Revolutionary War Historical Article

Gen. Cornwallis Tangles with Gen. Greene

By T. Fisher Craft

Editor's Note: Reprinted by permission from the SAR Magazine, Fall 2005

Two very unlikely opponents in the American Revolution were Charles Cornwallis, a British nobleman, and Nathanael Greene, a humble Quaker from Rhode Island. In examining the records of the two, it would appear that from his extensive early military training that Cornwallis should have been far superior to Greene in strategies and tactics on the battlefield, but history has proven quite the opposite.

Charles Cornwallis was born in 1738 into a family that traced its roots to the 14th century and its titles back to Stuart times. He was, his father said, "a very military young man". He was educated at Eton and received his commission in the Grenadier Guards in 1756. His sub­sequent attendance at the military academy at Turin provided a formal training in military sciences that was almost unheard of in the British army of the day. During the Seven Years War, he participated in many engagements on the Continent. He went to the House of Commons from the family borough in 1760, became a Lieutenant Colonel of the 12th Regiment the next year, and upon his father's death in 1762 returned home to take his seat in the House of Lords as the 2nd Earl Cornwallis. Siding with the Rockingham whigs, he was critical of ministerial harshness toward the colonies, but was made Constable of the Tower of London. His promotion to Major General came five years later. The Earl's pro­American sentiments did not prevent him from doing his duty to King and country, however, and in 1775 he volunteered for service in America.

Nathanael Greene was born to a Quaker family in Potowomut (Warwick) Rhode Island in 1742. Because of Quaker beliefs about education, Greene was taught only reading, writing, and business math. However, he studied vigorously on his own, making toys in Newport to sell in order to have money to buy books. Later he was fortunate to receive guidance in his self-education from two influential men. The first was Lindley Murray, a young lawyer working for Joy Jay's law firm in New York, who later become the country's foremost grammarian. The second was Ezra Stiles, the future President of Yale University.

As relations between England and the colonies deteriorated, Green became an avid reader of military works. In 1775 the Assembly of Rhode Island established an Army of Observation, and two months later Greene was given command as Brigadier General of state troops. He led his troops to Boston, where he showed a talent for assembling supplies and suppressing intercolonial jealousies. It was there that he first met George Washington, who was so impressed that within a year he would consider Greene the best of his generals, suited to succeed him in case of his death or capture. The feeling of respect was mutual, as Greene named his first born son in honor of his Commander-in-Chief. On June 22, 1775, Greene was commissioned as the youngest Brigadier General in the Continental Army. A month later he took command of Prospect Hill during the Siege of Boston, and by 1776 he had become a Major General and was in command of the entire army of occupation in Boston. Greene fought in the Battles of Trenton, Brandywine, and Germantown, and he was with Washington at Valley Forge.

Battle of Monmouth

The last major battle of the war in the North was fought at Monmouth, New Jersey, with indecisive results, both sides claiming victory. The American commanders were Lafayette, Greene, Wayne, and Stirling who faced British troops under Cornwallis. British Commander-in-Chief, Sir Henry Clinton, then ordered Cornwallis south where he again faced Greene in the Southern Campaign. At this point, things were not going well for the Americans, particularly in the South, as the area commanders chosen by the Continental Congress produced unfortunate results. Robert Howe lost Savannah and all of Georgia; Benjamin Lincoln lost Charleston and all of South Carolina; Horatio Gates lost an army and left the British poised to gobble up North Carolina. Congress' loss of faith in its own judgment led to a Resolution that the Commander-in-Chief be directed to appoint an officer to command the Southern Army. Washington's written response was "Major General Greene is the officer I shall nominate".

Turning of the tide of war began at Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780. British Major Patrick Ferguson stationed his 1,100 American militia on top of the mountain and "defied God Almighty and all the rebels out of Hell to overcome him". He was killed in the ensuing battle where rebel frontiersmen used their very accurate rifles with devastating effect.

