John Adams and Nathanael Greene Debate the Role of the Military

Critical Thinking

August 17, 2023
by Curtis F. Morgan, Jr. Also by this Author


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Nathanael Greene is rightly remembered as one of the great combat leaders of the American Revolution. But he was also a deep political thinker, a Rhode Island politician before the war who did not hesitate to discuss the broader ramifications of the American Revolution with a wide range of Patriot notables, some of whom never picked up a sword.

These literary exchanges are revealing when it is remembered that the American “system” was not created at Philadelphia in 1787 (or even 1781), but to a great extent in the camps of the Continental Army, where the struggle was not just against the imperial foe, but also over what exactly the rebels hoped to achieve beyond “mere” independence. Few issues were more vital than the nature of the army itself: to what extent should the force fighting for American “Liberty” reflect the deepest ideals of that concept? Put another way, should the Continental Army be composed of volunteer militia who were fighting for the “Glorious Cause” above all? Or should it confront the greatest professional army in the world with a disciplined professional army of its own? Greene (together with his mentor, George Washington) insisted on the latter.

Greene had a brief exchange on the subject in 1776-77 with John Adams, another New England “pol” who had very different ideas about the army and its role in the struggle for American liberty. Some of the ideas they debated are still current in American life today: What should be the role of the military in a democracy? Is a professional force a standing threat to civil liberties? Would a “national guard” be too unruly and undisciplined to be relied on when the survival of the republic is at stake? When do the ends justify the means?


In the beginning, the American Revolution was a rebellion of colonists accustomed to governing themselves against an Empire enforcing its rule through a professional military. But could “Minutemen” resist and even defeat “Redcoats”? Officers like Washington and Greene looked upon militia with disdain. Americans faced a professional military; but the militia “was a most unmilitary outfit by European standards.”[1] No uniforms; no uniformity of arms; elected officers; lax or non-existent discipline. Such informality weakened the militia in combat; additionally, the militias were state-raised and -run, and served under short-term enlistments that played havoc with long-term planning. Despite these drawbacks, some political leaders saw militiamen as preferable to professional soldiers. John Adams declared:

Although it may cost us more, and we put now and then a battle to hazard by the method we are in, yet we shall be less in danger of corruption and violence from a standing army, and our militia will acquire courage, experience, discipline, and hardiness in actual combat.[2]

Greene disagreed. He wrote to his state governor in July 1775 that “the task is difficult and trouble great to form people into any regular Government that comes out with minds possest of notions of Liberty that is nothing short of Licentiousness.”[3] He would later complain that his militiamen were “the worst in the world” and “of no more use than if they were in the moon.” Discipline and order required submission, but “With the militia everybody is a general, and the powers of government are so feeble, that it is with the utmost difficulty you can restrain them from plundering one another.”[4] To expect such men to stand up in combat was ludicrous, and far too much to expect of

militia men who come and go every month . . . People coming from home with all the tender feelings of domestic life are not sufficiently fortified with natural courage to stand the shocking scenes of war. To march over dead men, to hear without concern the groans of the wounded, I say few men can stand such scenes unless steeled by habit or fortified by military pride.

In one of his first general orders, Greene urged officers to treat “Troops that behave well with all gentleness” but to “Punish the Refractory and Seditious with Exemplary Punishment,” calling for particular attention to “Debauchery and Vulgar Language Inconsistent with the Character of Soldiers.”[5] His work was cut out for him.


After more than a year in command, Greene reached out to the political leadership in the Continental Congress to air some concerns he had about the conduct of the war. Although Greene asserted that “Modesty will forever forbid me to apply to [Congress] for any favors,” in the summer of 1776 he began a fascinating exchange of letters with one of the most powerful men in Congress, John Adams. Why the exchange began is unknown (the first letters of both men are lost), but it is clear that for his part Greene was doing a lot of thinking about political and administrative matters and wanted someone in Congress to know it. He had recently lost his foremost ally and mentor, Samuel Ward, Sr., who died of smallpox while attending Congress in Philadelphia in March. Greene needed a new patron; Adams was a fellow New Englander who would understand him; he was also a member whose opinion carried much weight. In the first letter we have, of June 2, Greene pressed for a pension system for wounded soldiers (regulars and militia), decried the lack of shelter for the troops, complained of the inadequate pay officers received, warned that Congress’s “Emision of such large sums of [Continental] money” would aggravate inflation and depreciation (further eroding military pay), and urged (without naming his personal interest) that officer promotions be based on seniority, not merit. (He feared, as the lowest-ranked brigadier general, being passed over for promotion to major general by a more-recently appointed brigadier). “For my own part,” he warned, “I would never give any Legislative body an opportunity to humiliate me but once.” His candor is striking, blunt while avoiding open disrespect. It indicates both a zeal for “the Cause” and a familiarity with Adams that gave Greene the confidence to speak his mind.

