EXAMINATION OF SOME STATEMENTS CONCERNING
MAJOR-GENERAL GREENE, IN THE NINTH
VOLUME OF BANCROFT S HISTORY
OF THE UNITED STATES.
GEORGE WASHINGTON GREENE,
AUTHOR OF "HISTORICAL VIEW OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION," ETC., ETC.
TICK NOR AND FIELDS.
" 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 mind the images of whatever is noble and estimable in
human nature 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 sudden ter
mination 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 have a succession of deeds, as glorious
as they arc unequivocal, to attest his greatness and perpetuate the honors of his
name He was not. lojig there, [tUe, Qamfl, a Cambridge] before the dis
cerning eye of the Amerrc]aa > Fabiu njarJ?e^/hjr\ pnit as the object of his confi
dence His abilities entitled hjm^to^a pje-emwrejit share in the councils
of his chief. He gaijHjd it; j a$c.ll<> pVesfirfred3tJ$jridsfr all the checkered varie
ties of military vicissitude, and* in defiance of all the intrigues of jealous and
aspiring rivals." ALEXANDER HAMILTON S Eulogium on Major-General
Greene. Delivered before the Society of the Cincinnati, July 4, 1789.
When we call to mind who the members of the Cincinnati were, and remem
ber that, but for illness, Washington himself would have been present as their
head, when this discourse was delivered, we shall see that it passes from the
equivocal class of eulogies to the higher class of historical authorities.
MR. BANCROFT S last volume, covering the history
of the War of Independence from the summer of
1776 to the spring of 1778, contains statements
concerning General Greene which I believe to be at
variance ; both in the spirit and in the letter, with
all the contemporary historians, and with all those
documents from whence authentic history is drawn.
I cannot allow them to pass without contradiction.
Questions like these can only be decided by an
appeal to the original documents, and to the original
documents I appeal. First among them are the
letters of Washington ; in using which I have chiefly
relied upon the judicious selection of Mr. Sparks.
Next to these in importance, and equal to them in
authenticity, are the letters of General Greene; some
of which have been published by Force in his great
national monument, the American Archives, and
some by Sparks in the " Correspondence of the
Kevolution." By far the greater part, however,
unfortunately for the true understanding of this
period of our history, are still in manuscript. After
these come the contemporary historians of the war,
of whom Gordon is the fullest, arid in general the
most trustworthy. No man ever had better oppor
tunities of ascertaining the truth than he, nor, as I
believe, a stronger desire to tell it. He formed the
plan of his history at the first breaking out of the
war, collected his materials while it was going on,
had access to the papers of the leading characters,
and took great pains to establish the truth both by
oral and written inquiry. I have many letters of
his to General Greene containing questions concern
ing particular events, and some of General Greene s
answers. A single extract will show the character
of these inquiries.
"JAMAICA PLAINS, April 5, 1784.
" DEAR GENERAL :
" .... I have a grateful sense of your kindness
when I was at Newport, and that I believe in your
professions shall convince you by these presents.
" Pray you to inform me,
" Who accompanied you when reconnoitring for a
position upon the landing of General Howe ?
" How far the cross-roads were from him ?
" What was the name of the place the army occu
pied at the back of Wilmington ?
"What was the particular spot you would have
chosen on the other side of the Schuylkill, instead of
crossing it, in hopes that General Howe would have
fought you ere he attempted passing it and going on
for Philadelphia ? "
Similar letters of this indefatigable inquirer are
found among the Washington papers, and it is well
known that he was a correspondent of Gates also.
That he had his prejudices cannot be denied ; nor
that they sometimes led him into error : but that he
industriously sought the truth even Mr. Bancroft
has conceded ; although he has so boldly differed
from him in all that relates to General Greene.
Upon what authority he relies, in thus denying the
authority of Gordon, he nowhere tells us.
In publishing Greene s letters I have given them
in full, that the reader might have no ground to
suspect me of selecting only what told for my cause.
And I have done this all the more freely, inasmuch
as it affords Greene an opportunity of painting him
self. Every stroke of his pen, if I do not greatly
err, is a triumphant, although an unconscious, vin
dication from the aspersions which Mr. Bancroft has
cast upon his name.
Frederick the Great was once told that a distin
guished general had never made a mistake. "Then,"
said he, " he must have fought very few campaigns."
That Greene made some mistakes I have no doubt;
nor that Washington made some. No one will
accuse me of undervaluing Greene. Should any one
suspect me of wishing to defend him at Washington s
expense, I would refer to the opinion of Washington,
both as a statesman and as a general, which I have
expressed in my " Historical View of the American
Revolution." No writer, as far as I have seen, has
placed him higher than I have done in the eighth
lecture of that volume.
GEORGE WASHINGTON GREENE.
EAST GREENWICH, R. I, Nov. 21, 1866.
