Major General Nathanael Greene’s military career presents a paradox to historians: how could a Quaker, unlearned in the art of war, become one of America’s foremost Revolutionary War generals? While historians have extensively studied Greene’s exercise of tactics and operations, Greene’s formulation and execution of grand strategy—the linking of economic, governance and security objectives with military action—is poorly understood. How did Greene develop his strategic expertise? What shaped and influenced his formulation of grand strategy? What were the results of his strategy and operational plans? These questions can be answered using information derived from contemporary correspondence and reports, supported with quality secondary works.
Simply put, grand strategy is the combining of all national instruments of power to attain a specific national-level objective. American grand strategy at the outbreak of war was simplistic at first, focused on survival through military means, while diplomats sought support from Britain’s European enemies. The British defeat at Saratoga in October 1777 conferred a degree of political legitimacy to the American cause and brought about the desired European alliance. By 1781, American grand strategy concentrated on attaining sovereignty in all thirteen states. Consequently, Greene’s grand strategic goal was to establish undisputed American sovereignty over Georgia, North and South Carolina, and Virginia. To do so, Greene focused on ejecting British and Loyalist combat units from the region, suppressing the civil war between Patriot and Loyalist factions, and reestablishing legitimate civilian governance. Greene’s means included trained Continental units, militia reinforcements, weapons and supplies. Essential to understanding Greene’s strategy is the concept of center of gravity, the indispensable means needed to fulfill a strategic goal. Greene needed to maintain two, interdependent centers of gravity. One was a viable Continental army presence to negate British claims of sovereignty in the contested territories. The other was support from the population, information, supplies and militia reinforcements. Loss of one or both would spell failure to Greene’s campaign.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND TO THE SOUTHERN CAMPAIGN
Despite some impressive early victories against weak American forces, the British found themselves unable to translate tactical success into lasting strategic gains. Hoping to overcome the strategic stalemate following the Saratoga disaster in late 1777, London instructed Lt. Gen. Sir Henry Clinton to abandon future offensives against General Washington in favor of diversionary raids by light forces. With Washington thus distracted, Clinton was to use the superior strategic mobility offered by the Royal Navy to project combat power southwards before Continentals could react. After taking the key seaports of Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina, British regulars would establish a strong outpost line anchored on the towns of Camden and Ninety-Six to block Continental incursions from Virginia. While British light troops mopped up remaining insurgents, trainers drawn from regular units would work to organize and train an effective Loyalist militia. By all appearances, a campaign in the Carolinas promised an easy win to help the British regain the initiative in the war. The key assumption underpinning the entire British campaign plan was the use of well-trained Loyalist militia to successfully pacify and secure South Carolina. Absent Loyalist support, General Clinton simply did not have enough manpower to secure New York and pacify South Carolina.
Clinton’s opening moves in late 1778 attained strategic surprise, and by May 1781, British forces had overrun Georgia and much of South Carolina. From forward bases at Camden and Ninety-Six, Maj. Patrick Ferguson and a detachment of Provincial Loyalists organized the Loyalist militia essential to fulfill Clinton’s plan to pacify the south. The British government appointed Lt. Gen. Charles, Earl Cornwallis, a proven battlefield commander, as both operational commander and overseer of civil administration. Security for local Loyalists was a deep concern, as noted by James Simpson, the ex-Royal attorney general of South Carolina:
The people . . . were naturally very inquisitive to know whether. . .any attempt would be made by this Fall to reduce Carolina, and were very much affected when I returned a doubtful answer . . . I therefore thought it proper to represent to them . . . for that altho’ the Province was to be overrun, and Charles Town reduced by the King’s Troops, yet unless Government was to be so firmly established as to give security to them without the protection of the Army (and which could only be effected by the Efforts of the people themselves), the Success would be far from complete
Despite stubborn Patriot resistance, British consolidation efforts still seemed on track when Cornwallis defeated Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates’ army near Camden in August 1780. Afterwards, Cornwallis marched into North Carolina, where he struggled to stamp out hard-fighting Patriot militia units. Cornwallis’s myopic focus on offensive tasks contributed to the destruction of Ferguson’s unsupported militia corps at Kings Mountain in October 1780, a disaster that forced Cornwallis to suspend his offensive.