I flatter my self I know the History, Strength, and state of the army almost as well as any in it . . . You think the present army assisted by the militia is sufficient to oppose the force of Great Britain, formidable as it appears on paper. I can assure you its necessary to make great allowances in the calculation of our strength from the Establishment or else you’l be greatly deceivd. I am confident the force of America if properly exerted will prove superior to all her Enemies, but I would risque nothing to chance. It is easy to disband when it is impossible to raise Troops.[6]

Adams waited two and a half weeks to reply; understandable in light of the fact that on June 7 Richard Henry Lee of Virginia had moved a resolution on independence and on the 11th Congress had named Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston to a committee to draft a declaration of independence. (Greene was ignorant of this; growing impatient, he fumed to his brother Christopher: “That dam’d Idea of Reconciliation is continually damping and dividing the Assembly.”) Adams answered Greene’s letter point by point. “Your Reasoning” regarding pensions for wounded soldiers “is extremely just, and cannot bee answered,” he wrote. The problem lay in how large a pension, how to pay for it, etc. A plan was needed. As for raising officers’ pay, Adams was dubious. “Officers present themselves in supernumerary abundance,” he complained. “As to pay there is no end to the Desire and Demand of it. Is there not too much Extravagance and too little Economy among the officers?” This irked Greene; but Adams’ (and many others’) perception of the pomp and airs of the officer corps had more than a grain of truth to it. One study found that 84 percent of New Jersey officers came from the wealthiest one-third of society. They were respected in their communities and expected to receive both honor and pay commensurate with their status. One could almost hear Adams’ Puritan forebears clucking in disapproval of this ostentatious display. Greene’s Quaker ancestors would no doubt have agreed, but Greene in many respects had already declared his own independence from his family’s ethos.

Adams continued: “That the Promotion of extraordinary Merit may give disgust to those officers is true, over whom the advancement is made, but I think it ought not. That this Power may be abused, or misapplied, is also true . . . But where will you lodge this Power? To place it in the General [Washington] would be more dangerous to the public liberty,” he argued. “Will it do,” he asked, “to lay it down as an invariable Rule, that all officers in all cases shall rise in succession?” (Ironically, Congress, riven by local jealousies, would in effect decide that it would“do,” and as a result drive several ambitious officers into bitter resignation, and one talented and vigorous general, Benedict Arnold, into treason.) Adams concluded by forwarding to Greene a copy of a resolution establishing a Board of War and Ordinance to delve into these issues, and humbly asked Greene for his opinions on it, admitting his ignorance of military matters. “I am called to the Discharge of Trust to which I feel myself so unequal, and in the Execution of which I can derive no assistance from my Education or former Course of Life,” he lamented.[7]

Greene heartily agreed. “You cannot more sincerely lament the want of knowledge to execute the business that falls in your department than I do that which falls in mine,” he replied on July 14, “and was I not kept in countenance by some of my superior officers I should be sincerely disposed to quit the command I hold in the Army.” But he intended to make up for his ignorance through “Watchfulness and Industry.” He went on to explain his opinion about officers’ pay and promotions:

You query whether there is not a want of Oeconemy in the Army amongst the officers. I can Assure you there is not among those of my Acquaintance. The expences of the Officers runs very high, unless they dress and live below the Gentleman. Few that have ever lived in Character will be willing to descend to that. As long as they continue in service they will support their Rank, and if their pay is not sufficient they will draw on their private fortunes at Home.[8]

It was no secret that Washington was doing so, foregoing any salary at all, and only billing Congress for his expenses. Greene was not alone in his irritation that men in Congress and other prominent civilians who faced no mortal danger on the battlefield themselves seemed to view military officers as “grasping mercenaries, instead of dedicated, virtuous citizens of the aspiring republic” in the words of two historians.[9]

This goes far to explain the touchiness of Greene and his fellow officers in matters of pay and promotion. One’s status as a gentleman, the defense of one’s honor, was at least partially reflected in the pay and rank one received (and hence deserved, indeed had earned defending the Cause). Greene and others would threaten resignation repeatedly over these issues in the coming years, insisting that it was the members of Congress who were being petty and grasping, by withholding or “economizing” what was their due as officers in any army.

