EULOGIUM ON MAJOR-GENERAL GREENE
Delivered before the Society of the Cincinnati
July 4, 1789.
There is no duty that could have been assigned to me by this Society which I should execute with greater alacrity than the one I am now called upon to perform. All the motives capable of interesting an ingenuous and feeling mind conspire to prompt me to its execution. To commemorate the talents, virtues, and exploits of great and good men, is at all times a pleasing task to those who know how to esteem them. But when such men, to the title of superior merit, join that of having been the defenders and guardians of our country; when they have been connected with us as companions in the same dangers, sufferings, misfortunes, and triumphs; when they have been allied to us in the still more endearing character of friends, we recall the ideas of their worth with sensations that affect us yet more nearly, and feel an involuntary propensity to consider their fame as our own. We seem to appropriate to ourselves the good they have done, to take a personal interest in the glory they have acquired, and to share in the very praise we bestow.
In entering upon a subject in which your feelings as well as my own are so deeply concerned, however it might become me to follow examples of humility, I shall refrain from a practice perhaps not less laudable than it is common. I cannot prevail upon myself to check the current of your sensibility by the cold formalities of an apology for the defects of the speaker. These can neither be concealed nor extenuated by the affectation of diffidence, nor even by the genuine concessions of conscious inability. ’T is your command, and the reverence we all bear to the memory of him of whom I am to speak, that must constitute my excuse, and my claim to your indulgence. Did I even possess the powers of oratory, I should with reluctance attempt to employ them upon the present occasion. The native brilliancy of the diamond needs not the polish of art; the conspicuous features of pre-eminent merit need not the coloring pencil of imagination, nor the florid decorations of rhetoric.
From you who knew and loved him, I fear not the imputation of flattery, or enthusiasm, when I indulge an expectation, that the name of Greene will at once awaken in your minds the images of whatever is noble and estimable in human nature. The fidelity of the portrait I shall draw will therefore have nothing to apprehend from your sentence. But I dare not hope that it will meet with equal justice from all others, or that it will entirely escape the cavils of ignorance and the shafts of envy. For high as this great man stood in the estimation of his country, the whole extent of his worth was little known. The situations in which he has appeared, though such as would have measured the faculties and exhausted the resources of men who might justly challenge the epithet of great, were yet incompetent to the full display of those various, rare, and exalted endowments with which nature only now and then decorates a favorite, as if with intention to astonish mankind.
As a man, the virtues of Greene are admitted; as a patriot, he holds a place in the foremost rank; as a statesman, he is praised; as a soldier, he is admired. But in the two last characters, especially in the last but one, his reputation falls far below his desert. It required a longer life, and still greater opportunities, to have enabled him to exhibit, in full day, the vast, I had almost said the enormous, powers of his mind.
The termination of the American war—not too soon for his wishes, nor for the welfare of his country, but too soon for his glory—put an end to his military career. The sudden termination of his life cut him off from those scenes which the progress of a new, immense, and unsettled empire could not fail to open to the complete exertion of that universal and pervading genius which qualified him not less for the senate than for the field.
In forming our estimate, nevertheless, of his character, we are not left to supposition and conjecture. We are not left to vague indications or uncertain appearances, which partiality might varnish or prejudice discolor. We have a succession of deeds, as glorious as they are unequivocal, to attest his greatness and perpetuate the honors of his name.
It is an observation, as just as it is common, that in those great revolutions which occasionally convulse society, human nature never fails to be brought forward in its brightest as well as in its blackest colors; and it has very properly been ranked not among the least of the advantages which compensate for the evils they produce that they serve to bring to light, talents and virtues, which might otherwise have languished in obscurity, or only shot forth a few scattered and wandering rays.
Nathaniel Greene, descended from reputable parents, but not placed by birth in that elevated rank which, under a monarchy, is the only sure road to those employments that give activity and scope to abilities, must, in all probability, have contented himself with the humble lot of a private citizen, or, at most, with the contracted sphere of an elective office, in a colonial and dependent government, scarcely conscious of the resources of his own mind, had not the violated rights of his country called him to act a part on a more splendid and more ample theatre.