While Cornwallis’ troops settled into winter quarters, Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene quietly replaced Gates in December 1780. Greene inherited a mess, with threadbare logistics, empty pay chest, and dispirited Continental troops. After reorganizing his little army, Greene boldly resumed offensive operations by sending Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan’s light corps westwards to threaten Ninety-Six and Augusta, Georgia, while Greene positioned the rest of his army to threaten Cornwallis’ communications with Charleston. Meanwhile, Greene encouraged Patriot militia leaders to raid British supply lines and isolated Loyalist garrisons—especially towards Georgia, where Sir James Wright had resumed his post as Royal governor, an internationally recognized step towards reestablishing British sovereignty in the state. Goaded by Greene’s raids on his bases, Cornwallis divided his own army to trap Morgan. Instead, Morgan turned the tables on his pursuers, defeating Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton and killing or capturing most of Cornwallis’ light troops at the Cowpens in January 1781. Cornwallis continued the pursuit, but bad winter weather and Greene’s superb use of terrain and deception permitted the Continental Army to reach sanctuary in Virginia. News of the Cowpens victory heartened the Georgia and South Carolina Patriots, who redoubled their raids against the increasingly demoralized Loyalist and Cherokee bands.
After briefly resting his force, Greene returned to North Carolina in late February 1781 to keep Cornwallis from regaining his equilibrium. Days of maneuvers and skirmishes culminated in the major battle of Guilford Courthouse on March 15, 1781, yielding a pyrrhic victory for Cornwallis. Frustrated by the lack of Loyalist support, Cornwallis abandoned South Carolina for a strategically meaningless campaign that ended in failure at Yorktown. Noted Cornwallis after the Guilford Courthouse battle, “The perpetual . . . weakness and treachery of our friends in South Carolina, and the impossibility of getting any military assistance from them, makes the possession of any part of the country very little use, except in supplying provisions for Charleston.” Despite his classical military education and decades of military experience, Cornwallis failed to recognize how his neglect of security matters undercut the popular support necessary to consolidate British sovereignty in the Carolinas. Leaving Continental forces under the Marquis de Lafayette to handle Cornwallis in Virginia, Greene refined his grand strategic calculus and implemented a new campaign plan.
GENERAL NATHANAEL GREENE’S FORMULATION OF GRAND STRATEGY
Here, it is useful to consider Greene’s strategic foundation, first developed by his prewar study of military history works by Julius Caesar, Maurice de Saxe, and Frederick the Great. Greene also learned much in his early war roles as commander and quartermaster general: disciplined planning and clarity of orders; calculated risk-taking; and effective employment of militia. The crucible of war refined Greene’s theoretical knowledge of tactics, while his strategic judgment was developed in parallel with his commander and mentor, Gen. George Washington. Early defeats forced Washington to adopt a Fabian strategy of delay and exhaustion: “In deliberating on this great Question, it was impossible to forget that History—our own experience—the advice of our ablest Friends in Europe . . . demonstrate that on our side the War should be defensive . . . a War of posts, that we should . . . avoid a general Action or put anything to the risque unless compelled by a necessity into which we ought never to be drawn.”
The morale factor of war was crucial; Washington learned to follow defeat with a victory, no matter how small, to show the Americans were still capable of fighting. Washington also showed the ability to learn from others and accept constructive criticism. After reviewing plans to attack British held Philadelphia in late 1777, French Maj. Gen. Louis Duportail tactfully dissuaded Washington by reminding the American commander of his own professed Fabian strategy. Greene was in this council of war so certainly learned much on grand strategy from the exchange.
