Young officers and NCOs will be challenged on the fast-changing, complex battlefields of the future. While it might be difficult to teach these young leaders all the nuances required to operate in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environments, studying historical examples of leaders who adapted to challenges can be instructive.
One campaign often overlooked is Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene’s “Race to the Dan,” which took place in early 1781 through the Carolina backcountry.
Greene’s tactical retreat through South Carolina and North Carolina and across the Dan River as he evaded British Lt. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis during the American Revolution offers an excellent case study for modern leaders. Cornwallis sought to eliminate the last vestige of the Continental Army in the South, which culminated in Greene’s defeat and a Pyrrhic British victory at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina, on March 15, 1781.
While the intricacies of the battle are well known, there also are important lessons from Greene’s prolonged retreat as he marched his army—known as the Southern Department of the Continental Army—to cross the Dan River into Virginia. The river runs along the border of North Carolina and Virginia. Of interest to military practitioners are Greene’s focus on logistics, intelligence, to include terrain and conditions of the numerous rivers, and innovative use of boats, specifically with wheels.
Greene came from a devout Quaker family. Quakers disdained weapons and violence of any kind, so he was never formally trained in military tactics. However, he read many books on military leadership and tactics.
Early in life, Greene was injured or suffered a childhood affliction (the historical record is unclear) that left him with a stiff knee and limp for the rest of his life. Greene would never have become an officer in the British army with this injury, as well as his severe asthma. American Maj. Gen. Henry Knox wrote of Greene, “He came to us the rawest, most untutored being I ever met with, [and in less than a year] was equal, in military knowledge, to any General officer in the army, and very superior to most of them.”
Superior British forces dictated that Greene required every available armed man he could recruit, despite the fact that the local militia were notoriously unreliable. He invented a term for his strategy. He called it a “fugitive war,” though it closely resembled a famous Roman approach to warfare. Although Greene was forced to avoid a direct British engagement until he had sufficient troops, his use of militia to harass the enemy would prove crucial during the months of January and February 1781 in the Carolinas.
Technically, the strategy was known in Europe as a petite guerre, or “little war.” It essentially is guerrilla warfare, focused on small-unit raids to harass the enemy. Greene’s fugitive war would depend on the irregular militia supporting the main Army to keep the British off balance.
Greene regularly wrote to famous partisan leaders in the Carolinas who provided invaluable troops and intelligence for the Continental Army; men like South Carolina militia leaders Brig. Gens. Francis Marion, Andrew Pickens and Thomas Sumter, who were adept on the tactical level, displaying an affinity for disrupting British interior supply and communication lines.
While these men could prove difficult and were accustomed to operating independently, Greene displayed interpersonal skills to assuage bruised egos and promote a unified front.
Greene knew the stakes were high; his objective was to preserve the Continental Army in the South and grow the ranks of the Southern Department by recruiting militia along the way. Greene was forced to adjust his previous bias against militia that was common among many Continental Army officers. Although he had often spoken of militia disparagingly in the past, he had also praised them for their role in several battles.
Even though Greene’s overall attitude toward militia was largely negative, he was a realist. He understood that he would need them to augment his army, collect intelligence on the British and engage in diversionary attacks. Greene looked at militia as a placeholder until Continental Army regulars could be recruited and trained.
However, Greene quickly learned that North Carolina received money from Congress to recruit militia, and local leaders were not interested in raising Continental regiments. As Lawrence Babits and Joshua Howard wrote in their 2009 book, Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse: “At the beginning of the conflict, long-standing political and economic differences between Piedmont and the Tidewater [regions] marred relationships and divided the Carolinas.”
Greene had to learn to operate in a complex political climate, where conflict among loyalists and patriots was fierce. Greene wrote to militia leaders and politicians alike. This facilitated his integration into a fragmented militia system under some of the best guerrilla leaders fighting for the American cause.
Adapting to military operations in the Carolinas was difficult due to the terrain and the everyday challenges of feeding and supplying an army. Greene’s excellent grasp of logistics and his prioritization of establishing supply depots along the numerous rivers in the Carolinas proved prescient. He wrote letters in early January to direct militia to secure and protect provisions and forage near Kimbro’s Mill, North Carolina, while requesting a detailed inventory of available supplies in the region.
While it might seem that Greene became a micromanager during the Race to the Dan, the dire situation of the Continental Army in the Carolinas against a larger, well-supplied, better-trained British army dictated a minimal margin of error. The slightest detail overlooked could result in disaster for the American cause in the South.
The patriots had to precisely know the location of the British, the layout of the terrain, the conditions of rivers and the status of supplies. Greene needed maps with updated particulars concerning the rivers and fordable locations. He dispatched Lt. Col. Edward Carrington to the Dan River and Brig. Gen. Edward Stevens and Col. Thaddeus Kosciuszko to the Yadkin and Catawba rivers, respectively, to reconnoiter the area. More importantly, all were instructed to secure and transport additional available flat-bottomed boats, which would move with the army.
Greene’s attention to detail and letters provide insight into his character. There are 770 letters to and from Greene between Dec. 26, 1780, and March 29, 1781. During these 95 days, Greene was often on the move. However, his letters averaged eight per day, underscoring the importance of intelligence and information as a cornerstone of his leadership.
Many letters focused on securing supplies, predicting enemy troop movements and learning the status of roads and vital waterways. Greene regularly directed detailed reconnaissance of the region. He learned of the numerous waterways in the area, which were not always fordable.
Some rivers were impenetrable obstacles without boats, even in times of low water. Greene found that heavy rains and a swollen mountain stream could flood the rivers. Some might rise over 25 feet within a day. He wrote to Morgan:
As the rivers are subject to sudden and great swells, you must be careful that the enemy not take a position to gain your rear when you can neither retreat by your flanks or front. The Pedee rose 25 feet the Last week in 30 hours. I am preparing boats to move [always] with the army. Would one or two be of use to you? They will be put upon four wheels and may be moved with little more difficulty than a loaded wagon.
The rise of the Pedee River meant that boats were not just ideal but mandatory, often more valuable than horses. Greene immediately grasped this logistical nuance. Given that the speed of the American Army was paramount, using wheels on boats was novel and helped as Greene marched his “flying column,” or mobile light infantry unit, through the Carolinas.
While Greene crossed the Dan River and evaded the British, Cornwallis did not succeed in eliminating the Continental Army in the South. In fact, the Battle of Yorktown, Virginia, which sealed Great Britain’s fate, followed the Crossing of the Dan by only about six months. Mostly minor skirmishes would follow until the Treaty of Paris was signed in September 1783.
Greene’s solutions to complex problems of supplying an army, and evading a better-trained army through rugged terrain, were the deciding factor in the Race to the Dan. Furthermore, his grasp of logistics contributed to his strategic victory over the British in the South through the innovative uses of boats with wheels.
Col. Gerald Krieger is a liaison officer for the U.S. Army Forces Command in Headquarters, U.S. Transportation Command, and U.S. Army Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command, Scott Air Force Base, Illinois. He is a doctoral candidate in international relations at Salve Regina University, Rhode Island.