Rise and Fight Again
The Life of Nathanael Greene
by Spencer C. Tucker
ISI, 275 pp., $25
He is, in many ways, the classic American male: a hard-driving businessman making it on his own, providing for a family, determined to do something great for the country he loves.
When his world explodes into war, he becomes a leader, achieving greatness that might have seemed unimaginable in a less innovative, more highly structured society. With the qualities of guts, a knack for unconventional thinking, and sheer hard work, he takes on the brave, sophisticated specialists who are leading the best-trained, best-equipped army in the world, and beats them at their own game, saving the cause of freedom for his posterity--all of us--to enjoy.
His name was Nathanael Greene, and he was the most important general of the Revolutionary War, aside from one George Washington. Until recently, he has been a remarkably overlooked founding father: One strike against him, he hailed from pipsqueak Rhode Island--the aristocrats from big, rich Virginia always seemed to win the historical laurels--and he died not long after the war, at only 43, before he could play any role in shaping the government of the new nation. Thus, he has been relegated to a footnote in our founding.
But in recent years, a reappraisal has been underway. Greene emerges as a compelling figure in David McCullough's bestselling 1776, and journalists Gerald M. Carbone and Terry Golway have contributed well-received, full-scale biographies. Now, the noted military and naval historian Spencer C. Tucker offers us a quick march of 275 pages. The title is drawn from Greene's most famous statement: "We fight, get beat, rise and fight again." It was that very quality of stubbornness, that refusal to quit, that characterized the American cause and secured independence.
As Tucker notes, Greene seemed an "unlikely candidate for a military career, let alone distinction as a brilliant strategist." He came from a "decidedly unmilitary Quaker background," was essentially untrained in military strategy, suffered from a slight limp, and was subject to severe bouts of asthma. He was the son of a strict, pious father who frowned on his love of dancing and books.
"Early very early when I should have been in the pursuit of Knowledge, I was digging into the Bowels of the Earth after Wealth. . . . His mind was over shadow'd with prejudices against Literary Accomplishments," Greene recalled rather bitterly.
Yet his wealth helped him secure status as a rising leader in the colony and an eight-room house, including a library that he filled with books. As part of his self-education, he delved into military works, among them
Caesar's narratives of his campaigns, writings by Frederick the Great and the memoirs of Marshal Maurice de Saxe. As a businessman, he well understood the growing threat posed by a distant, intrusive, and unaccountable government, and he embraced the radical anti-tax, pro-freedom ideas then circulating in Rhode Island.
He helped organize a local militia and, when war broke out, was passed over for an officer's post (because of his limp). He willingly assumed the role of private. Yet his ambition, talent, and popularity with Rhode Island forces were soon apparent, and he rose to the rank of brigadier general.
He played a major role from then on: holding Boston after the British retreat; commanding forces on Long Island; urging retreat from New York and the burning of the city; commanding a column at the Battle of Trenton; accepting the role of quartermaster general at Valley Forge, doing a brilliant job at the less-than-glorious task of supplying the troops; and finally, commanding forces in the South, using a tactically brilliant combination of attack and retreat to wear down the British.
Tucker admirably fleshes out Greene's character in a few pages with deft detail and the man's own pungent, memorable statements. The general emerges as a courageous leader who thrust himself into battle, a tireless worker who toiled long into the night, a man in love with his wife but with an eye for the ladies, devoted to General Washington but jealous of military glory, sympathetic to his suffering troops but ready to hang deserters, pugnacious but restrained, always casting a pragmatic eye on the ultimate goal.
Military buffs will enjoy Tucker's detailed description of battles and the tactics Greene employed to survive them. The writing is not flawless--there are prosaic, hackneyed patches ("London now adopted a hard line," the king's policies "created a firestorm in America")--and the maps are, in many cases, all but useless, with tiny, fuzzy, unreadable type, reflecting an apparent failure to secure images of sufficient resolution and run them big enough to be helpful.
But Rise and Fight Again is an admirably brisk and informative biography of a great and wonderfully American figure.
Edward Achorn, deputy editor of the editorial pages at the Providence Journal, is the author of a forthcoming biography of the baseball pitcher Old Hoss Radbourn (Smithsonian Books).