Regarding promotion (which he still hoped for at this time), Greene explained: “I am not against rewarding merit or encourageing Activity, neither would I have promotions confind to a regular line of succession . . . but I should think the Generals [i.e. Washington’s] recommendation is the best testimonial of a Persons deserving a reward that the Congress can have.” Greene must have been pleased with Adams’ reply of August 4, in which he declared Greene’s views on promotion “so nearly agreeable to mine,” and with Adams’ implied inclusion of Greene with other officers he characterized: “A General officer ought to be a Gentleman of Letters and General Knowledge, a Man of Address and Knowledge of the World.” If any of Greene’s feathers remained ruffled, this comment should have smoothed them. Confirmation came five days later, with Greene’s elevation to major general by vote of Congress.[10] This exchange of letters was the first official contact Greene had with Congress. Although it began cordially enough, it would not remain so. Greene would gradually lose patience with Congress, and his outspokenness would lose him much support among its members, including John Adams.


Early in 1777, Washington sent Greene to Philadelphia to meet with Congress. Greene was on good terms with John Adams, with whom he resumed the correspondence begun some time before. “It is a long time since I wrote to you or you to me,” Greene wrote on March 3, “therefore I shall begin anew.”[11]

“I am sensible you have not the most exalted opinion of your Generals,” he began. The Continental army had operated under “inconcievable” difficulties during the previous campaign, hastily assembled, inexperienced, facing a well-equipped, veteran force led by an aggressive commander. “General Washington as every defender ought has followed directly the contrary conduct, by indeavoring to skirmish with the Enemy at all times, and avoid a general engagement.” Greene was confident of eventual success. “America abounds with Materials to form as good an army as the World can produce, but it requires time” and, assuming the recruiting effort was successful, the army “will display . . . as much heroism and bravery as Europe can boast off [sic].”[12]

Adams replied a few days later that “Some busy Body” had been putting words in his mouth about his opinion of the generals. He deleted a following sentence that stated “Untill then I believe my Opinion of our Generals will continue not very exalted,” and instead continued, “Notwithstanding this I have a sincere Esteem of our General Officers taken together as a Body.” He then turned to the subject of recent promotions, and some of the officers’ reactions to them:

This delicate Point of Honour, which is really one of the most putrid Corruptions of absolute Monarchy, I mean the Honour of maintaining a Rank Superior to abler Men, I mean the Honour of preferring a single Step of Promotion to the Service of the Public, must be bridled. It is incompatible with republican Principles.[13]

He believed that Congress should annually elect all the generals! Greene must have choked on his tea when he read that, but Adams was serious, and merely expressing a deeply ingrained political culture that had long revered local control and saw a standing army as a threat to liberty. Greene and his compatriots shared Adams’s world view but saw the other side of the coin as well: that the success of the American Revolution demanded both unity of purpose in Congress (the sublimation of local interests to “continental” ones) and the resort to a standing army to win independence. Adams was not yet ready to accept the dilemma that the ends for which Americans were fighting conflicted with the means necessary to achieve them.[14]


Greene’s first encounter with the civilian leadership had not been encouraging. He had discovered that responsibility for supplying the Continental Army was divided among several Congressional committees, state authorities, military officers, and civilians. In a word, it was a mess. Greene was also hampered by the fact that only five members of Congress had any army administrative experience at all. Congress was blissfully ignorant of how an army was run or what it needed. When its visceral anti-militarist attitude is added to the mix, it is easy to see the difficulties Washington and Greene faced.[15]

The distrust between Congress and the officer corps further increased that summer, and Greene was in the thick of it. The generals’ distrust of Congress was coupled with distress at their own inability to determine the British army’s intentions. Within days of returning to camp at Morristown, Greene resumed his correspondence with Adams on a variety of matters facing the army and the Cause. Greene wrote to Adams more than vice versa, and clearly felt comfortable addressing him familiarly. This may be what led to trouble.[16]

