The Revolutionary War in the South, 1780-1781
Described by General Nathanael Greene
[Excerpted from American History Told by Contemporaries, Vol. II: Building of the Republic, Albert Bushnell Hart, ed. (New York, MacMillan, 1899), pp. 609-612]
After the defeat of Gates at Camden in 1780 Greene, a Rhode Island man, was put m command. This letter, written to President Reed, illustrates the difficulties of regular campaigns in the south, and also brings out the frightful border warfare.
Camp on the Pedee, January 9th, 1781.
I intended to have written you before, but I have been so employed since I left Philadelphia, that I have been obliged to deny myself the pleasure of writing to my friends, to attend to the more immediate duties of my department. On my journey I visited the Maryland and Virginia Assemblies, and laid before them the state of this army, and urged the necessity of an immediate support. They both promised to do everything in their power, but such was their poverty, even in their Capitals, that they could not furnish forage for my horses. I have also written to the States of Delaware and North Carolina, neither of which have taken any measures yet for giving effectual aid to this army. I left General Gist in Maryland, and Baron Steuben in Virginia, to forward the recruits and supplies. Measures are taking in Virginia which promise us some aid, though very trifling to what they ought to give, and what our state requires. All the way through the country, as I passed, I found the people engaged in matters of interest and in pursuit of pleasure, almost regardless of their danger. Public credit totally lost, and every man excusing himself from giving . the least aid to Government, from an apprehension that they would get no return for any advances. This afforded but a dull prospect, nor has it mended since my arrival.
I overtook the army at Charlotte, to which place General Gates had advanced. The appearance of the troops was wretched beyond description, and their distress, on account of provisions, was little less than their suffering for want of clothing and other necessaries. General Gates had lost the confidence of the officers, and the troops all their discipline, and so addicted to plundering, that they were a terror to the inhabitants. The General and I met upon very good terms, and parted so. The old gentleman was in great distress, having but just heard of the death of his son before my arrival.
The battle of Camden is spoken of very differently here to what it is to the Northward, and as for a regular retreat, there was none; every man got off the ground in the best manner he could. This is the account Colonel Williams gives, who was one of the last on the field. Indeed, the whole business was a short fight and then a perfect flight, and the greatest loss happened after the troops broke, and attempted , to make their escape. From all I can learn, if General Crates had - stopped at Charlotte, little more disgrace would have fallen to his share than is common to the unfortunate. Generals Gates and Smallwood were not upon good terms; the former suspected the latter of having an intention to supplant him. Some think General Gates's suspicions were groundless, which had no other foundation but the General's own imagination. Others are of opinion that- they were well founded, and that my appointment was a great disappointment as well as mortification to Smallwood. How the matter was I know not. The General (Smallwood) IS gone to the Northward, having declared, for reasons, that he could not think of submitting to the command of Baron Steuben, and teat if Justice was done him and the State, his commission would be dated at least two years earlier than his appointment. I expostulated with him upon the impossibility of the thing, let his private merit be ever so great, but it was all to no purpose. He was fixed in the principle, and determined upon the measure. He has many enemies in the Maryland line, but upon the whole I think him a sensible man and a good officer.
The wants of this army are so numerous and various, that the shortest way of telling you is to inform you that we have nothing, as General Du Portail can inform you from his own observation. The great departments of the army had nobody at the head of them, fit to provide in a country like this for a sergeant's party. I have got Colonel Carrington to accept of the Quartermaster-General's department, and am in hopes of getting a good man at the head of the Commissaries, without which I foresee we must starve. I am endeavouring to bring everything into order, and perfect our arrangements as much as possible, but it is all an up-hill business.
The loss of our army in Charleston, and the defeat of General Gates t has been the cause of keeping such vast shoals of militia on foot, who like the locusts of Egypt, have eaten up everything, and the expense has been so enormous, that it has ruined the currency of the State It is my opinion there is no one thing upon the Continent that wants regulating so much, as the right which the States exercise of keeping what militia on foot they please at the Continental expense. I am persuaded North Carolina has militia enough to swallow up all the revenues of America, especially under their imperfect arrangements, where every man draws and wastes as much as he pleases. The country M IS SO extensive and the powers of Government so weak, that everybody does as he pleases. The inhabitants are much divided in their political sentiments, and the Whigs and Tories pursue each other with little less than savage fury. l lie back-country people are bold and daring in their make, but the people upon the sea-shore are sickly an(l belt indifferent militia. The ruin of the State is inevitable if there are such large bodies of militia kept on foot. No army can subsist in the country long if the ravages continue. Indeed, unless this army is better supported than I see any prospect of, the Country is lost beyond redemption, for it is impossible for the people to struggle much longer under their present difficulties. There appears a foolish pride in the representation of things from this quarter; the strength and resources of the Country are far overrated, and those who are engaged in this business, to indulge their pride, will sacrifice their Country. The inhabitants are beginning to move off in great bodies, and unless a firmer barrier can be formed, this quarter will be all depopulated. We are living upon charity, and subsist by daily collections. Indian meal and beef is our common diet, and not a drop of spirits have we had with us since I came to the army. An army naked and subsisted in this manner, and not more than one-third equal to the enemy in numbers, will make but a poor fight, especially as one has been accustomed to victory and the other to flight. It is difficult to give spirits to troops that have nothing to animate them.
I have been obliged to take an entire new position with the army. General Morgan is upon Broad River with a little flying army, and Colonel Washington since his arrival there has defeated a party of Tories, the particulars of which I beg leave to refer you to the President of Congress for. This Camp I mean as a Camp of repose, for the purpose of repairing our wagons, recruiting our horses, and disciplining the troops.
Colonel Lee has just arrived, and his corps is in good order, and I am told Colonel Greene from Virginia is at hand.
General Lesly with his detachment has arrived at Camden, and we have reports that another is coming.
[William B. Reed, Life end Correspondence of Joseph Reed (Philadelphia, 1847), II, 344-346]