Happily for America, he hesitated not to obey the call. The vigor of his genius, corresponding with the importance of the prize to be contended for, overcame the natural moderation of his temper; and though not hurried on by enthusiasm, but animated by an enlightened sense of the value of free government, he cheerfully resolved to stake his fortune, his hopes, his life, and his honor upon an enterprise, of the danger of which he knew the whole magnitude; in a cause, which was worthy of the toils and of the blood of heroes.
The sword having been appealed to, at Lexington, as the arbiter of the controversy between Great Britain and America, Greene, shortly after, marched, at the head of a regiment, to join the American forces at Cambridge; determined to abide the awful decision.
He was not long there before the discerning eye of the American Fabius marked him out as the object of his confidence.
His abilities entitled him to a pre-eminent share in the councils of his Chief. He gained it, and he preserved it, amidst all the checkered varieties of military vicissitude, and in defiance of all the intrigues of jealous and aspiring rivals.
As long as the measures which conducted us safely through the first most critical stages of the war shall be remembered with approbation; as long as the enterprises of Trenton and Princeton shall be regarded as the dawnings of that bright day which afterwards broke forth with such resplendent lustre; as long as the almost magic operations of the remainder of that memorable winter, distinguished not more by these events than by the extraordinary spectacle of a powerful army straitened within narrow limits by the phantom of a military force, and never permitted to transgress those limits with impunity, in which skill supplied the place of means, and disposition was the substitute for an army—as long, I say, as these operations shall continue to be the objects of curiosity and wonder, so long ought the name of Greene to be revered by a grateful country. To attribute to him a portion of the praise which is due, as well to the formation as to the execution of the plans that effected these important ends, can be no derogation from that wisdom and magnanimity which knew how to select and embrace counsels worthy of being pursued.
The laurels of a Henry were never tarnished by the obligations he owed and acknowledged to a Sully.
It would be an unpleasing task, and therefore I forbear to lift the veil from off those impotent councils, which, by a formal vote, had decreed an undisturbed passage to an enemy returning from the fairest fruits of his victories, to seek an asylum from impending danger, disheartened by retreat, dispirited by desertion, broken by fatigue, retiring through woods, defiles, morasses, in which his discipline was useless, in the face of an army superior in numbers, elated by pursuit, and ardent to signalize their courage. ’T is enough for the honor of Greene to say, that he left nothing unessayed to avert and to frustrate so degrading a resolution. And it was happy for America, that the man, whose reputation could not be wounded without wounding the cause of his country, had the noble fortitude to rescue himself, and the army he commanded, from the disgrace with which they were both menaced by the characteristic imbecility of a council of war.
Unwilling to do more than merely to glance at a scene in which the meritorious might be involved with the guilty, in promiscuous censure, here let me drop the curtain, and invite you to accompany me to the Heights of Monmouth. There let me recall to your indignant view, the flower of the American infantry flying before an enemy that scarcely dared to pursue—vanquished without a blow—vanquished by their obedience to the commands of a leader who meditated their disgrace. Let me contrast with this the conduct of your Greene; the calm intrepidity and unshaken presence of mind with which he seconded the dispositions of his General, to arrest the progress of the disorder and retrieve the fortune of the day. Let me recall to your recollection that well-timed and happy movement on the left of the enemy, by which he so materially contributed to deciding the dubious event of the conflict, and turning the hesitating scale of victory.
From the Heights of Monmouth I might lead you to the Plains of Springfield, there to behold the veteran Knyphausen, at the head of a veteran army, baffled and almost beaten by a general without an army—aided, or rather embarrassed, by small fugitive bodies of volunteer militia, the mimicry of soldiership!
But it would ill become me to detain you in the contemplation of objects diminutive in comparison with those that are to succeed.
Hitherto, we have seen the illustrious Greene acting in a subordinate capacity, the faint glimmerings of his fame absorbed and lost in the superior rays of a Washington. Happy was it for him to have been called to a more explicit station. Had this never been the case, the future historian, perplexed between the panegyric of friends and the satire of enemies, might have doubted in what colors to draw his true character. Accident, alone, saved a Greene from so equivocal a fate; a reflection which might damp the noble ardor of emulation, and check the towering flight of conscious merit.