Since the summer of 1775, Greene had increasingly viewed Washington as the living embodiment of the Revolution and was sensitive to any perceived slight to his mentor. It is therefore ironic that it was Adams, the man who had moved Washington’s appointment as Commander in Chief, who provoked a testy exchange with Greene over His Excellency’s merits. Perhaps Adams was disturbed, when he met Greene in Philadelphia, by what he perceived as hero-worship on Greene’s part and wished to deflate it somewhat; whatever his motives, in a letter of April 27 (now lost), Adams drew Greene’s ire by stating that “there is no one man either in the Civil or military line that is of such mighty consequence that the liberties of America are dependant upon his will or existence” and that “a certain General” (Washington?) “might be of more importance to the Continent if he thought himself of less.”[17] Greene countered that “there are several” (including himself?) “that America might sensibly feel the loss off [sic] at this time” and that Adams’ opinion of Washington “is very different (if I remember right) from what it was last Summer upon a similar occasion.” Speaking more generally, Greene wrote that although he acknowledged that Congress was entitled to “dignity in every instance, yet I hope they will carefully avoid sporting with the finer feelings of the Gentlem[e]n of the Army.” In this connection, he brought up a sore point. “I have no wish to see such a large propo[r]tion of important offices in the Military department in the hands of foreigners. I cannot help considering them as so many Spies in our Camp,” pursuing personal interest at the expense of the Cause; native officers had more binding ties to the nation, namely “Interest and family connexion.”[18]

What Greene was hinting at was the recent arrival of an entire shipload of eighteen French officers, ten sergeants, and assorted munitions arranged by America’s agent in Paris, Silas Deane. Desperate to wheedle French assistance, Deane had exceeded his authority by promising a major general’s commission and appointment as “General of Artillery and Ordinance” to one Philippe Charles Jean Baptiste Tronson de Coudray, a chef de brigade (brigadier general) with a background in artillery and ties (through his brother Alexandre) to Queen Marie Antoinette. Congress had not yet decided what to do with this and other proposed foreign appointments; but such was the mutual distrust of officers and officials that Greene assumed that the appointment, which would in effect replace Gen. Henry Knox with de Coudray, was a “done deal.” After all, he had just been to Philadelphia, and knew how those conniving pols operated. He also knew well that there was little love lost in the capital for the officer corps. Replacing a tried-and-true Patriot Gentleman like Henry Knox with a well-born, fawning Frenchman with pretensions of grandeur was justthe kind of thing they would do. It is instructive that Greene was inclined to believe another rumor (“hinted to me”) that Gen. Philip Schuyler was to replace Hancock as President of Congress! “I take this opportunaty of expressing my abhorrence of such a measure. No free people ought to admit a junction of the Civil and Military,” he wrote, as if Adams, of all people, needed convincing of this. Greene’s ignorance of Congressional sentiment in this regard is astonishing. In fact, Schuyler was one of the officers most in foul odor with the politicians; he had just lost his northern command to Horatio Gates, but Greene assumed Schuyler (a patrician of Dutch ancestry) was a man of influence.[19]

Greene pressed Adams on the de Coudray rumor, and went into the lists on behalf of his good friend and favorite bookseller Knox. “I must again repeat the impropriety of creating so many foreign Officers,” he wrote.

I am told . . . that one De Cudre is engaged by Mr Dean as Major General of the [Artillery] Train. The impropriety of putting a foraigner at the head of such a Department must be obvious to every body. Besides the Impropriety, you will deprive the Army of a most valuable Officer, universally acknowledged as such . . . a man who has serv’d you with Fidelity and Reputation.[20]

Adams replied on June 2. After dismissing the Schuyler report as “a Mistake,” he agreed with Greene that no one should hold both a seat in Congress and a general’s commission. He then tried to put the de Coudray matter to rest. “I agree entirely in your sentiments concerning the Danger of entrusting so many important Commands to foreigners. Mr Deane I fear has exceeded his Powers. Mr Du Coudray shall never have my Consent to be at the Head of the Artillery, and I believe he will have few advocates for placing him there. I hope, none.” Then, in what would prove an ominous afterthought, Adams wrote, “Pray what is your opinion of General Conway. He acquired a good Reputation here.” Perhaps Adams put Greene’s fears to rest; nothing more was written about de Coudray for almost a month.