" IT is not the least debt which we owe to history,"
says Sir Walter Raleigh, " that it hath made us ac
quainted with our dead ancestors, and out of the
depth and darkness of the earth delivered us their
memory and fame." Deeply impressed with this
truth, I purpose to examine the statements which
Mr. Bancroft makes in his ninth volume concerning
my ancestor, General Greene ; still bearing in mind
that " the essence of history is to be true, .... the
essence of political history is to be a register or
record, including nothing false, and omitting nothing
important with reference to its end." :
I. GREEXE DESPOITOENT.
Gathering the substance of his chapters into an
analytical table of contents, Mr. Bancroft writes, in the
analysis of his first chapter, "Greene despondent! On
turning to the page (40) I find : " Greene had once
before warned John Adams of the hopelessness of
the contest ; and again on -the fourteenth he wrote,
I still think you are playing a desperate game. "
# Lewis on the Methods of Observation and Reasoning in Politics, Ch. VII-
The nature and extent of Greene s despondency
may be gathered from the three letters to which
Mr. Bancroft, not citing, but probably drawing from,
Mr. Charles Francis Adams s life of his grandfather,
John Adams, alludes. But before we pass to these
letters, I must call the reader s attention to the
meaning of : the . word desperate, which Mr. Bancroft,
deviating;. from. the sounder modes of historical quo-
tatioii, li-as vransformed into hopelessness.
It can hardly be necessary to remind the reader
of the rank held by Middle ton among the writers of
the last century as a master of pure and idiomatic
English.* What he means by desperate may be seen
from the following passage I could add a dozen
in his " Life of Cicero " : " The obscurity of his
extraction, which depressed him with the nobility,
made him the greater favorite with the people, who,
on all occasions of danger, thought him the only man
fit to be trusted with their lives and fortunes, or to
have the command of a difficult and desperate war ;
and, in truth, he twice delivered them from the most
desperate with which they had ever been threatened
by a foreign enemy."")" It is evident that in both
these passages desperate means, not hopeless, but ex-
ceedinyly difficult. In this sense Washington also uses
it, in a letter quoted by Mr. Bancroft, p. 220, " Des
perate diseases require desperate remedies." And
that this is the sense in which Greene uses it in the
letters so inadequately represented by this insulated
u Middleton," says Dugald Stewart in his Life of Kobertson, was recom
mended to Scotchmen as the safest model for their imitation." STEWART S
Works, Vol. VII. p. 169.
t Vol I p 27.
NATHANAEL GREENE. V
sentence, is evident from the firm and resolute tone
which runs through them from beginning to end.
One more remark before I pass to them. They
were addressed to Adams, not as a personal friend,
but as a member of Congress, upon whose sanguine
mind Greene sought to impress the difficulties of the
contest, and the danger of trusting to intentions
"BROOKLINE, LONG ISLAND, May 24, 1776.
" SIR : The peculiar situation of American af
fairs renders it necessary to adopt every measure that
will engage people in the service, the danger and
hardships that those are subject to who engage in
the service more than those who do not, is obvious
to everybody which has the least acquaintance with
service. T is that which makes it so difficult to re
cruit. The large force which is coming against
America will make it necessary to augment our
forces. If I am to form a judgment of the success
of recruiting from what is past, the time is too short
to raise the troops, and be in readiness to meet the
enemy ; and as every argument has been made use
of upon the present plan of recruiting to engage
people in the service, there must be some new mo
tives added to quicken the motions of the recruiting
"From the approaching danger, recruiting will
grow more and more difficult. If the Congress was
to fix a certain support upon every officer and sol
dier that got maimed in the service, or upon the
families of those that were killed, it would have as
10 NATHANAEL GREENE.
happy an influence towards engaging people in the
service, and inspire those engaged with as much
courage, as any measure that can be fixt upon. I
think it is nothing more than common justice,
neither, it puts those in and out of the army up
on a more equal footing than at present. I have
not time to add anything more, Major Frazier
now waiting for this. The desperate game you
have got to play, and the uncertainty of war, may
render every measure that will increase the force
and strength of the American army worthy consid
eration. When I have more leisure time, I will
presume so much upon your good nature as to write
upon some other matters. Believe me to be, with
great respect, yours.
It is difficult to discover any traces of despond
ency in this letter ; but it certainly displays a very
just sense of the dangers of the situation, and a
very wise and statesmanlike suggestion of the rem
edy. Let us see what he writes from
" CAMP ON LONG ISLAND, June 2, 1776.
" SIR : I have just received your favor of the
26th of May, in answer to mine of the 24th. You
must not expect me to be a very exact correspond
ent ; my circumstances will not always admit of it.