Greene’s tactics were in large part modeled on those of Marshal Saxe, who had relied largely on skirmishing to wear down his stronger opponent and would accept battle only when the odds were strongly in his favor. Frederick the Great’s treatises revealed the importance of discipline, not only in administrative matters but in also maintaining civilian goodwill through well-behaved soldiers. Yet Greene did not simply copy, but synthesized his own military strategy through self-study, observation, direct experience and input from civilian and military officials. For example, Greene learned early in the war the importance of safeguarding Tories from abuse, and included instructions to that effect in his orders. A good example of Greene’s strategic acumen is found in a May 1779 letter to George Washington, where Greene articulated his concepts of what is now termed a center of gravity:
The great object of the Enemies attention is and ever ought to have been our Army; destroy that, and the Country is conquerd; or at least this is the most ready way to affect a reduction of the United States . . . taking cities and marching through the [states] answered no other purpose than to . . . plunder . . . It is like a Ship plowing the Ocean, they have no sooner past . . . and the people rise anew to oppose them . . . This will ever be the case while the grand Army is . . . capable of giving support to the peoples . . . destroy this Army and the confidence of the people will sink . . . I think therefore this Army may be considered the Stamina of American liberty.
GREENE’S SOUTHERN CAMPAIGN 1780-1783
After receiving orders to the Southern Department, Greene met with Washington to discuss the new assignment. As communications were slow and fraught with difficulties, the Continental Congress and General Washington gave Greene wide latitude in developing his own strategic and operational approach:
Uninformed as I am of the enemy’s force in that quarter, of our own, or of the resources which it will be in our command for carrying out the War, I can give you no particular instructions but must leave you to govern yourself intirely according to your own prudence and judgment and the circumstances in which you find yourself. 
Greene thought he understood the difficult nature of the assignment: “I am appointed to the command of the Southern Army; and am now just setting forward on the journey. It is a most difficult command and hitherto has proved a disgraceful one to all that has gone that way . . . One thing I shall avoid if possible that is, giving the public just ground for censuring me.” He found conditions were worse than expected due to the internecine conflict between the Patriots and Loyalists: “New England should rejoice she has really felt nothing of the War. It rages here like a fire at large, and destroys every thing before it. Such destruction and waste, such misery and distress, as this country affords, have not been seen in America.” From the start of his southern campaign, Greene incorporated political and societal concerns into his plans. He ordered a conciliatory approach to British sympathizers to avoid the excessive brutality meted out against Tories elsewhere, such as after the British evacuation of Newport, Rhode Island. To ease local concerns about security, he ensured his regulars and militia protected Patriot sympathizers from Loyalist raids. Lastly, Greene inflicted public whippings on notorious plunderers, not only for the deterrent value, but also to influence public opinion towards the American cause. 
The importance of a strategic reappraisal became apparent when Greene learned of a possible peace treaty in May 1781:
the Emperor of Germany & Empress of Russia have offered their Mediation . . . which was embraced with apparent Eagerness on the Part of Great Britain . . . this important Intelligence we have communicated to the several Governors . . . that the States make the most vigorous Exertions at this critical Juncture to drive the Enemy from all their interior Posts & if possible to expel them from these States.
The Roman doctrine of uti possidetis—territory held at the start of peace negotiations—would serve as a starting point for any mediation. Therefore, Greene had to not only eject British regular forces and suppress Loyalist insurgents, but also clearly establish American sovereignty through legitimate civil governance. Consequently, Greene added measures to restore civilian governance to his already existing strategic lines of effort.
GREENE’S GRAND STRATEGY FOR GEORGIA
Greene articulated his new strategy in a letter to John Wilkinson, a Georgia Patriot leader:
Upon a consultation [with other Georgia Patriots] I can think of no better mode for the State to . . . secure itself from the further ravages of the enemy than to form a Council . . . whose orders should have the force of Laws. . .You may rely upon my giving you all the protection in my power; but the people must take measures not only for their own internal security but to aid the Continental Army . . . Two evils which prevail in all the Southern States should be checked . . . plundering and private murders. The Country groans under these two evils . . . Appointing a Councel, raising a body of regular State troops, forming, arming and arranging the Militia . . . and destroying the enemy fortifications should be the first object of peoples attention.