The defeat of Camden, and the misfortune of Gates, opened the career of victory and of glory to Greene. Congress having resolved upon a successor to the former, the choice was left to the Commander-in-Chief, and fell upon the latter. In this destination, honorable in proportion as it was critical, he acquiesced with the mingled emotions of a great mind—impelled by a sense of duty—allured by the hope of fame—apprised of the danger and precariousness of the situation, yet confident of its own strength, and animated by the magnitude of the object for which it was to be exerted.
Henceforth we are to view him on a more exalted eminence. He is no longer to figure in an ambiguous or secondary light; he is to shine forth the artificer of his own glory—the leader of armies and the deliverer of States!
To estimate properly the value of his services, it is necessary to recur to the situation of the southern extremity of the Union at the time he entered upon the command in that quarter. Georgia and South Carolina subdued and overrun; the spirit of their people dejected and intimidated; the flame of resistance scarcely kept alive by the transient gleams of a few expiring embers; North Carolina distracted by the still recent effects of internal commotion, dreading the hostility of a considerable part of its own citizens, and depending, for its exertions, on the tried valor and patriotism of the rest, more than on the energy of a feeble and ill-organized government; Virginia, debilitated by the excessive efforts of its early zeal, and by the dissipation of its revenues and forces, in Indian hostilities, in domestic projects, encumbered by a numerous body of slaves, bound by all the laws of degraded humanity to hate their masters; deficient in order and vigor in its administration, and relying wholly, for immediate defence against threatened invasion, on the resources of a country, extensive, populous, and fertile, to be put in motion by the same ardent and magnanimous spirit which first lighted up the opposition to Great Britain, and set the glorious example of resistance to America. In such a situation what was to be hoped? What was to be hoped from a general without troops, without magazines, without money? A man of less depth of penetration or force of soul than Greene, would have recoiled at the prospect; but he, far from desponding, undertook the arduous task with firmness — with a firmness which was the result of a well-informed estimate of a situation perilous but not desperate. He knew how much was to be expected from the efforts of men contending for the rights of man. He knew how much was to be performed by capacity, courage, and perseverance.
Not to be disconcerted by the most complicated embarrassments, nor the most discouraging prospects, he began, before he entered upon the duties of the field, by adjusting the outlines of the plan which was to regulate his future conduct; a plan conceived with as much wisdom, and so perfect a judgment of circumstances, that he never had occasion to depart from it in the progress of his subsequent operations. This alone might suffice to form the eulogium of his genius, and to demonstrate that he was an accomplished master in the science of military command.
His next care was to endeavor to impress the neighboring States with a proper sense of their situation, in order to induce them, with system and effect, to furnish the succors of which he stood in need. To urge the collection and accelerate the arrival of these, as well as to repel any invasion to which the State might be exposed, he stationed, in Virginia, the Baron de Steuben, an officer who merited and justified his confidence; and having made these preliminary arrangements, he hastened to put himself at the head of the inconsiderable remains of the southern army, which he joined at Charlotte, on the borders of North Carolina, destitute of every thing but courage, and an unconquerable attachment to the cause they had espoused.
To enter into a particular detail of the operations by which the Southern States were rescued from conquest and desolation, and the last project of Britain for the subjugation of America frustrated, would be to assume the province of the historian. This, neither the occasion, nor any reasonable claim to your indulgence, would justify. A general sketch is all that can, with propriety, be attempted, and shall limit my endeavors. 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. Conducted with system, moderation, and equity, even military exactions lost their rigor, and freemen venerated the hand that reluctantly stripped them of their property for their preservation.
Having concerted the arrangements requisite to this end, Greene, without further delay, entered upon that busy, complicated, and extraordinary scene, which may truly be said to form a phenomenon in war—a scene which almost continually presents us, on the one hand, with victories ruinous to the victors; on the other, with retreats beneficial to the vanquished; which exhibits to our admiration a commander almost constantly obliged to relinquish the field to his adversary, yet as constantly making acquisitions upon him; beaten to-day; to-morrow, without a blow, compelling the conqueror to renounce the very object for which he had conquered, and, in a manner, to fly from the very foe he had subdued. Too weak, with his collected strength, to dispute the field with an enemy superior both in numbers and discipline, and urged by the necessity of giving activity to the natural force of the country, by rousing the inhabitants from the state of despondency into which they had sunk, with the prospect of succor and protection, Greene divided his little army into two parts: one of which he sent, under Morgan, into the western extremities of North Carolina; and, with the other, marched to Hicks’ Creek.
