Sunday, June 11, 2023

ARP274 Greene Takes Command

 Over the last couple of episodes, we saw the effectiveness of relatively disorganized groups of militia fighting all over South Carolina in the fall of 1780.  These forces were never large enough to defeat the British occupation, but they did keep alive the disputed control of the state and disrupted supply lines and resources for the British.  That forced British General Charles Cornwallis to pay attention to them rather than think about invading North Carolina.

Back in North Carolina, Continental General Horatio Gates remained in command, but was mostly just waiting for his successor to arrive.  Gates had effectively ended his career at Camden, back in August.  The Continental Congress knew it was time for a new southern commander.  

In the meantime, Gates tried to support the efforts of militia led by Francis Marion, Thomas Sumter and Elijah Clark.  But Gates had no desire to enter the fight himself, and really lacked any resources to launch one if he did.

Nathanael Greene

Congress had been the body that selected General Horatio Gates to lead the Southern army earlier that year.  General Washington was never eager to pick a fight with Congress, and always wanted to show deference to its decisions.  That was especially the case with Gates, since Washington did not want to be perceived as undercutting Gates out of personal pique.  A few years earlier, leaders had discussed replacing Washington with Gates as commander of the Continental Army.  Washington would not want to be perceived as denying a great officer a deserved command because of some personal rivalry.  Washington let it be known indirectly that he had considered General Nathanael Greene to be the best person for the job.  At the same time though, he accepted that it was Congress’ decision to make and did not attempt to force his opinion on the delegates.

Gen Nathanael Greene 
General Washington had always thought highly of Nathanael Greene, but Congress was not so sure.  On several occasions, the young general had disrespected Congress.  This included threats to resign should Congress appoint French generals back in 1777.  But more recently, Congress had questioned Greene’s honesty and integrity while serving as quartermaster of the army, and that led to a whole other dispute.

Greene did not seem to have many friends in Congress.  On paper, at least, there did not seem to be much history that could recommend Greene as a field commander.  During the New York Campaign of 1776, Greene had organized the defenses on Long Island that collapsed in a day.  His poor judgment not to evacuate Fort Washington in New York led to the second largest capture of Continental soldiers, behind only the fall of Charleston.

Up until 1780, Greene had mostly remained with General Washington.  Although he commanded a division, he was not given any opportunities to go out on his own.  He had clashed with members of Congress on multiple occasions.  Delegates did not see him as being properly deferential to civilian authority. 

Washington had practically forced Greene to become quartermaster general during the Valley Forge encampment.  It was a thankless and nearly impossible job.  Nevertheless Greene struggled to keep the army in the field and supplied as best he could.  Even so, Congress regularly criticized his work and investigated the quartermaster corps for possible corruption.  Greene angrily resigned as quartermaster in 1780.  His resignation letter to Congress was so angry and critical of Congress, that many members wanted to cashier Greene from the army entirely.  Washington had to do damage control and intervene to keep that from happening.

Despite these issues, Greene had Washington’s full confidence.  Washington had told others that if something happened to him, he wanted Greene to be appointed commander in chief of the army.  On several occasions, Washington had left the army under Greene’s command for short periods while Washington attended to other business.

Although Greene was the 11th major general appointed by Congress, deaths and resignations had brought him up to number 3 by 1780.  Only Horatio Gates and William Heath were more senior.  Gates, of course, was pretty much a dead man walking in the army after his disaster at Camden.  Heath had not been trusted with a combat command since 1776.  Heath was more of a politician and administrator than a general.  Heath was not a serious choice for any command that might involve conflict with the enemy.  Next in line below Greene in seniority was Benedict Arnold.  He had a good battlefield reputation and could have been a good choice a few months earlier, but his decision to betray his country and join the enemy had kind of taken him out of the running.

After Gates’ loss at Camden, Greene was the obvious choice to replace him.  Congress, however, could not bring itself to appoint Greene themselves.  Instead, it left the appointment up to General Washington, with most people knowing full well that Washington would appoint Greene.  On October 6, the President of Congress, Samuel Huntington, wrote to General Washington, asking him to form a court of enquiry into the actions of General Gates for the loss at Camden several months earlier, and to appoint a replacement for Gates until such time as the court of enquiry could be completed.

Essentially, Congress tasked Washington with picking a temporary replacement for command of the southern army.  In this way, Congress was not giving up its authority to pick military commanders in general.  Congress could simply replace Greene if he did not appear up to the job after the months it would take to complete the inquiry into Gates’s actions.  Washington received the instructions from Congress about a week later, and almost immediately wrote to Greene to inform him that he would take command of the southern army.  At this time, Greene was still near West Point, having just overseen the court martial and execution of Major John AndrĂ©.