Then, at the beginning of July, at the first anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the controversy resurfaced. President John Hancock received the following letter from Greene:

A report is circulating here at Camp that Monsieur de Coudray a French Gentleman is appointed a Major General in the service of the United States, his rank to commence from the first of last August. If the report be true it will lay me under the necessity of resigning my Commision as his appointment supercedes me in command. I beg youl [sic] acquaint me with respect to the truth of the report, and if true inclose me a permit to retire.[21]

Hancock received similar letters from John Sullivan and Henry Knox (the immediately aggrieved party). They all referred to anonymous “reports” that the appointment was an accomplished fact. Actually, Congress had just received the report on the appointment from its Committee on Foreign Applications, and had resolved to take it up the following week.[22] The rumor mill was working its usual havoc, and although Congress perceived ulterior motives and doubted that the generals believed that de Coudray had already been appointed, the fact is that the generals imperfectly understood the operations of Congress; assumed Deane had more influence than he had; and were inclined to believe the worst about the political leadership. Unfortunately, the distrust was mutual.

Greene, Sullivan, and Knox were all headstrong, proud men, sensitive to perceived slights, and this was a big one. According to the rumor, not only would de Coudray replace Knox as head of artillery, but his commission as major general would be back-dated to 1776, so that he would outrank (by seniority) Sullivan and Greene. On July 2 the Foreign Appointments Committee presented its report and recommended that the matter be “referred to the committee of the whole Congress,” whereupon it was decided to postpone consideration of the various papers involved, including “letters” from Washington and others until “Saturday next” (July 5). On that day, the letters from Greene and Knox were brought up, and discussion postponed again. On July 7, Congress resolved to call the generals’ bluff.

Congress resumed the consideration of the letters from Generals Sullivan, Greene, and Knox, all dated the 1 July; Whereupon, Congress came to the following unanimous resolution:

That the president transmit to General Washington copies of the letters from Generals Sullivan, Greene, and Knox, to Congress, with directions to him to let those officers know that Congress consider the said letters as an attempt to influence their decisions, and an invasion of the liberties of the people, and indicating a want of confidence in the justice of Congress; that it is expected by Congress the said officers will make proper acknowledgments for an interference of so dangerous a tendency; but, if any of those officers are unwilling to serve their country under the authority of Congress, they shall be at liberty to resign their commissions and retire.[23]

Hancock sent a cover letter to Washington that stated:

I have the Honour to transmit at this Time copies of three Letters from Generals Sullivan, Green, and Knox to Congress, the Receipt of which, as the Contents were highly derogatory to the Honour and Justice of Congress, could not fail to be extremely displeasing. They have therefore come to the enclosed Resolve on the Subject, to which, as it clearly expresses their Sense of the Impropriety of the Conduct of those Officers, I beg Leave to refer to your Attention, and to request you will make them acquainted therewith.[24]

John Adams went to greater lengths to express his anger to Greene. “I never before took hold of a Pen to write to my Friend General Green[e] without Pleasure, but I think myself obliged to do it now upon a Subject that gives me a great deal of Pain,” he began. The letters from Greene, Knox and Sullivan had “interrupted the Deliberations of Congress” and had caused “much Uneasiness.” Greene and his colleagues were off base, Adams contended. “The Contract between Mr Deane and Monsr. Du Coudray is not yet decided upon.” How then was Congress to react to three letters from generals, “threatening that if We fulfill the Contract, Three Officers, on whom we have depended, will resign in the midst of the Campaign when the Attention of every officer ought to be wholly taken up in penetrating the Designs of the Enemy, and in Efforts to defeat them”? Adams scolded Greene (as well as Knox and Sullivan) for disregarding “the necessity of preserving the Authority of the Civil Powers above the military,” and referred to the Congressional resolution, which “expresses an Expectation that some Acknowledgment or Apology will be made.” Adams closed by urging that Greene present “a Declaration that you had no Intention to influence Congress,” calling this “the least that you can do.”[25]

How Greene reacted to this is not clear, except that this appears to be the last letter to pass between to the two men for at least three years. The immediate fallout was minimal; Washington studiously avoided involvement in the affair, except to pass along the resolution to the generals. He clearly sympathized with them; he declined to reprimand the three, even though they had broken the chain of command by writing directly to Congress (perhaps they had done so to avoid enmeshing him in the matter; he was doubtless grateful for this). Although the resolution in effect called for their resignations, none were offered, and Congress did not pursue the matter further.