When I have opportunity I will write you with free
dom. If any information I can give you should be
of service, I shall be amply paid. I know your time
is too precious to be spent in answering letters ; but
NATHANAEL GREENE. 11
a line from you at all times will be very acceptable,
with such intelligence as you are at liberty to
" By your letter I have the happiness to find you
agree with me in sentiment, for the establishing a
support for those that get disabled in the army or
militia ; but I am sorry to find, at the same time,
that you are very doubtful of its taking effect. I
could wish the Congress to think seriously of the
matter, both with respect to the justice and utility
of the measure. Is it not inhuman to suffer those
that have fought nobly in the cause to be reduced
to the necessity of getting a support by common
charity ? Does not this militate with the free and
independent principles which we are endeavoring to
support ? Is it not equitable that the State who re
ceives the benefit should be at the expense ? The
community, collectively considered, pays nothing
more for the establishing a support than if they do
not ; for those that get disabled must be supported
by the continent in general, or the province in par
ticular. If the continent establishes no support, by
the fate of war some colonies might be grievously
burthened. I cannot see upon what principle any
colony can encourage the inhabitants to engage in
the army when the State that employs them refuses
a support to the unfortunate. I think it would be
right and just for every government to furnish their
equal proportion of the troops, or contribute to the
support of those that are sent by other colonies.
" Can there be anything more humiliating than this
consideration to those that are in the army or to those
12 NATHAN AEL GREENE.
that have a mind to come in it ? If I meet with a
misfortune I shall be reduced to the necessity of
begging my bread. Is not this degrading and dis
tressing a part of the human species that deserves
a better fate ? On the other hand, if there was a
support established, what confidence would it give
to those engaged, what encouragement to those that
are not. Good policy points out the measure ; hu
manity calls for it; and justice claims it at your
" I apprehend the dispute to be but in its infancy :
nothing should be neglected to encourage people to
engage, or to render those easy, contented, and
happy that are engaged. Good covering is an ob
ject of the first consideration. I know of nothing
that is more discouraging than the want of it : it
renders the troops very uncomfortable and gener
ally unhealthy. A few troops well accommodated,
healthy and spirited, w r ill do more service to the
state that employs them, than a much larger num
ber that are sickly, dispirited, and discontented.
This is the unhappy state of the army at this time,
arising from the badness of the tents. His Excel
lency has ordered everything to be done to remedy
the evil that is in his power, but before the remedy
can take place the health of the troops will receive
a severe wound.
" From the nature of the dispute, and the manner
of furnishing the State with troops, too much care
cannot be taken of those that engage, otherwise
some particular governments more public-spirited
than others, may be depopulated.
NATHAN AEL GREENE. 13
" Good officers is the very soul of an army ; the
activity and zeal of the troops entirely depends upon
the degree of animation given them by their officers.
I think it was Sir William Pitt s maxim to pay well
and hang well to have a good army. The field offi
cers in general, and the colonels of regiments in par
ticular, think themselves grievously burthened upon
the present establishment : few, if any, of that rank
that are worth retaining in service will continue if
any dependence is to be made upon the discontent
that appears. They say and I believe with too
much truth that their pay and provision will not
defray their expenses. Another great grievance
they complain on is, they are obliged to act as fac
tors for the regiment : subject to many losses with
out any extraordinary allowance for their trouble :
drawing from the continental stores by wholesale,
and delivering out to the troops by retail. This
business has been attended with much perplexity,
and accompanied with very great losses where the
colonels have not been good accountants. This is
no part of the duty of the colonel of a regiment,
and by the mode in which the business has been
conducted, too much of their time has been engaged
in that employment for the good of the service.
There should be an agent with each regiment to
provide the troops with clothing on the easiest
terms, allowed to draw money for that purpose oc
casionally, to be stopped out of the pay abstract.
Those agents could provide seasonably, fetch their
goods from a distance, and prevent those local im
positions that arises from every reverse of the army.
14 NATHANAEL GREENE.
" The dispute begins to be reduced to a national
principle, and the longer it continues the more that
idea will prevail. People engaged in the service in
the early part of the dispute without any consider
ation of pay reward : few, if any, thought of its con
tinuance ; but its duration will reduce all that have
not independent fortunes to attend to their family
concerns. And if the present pay of those in the
service is insufficient for the support of them and
their families, they must consequently quit it. The
novelty of the army may engage others, but you
cannot imagine the injury the army sustains by the
loss of every good officer. A young officer without
any experience in the military art or knowledge of
mankind, unless he has a very uncommon genius
must be totally unfit to command a regiment.
" I observe in the Resolves of Congress they have
reserved to themselves the right of rewarding by
promotion according to merit ; the reserve may be
right, but the exercise will be dangerous, often in
jurious, and sometimes very unjust. (Of) two per
sons of very unequal merit, the inferior may get
promoted over the superior, if a single instance of
bravery is a sufficient reason for such a promotion.
