The Road to Charleston, Nathanael Greene and the American Revolution by John Buchanan (University Press of Virginia, 2019)
John Buchanan’s latest account of the southern theater in the American Revolution is appropriately titled, The Road to Charleston: Nathanael Greene and the American Revolution (2019). This work is a companion to his first work on the southern campaign, The Road to Guilford Courthouse (1997). The Road to Charleston picks up where his previous work left off and covers actions from April 1781 through the British evacuation of Charleston in December 1782. For those readers unfamiliar with events in the southern theater addressed in The Road to Guilford Courthouse, he includes a prologue that summarizes the events prior to March 1781.
A master storyteller and researcher, Buchanan uses a variety of primary and secondary sources to describe the challenges faced by multiple actors in the southern theater. Buchanan organized the book chronologically, which helps the reader understand the flow of events as they unfold across three states, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. Well organized into sixteen chapters with the aforementioned, substantive prologue and a short epilogue, the reader can breeze through a chapter in one sitting, or opt to read multiple chapters. For those who like to frequently check citations, the reader will find interesting material spurring further reading.
The southern theater was an economy of force effort for both sides, yet also involved a multitude of key military actors. On the Whig or Patriot side, Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene led Continental forces, state troops, and local militia. Tory forces included regular British units led by multiple commanders operating alongside provincial and militia forces. As a result, many forces operated relatively independent of each other. Buchannan describes an environment where the lack of unity of command, most notably on the Patriot side, made it a particularly difficult to conduct successful conventional military operations. Personalities of key military commanders rather than positional authority accentuated the leadership challenges in the southern theater. Buchannan weaves many themes into his narrative, perhaps one of the most important is his description of how Greene overcame the lack of unity of command and achieved a surprising degree of unity of effort between conventional and irregular forces.
The absence of civil authority, most notably in the backcountry, led to pillage, murder, and lawlessness, producing numerous refugees and displaced individuals and families complicating operations for both sides. The inability of Tory and British forces to hold terrain and provide security to citizens proved particularly troublesome for those citizens who had declared their loyalty to the crown. They often found themselves at the mercy of Patriot militia when security forces moved on. Greene, like his superior, George Washington, worked diligently to establish civil authority in areas liberated from the British forces by the Patriots in order to prevent unnecessary suffering and lawlessness.
Buchanan addresses the many battles and skirmishes that took place across the theater and provides insightful analysis on the actions of key military commanders on both sides. His evenhanded treatment of the numerous commanders and actions reflects a thoughtful and reasoned approach essential to producing quality historical scholarship. Even so, Buchanan is clearly a fan of Nathanael Greene, but by questioning Greene’s own analysis of his success at Eutaw Springs, Buchanan curbs his favoritism. Similarly, Buchanan credits the British commander, Lt. Col. Alexander Stewart for his masterful tactical defensive posture that helped prevent a clear Patriot victory. Throughout the book Buchanan comments on the actions and effectiveness of “Light Horse Harry” Lee. Buchanan leaves the reader with many questions about Lee’s behavior, yet he credits him when his actions when warranted. Buchanan’s newest book serves as an informative and thoughtful read for those with interest in the American Revolution and the critical Southern theater. Readers will not be disappointed with this book. In both style and substance, John Buchanan produced a wonderfully written account of the Southern theater worthy of the discriminating reader.