Blogs > HNN > James Kirby Martin: Review of Terry Golway's Washington’s General: Nathanael Greene and the Triumph of the American Revolution (Henry Holt, 2005)

Mar 4, 2005 10:31 am

James Kirby Martin: Review of Terry Golway's Washington’s General: Nathanael Greene and the Triumph of the American Revolution (Henry Holt, 2005)

Nathanael Greene’s life (1742-1786) was short compared to the hundreds of thousands of persons who survived infancy and childhood in eighteenth-century America. His existence, although brief, was also historically significant, as journalist Terry Golway effectively discloses in this well-written new biography. Born into a respected Quaker family in Rhode Island, Greene set aside pacifist doctrine and overcame his physical infirmities, including asthma and a noticeable limp, to become one of the preeminent military leaders of the American Revolution. As a field commander and strategist during the war’s Southern campaigns, he had no peer. Greene lost nearly every engagement but brilliantly outdueled England’s talented general, Charles, Lord Cornwallis, in setting the stage for the colonists’ victory over British forces in the War for American Independence.

In company with Benedict Arnold, Greene ranks as George Washington’s most talented lieutenant. Nevertheless, unlike the more notorious Arnold, he has not generated substantial biographical commentary (despite the preservation of so many of his papers). This is not to say that Greene has been ignored to the extent of being “lost to history,” as the publisher proclaims in its promotional copy, only to be apparently rescued by “this bold new book” that “returns him to his proper place in the Revolutionary Era’s pantheon.” Indeed, a more scholarly biography may be found in Theodore Thayer’s Nathanael Greene: Strategist of the American Revolution (1960), and another, more popular, but much less readable compendium, Lee Patrick Anderson’s Forgotten Patriot: The Life & Times of Major-General Nathanael Greene, appeared in 2002. In addition, Greene remains a focal point of numerous investigations of strategy and tactics employed during the Revolutionary War, especially in the South, as well as studies of the issues and problems of supplying the Continental army (Greene reluctantly served in the thankless post of quartermaster general from 1778 to 1780).

If Greene is well-known to scholars and students of the American Revolution and military history more generally, what, then, does Golway contribute? There can be no dispute that he has composed an easy to read (unlike Thayer and Anderson) and somewhat informative study that portrays the private life and public career of Nathanael Greene. Further, as a trade book intended for general audiences, this volume succeeds in conveying an overall impression of Greene and his importance to his era. Yet, like so many popular histories prepared for a general readership, the author puts greater emphasis on story telling than on a thoroughly researched reconstruction of his subject’s life presented in actual historical context. Stated differently, Golway writes without a complete sense of the political, social, and cultural values that characterized the world in which Greene lived and made his contributions.

Golway, for example, treats Greene’s father as an anti-intellectual whose Quaker faith caused him to dismiss academic pursuits as a waste of time. More correctly, Greene’s father, very much a person of Quaker piety, did not want his son pursuing purposeless knowledge. What Golway fails to mention is that when young Nathanael proclaimed his desire to learn Latin and advanced mathematics as part of obtaining a more liberal education, his father hired the local schoolmaster to tutor his son in these subjects. The lessons only lasted a few months because Nathanael himself, not his father, lost interest. Greene’s formal schooling, furthermore, was fairly characteristic of other well-to-do males of the era who did not go onto college. To conclude, then, that Greene felt overly insecure and thwarted about his education, or lack thereof, is to confuse the heftier demands of modern education with what was normal schooling for his times. Greene was able to cultivate his curiosity about many subjects, not including Latin, and his capacity for intellectual growth allowed him to become one of the most innovative military leaders of his times.

On at least two occasions (pp. 85, 161), Golway assumes that the Revolution was about a democracy fighting to sustain itself into the future. An abundance of scholarship, however, has made the obverse point that pre-Revolutionary colonial American society was anything but democratic in its social and political organization. One proof of this less-than-democratic reality was the sudden elevation in 1775 of the well-connected Greene from a local militia private to the rank of brigadier general in charge of Rhode Island’s rebel military force. Greene secured this amazing advancement with no military experience beyond drilling with the local militia. The pull of patronage and political connections, not democracy, carried the day for Greene. In this case, however, so inexplicable an elevation of an asthmatic, limping non-pacificist Quaker worked out brilliantly for the Revolution.

Golway, too, views Greene as overly sensitive about his reputation, a person who engaged in “periodic” bouts of “self-pity” (p. 167) when feeling snubbed about his martial assignments or matters relating to promotion. The author interprets this demeanor, which is at times verbally truculent toward such bodies as the Continental Congress, as proof of Greene’s insecurities, reflecting such factors as his limp, rapid rise in command, and alleged thwarted education. What Golway does not do is contextualize Greene’s concern about his reputation in our rapidly expanding knowledge about the gentleman’s code and the role of personal honor in Revolutionary era culture (and, in this case, in relation to Washington’s officers). For gentlemen of that era, any slight in regard to their good names demanded a response, since any loss of reputation was tantamount to forfeiting their standing as respected members of society. The codes and values of Greene’s era, much more than modern psychological paradigms, would have served the author more ably in evaluating his subject’s apparent bouts of petulance over matters of personal honor and reputation.

Golway thus weakens his presentation by not framing Greene’s life as much as possible in the context of its times. On the other hand, readers will find an engaging narrative about a life that really mattered in terms of securing American independence. Since Golway’s book is a pleasure to read and also conveys a significant story, even if at times out of historical context, this reviewer feels compelled to recommend this biography to persons wanting to find out more about the short-lived but invaluable Revolutionary era hero Nathanael Greene.

comments powered by Disqus