Particular care in dealing with civilians was necessary to overcome lingering resentments created by Whig and Tory excesses. In spite of orders intended to curb excesses, British foraging parties routinely plundered from Patriot and Tory alike, while “loose disorderly People were employed by the Commissary to hunt up Cattle” for sale at auction in East Florida. Governor Wright was inundated with angry complaints from angry Whigs and Tories, but British officials in New York and London ignored Wright’s pleas. In comparison, Greene consistently pressed his officers to control looting, whipping violators if necessary. The army still needed supplies from the locals, so to earn trust, Greene’s quartermasters carried commissary warrants to prove their legitimacy. In exchange for requisitioned supplies, Greene’s quartermasters issued certificates that guaranteed later reimbursement to the holder, regardless of political sympathies. Greene’s approach not only helped to tamp down complaints, but swayed sympathies towards American victory—and the possibility of redeeming the Continental certificates for money or land.
Greene’s grand strategic approach, with military, political and societal lines of effort, is evident in orders issued to Gen. Anthony Wayne for the liberation of Georgia:
You will therefore march . . . the whole of your force . . . for covering the Country . . . You will open an immediate correspondence with the Governor . . . make such requisitions for militia, as you may find requisite . . . The mode of subsisting your troops will also concert with the magistrates of the state . . . be as little oppressive as possible to the people. When you get into the lower Country you will invite all people to join . . . afford them protection & security. Try by every means in your power to soften the . . . deadly resentments subsisting between the Whigs and tories, and put a stop as much as possible to that cruel custom of putting people to death after they have surrendered . . . The practice of plundering you will endeavor to Check as much as possible, and point out to the militia the ruinous Consequences of that policy. Let your discipline be as regular and as rigid, as the nature and constitution of your troops will admit.
Wayne ably followed Greene’s orders to coordinate with local authorities in driving the British from Augusta, and mopping of Loyalist detachments in the interior. To encourage reconciliation, Wayne cannily issued proclamations of leniency to entice both Tories and outlaws into accepting enlistment in exchange for amnesty.
In the meantime, Greene shifted his attention to political matters. First, He granted regular status and political legitimacy to Georgia Col. Elijah Clarke’s militia regiment by inducting the entire unit into the Continental army. Deputy Paymaster (and Georgia native) Joseph Clay was sent to Augusta in June 1781 to help organize elections. When Dr. Nathan Brownson accepted appointment as the commanding general of the Georgia state militia, Greene prodded the Georgia Congressional delegation to take action on governance:
The enemy Have but little footing in that State [Georgia] and if proper regulations could take place it would be difficult for them ever to gain ground there again without a very great force . . . I have recommended to the people to choose a council to govern their affairs until a Legislature could be at hand; and I wish from the . . . European intelligence . . . that a compleat Legislature agreeable to the constitution could be formed as soon as possible.
After some minor political disputes, the newly installed legislature appointed Nathan Brownson as the first governor of Georgia in August 1781, the final step in extinguishing British claims to the territory.
In parallel with the Georgia reconciliation activities were Greene’s military actions in South Carolina. After a summer of maneuvers and skirmishes, the Eutaw Springs battle of September 1781 marked the end of major combat operations in the Carolinas. During the intervening months until the evacuation of Savannah and Charleston in late 1782, Greene kept the British hemmed in their coastal enclaves, impotent to challenge American consolidation efforts. All while fighting to liberate American territory, Greene never forgot civilian considerations in his plans, as noted by Alexander Hamilton: “To supply a necessitous army by coercion and yet maintain the confidence and good will of the coerced, this was among the first and not the least of the difficulties to be surmounted. But delicate and difficult as was the task, it was nevertheless accomplished.”
ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSIONS
American diplomat Robert Livingston provided a contemporary assessment of Greene’s accomplishments: “Georgia has re-established her government, where the enemy have no other footing than in Savannah . . . General Greene has very prudently wasted the strength of the enemy, and raised the confidence of the militia, by fighting them in detail. His late victory . . . affords the most promising prospect of speedily recovering the possession of that country.” Viewed through historian Tammie Davis Biddle’s analytical framework, it is apparent that Greene synthesized an effective grand strategy by addressing security and economic concerns, fostering reconciliation, and facilitating the establishment of local governance. By doing so, Greene set the conditions to successfully establish American control of the southern states long before the British evacuation of Charleston in December 1782. In contrast to Greene’s simple yet well-thought-out grand strategy, British strategy for Georgia and South Carolina failed to match ways with the means needed to reestablish political sovereignty. Crucially, the British commanders in South Carolina—Clinton, then Cornwallis—failed to protect their two interdependent centers of gravity, an effective Loyalist militia and the support of the location population. The one clear British success in reestablishing governance in Georgia was squandered as Clinton and officials in London failed to lend military support to Governor Wright. Consequently, the British lost even the consolation prize of Georgia to Greene’s campaign of liberation.
Dennis M. Conrad’s essay on Greene’s generalship challenges Theodore Thayer’s labeling of Greene as the “Strategist of the American Revolution.” After conceding that Greene had “principles” in mind, “his real genius was his ability to adapt to changing circumstances and to extract the greatest strategic advantage from a fluid situation . . . he did not follow a prearranged plan but was in fact forced to alter his plans dramatically, adapt . . . and devise and even improvise what proved to be brilliant responses.” Conrad falls into a common trap, conflating tactics and military strategy with grand strategy. By using Biddle’s and Eikmeier’s models for analysis, it becomes clear that Nathanael Greene had a well-developed grasp of strategy, developed an effective grand strategy, and employed flexible operational plans and tactics to attain the desired end, undisputed American sovereignty in the southern states.
This article employs terms derived from Professor Tammie Davis Biddle’s monograph, Strategyand Grand Strategy: What Students and Practitioners Need to Know. Tactics describe how commanders employ small units in a narrowly defined battlespace. Operations define the actions and movements of units commanded by a general officer, generally spanning the gap between tactics and strategy. Military strategy generally refers to the coordinated military actions of an entire army or army group operating within a theater, a large swath of territory. Grand strategy is the combining of all available instruments of power, diplomatic, informational, military and economic, towards the attainment of a specified strategic, national-level end state. Tammie Davis Biddle, Strategy and Grand Strategy: What Students and Practitioners Need to Know (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: U.S. Army War College Press, 2015), 4-5. This article uses Army War College professor Colonel Dale Eikmeir’s “A Logical Method for Center-of-Gravity Analysis” as a useful heuristic. Attainment of a defined military end (goal) requires the combination of ways (actions or capabilities), with means (resources-men, supplies, finances): ends-ways-means. Dale Eikmeier, “A Logical Method for Center-of-Gravity Analysis,” Military Review (September-October 2007), 63.
See Nathanael Greene to George Washington, May 31, 1779, The Papers of Nathanael Greene, ed. Richard K. Showman, et al. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1976-2005), 4:107-108. In addition, Eikmeier offers: “The center of gravity is the primary entity that possesses the inherent capability to achieve the objective.” Eikmeier, “A Logical Method,”63.
Curtis F. Morgan Jr. “’A Merchandise of Small Wares’: Nathanael Greene’s Northern Apprenticeship, 1775-1780,” in General Nathanael Greene and the American Revolution in the South, ed. Gregory D. Massey and Jim Piecuch (Columbia SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2012), 33-43.
Washington to John Hancock, September 8, 1776, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-06-02-0203.
Greene to Griffin Greene, (Letter 44) July 18 1781, Nathanael Greene Letters, 1778-1783, Folder 1, Southern Historical Collection at the Louis Round Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, 44, finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/00290/#folder_1#1.
James T. Haw, “’Everything Here Depends Upon Opinion’: Nathanael Greene and Public Support in the Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution,” The South Carolina Historical Magazine, 109, No. 3 (July 2008): 217.