Only Greene responded to the resolution directly. In a July 19 letter to Hancock, he carefully explained his intentions while avoiding a direct apology. He expressed surprise that Congress had reacted as it did, and even convinced himself (so he says) that upon “a dispassionate review of the matter” it would “recall a censure equally severe, unmerited, and injurious.” He insisted that he had no intent to influence Congress, but merely to express a desire “to be permitted to retire.” How could it be perceived otherwise? At the heart of the matter was the affront to his dignity provoked by Congress’s plan to promote a foreigner over himself (“what I thought had happened”). He ended his diatribe with a non-resignation resignation: “In my military capacity I have and will serve my Country to the utmost of my ability while I hold it, but I am determined to hold it not a moment longer than I can do it unsullied and unviolated.” There the matter ended, more or less; de Coudray was commissioned a major general “of the staff,” that is, he had no seniority over generals “of the line,” and was appointed to the largely honorific position of “Inspector General of Ordinance and Military Manufactories.” Then (to everyone’s relief), that September the Frenchman fell off a Schuylkill River ferry boat and drowned.[26]

This lengthy account of a non-event (the resignation or dismissal of Greene from the Continental service) demands an explanation. Its importance is seen on several levels: First, the episode unfolded against a background of mutual distrust between the Congress and the Continental officer corps that, as we have seen, had deep roots: the colonial militia tradition and its hostility to a standing army; the disparagement of militia by Washington and his generals (Charles Lee excepted), and their repeated pleas for a long-enlistment standing force capable of matching the British Army; the egalitarian ideals of the Revolution, clashing with the officers’ fervent belief in a meritocracy (“Gentlemen” who had earned the right to be called such, and to be regarded as better than “the meaner sort” of men serving in the ranks); Congress’s insistence on civilian control of the military, colliding with the growing disdain by the officer corps for a legislature nearly bereft of men who had served in the military or understood its values and, most shockingly, its most basic needs: food, tents, blankets, money, respect.

Patriotic legend (perhaps also the fact that Washington himself was sequentially congressman, general and President of the United States) has obscured a seething “cold war” between the politicians and the soldiers that, on several occasions, threatened to derail the Revolutionary War effort. In this, at times Congress seems to have dreaded victory as much as defeat. The “Solons” also resented the officers’ relentless demands for higher pay and pensions, their desire for heightened status, and their barely-disguised political ambitions (perhaps this partially explains the predilection for foreign officers; most of them did not aspire to be, but were already noblemen, and they could be expected to return to Europe when the war was over!). Relations between the civilian and military leadership were abysmal, and Greene would harbor deep distrust of Congress throughout his career; he would be scrutinized throughout his tenure as quartermaster general and only emerge into the sunlight of Congressional approval in the wake of his successful campaigns in the Carolinas in 1781-82.[27] These tensions are in stark relief in the exchange of letters between Nathanael Greene and John Adams in the first years of the Revolutionary War.


[1]Daniel J. Boorstin, “A Nation of Minutemen,” in The Americans: The Colonial Experience(New York: Vintage, 1958), 335.

[2]John Adams, quoted in ibid., 368. See also Charles Royster, A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979), 36-39.

[3]Nathanael Greene to RI Gov. Nicholas Cooke, July 4, 1775, The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, Volume 1 December 1766-December 1776, ed. Richard K. Showman and Dennis Conrad (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1976), 1:95 (NG).

[4]Greene to Jacob Greene(?), September 28, 1776, ibid., 1:303-304.

[5]General orders, June 4, 1775, ibid,1:84.

[6]For Ward’s death, see note at NG1:233. Greene’s first letter to Adams was dated May 24; Adams’s reply May 26; both letters are lost. Greene to Adams, June 2, 1776, NG1:222-227, and accompanying notes.

[7]Mark M. Boatner, ed., Encyclopedia of the American Revolution(New York: Stackpole, 1976), 539-540; Greene to Christopher Greene, June 7, 1776, NG1:232; Adams to Greene, June 22, 1776, ibid, 238-240; James Kirby Martin and Mark Edward Lender, A Respectable Army: The Military Origins of the Republic, 1763-1789.3d ed. (Maldon, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2015), 109.

