Only three major generals fought the entire revolution from 1775 to 1783. One, you’ve heard of. But the other two, Henry Knox and Nathanael Greene – although famous in their day – have been more or less forgotten over the years. Before we pursue our story backward toward our origins, let’s take a moment to pay them tribute.
1) Bookseller in arms
Henry Knox was not quite 25 in 1775. His father had died when Henry was only nine, and three years later young Henry, as the oldest son, had to leave the Boston Latin School for a job as bookstore clerk to support his mother. Growing up, he became a tough street fighter, and, at age 18, he joined a local artillery company. In 1772 he co-founded the Boston Grenadier Corps and served as its second in command. Meanwhile, in 1771, he opened his own bookshop, the London Book Store, in Boston, and stocked books on military science and always had questions for soldiers who came into his shop.
In 1774, he married Lucy Flucker, the daughter of Boston Loyalists, and made a happy marriage that survived until his death. The following April, the couple sneaked out of Boston after the battles of Lexington and Concord. In his absence, his bookshop was looted, everything being stolen or destroyed, but it hardly mattered. He joined the militia forces besieging the city, and found his true calling. Serving under General Artemus Ward, he planned and constructed fortifications, and he directed cannon fire at Bunker Hill. When General Washington arrived in July, he approved of the work Knox had done, and the two men developed a mutual liking, and John Adams got the Second Continental Congress to commission him.
Before his commission even arrived, he persuaded Washington to send him to Fort Ticonderoga to bring its cannons to Boston, to bring the siege of Boston to a successful end. He got to Ticonderoga on December 5, put together what became known as the noble train of artillery, and used oxen to haul sleds loaded with 60 tons of cannons and other armaments 300 miles to the siege camps around Boston. This involved not only crossing the Berkshire mountains, but crossing iced-over rivers, which of course meant that often enough cannons broke through the ice and had to be retrieved. The difficulties he and his men surmounted were formidable, but even though it took six weeks to do what he had thought would take only two, every cannon arrived, and once they did, the siege could end only one way.
Almost captured in New York, Knox managed logistics in crossing the Delaware before the battle of Trenton, and was promoted to brigadier general for getting the men and equipment across without loss, and then back across the river with prisoners, supplies and all the boats, again without loss. He improved the Army’s ability to manufacture artillery, raised an additional battalion of artillerymen, and established the Springfield armory in the winter of 1777-78 while the army was in winter quarters. The next winter, he established the Continental Army’s first school for artillery and officer training that is considered to be the precursor to West Point. Knox was particularly commended for his role in collecting and directing artillery at the siege of Yorktown, and was promoted to major general in 1782, becoming the army’s youngest major general. After the war ended, he became Secretary of War under the Confederation Congress, and, a few years later, continued as Washington’s first Secretary of War. It was a long journey for a bookseller with a taste for artillery.
2) Self-taught soldier
Nathanael Greene was 32 when the war began in 1775. Starting out as a private in the militia – below which it is not possible to go! – he fought his way up to major general in the regular army, and proved himself to be a gifted and dependable officer. In the last years of the war, his ingenious campaigns turned the war in the south from a shambles into a complete success, leading, slightly indirectly, to the surrender at Yorktown.
Did he see much action? Just call the roll: the siege of Boston and, much later, of Ninety-Six, and the battles of Harlem Heights, Fort Washington, Trenton, Brandywine, Germantown, Monmouth, Rhode Island, Springfield, Guildford Court House, Hobkirk’s Hill and Eutaw Springs.
Self-educated, with special interest in mathematics and law, Greene in 1770 took charge of the family-owned foundry just prior to his father’s death. In 1774, he married, and he also helped organize a local militia, and he began to learn the art of war from volumes on military tactics that he purchased.
Apparently that study paid off. In May, 1775, he was promoted all the way from private to Major General of the Rhode Island Army of Observation. In June the Continental Congress appointed him a brigadier of the Continental Army. The following Spring, after the British evacuated Boston, Washington assigned him command of the city, and in August, he became one of four new major generals.
I pass over the first years of his military career only because he made so critical a contribution in the final years. Suffice it to say, in those years he never lost Washington’s confidence. He accepted the post of Quartermaster General at Valley Forge (and did a good job in hard circumstances) only on condition that he retain the right to command troops in battle. As noted above, he did. But it was in the south that he made an enduring name.
In October, 1780, he was named to command the southern army, and in December he took command at Charlotte, North Carolina. The summer had seen a succession of disasters, culminating in the virtual destruction of the southern army under Horatio Gates. When Greene took command, it was weak and badly equipped and was opposed by a superior force – so Greene divided his troops!
This forced Cornwallis to divide his, as well, with the result that the more mobile and flexible Americans began outmaneuvering and outfighting them. At King’s Mountain, the entire British force was either killed or captured! At Cowpens, under General Daniel Morgan (who deserves an entry of his own), nearly 90% of the British troops were killed or captured!
Morgan and Greene’s force together numbered only 2,000 men. But Greene used long marches to divide, elude and tire his opponents. He and Morgan retreated north of the Dan River, then crossed back into North Carolina a week later. On March 15, 1781, the battle of Guilford Court House pitted Greene’s army against that of Cornwallis. In this battle, as in every pitched battle Greene fought in the south, the British kept the field. But Cornwallis lost so many men that he withdrew toward Wilmington, North Carolina. Then, when he marched north to Virginia, Greene set out to reconquer the south. This he did. By the end of the war, the British forces in the south held little more than the besieged city of Charleston. Greene had vindicated Washington’s faith.
As Greene put it, “We fight, get beaten, rise, and fight again.”