While Nathanael Greene is getting greater recognition, I believe his contributions are still undervalued because the American cause in the South was on “life support” when he assumed command in 1780 and in less than a year and with virtually no outside material or manpower support, he redeemed it.
All are under-rated in the sense that few are remembered. Nonetheless, under-rated – Nathanael Greene, responsible for winning the war in the south.
Grassroots activists, working first in the Committees of Correspondence and then the committees of safety and inspection, who pushed the Revolution forward. Also underrated: the militias, John Shy’s “great spongy mass” that made it impossible for the British to control any territory far from the coast. And not to forget Robert Morris, THE Financier, without whom Washington would have had no army on the Delaware in the winter of 1776-77 or at Yorktown in 1781. By offering his personal credit to buttress the faltered public credit, Morris literally saved the nation. But we don’t celebrate this man who made his fortune by privateering and war profiteering and ended his career in debtors’ prison. “Listen my children and you shall here/The dubious exploits of THE Financier”? It just doesn’t play.
The most underrated was Henry Laurens. He was the key to Washington surviving the Conway cabal at Valley Forge.
Dr. Thomas Young helped to found the Sons of Liberty group in Albany, became a leading radical organizer in Boston (delivering the first oration to memorialize the Boston Massacre), and finally settled in Philadelphia, helping to write Pennsylvania’s first, progressive constitution before dying of a disease contracted while treating Continental soldiers. Even after death, Young had influence: he had coined the name “Vermont” and probably written most of Reason, the Only Oracle of Man, the deist text published by Ethan Allen. Young’s letters show he was a rare species of eighteenth-century political thinker, a real democrat.
As a New Hampshire native, I’ll vote for John Stark as the most underrated Revolutionary. He played a key role at Bunker Hill by blocking a British flanking attempt, and he made a major contribution to the victory at Saratoga by destroying Burgoyne’s detachment at Bennington. Yes, he was abrasive and a poor administrator, but he was a capable combat leader whose commitment to liberty was summed up in his statement: “Live Free or Die.”
As a blanket statement, there are a host of underrated and underappreciated Whig leaders throughout the Southern Colonies – Thomas Polk, Captain James Jack (of Mecklenburg, NC), John McKnitt Alexander – all were well known leaders of their time, contemporaries of Washington and others – but now largely forgotten. They led the movement for independence well before anyone else (see Mecklenburg Resolves of May 1775), and fought a brutal guerilla war in the remote backcountry against their Tory neighbors and then against Cornwallis’s army as it marched through, defeating them at Cowpens, Kings Mountain, Guilford Courthouse, etc.
General Nathanael Greene is so underrated that many today are unaware of him. But he was the general that Washington turned to for good advice, made personal sacrifices to try to straighten out the quartermaster corps, and waged an absolutely brilliant campaign in the Carolinas between January and March 1781. It was his heroics in the South that helped drive Cornwallis to take his fateful step into Virginia, and to his doom. Had it not been for Greene, it is difficult to envision a pivotal allied victory on the scale of Yorktown in 1781, and without Yorktown the war would have had a different ending, possibly one that did not include American independence.
Choosing a most underrated participant has been great fun in that so many of our Revolutionary Era ancestors did great things yet we tend to remember so few. Because I tend to focus most of my research on the Southern Campaigns and folks who took part in them, I looked to that group for my choice here. After the fall of Charleston in May of 1780, South Carolina and Georgia looked as good as defeated. British dragoons advanced into the backcountry with famously brutal deeds against the few remaining defenders. Out of the depression came a few individuals, partisans if you like, that stood in defiance on the edges of the backcountry. I could choose any of several names out of this group, these ‘early risers’, but one stands out. Never wavering in his devotion to the Cause, fighting the British at every possible opportunity, and earning almost singular ownership of the adjective, ‘indomitable’, I believe Elijah Clarke deserves far more credit for his role in the revolution than he currently receives. One need only scan through the Cornwallis Papers of 1780 to understand the impact that Clarke had on the British and that his name should always be mentioned right alongside that of Marion and Sumter when discussing the southern partisans.
The newspaper printers, including Benjamin Edes, Isaiah Thomas, William Goddard, Peter Timothy, Thomas Green, John Holt, Solomon Southwick, Mary Goddard, Anne Catherine Green, James Rivington, and others. Modern historians and journalists give plenty of credit to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube for helping to fuel and organize the Arab Spring rebellions, yet the stewards of the only mass media during the American Revolution get little recognition in the shadows of giants. This despite numerous historians claiming that without newspapers there would have been no American Revolution. This despite the importance of newspapers being well documented by the Founding Fathers themselves. Dr. Benjamin Rush said during the war that a newspaper was “equal to at least two regiments.” If any soldier was worth two regiments during the Revolution, he’d surely have statues and schools named after him today. Then and now, historians have recognized the tremendous power of the press to launch and sustain the American Revolution as well as affect its outcome, so it seems appropriate to also give credit to those behind the press who selected the sources, and typeset and printed the pages, often in the face of life-threatening danger.
Daniel Morgan. Daring, successful, and respected, he picked off British officers and supplies, and starred at Saratoga and Cowpens, all while suffering severe sciatica. At Saratoga, Morgan’s riflemen held off the British at Freeman’s Farm, and at Bemis Heights he eliminated the masterful British general Simon Fraser and trapped Fraser’s troops. He used his militia brilliantly and employed a double envelopment strategy at Cowpens—his forces killed or captured ninety percent of Banastre Tarleton’s army. If Morgan hadn’t avoided politics, he would be a household name today.
I judge Dr. Joseph Warren as sufficiently important and underrated, as to have written a biography of him.