[8]Greene to Adams, July 14, 1776, NG1:253-256.

[9]Martin and Lender, A Respectable Army, 109-110.

[10]Adams to Greene, August 4, 1776, NG1:273-274 and 275n5. For more on Greene-Adams correspondence, see William P. Leeman, “Rhode Island’s Controversial General: Nathanael Greene and the Continental Congress, 1776-1780,” Rhode Island History 59:3 (2001): 85-86.

[11]Greene to Adams, March 3, 1777, NG2:28.

[12]Ibid., 2:28-29. Emphasis in original.


[14]Adams to Greene, March 9, 1777,NG2:37, 39-40.

[15]E. Wayne Carp, To Starve the Army at Pleasure: Continental Army Administration and American Political Culture, 1775-1783 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), 19, 20; for more on Mifflin and Trumbull, see Boatner, Encyclopedia, 704-705, 1122-1123.

[16]Greene to Adams, April 5, April 13, May 2, 1777, NG2:51-52, 55-56, 64-65; Adams to Greene, May 9, 1777, ibid, 74-75. Not all of Adams’s letters are extant; we know of some only because of Greene’s references to them in his own letters.

[17]Adams’s arguments in his April 27 letter are paraphrased in NG’s reply, May 7, 1777, NG2:69-70.

[18]Ibid, 2:70-71. Adams wrote a reply that may not have been sent. On the dignity of officers, he was suspicious, to say the least. “I am much mistaken and much misinformed, if the nice Feelings[,] the Pride, the Vanity, the Foppery, the Knavery and Gambling among too many of the Officers do not end in direct Endeavours to set up a Tyrant sooner or later, unless early Endeavours are used to controul them.” It is telling that Greene made no mention of this provocative statement in his replies. Adams to Greene, May 10, 1777, ibid, 2:76-77 and accompanying note.

[19]For more on Schuyler, see Boatner, Encyclopedia, 991-993, and John H.G. Pell, “Philip Schuyler: The General as Aristocrat,” in George A. Billias, ed. George Washington’s Generals and Opponents: Their Exploits and Leadership(New York: Da Capo Press, 1994), 1:54-78.

[20]Greene heard the rumor from another French officer in the American army, “Capt Moduit” (Thomas-Antoine, Chevalier Mauduit de Plessis). Greene to Adams, May 28, 1777, NG2:98-99.

[21]Greene to John Hancock, July 1, 1777, NG2:109.

[22]Ibid., and note, 109-110; Leeman, “Rhode Island’s Controversial General,” 88-89; Journals of the Continental Congress8:507 (JCC). For accounts involving the other generals, see Charles P. Whittemore, “John Sullivan: Luckless Irishman,” and North Callahan, “Henry Knox: American Artillerist,” in Billias, George Washington’s Generals, 1:147, 248-249.

[23]JCC8:525-526, 535, 537.

[24]Hancock to Washington, July 8, 1777,The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series, ed. W.W. Abbot et al. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1985-2009),10:227; Washington’s non-committal reply to Hancock July 12 is found at ibid, 254.

[25]Adams to Greene, July 7, 1777, NG2:111-113 and accompanying notes.

[26]Greene to Hancock, July 19, 1777, ibid, 123-125. For De Coudray’s demise, see Boatner, Encyclopedia, 1117-1118.

[27]For officer attitudes, the reader is directed again to the magisterial work of Royster, A Revolutionary People at War, especially 79-96.



  • Excellent article! Two additional thoughts. Nathanael Greene became more comfortable leading a combined regular army/militia force later in the war. In the Southern campaign, he effectively meshed the efforts of his small Continental Army formations with militia units under the commands of Frances Marion, Thomas Sumter, and Andrew Pickens. In many ways, he adopted Charles Lee’s plan for organizing the Patriot’s military forces.

    Second, the discord between generals and Congressional members may have been exacerbated by the low pay received by congressmen. Each state paid its members without central funding and on different bases and amounts. For example, New York State paid its member five dollars a day, most of which was eaten up by travel, lodging, and food expenses. Members of Congress likely believed that Generals should make the same financial sacrifice they made. Further, the continual general officer petitions for more compensation may have annoyed many members who received little financial rewards for their service.