Planning a Guerilla War

General Greene faced the same problems that General Gates had previously faced in the south, but he took a very different approach.  Recall that Gates had taken command of an army that he barely understood and marched it into battle within days of taking command, to disastrous results.

Baron von Steuben

Although Greene received his command in October, it would take nearly two months to take command of his new army.  By the end of October, Greene and his new second-in-command, the Baron Von Steuben, were in Philadelphia, begging Congress for men and supplies for the southern army.  As usual, Congress had nothing.  

As Greene traveled through Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, he met with state leaders, hoping to get some support there.  Once again, state leaders offered little more than thoughts and prayers.

Greene was able to visit Mount Vernon during his trip south.  While there, he wrote a letter to Washington saying that the state leaders “promise me all the assistance in their power, but are candid to tell me, that I must place little [dependence] on them, as they have neither money nor credit”.

Virginia, of course, had much to lose from the fall of the Carolinas.  It would bring the war to Virginia's doorstep and put it at risk of falling back under British control.  The Continental Congress called on Virginia to raise 3500 Continental soldiers to defend the state.  It barely raised 1500, and most of those were sickly draftees who quickly deserted.

As Greene entered North Carolina, he had already decided he would have nowhere near the force needed to confront the British directly.  Instead, he planned to continue the guerilla war, harassing the enemy from multiple small units, and taking on British outposts when the opportunity presented itself. Mostly, he hoped to keep some Continental Army in the field so that the British could not claim undisputed control of the Carolinas.

On December 2, 1780, Greene arrived at the American headquarters in Charlotte. He took command from General Gates the following day.  Gates was already aware of his replacement, who had been on his way for some time.  

Rather than go to Philadelphia and face a board of inquiry, Gates simply packed up and went home to Virginia.  He didn’t resign his commission.  He just refused to cooperate with any investigations.  So, he never lost his commission, but he was also never again given a command within the Continental Army.  He just went into a kind of military limbo, technically retaining his commission, but just living at home doing nothing with the army or Congress.

By the time Greene had reached Charlotte to take command, he had already begun preparations.  Greene appointed a new quartermaster general for the southern army, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Carrington.  He also appointed Colonel William Davie to serve as commissary general.  I've referenced Colonel Davie in some past episodes.  

Davie’s attitude toward quartermaster was similar to that of Greene’s when Washington forced him to be a quartermaster.   He did not want the job and preferred to remain in the field.  Davie told Greene that he was a guerilla fighter and was not good with money or accounts.  Greene told Davie not to worry, the army didn’t have any money or accounts.  Greene figured that a local and well-respected combat leader would have better luck extracting the needed food and supplies from the locals than some administrator who was good with paperwork.

Greene also deployed Colonel Thaddeus Kosciuszko and General Edward Stevens to prepare detailed surveys of the local rivers to determine their ability to transport goods and to note points where armies could ford them.

When Greene took command, the southern army on paper consisted of about 2300 men. However only about 60% of those were present and fit for duty, less than 1500.  There were not enough uniforms or guns for all of the men.  The bulk of the army consisted of the Delaware and Maryland lines under the command of General William Smallwood.

Daniel Morgan
One new asset for Greene was the arrival of Daniel Morgan.  Colonel Morgan’s riflemen were some of the most important fighters at many critical battles earlier in the war.  Yet despite his leadership, Morgan had been passed over for promotion to general.  He had also suffered from terrible sciatica.  He returned home to Virginia in 1779 for bed rest.  

General Gates had begged Morgan to join him for what became the Camden Campaign, but Morgan begged off, claiming he was in too much pain to leave his bed. Even so, after the loss at Camden, Morgan managed to get back in the saddle and ride south to see what he could do.  Shortly after Gates informed Congress that Morgan was returning to active duty, Congress finally promoted him to brigadier general in October 1780.

Also moving south, Lieutenant Colonel Light Horse Harry Lee who received his promotion from major about the same time that Congress promoted Morgan to general. Lee had distinguished himself in the northern campaign.  General Washington recommended that Congress give him an independent cavalry corps to supplement the work being done by Lieutenant Colonel William Washington.

