Best Defense

The most underrated general in American history: Nathaniel Greene?

My friend and CNAS colleague Bob Killebrew nominates the Revolutionary War’s Nathaniel Greene as the most underrated general in American history: Regarded by peers and historians as the second-best American general in the war (after Washington) he would have assumed command if W. had been disabled. A Quaker who learned war from textbooks, he was ...

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My friend and CNAS colleague Bob Killebrew nominates the Revolutionary War’s Nathaniel Greene as the most underrated general in American history:

Regarded by peers and historians as the second-best American general in the war (after Washington) he would have assumed command if W. had been disabled. A Quaker who learned war from textbooks, he was both a field operator and the commissary-general, a trying position in the best of times. Sent by Washington to take over the Southern campaign after Gates’ disaster (and personal cowardice) at Camden, Greene fought a masterly fabian campaign through the South, leading Cornwallis further and further into the interior, weakening his army through one indecisive battle after another. Then came the Yorktown campaign. Few know that after the turnover, Greene returned to the South and fought for another year, rolling up the Redcoat detachments in the interior and Low Country one by one. He showed further good sense by remaining in the South after the war.

Greene is an interesting pick. As the great Russell Weigley wrote in The American Way of War, Greene represents the road not taken in American culture. That is, he set out not to destroy the enemy directly, but to weaken him or make him irrelevant. Makes a lot of sense in the COIN world, but not to the dominant American military tradition. Given our current wars and our current economic squeeze, Greene is a good general to think about. Here is what Weigley had to say about him:

The achievements of Nathaniel Greene and the southern partisans in reversing the greatest British success of the war, the conquest of the southernmost rebellious provinces, must rank as the war’s most impressive campaign.

General Greene’s outstanding characteristic as a strategist was his ability to weave the maraudings of partisan raiders into a coherent pattern, coordinating them with the maneuvers of a field army otherwise too weak to accomplish much, and making the combination a deadly one. ‘I have been obliged to practice that by finesse which I dared not attempt by force,’ said Greene . . .

The later course of American military history, featuring a rapid rise from poverty to resources of plenty, cut short any further evolution of Greene’s type of strategy. He therefore remains alone as an American master developing a strategy of unconventional war.

Any other nominees out there? I think we’ll have to hold a vote tomorrow. Right now I see a George Thomas boomlet in the comments.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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