  • Curtis!

    I agree with Gene. Excellent analysis. I was generally familiar with the topic, but thank you for filling in the details. The interplay between the Congress and the generals is a fascinating topic, especially the DuCoudray incident. It strikes me that both groups spent much effort trying to convince the other just how important they each were. I’m always surprised how the generals dealt so directly with the Congress and it’s members. That seems different than today.
    Come back to Richmond.

  • Thank you, Curtis, for this article. I have been studying Nathanael Greene for 30 plus years — his role in the American Revolution was vital. Indeed, had he not accepted the challenges before him our history would be vastly altered.
    First and foremost Greene was concerned for the brave men of the Continental Army and the need for this army to actually establish Congress’ declaration of liberty through 8 arduous years of war.
    Adams and Dean were not the only members of Congress who were offended by Greene’s persistence in bringing the needs of those serving on the battlefront to light. (And, in response to Adams’ admonition to Greene for his high esteem of Washington, it’s important to remember (realize) that Adams had a strong ego. Was it Greene’s “hero worship” of Washington–or Adams’ possible jealousy of Washington?)
    Due to Thomas Mifflin’s abandonment of the post of Quartermaster General, the army was in dire need of basic supplies going into Valley Forge. Greene heeded the pleas of Congress and Washington to take on the position of Quartermaster General for one year in early March of 1778. Within 3 weeks he was supplying the army. This quick supply prevented the army from disbanding and strengthened them to be able to drill with Von Steuben and face the British at Monmouth. (Up until 2015 Greene was not even mentioned on the website of the Valley Forge National Historical Park–and rarely given credit for saving the army at Valley Forge in historical accounts.)
    At the end of Greene’s agreed upon term of service, Congress refused to release him from the post. For 2 years he served as Quartermaster General — entreating Congress to properly supply the army and urging them to honor the agreement to find a replacement for Quartermaster General so he could return to the field. Resentment for him by certain members of Congress – for challenging their authority with this urging — intensified. Hearings were held to consider a Congressional discharge of Greene from the army. The attempt failed. Greene was released from the post.
    Within a few months’ time, this same Congress determined that Major General Nathanael Greene take command of the Southern Campaign – a near impossible feat. Here he would offend Governor Thomas Jefferson — the author of the Declaration of Independence (which the army was bleeding and dying to obtain still) — when he requested a well-supplied militia be provided by the state. Jefferson failed to respond to the request. (June 9, 1781, letter to General Lafayette, Papers of General Nathanael Greene, Vol. VIII.)
    The last year of Greene’s service is the most telling in regard to the attitude of powerful political figures toward him. Without a sufficient – or sometimes any flow of monies from Congress to supply his troops – he was forced to accept legal responsibility of repayment for their supply should Congress fail to honor the debt. In the 1822 two-volume biography on Nathanael Greene by US Supreme Court Justice William Johnson, the author inserts a claim made by Chief Justice John Marshall in his 1805 biography on Washington that Robert Morris, the financier of the war, purposefully held back monies from Greene. (The Life of George Washington, Commander in Chief of the American Forces During the War Which Established the Independence of His Country and First President of the United States, Vol IV, page 557.)
    At the close of the war Congress refused to honor the debt for supplying the southern troops. Greene was left with this enormous financial burden. Three years later Greene would die of a stroke. He was 44-years-young. The debt would be passed on to his widow. (Nathanael and Catharine Greene had 5 young children.) Catharine would successfully petition Congress in 1791 — with the assistance of President George Washington, Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, and Congressman Anthony Wayne – for the compensation of the estate of Nathanael Greene.
    Though the long-awaited triumph had come, the words of General Greene’s early biographer, William Johnson, in response to this bleak victory still resounded – “Where was the indemnity for the sacrifices of property he had made? For the many distressing and laborious hours he had suffered? For the mortified feelings of a soldier, and the anxious cares of a parent, when approaching his dying hour?
    William Johnson was keenly aware that this vote of Congress did not clear the name of the commander of the South. Even as he worked on the general’s biography in 1822, there were those in positions of political power that still resented General Nathanael Greene. The re-telling of history would reflect this resentment with the negation of Nathanael Greene’s skill as a military commander; heroic and selfless deeds; and his true Patriotism.

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