This movement had the desired effect. The appearance of aid, magnified by advantages opportunely gained (though unimportant in themselves), rekindled the ardor of patriotic hope in the breasts of many who had begun to despair, and emboldened them to resume their arms, and again to repair to the standard of liberty.
Sensible of the importance of counteracting this policy of the American general, the British commander hesitated not about the part he should act. Directing his first attention towards the detachment under Morgan, and meditating a decisive blow against that corps, he committed the execution of the enterprise to Lieutenant-Colonel Tarleton, at the head of a thousand veterans. Tarleton, hitherto not less the favorite of fortune than of his chief, hastened to perform the welcome duty; anticipating an easy triumph over foes inferior both in numbers and discipline; and dreaming not of the reverse which was destined to confound his hopes, and even to sully the lustre of his former fame. In the very grasp of victory, when not to combat but to slaughter seemed all that remained to be done, the forward intrepidity of a Washington, seconded by the cool, determined bravery of a Howard, snatched the trophy from his too eager and too exulting hand. He was discomfited and routed. The greater part of his followers were either killed or taken; and the remaining few, with himself, were glad to find safety in flight.
Here first the bright dawn of prosperity began to dispel that gloomy cloud which had for some time lowered over the Southern horizon! Thunderstruck at so unexpected a disaster, and ill able to spare so considerable a part of his force, Cornwallis resolved, at every sacrifice, to attempt the recovery of his captive troops. The trial of skilful exertion between the generals and of patient fortitude between the troops, to which that attempt gave occasion, was such as to render it difficult to pronounce to whom the palm of merit ought to be decreed. Abandoning whatever might impede the celerity of his motions, Cornwallis began and urged the pursuit of the detachment under Morgan, with a rapidity seldom equalled, never surpassed; while, on the other hand, the provident and active Greene spared no exertion to disappoint his enterprising adversary.
Anxious for the security of that detachment, with their prisoners, and desirous of affecting a reunion of his forces, now rendered necessary by a change of circumstances, he gave instant orders for the march of the body under his immediate command to Guilford Court-House; and hastened, in person, through the country, a hundred and fifty miles, to join General Morgan, whom he came up with on the banks of the Catawba. Thus, placed in front of the enemy, he was the better able to counteract their immediate design, and to direct the co-operation necessary to the intended junction. So well were his measures taken, that he succeeded in both objects. The prisoners were carried off in safety; and Guilford Court-House, the destined place of rendezvous, received and reunited the two divisions of the American army. Still, however, too weak to keep the field in the face of his enemy, a further retreat became inevitable. A resolution was accordingly taken to retire beyond the Dan. Here a new and not less arduous trial of skill ensued. To get between the American army and Virginia, intercept their supplies and reinforcements, and oblige them to fight on disadvantageous terms—this now became the object of Cornwallis. With this view he directed his march into the upper country, where the rivers were fordable with facility; flattering himself that the depth of the waters below, and the want of boats, would oppose insuperable obstacles to the expeditious passage of the American troops. To retard the progress of the British army was, of course, an indispensable policy on the part of Greene. For this purpose, he practised every expedient which a mind, fertile in resource, could devise. And so efficacious were the expedients he adopted, that, surmounting all the impediments in his way, he completed his retreat across the Dan, without loss of men, baggage, or stores.
Such, nevertheless, was the energy of the pursuit, that in crossing the three principal rivers, the Catawba, the Yadkin, and the Dan, the British troops, in a manner, trod upon the heels of the American. In the passage of the last of the three, the van of the enemy’s army reached one shore, almost at the very moment that the rear of ours landed on the opposite.