There is no doubt but that it s right and just to re
ward singular merit, but the public applause accom
panying every brave action is a noble reward.
" Where one officer is promoted over the head of
another, if he has spirit enough to be fit for service
it lays him under the necessity of quitting it. It is
a public intimation that he is unfit for promotion,
and consequently undeserving his present appoint-
NATHANAEL GREENE. 15
ment. For my own part I would never give any
legislative body an opportunity to humiliate me but
once. I should think the general s recommenda
tion is necessary to warrant a promotion out of the
regular channel. For rank is of such importance
in the army, and so delicate are the sentiments re
specting it, that very strong reasons ought to be
given for going out of the proper channel, or else it
will not be satisfactory to the army in general, or to
the party in particular.
"The emission of such large sums of money in
creases the price in proportion to the sums emitted ;
the money has but a nominal value. The evil does
not arise from a depreciation altogether but from
there being larger sums emitted than is necessary
for a circulating medium. If the evil increases it will
starve the army, for the pay of the troops at the
prices things are sold at will scarcely keep the troops
decently clothed. Notwithstanding what I write I
will engage to keep the troops under my command
as easy and contented as any in the army.
"I observe you don t think the game you are
playing as desperate as I imagine. You doubtless
are much better acquainted with the resources that
are to be had in case of any misfortune than I am ;
but I flatter myself I know the history, strength and
state of the army almost as well as any in it, both
with respect to the goodness of the troops and the
abilities of the officers. Don t be too confident : the
fate of war is very uncertain : little incidents has
given rise to great events. Suppose this army should
be defeated, two or three of the leading Generals
16 NATHANAEL GREENE.
killed, our stores and magazines all lost, I would not
be answerable for the consequences that such a
stroke might produce in American politics. You
think the present army assisted by the militia is suf
ficient to oppose the force of Great Britain, formid
able as it appears on paper. I can assure you it s
necessary to make great allowances in the calculation
of our strength from the establishment or else you 11
be greatly deceived. I am confident the force of
America, if properly exerted, will prove superior to
all her enemies, but I would risk nothing to chance ;
it is easy to disband when it is impossible to raise
"I approve your plan of encouraging our own
troops rather than reducing theirs : let us fight and
beat them fairly and free our country from oppres
sion without departing from the principles of honor,
truth, or justice. The conditions you propose are
-very honorable, but I fear whether they are alto
gether equal to the emergency of the times, for
mankind being much more influenced by present
profit than remote advantages, people will consider
what benefit they are immediately to receive, and
take their resolutions accordingly.
" If the force of Great Britain should prove near
equal to what it has been represented, a large aug
mentation will be necessary ; if the present offers
should not be sufficient to induce people to engage
in the army you will be obliged to augment the
army ; and perhaps at a time when that order of
people will have it in their power to make their own
conditions or distress the state.
NATHANAEL GREENE. 17
"As I have wrote a great deal and the Doctor
waiting, I shall add no more, only my hearty wishes
for your health and happiness. Believe me to be
with great esteem your most obedient and humble
Eleven days after this letter was written, John
Adams was appointed President of the Board of
War. On the 14th of July, Greene again writes
"CAMP ON LONG ISLAND, July 14, 1776.
" DEAR SIR : I received your letter of the 22d
of June : if it was necessary for you to apologize for
not writing sooner, it is necessary also for me. But
as the express condition of my corresponding with
you was to write when I had time and leave you to
answer at your leisure, I think an apology is unne
cessary on either side. But I can assure you, as you
did me, that it is not for want of respect that your
letter has been unanswered so long.
" I am glad to find you agree with me in the jus
tice and propriety of establishing some provision for
the unfortunate. I have not had time to fix upon
any plan for that purpose, but I will write you more
fully in my next. I have never mentioned the mat
ter to but one or two particular friends, for fear the
establishment should not take place. . The troops
expectations being once raised, a disappointment
must necessarily sour them. On the other hand, if
Congress established a support for the unfortunate
unsolicited, it must inspire the army with love and
18 NATHANAEL GREENE.
gratitude towards the Congress for so generous an
" You query whether there is not a want of econ-
omy in the army among the officers. I can assure
you there is not among those of my acquaintance.
The expenses 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 de
scend 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. The pay of the soldiers will scarcely keep
them decently clothed. The troops are kept so
much on fatigue that they wear out their clothing
as fast as the officers can get it. The wages given to
common soldiers is very high ; but everything is so
dear that the purchase of a few articles takes their
whole pay. This is a general complaint through
the whole army.
"I am not against rewarding merit, or encourag
ing activity ; neither would I have promotions con
fined to a regular line of succession ; but every man
that has spirit enough to be fit for an officer will
have too much to continue in service after another
of inferior rank is put over his head. The power of
rewarding merit should be lodged with the Con