 2,000 Redcoats. Morgan’s orders from Washington were to capture the British forts in South Carolina and bottle up Rawdon in Charleston.

Lord Cornwallis arrived in Wilmington with 1,500 men, where he was re-supplied and reinforced with 2,000 more soldiers. His new orders from General Clinton were to march north toward Richmond, VA and take command of the 2,500 men under Major General William Philips and the 1,500 men commanded by Brigadier General Benedict Arnold. Once he met with Philips and Arnold, Cornwallis’ orders were to find a location where the combined force could be reinforced or evacuated. He chose Yorktown, and the rest is history.

Image is the 1937 1 cent stamp commemorating the relationship between Generals Washington and Greene.

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