Given the limited size and condition of his army, Greene divided his forces so that there would be no final showdown with the British.  He instructed Colonel Marion and General Sumter to continue harassing the enemy in South Carolina.  Greene also deployed a large portion of his Continentals under the command of General Morgan and with the support of Colonel Washington’s dragoons to cooperate with Sumter’s militia in attacking and harassing the enemy.  Morgan would operate independently of Greene’s forces. 

Dividing your forces in the face of a superior enemy is almost always considered a big mistake in military tactics.  It would allow the enemy to attack and defeat each division in detail.  But Greene was not looking for a fight, and not looking to win a major decisive battle.  Each of his smaller armies would harass the enemy and retreat if attacked.  Morgan’s men moved west of the Catawba River, while Greene left Charlotte to move his forces east of the Pee Dee River in North Carolina.

All of these changes left the British commander, Cornwallis confused.  Greene’s actions seemed contrary to all sensible military strategies.  Cornwallis wasn’t sure if Greene was just a fool, or whether he didn’t really understand what Greene was up to. Cornwallis remained at Winnsboro, South Carolina, near the North Carolina border, still awaiting the reinforcements under General Alexander Leslie.  Those reinforcements had left Virginia by sea and were expected to arrive in Charleston.  But by early December there was still no word.

Much of Greene’s strategy of a guerilla war aligned with letters he received from General Sumter, suggesting these same actions.  However, by putting Morgan in command of the militia forces who had fought under Sumter, Greene risked creating a split.  As I've said in earlier episodes, southern militia had notoriously refused to cooperate with Continental strategies.  Further, Sumter hoped that they could launch an attack on the main British force at Winnsboro.  Greene was unwilling to do that.  Sumter was unhappy that Morgan was taking over the work he was doing.  But the fact that Sumter was still recovering from his wounds at Blackstock’s Plantation, and the fact that Governor Rutledge ordered him to cooperate with Greene, kept everyone on the same page.

After Morgan moved west, Greene took what was left of the army to the east, only about 1100 men, and only half of those were Continentals.  Greene’s new camp, selected by Colonel Kosciusko, protected the army from attack by the Pee Dee River.  It also allows them to strike at targets in eastern South Carolina if Cornwallis took the bulk of his army west after Morgan.  Greene was also well positioned to attack Cornwallis if the British crossed back into North Carolina.  Once in the new camp by late December, Greene focused on training and supplying his army and waited to see what the British would do next.

Andrew Pickens

As Greene waited, Morgan was looking for a fight.  He had left Charlotte on December 21 with a total of about 600 men, some on foot, others on horseback.  More than half of his force were Continentals of the Delaware and Maryland lines.  They were supplemented by about 80 Continental dragoons under the command of Colonel William Washington.  Another 200 or so were Virginia militia, also mounted.  Many of the militia on this mission, however, were former Continental soldiers who had completed their enlistments and had considerable battlefield experience.

The men marched through several days of driving rain, making it difficult to ford swollen rivers.  By Christmas day, they had marched about 60 miles from Charlotte and set up camp in South Carolina.  That day, sixty South Carolina militia under Colonel Andrew Pickens, rode into camp and offered their support.  I think I’ve only mentioned Pickens in passing before, but he was one of the most important patriot militia leaders in South Carolina, along with Marion and Sumter.

Andrew Pickens
Pickens was the son of Scotch-Irish immigrants.  He was born in Pennsylvania, but his family moved to the Waxhaws when he was still young.  As a young man, Pickens got experience as an Indian fighter in the Cherokee war of 1760-61.  Pickens later settled on a large plantation in western South Carolina.

Pickens was a patriot leader from the outset.  When the Revolution began, he was a captain of militia.  Early in the war, he skirmished with Tories near Fort Ninety-Six, and served on an expedition that destroyed a number of Cherokee Villages  He had led forces at Kettle Creek, back in early 1779, which had caused the British to abandon much of the back country after they had captured Augusta Georgia.  By 1780, Pickens had risen to the rank of colonel and commanded his own militia regiment. 

Pickens had been at Charleston when the British captured the city and its defenders, led by General Benjamin Lincoln.  Pickens accepted parole and returned to his plantation. Like other leaders who had accepted parole, Pickens was absent when loyalist forces destroyed his farm and attempted to intimidate him into accepting a commission in a loyalist militia.  As a result, Pickens once again took up arms with the patriots.

In addition to Pickens' men, other militia soon rallied to Morgan’s camp.  Although Thomas Sumter and Elijah Clark were still personally recovering from battlefield injuries, many of the men who had served under them turned to Morgan’s camp to continue the fight.  Within days, Morgan’s camp had grown to more than a thousand men.

