By Dana Stefanelli, Assistant Editor
March 16, 2018
The winter of 1780-81 was one of the most difficult periods of the American Revolution for the Patriots, though the weather was only indirectly related to the challenges they faced. Coming in the aftermath of American defeats at Savannah, Ga., and Charleston and Camden, S.C., this was undoubtedly a military low point for the Americans. News of Benedict Arnold’s betrayal and suspicions about Ethan Allen’s loyalties raised concerns about popular support for the Patriot cause and the morale of the fighting men. The seeming unlikelihood of the situation improving further dampened spirits. Nothing describes this situation more vividly than the correspondence between Nathanael Greene and George Washington during the late autumn of 1780.
Greene was appointed to replace Gen. Horatio Gates as commander of the southern department after Gates’s defeat at Camden. A skillful general, Greene had earned Washington’s trust and is remembered as one of Washington’s most valued officers. But as he made his way south to assume his new command, the burden of leading a large force of men under such desperate conditions began to weigh heavily on Greene.
Greene’s account of that journey south was a study in the desperation of the Patriot cause. Of the troops near Philadelphia, Greene observed they were “altogether without clothing and blankets, and totally unfit for any kind of service.” Fighting under these conditions would “only fill the hospitals and sacrafice the lives of a great many valuable men.”1 Greene relayed that fewer than 2,000 men answered Virginia’s call for 3,500. Those who reported “begin to desert in shoals,” and of the remaining men “such is their situation they must be the greatest part of them in the hospitals before the middle of December.”2 In North Carolina, he found many soldiers in the “Army, if it deserves the name of one,” were “literally naked, and a great part totally unfit for any kind of duty.”3 Supply problems of every kind were acute. “Our greatest difficulties will arise from the want of Cloathing, arms, ammunition, and the means of transportation.”4 In short, everything an army needed to succeed.
Support for the war and the morale of the troops were more difficult to gauge. Greene’s assessment vacillated between despair, resignation, and fatalism, suggesting at one point that “if there is not public spirit enough in the people to defend their liberties, they will well deserve to be slaves.”5 He was more optimistic after visiting Washington’s Mount Vernon estate and consulting with leaders in Virginia, who believed “the Inhabitants were never more willing to make sacrafices for the support of the cause.” But any optimism was dampened by the seemingly inescapable fact that “the things necessary to equip an Army, are not to be had.”6
In one private letter to Washington, Greene laid bare his deep professional and personal angst about the circumstances he faced. “I cannot contemplate my own situation without the greatest degree of anxiety,” he wrote, worrying over waging war “attended with almost insurmountable difficulties.” He fretted over the “peculiar marks of personal disgrace” that failure would produce. Without significant personal wealth, his own “misfortune and disgrace…must be ruin” to his family. He wondered half rhetorically how “I shall be able to support myself under all these embarrassments god only knows.”7
Washington’s response to Greene’s confession was no less remarkable: a mixture of tough love, stunning frankness, and effusive encouragement. “You have no doubt an arduous task in hand,” Washington wrote. “[B]ut where is the Man charged with conducting public business in these days of public calamity who is exempt from it?” He then conceded that the difficulties might be “insurmountable.” However, if they seemed so, it was because Greene was now seeing the Patriot cause through the eyes of a leader, where “the embarrassment of every department is now concentrated or combined in the commanding Officer; exhibiting at one view a prospect of our complicated distresses.”8 With these words, Washington summarized the true burden of leadership, the responsibility to persevere even when victory seemed impossible.
Despite Washington’s admission that American prospects were truly bleak, he worked as both a leader and father figure to instill confidence in Greene: “Your friends, and the great public, expect every thing from your abilities that the means which may be put into your hands are competent to, but both know full well the deranged situation of our Southern Affairs, and neither, I trust, are so unreasonable as to expect impossibilities.”9 Washington believed in Greene, and the people did too. Failure was likely, even expected, but success would be met with unmitigated respect.
1. Nathanael Greene to George Washington, 31 October 1780, Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-03758.
2. Nathanael Greene to George Washington, 19 November 1780 (1st letter), Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-03983.
3. Nathanael Greene to George Washington, 7 December 1780, Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-04138.
4. Nathanael Greene to George Washington, 19 November 1780 (1st letter), ibid.
5. Nathanael Greene to George Washington, 31 October 1780, Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-03758.
6. Nathanael Greene to George Washington, 13 November 1780, Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-03922.
7. Nathanael Greene to George Washington, 19 November 1780 (2nd letter), Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-03982.
8. George Washington to Nathanael Greene, 13 December 1780 (2nd letter), Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-04206.