The Life of Nathanael Greene, Major-General in the Army of the Revolution


By GEORGE WASHINGTON GREENE. In three volumes. Vol. I. New York : G. P. Putnam and Son.
THE first volume of a biography to which hardly any reader will come from the late controversies of Mr. Bancroft and his critics in a strictly impartial state of mind brings down the story of General Greene’s life to the time of Steuben’s arrival in the camp of Valley Forge, near the close of 1777. The volume is divided into two books, one of which narrates with sufficient detail, and yet with sufficient rapidity, the incidents and circumstances of Greene’s youth and early manhood, and ends with his appointment as commander of the Rhode Island Army of Observation in 1775 ; while the other book, with the greater fulness due to the important part Greene now assumed, develops his character as a soldier and leader. His letters are largely quoted, and the author studies to make his traits of mind and habits of action thoroughly familiar to the reader, before entering in succeeding books upon the record of events that become more and more historical and less strictly biographical. “ The war is the frame in which it is set,’’ says Mr. Greene, referring to the picture of General Greene’s character, which in this first part of his work he aims to present. “ Of him I have told all that I could learn ; of the war, only so much as was necessary to understand the part which he took therein.”
We own that we enjoy the work better the more personal it is, and that we like the General’s company when he appears to us in some frank speech or unstudied act, rather than when he is writing his formal letters, or is preoccupied with affairs of state, though there is something winning and soldierly in Whatever he does. His inborn soldiership is what most constantly impresses you ; for there never grew up in war a more soldierly spirit than this Quaker son of Quakers. The wild boy who ran away to the forbidden dances at night, and practised the stratagem of placing shingles under his jacket to receive the punishment of his offence, had inherited from some warlike ancestor a quality which, lying dormant in the broad-brimmed generations between them, awoke in him at the earliest rumor of arms, and he showed himself one of the fittest as well as one of the first to fight. “You dance stiffly,” said a partner to him ©nee, rallying him upon the halt in his right leg. “ Very true,” he replied, “but you see that I dance strong?” And as he danced he made war ; from the time when he helped raise the company of the Kentish Guards at the beginning of the Revolutionary troubles to the day of his death, he fought strong against ignorance, prejudice, selfish ambitions, Tories, Hessians, English troops, and every kind of public enemies. These Kentish Guards were ashamed ot the limping lieutenant proposed them in Greene ; and he, though bitterly mortified at the affront offered him, still wrote to the friend who threatened to leave the company unless Greene were made lieutenant, beseeching him to forbear, lest such a course should break up the company, to the disgrace of the town and the injury of the cause. It is a very simple and noble letter, and the true man and soldier showed himself thoroughly earnest and devoted by carrying a musket as a private in the Kentish Guards, when those fastidious warriors marched to join the American forces at Cambridge. He no sooner won place and influence than he began his strong fighting to consolidate the troops, to break up the independent colony system, to make permanent enlistments, and to levy taxes for the support of the war. His family, though eminently respectable, was not aristocratic; yet he was always prompt to assert the rights of military rank, and to repel encroachments upon it. In fact, he was instinctively a soldier, as only Americans can be soldiers,— ambitious but unselfish, subordinate but thoroughly individual. He looked at the cause in which he was engaged courageously, as a soldier must; but he had too much sense, seeing the sluggishness, jealousies, and divisions of the politicians and people, to be over-sanguine about the end; and his letters are full of warnings and alarms, demanding of the country something of the devotion of the army. In the army his practical mind was of the greatest value, — not only in the presence of the enemy’s troops, but of the prejudices and superstitions of our own men; his fight against the small-pox was characteristically strong ; he was himself one of the first to be inoculated, and he insisted upon the inoculation of all the rank and file.