Cornwallis, upon this occasion, imitating Charles the Twelfth of Sweden, when the celebrated Schulenburgh made good his retreat across the Oder, in spite of the utmost efforts of that vigorous and enterprising monarch, might, with propriety, have exclaimed, This day, at least, Greene has conquered me! The art of retreating is perhaps the most difficult in the art of war. To have effected a retreat in the face of so ardent a pursuit, through so great an extent of country; through a country offering every obstacle, affording scarcely any resource; with troops destitute of every thing, who a great part of the way left the vestiges of their march in their own blood; —to have done all this, I say, without loss of any kind may, without exaggeration, be denominated a masterpiece of military skill and exertion. Disappointed at his first aim, Cornwallis now retired from the Dan to Guilford Court-House. Having driven the American army out of North Carolina, he flattered himself that his efforts would at least be productive of the advantage of an accession of force, by encouraging the numerous royalists of that State to repair to his standard. Greene, not without apprehensions that the hopes of his competitor, in this respect, might be realized, lost not a moment, after receiving a small reinforcement from Virginia, in recrossing the Dan, to take post in the vicinity of the British army, and interrupt their communication with the country. Three weeks passed in a constant scene of military manœuvre: Cornwallis, equally striving to bring his antagonist to an action; and Greene, adroitly endeavoring to elude it, yet without renouncing such a position as would enable him to prevent both supplies and reinforcements. On this occasion he played the part of Turenne; and he played it with complete success. The relative position which he took and maintained, and the tragical fate of a body of royalists, intercepted in their way to the British army, destroyed every prospect of that aid which they, not without reason, had promised themselves from their adherents in North Carolina.
Virginia, in the meantime, awakened by the presence of danger, exerted herself to reinforce the American army. Greene, speedily finding himself in a condition to outnumber his adversary, resolved to offer that battle which he had hitherto declined. He considered that, in the existing circumstances, a defeat must be, to the enemy, absolute ruin; while to him, from his superiority in cavalry, united with other advantages, it could be nothing more than a partial misfortune, and must be compensated at a price which the enemy could not afford to pay for it.
The two armies, now equally willing to try the fortune of a battle, met and engaged near Guilford Court-House. All that could be expected from able disposition towards insuring success, promised a favorable issue to the American arms. But superior discipline carried it against superior numbers and superior skill. Victory decreed the glory of the combat to the Britons; but Heaven, confirming the hopes of Greene, decreed the advantage of it to the Americans. Greene retired; Cornwallis kept the field. But Greene retired only three miles; and Cornwallis, in three days, abandoning the place where the laurels he had gained were a slender compensation for the loss he had suffered, withdrew to Wilmington on the sea-coast.
This victory cost him a large proportion of the flower of his army; and it cost him a Webster.
Here occurred the problem, on the right solution of which depended the fame of Greene and the fate of the Southern States. There was every probability that the next movement of Cornwallis would be towards a junction with Arnold for the invasion of Virginia. Was the American general to keep pace with his adversary in his northern career, in order to resist his future enterprises? Or, was he to return into the field he had lately left, to endeavor to regain what had been there lost? The first, as the most obvious, and, in a personal light, the least perilous course, would have been thought the most eligible by an ordinary mind. But the last, as the wisest, though, to his own reputation, the most hazardous, appeared preferable to the comprehensive eye and adventurous spirit of a Greene.
On the one hand, he concluded, justly, that Virginia might safely be trusted to her own strength and resources, and to the aid which, if necessary, she might derive from the North, against all the force which the enemy were then able to employ in that quarter. On the other hand, he foresaw, that if South Carolina and Georgia should be abandoned to the situation in which they then were, they would quickly have abandoned themselves to despair; would have lost even the spirit of opposition; and might have been rendered, in several respects, subservient to the future progress of their conqueror. Under these impressions, he determined to return into South Carolina, to attempt the recovery of that and its neighboring State.
This was one of those strokes that denote superior genius, and constitute the sublime of war. ’T was Scipio leaving Hannibal in Italy, to overcome him at Carthage!