ArmyDoctrinal Publication 3-0 (Operations) (Washington D.C.: Department of the Army, 31 July 2019), 2-7 defines a line of effort as “a line that links multiple tasks using the logic of purpose rather than geographical reference to focus efforts towards establishing a desired end state.”
Jim Schmidt, “Nathan Brownson (1742-1796),”www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/nathan-brownson-1742-1796.
Alexander Hamilton, “Eulogy on Nathanael Greene [4 July 1789],” founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-05-02-0141#ARHN-01-05-02-0141-fn-0001.
Robert R. Livingston to Benjamin Franklin in The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, Volume III. Jared Sparks, ed., (Boston: Nathan Hale and Gray & Bowen, 1829), 240-241.
Dennis M. Conrad, “General Nathanael Greene: An Appraisal,” in General Nathanael Greene and the American Revolution in the South, ed. Gregory D. Massey and Jim Piecuch (Columbia SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2012), 8.
See David R. Smith’s “Nathanael Greene and the Myth of the Valiant Few,” Diss, University of North Texas, December 2017, 156-159 for additional discussion on Greene’s grand strategy, especially the distinction between grand and theater level strategy. For an early analysis of Greene’s development of strategy in concert with Virginia governor, Thomas Jefferson, see Thayer, Nathanael Greene: Strategist of the American Revolution. Additional scholarship on Greene’s formulation of strategy: Don Higginbotham, “Some Reflections on the South in the American Revolution,” The Journal of Southern History, 73, No. 3, (August 2007): 659-760; George W. Kyte, “Victory in the South: An Appraisal of General Greene’s Strategy in the Carolinas,” The North Carolina Historical Review, 37, No. 3, (July 1960): 321-327; Charles B. Baxley, “’An Enterprise upon Johns Island’: Nathanael Greene’s Winter Campaign and the Jacksonborough Assembly, 1781-1782,” Army History, 98 (Winter 2016): 30-52. Charles Heaton, “The Failure of Enlightenment Military Doctrine in Revolutionary America: The Piedmont Campaign and the Fate of the British Army in the Lower South,” The North Carolina Historical Review, 87, No. 2, (April 2010): 127-157 gives a good comparison of Greene’s and Cornwallis’ respective strategies. For deeper analysis of British strategy: Colonel J.P. Clover, British Army, “The British Southern Campaign in the Revolutionary War: Implications for Contemporary Counterinsurgency,” Master’s Thesis, Carlisle Barracks PA: U.S. Army War College, 2006; Major Jesse T. Pearson, “The Failure of British Strategy During the Southern Campaign of the American Revolutionary War, 1780-1781,” Master’s Thesis, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 2005; Andrew J. O’Shaughnessy, “’To Gain the Hearts and Subdue the Minds of America’: General Sir Henry Clinton and the Conduct of the British War for America,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 158, No. 2 (September 2014): 199-208; George W. Kyte, “Lord Cornwallis Abandons the Carolinas,” The Historian, 22, No. 2 (February 1960): 129-144; For arguments concerning whether Greene conducted a conventional or guerilla (partisan) campaign: John M. Dederer, “Making Bricks without Straw: Nathanael Greene’s Campaigns and Mao Tse-Tung’s Mobile War,” Military Affairs, 47, No. 3 (October 1983): 115-121; Justin S. Liles, “The Reluctant Partisan: Nathanael Greene’s Southern Campaigns, 1780-1783,” Master’s Thesis, University of North Texas, 2005; David R. Smith, “Nathanael Greene and the Myth of the Valiant Few,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of North Texas, 2017; Tal Tovy, “Militia or Regular Army: The Debate on the Character of the American Army During the Revolution,” European Journal of American Studies, 5, No. 1 (Spring 2010): 1-20. For an examination of the historiography on Greene’s employment of militia in the campaign: Robert C. Pugh, “The Revolutionary Militia in the Southern Campaign: 1780-1781,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 1, No. 2 (April 1957): 154-175.