Rout At Battle Of Cowpens

General Nathanael Greene took command of the Southern Army on December 2, 1780 at Charlotte, North Carolina. The Kings Mountain victory had its psychological effect, and a substantial army soon materialized. Foremost among Greene's commanders was General Daniel Morgan, a tough, seasoned, inspiring leader whose activities in the area led Cornwallis to order Colonel Banastre Tarleton to either destroy Morgan's troops or push them back toward Kings Mountain where Cornwallis was situated. Morgan was irked by the need to withdraw before the oncoming Tarleton and turned on his foe to give battle. His choice of the battleground has been criticized, but he has been praised for the novel, ingenious, and masterly disposition of his troops. A first line of militia fired two volleys at the attacking Tarletons, then fell back behind a second line of militia who also fired two volleys and fell back. To the onrushing British it appeared to a be rout, but the main battle line of Continental soldiers and seasoned militia met the bayonet-wielding onrushing troops with unwavering and deadly fire.

The battle surged back and forth, but the American victory was complete, with nine-tenths of the British force killed or captured, and with 800 muskets, 35 baggage wagons, 100 dragoon horses, a large quantity of ammunition and the colors of the 7th Regiment in American hands. The battle again proved the value of militia when handled by competent leaders. It also gave a death blow to Tarleton's reputation as a military leader. But the far more important result of the battle was that it gave General Greene his chance to conduct a campaign of "dazzling shiftiness" that led Cornwallis by "an unbroken chain of consequences to the catastrophe at Yorktown which finally separated America from the British Crown".

After Cowpens, Morgan reunited with the main American force which sought the relative safety of the far side of the Dan River. When Greene learned that Cornwallis was in pursuit, he exclaimed, "THEN HE IS OURS!". The "Race to the Dan" exemplified the superior mobility of the American Army. In a month's time the Americans marched two hundred miles to North Carolina in harsh weather, eluding the pursuing British. It also exemplified Greene's superior use of local geography and contingency planning. In one move Greene succeeded in escaping the British Army and forcing them to overextend their supply lines.

Meet At Guilford Courthouse

Cornwallis returned southward to recruit additional Loyalist support and supplies, while Greene recrossed the Dan River and trailed him. The forces met at Guilford Courthouse, where Cornwallis succeeded in driving Greene from the field, but he suffered severe casualties. When the British Parliament learned of the battle, Charles James Fox declared, "Another such victory would destroy the British Army." Weakened, Cornwallis withdrew to Wilmington, North Carolina and eventually on to Yorktown, Virginia, where he was defeated by a joint Franco-American force.

Meanwhile, Greene led his army back into South Carolina and began "The War of the Posts". Forces under his command, along with partisans, simultaneously attacked various points in the exposed British line of forts. He led his main army in three more engagements, the Battle of Hobkirk's Hill, the Siege of Ninety­Six, and the Battle of Eutaw Springs, the bloodiest engagement of the entire war. Although Greene succeeded in completely destroying British authority in the southern state, he never achieved a single tactical victory. His lack of success in winning a battle is best summed up in his own words, "We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again".

Cornwallis Returns To Britain

Although defeated at Yorktown, where he was too "sick" to appear at the public ceremonies, Cornwallis remained a major figure in the British imperial order. Following his return to Britain he was appointed Governor and Commander-in-Chief in India. He accomplished civil service and judiciary reforms now known as the Cornwallis Code. He led the Indian Army to victory in the Mysore War which expanded the British Empire in India. He returned to England in 1794 where he was rewarded a Margquisate for his work. While serving in the cabinet, he negotiated the Act of Union in Ireland, and was later named British Plenipotentiary to arrange peace with France. Dispatched again to India as Governor General in 1805, Lord Charles Cornwallis died there at Gazipore.

Greene Receives Estate

Following the war, the State of Georgia gave Nathanael Greene an estate near Savannah known as Mulberry Plantation. It was here that his friend, Eli Whitney, developed the cotton gin. Land was also awarded Greene by the States of North and South Carolina, which he was forced to sell in order to solve severe financial problems caused by the war.

General Nathanael Greene died in 1786 at age forty-four, possibly of sunstroke. His remains, and those of his son, George Washington Greene, rest beneath a monument in Johnson Square in downtown Savannah. One of the original counties in Georgia was named "Greene" in honor and in memory of the General.

It is to be noted that there were only two American generals who served continuously throughout the entire eight years of the Revolutionary War, from the first brief skirmishes at Boston to the final evacuation of American soil by the British in 1783. They were George Washington and Nathanael Greene.

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