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

By GEORGE WASHINGTON GREENE. In three volumes. Vol. II. New York: Hurd and Houghton.
IT is now nearly three years since Mr. Greene gave us the first volume of his great ancestor’s life ; but there is reason for this long delay in the nature of the work done. The present volume is devoted almost entirely to the examination of General Greene’s history as Quartermaster-General, from the time of his appointment in 1778 to the time when he assumed the command of the Southern Army, in 1780. This was a period concerning which many questions had arisen, and which had made Greene the victim of much unmerited blame. His biographer, therefore, enters very fully into its details, and the result is a story of perhaps not the greatest general interest, but of the most satisfactory character, as establishing Greene’s claim to the gratitude of the country. He was a born fighter, though a born Quaker, and his acceptance of the office of quartermaster was an act of pure self-sacrifice, which he performed at the earnest instance of Washington, and from motives of unselfish patriotism. He fulfilled its duties in spite of distrust, unfriendly official criticism, and public and private opposition, buying from the reluctance and poverty of the people, with a prodigiously depreciated currency, the provision which the English commanded in abundance with their gold, and encountering with a surprising measure of success the difficulties in his way. It was only when Congress attempted, in the midst of a campaign, to introduce a new system for the conduct of the quartermaster’s department,— a system which he totally disapproved, — that Greene refused any longer to serve in a capacity so ungrateful to him. His action created great feeling at the time, and there was talk in Congress of removing him from his command in the line, which he had consented to forego in order to serve as quartermaster ; but the warm protest of Washington against this cruel measure helped to defeat it. The approval of the Commander-in-Chief was probably more desired by Greene than that of any or all others, and he received this in the most emphatic terms, in a letter declaring : “ You have conducted the various duties of it [the quarter-mastership] with capacity and diligence, entirely to my satisfaction, and, as far as I have opportunity of knowing, with strictest integrity. ”
The remaining chapters, after the history of the quartermastership is disposed of, relate to Greene’s appointment to the command of the Army of the South, and his preparations for that service in which he so gloriously distinguished himself. The first two chapters in the volume tell the story of the famous Conway Cabal for the disgrace and removal of Washington ; while a chapter of Greene’s history as quartermaster treats of the Arnold treason, and the execution of André, — Greene being president of the court that condemned him. In a characteristic letter to his wife he tells the story of Arnold’s treason, and utters his own abhorrence of it. The letter ends with a touch of nature which brings the past very amusingly back : —
“Colonel Duer is talking to me, therefore you will have an incorrect letter. General Putnam is here talking as usual, and telling his old stories, which prevents my writing more. The old gentleman, notwithstanding the late paralytical shock, is very cheerful and social.”
Greene’s letters to his wife are always delightful, and paint him in a very charming attitude ; they show him a loving father and tender husband, and they are redolent of an old-fashioned manly sentiment which is very agreeable. In his day love was made in a statelier way than now, and even family affection was rather formal, at least in epistles. This remains a pleasant flavor in Greene’s letters to his wife, and makes parts of them read like passages from some quaint old romance.
To his wife Greene writes with compassion of André and Joshua Smith, the humble accomplice and victim of Arnold’s treason. He expects to be made president of the court for their trial, and is determined to do his duty without shrinking. But he says : “ Mr. André is a very accomplished character, and while we abhor the act, we cannot help pitying the man. From his apparent cheerfulness, he little expects his approaching fate.” Greene was convinced from the first that Andre’s offence must be punished as that of a spy, and he acted logically throughout, deciding against André the tie vote on his petition to be shot instead of hanged.
Of Arnold Greene writes his wife with unmixed detestation : —
“His Excellency says Arnold has been guilty of the greatest meanness imaginable, such as cheating the sutlers of the garrison and selling the public stores. From all I can learn Arnold is the greatest villain that ever disgraced human nature.....
“My pride and feelings are greatly hurt at the infamy of this man’s conduct. Arnold being an American and a New-Englander, and of the rank of Major-General, are all mortifying circumstances. The event will be a reproach to us to the latest posterity, Curse on his folly and perfidy.”
The character of Greene does not appear in this volume in any new light, and we know him here, as in the first, for the single-minded, doughty, somewhat wordy patriot he was ; a steadfast and fervid friend, with Washington always chief in his love and veneration ; a man of few jealousies and very transient resentments; of equal patience and courage, of great belief in the cause he fought for, and a shrewd disrespect for many of the lukewarm, reluctant, and selfish people he was benefiting. The book, through his letters and its careful study of his career as quartermaster, does much to enlighten us as to the actual character of the generation which achieved our independence, and it appears to have been very much like any other generation, — a large mass of greed and grudge, leavened by comparatively little high and relentless purpose. Greene complains of the obstacles he encounters, but he has a hearty pity for the people who have to sustain the war out of their poverty and discontent. As for dissatisfaction, there were enough of it in the civil and military councils to make one lenient to it in the population ; and it does not fortify one’s regard for all the Revolutionary heroes and statesmen to read of them here.
The author has done himself and his ancestor’s memory the justice to reprint in an Appendix his controversy with Mr. Bancroft in full, so that the reader can have no difficulty in forming a fair judgment. The whole volume is written with great clearness and temperance. We could sometimes, indeed, wish that the author had not exercised so strict a self-denial, but had painted now and then in warmer colors, and out of his abundant materials had made more of a picture of the past. However, the fault is on virtue’s side.
The third and last volume of the biography is to appear within a short time, and then we hope to recur to it.