The success was answerable to the judicious boldness of the design. The enemy were divested of their acquisitions in South Carolina and Georgia, with a rapidity which, if not ascertained, would scarcely be credible. In the short space of two months, all their posts in the interior of the country were reduced. The perseverance, courage, enterprise, and resource, displayed by the American general in the course of these events, commanded the admiration even of his enemies. In vain was he defeated in one mode of obtaining his object: another was instantly substituted that answered the end. In vain was he repulsed from before a besieged fortress: he immediately found other means of compelling its defenders to relinquish their stronghold. Where force failed, address and stratagem still won the prize.
Having deprived the enemy of all their posts in the interior of the country, and having wasted their forces in a variety of ways, Greene now thought himself in a condition to aim a decisive blow at the mutilated remains of the British army, and, at least, to oblige them to take refuge within the lines of Charleston. With this view he collected his forces into one body, and marched to give battle to the enemy, then stationed at the Springs of the Eutaw.
A general action took place. Animated, obstinate, and bloody was the contest. The front line of the American army, consisting of militia, after beginning a brisk attack, began to give way. At this critical and inauspicious juncture, Greene, with that collected intrepidity which never forsook him, gave orders to the second line, composed of Continentals, to advance to the charge with trailed arms. This order, enforced by example and executed with matchless composure and constancy, could not fail of success. The British veterans shrunk from the American bayonet. They were routed and pursued a considerable distance. Numbers of them fell into the hands of their pursuers, and the remainder were threatened with a similar fate; when, arriving at a position which, with peculiar advantages, invited to a fresh stand, they rallied and renewed the action. In vain did the intrepid Washington, at the head of the pursuing detachment, redouble the efforts of his valor, to dislodge them from this new station. He was himself wounded and made a prisoner, and his followers, in their turn, compelled to retire.
But though the enemy, by an exertion of bravery which demands our esteem, saved themselves from the total ruin which was ready to overwhelm them, they had, nevertheless, received too severe a blow to attempt any longer to maintain a footing in the open country. They, accordingly, the day following, retreated towards Charleston, leaving behind them their wounded and a considerable quantity of arms. Here ended all serious offensive operations in the South! The predatory excursions which intervened between the battle of the Eutaw and the evacuation of Charleston and Savannah, deserve not a place in the catalogue of military achievements. But before we take leave of a scene as honorable as it was advantageous to the American arms, it behooves us to stop for a moment, to pay the tribute of merited applause to the memory of that gallant officer, who, at the head of the Virginia line, fell in this memorable conflict. More anxious, to the last, about his country than himself, in the very agonies of departing life, he eagerly inquired which of the contending parties prevailed; and having learned that his countrymen were victorious, he, like another Epaminondas, yielded up his last breath in this noble exclamation: “Then do I die contented.” Heroic Campbell! How enviable was such a death!
The evacuation of the two capitals of South Carolina and Georgia entirely restored those States to their own governments and laws. They now hailed the illustrious Greene as their defender and deliverer. Their gratitude was proportioned to the extent of the benefits resulting from his services; nor did it show itself in words only, but was manifested by acts that did honor to their generosity. Consecrated in the affections of their citizens to the remotest posterity, the fame of Greene will ever find in them a more durable, as well as a more flattering, memorial, than in the proudest monuments of marble or brass.
But where, alas, is now this consummate General; this brave Soldier; this discerning Statesman; this steady Patriot; this virtuous Citizen; this amiable Man? Why could not so many talents, so many virtues, so many bright and useful qualities, shield him from a premature grave? Why was he not longer spared to a country he so dearly loved; which he was so well able to serve; which still seems so much to stand in need of his services? Why was he only allowed to assist in laying the foundation, and not permitted to aid in rearing the superstructure, of American greatness? Such are the inquiries which our friendly, yet short-sighted, regrets would naturally suggest. But inquiries like these are to be discarded as presumptuous. ’T is not for us to scan, but to submit, to the dispensations of Heaven.
Let us content ourselves with revering the memory, imitating the virtues, and, as far as we dare, emulating the glory of the man, whom neither our warmest admiration, nor our fondest predilection, could protect from the fatal shaft. And as often as we indulge our sorrow for his loss, let us not fail to mingle the reflection, that he has left behind him, offspring who are the heirs to the friendship which we bore to the father, and who have a claim from many, if not from all of us, to cares not less than parental.