Hammond’s Store Massacre

Morgan soon received intelligence that a regiment of mounted loyalist militia from Georgia, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Waters, was camped about twenty miles west of Morgan’s camp.  The general deployed Colonel Washington’s dragoons, supplemented by another 200 mounted patriot militia

William Washington

The loyalist commander, Waters, learned that the patriots were moving to attack his smaller militia force and retreated further to the west, toward a larger British encampment at Fort Ninety-Six.  Washington caught up with the loyalists while they were still about 25 miles from the fort.

Waters formed his loyalists on a hill and prepared to meet the attackers.  Still mounted, Washington drew his sword and led his cavalry into a direct charge at the enemy.  The patriots gave a wild war whoop as they charged, unnerving the enemy.  The loyalists turned and ran without firing a single volley.  The patriots chased down the loyalists and cut them down with their sabers.  

I’ve seen different accounts of the casualties, but the Americans killed or wounded between 100-150 of the enemy, and captured another 40, out of a total of about 260.  The Americans took no casualties.

A few of the loyalists who managed to escape made their way to the Williams' Plantation, about ten miles from the battle, where loyalist forces had established an outpost to the larger force at Fort Ninety-Six.  The following day, Washington deployed a smaller force to attack the outpost.  The loyalists there, however, had fled overnight back to Fort Ninety-Six.

The British considered the Hammond Store massacre to be an act of brutality.  Based on the lopsided outcome, that seems like a fair assessment.  Most of the patriot attackers were experienced militia who were used to the rules of no-quarter for the enemy.  The attack got the attention of General Cornwallis, who deployed Banastre Tarleton to put down this new threat.  But we’ll have to cover that British response in a future episode.

Next time, we are headed back to Europe as Great Britain declares war on the Dutch.

- - -

Next Episode 275 The War Goes Dutch 

Previous Episode 273 Fishdam Ford & Blackstock

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Further Reading


“To George Washington from Samuel Huntington, 6 October 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Major General Nathanael Greene, 14 October 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives,

Andrew Pickens:

Hammond’s Store:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Crow, Jeffrey (ed) The Southern Experience in the American Revolution, Univ. of NC Press, 1978. 

Graham, James The Life of General Daniel Morgan, of the Virginia line of the army of the United States, with portions of his correspondence New York: Derby & Jackson, 1859. 

Greene, George Washington The Life of Nathanael Greene, Vol. 1, Vol. 2, & Vol. 3, New York: Cambridge Univ. Press 1867-1871. 

Landrum, John Belton O'Neall Colonial and Revolutionary History of Upper South Carolina, Greenville, S.C., Shannon & Co., 1897.

McCrady, Edward The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1780-1783, New York: Macmillan Co. 1902.

Weigley, Russell Frank The Partisan War: the South Carolina Campaign of 1780-1782, Univ. of SC Press, 1970 (borrow only).

Gregorie, Anne King Thomas Sumter, Columbia, SC: E.L. Bryan Co. 1931 (borrow only)  

Landrum, John Belton O'Neall Colonial and Revolutionary History of Upper South Carolina, Greenville, S.C., Shannon & Co., 1897. 

McCrady, Edward The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1780-1783, New York: Macmillan Co. 1902.

Weigley, Russell Frank The Partisan War: the South Carolina Campaign of 1780-1782, Univ. of SC Press, 1970 (borrow only). 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Buchanan, John The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas, Wiley, 1999. 

Carbone, Gerald Nathanael Greene: A Biography of the American Revolution, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010 (borrow on 

Edgar, Walter B. Partisans and Redcoats: The Southern Conflict That Turned the Tide of the American Revolution, New York: Morrow, 2001 (borrow on

Ferling, John Winning Independence: The Decisive Years of the Revolutionary War, 1778-1781, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021. 

Golway, Terry Washington's General : Nathanael Greene and the triumph of the American Revolution, H. Holt, 2006. (borrow on

Lumpkin, Henry From Savannah to Yorktown: the American Revolution in the South, Univ of SC Press, 1981 (borrow on 

Piecuch, Jim South Carolina Provincials: Loyalists in British Service During the American Revolution,  Westholme Publishing, 2023. 

Russell, David Lee. The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies. McFarland & Company, 2000 (borrow on 

Swisher, James K., The Revolutionary War in the Southern Back Bountry, Pelican Publishing, 2008 (borrow on 

Wickwire, Franklin B. Cornwallis and the War of Independence, Houghton Mifflin, 1971 (borrow on 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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