His patriotism also was of the soldierly sort, and he would have dealt severely with all lukewarm friends and covert traitors. He particularly detested Tories, and offered in his letter to Washington, as one capital reason for burning New York, that two thirds of the property belonged to Tories. We suspect that he had not much greater love for neutrals whose peaceableness he probably regarded as half-enmity. “ The Friends, or Quakers,” he wrote from the jerseys in 1776, “are almost to a man disaffected. Many have the effrontery to refuse the Continental currency. This line of conduct cannot fail of drawing down the resentment of the people upon them.” He seems never to have looked on his Quaker origin as a natural advantage ; and he particularly resented that narrowness of creed and of thought which had forbidden him a liberal education in his youth, and held polite learning as little better than profane swearing. In fact, he never quite recovered from the injury thus done him, and we cannot greatly blame him if he did not quite forgive it to his ancestral sect. He had the most ardent admiration for literature, and he read and studied whatever books he could find. Locke, Butler, Blackstone, and Beccaria were his masters; Cæsar, Horace (both Englished), Pope, Swift, and Sterne were his friends ; and he had the companionship of Rollin in Roman history and Rapin in the history of England. It was good society enough, and we are told that these, and some severe books of the dictionary sort, which composed his library, were the wonder of Greene’s neighbors ; but while he learnt humanity and liberality from his authors, he won small literary grace from them. His verbs and nominatives are not always on perfect terms with each other ; his diction is often prolix and pompous, and here and there a word wanders about rather insecure of its destiny; when he wrote of business, he never failed to write clearly and directly, but at other times he tended to platitude. Nevertheless, as we say, he loved letters,—with a. tenderness, indeed, that, considering how little his affection was requited, becomes almost pathetic. Sterne was the favorite of this frank-minded soldier; but he had a warm heart for any writer, and he fell into a. sort of rapture on beholding an actual fleshand-blood savant. “ I had the honor,” he writes from Boston in 1775, “ to be introduced to that very great man Dr. Franklin, whom I viewed with silent admiration the whole evening. Attention,” he adds with a flavor from his stateliest reading, and a sense that very lofty language is due the distinguished occasion,—“attention watched his lips, and conviction closed his periods.”
One likes the old hero for this ingenuous love of letters, as well as for a certain characteristic sensitiveness. We have hinted at his quick defence of the rights of the officers against the encroachments of Congress, which would have unduly meddled with promotion, and which kept them upon such insufficient pay that, as they were resolved “ not to live below the gentleman,” they were obliged to draw upon their private incomes. Early in the war he wrote to Adams that the promotion of another officer over his head, unless with the “ General’s recommendation,” was an humiliation which he would not give any legislative body the opportunity to. offer him a second time ; and later he actually tendered his resignation, to take effect if Du Coudray should receive the high place that Congress contemplated offering him. At the same time, while looking jealously to Iris own honor and dignity as an officer, he was careful and active in behalf of his men, anxious to give them moral efficiency by securing for them a just pay, and protection against the evils of a rapidly depreciating currency.
Greene, in fact, resisted Congressional interference with the army, because he believed that it impaired its efficiency, and jeoparded the cause he loved ; and he controlled his sensitiveness in regard to other wrongs which he felt quite as deeply, but of which the retaliation must have been even more mischievous than undue promotion. He was keentv alive to the general contempt in which the New England troops were held during the first years of the Revolution; he more than once deplores it in letters to his friends at home ; yet beyond a frank expression of satisfaction at the removal of General Schuyler, — whose insolence to the New England officers in the army under his command had produced the worst effects, — he suffered nothing to escape him in resentment of a prejudice of the New-Yorkers, Pennsylvanians, and Southerners which even Washington shared for a while.
That Washington never underrated Greene himself, but had from the first a warm and confiding regard for him, there can be no better evidence than the envy of his brother officers. But evidence of all kinds appears to support the fact which General Greene’s biographer views with a satisfaction so great and so just. Washington seems at once to have discovered the fare capacity and solid qualities of the fighting Quaker iron-master whom he found in command of the Rhode Island Army of Observation at Cambridge in 1775, and Greene repaid this appreciation with a manly devotion which did him the greatest honor. The incongruity between his inherited faith and his natural character and present profession must have struck the Virginian gentleman with peculiar force, for it extorted from that great man one of the few jokes which give us hold upon a humanity now grown shadowy through the cannon - smoke of many Fourths of July. “ Send them to Greene,” he said, in regard to a deputation of Friends that appeared in camp on behalf of their society ; “ Greene’s a Quaker himself.” The two patriots were sufficiently unlike in many things to unite in a very sincere friendship upon the basis of their common hopes and purposes. Greene’s quick decision and prompt executive ability could not but command the admiration of a man of Washington’s pondering mind, even when these qualities tended to impetuosity ; while his sensitiveness that never interfered with duty, and his tenderness that never affected his good soldiership, must each have had their peculiar charm for the cooler and calmer, not to say harder, temperament of his chief. It is certain that Greene was his favorite counsellor, and that he respected him for his military genius as thoroughly as he loved him for his personal traits.
The present volume leaves the biography of Greene at a most important point, and we shall look with interest for the succeeding instalments of a work destined to associate the author’s name with those of the few writers who have made the great Revolutionists real and individually dear to us.