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The Other Front

One of the most consequential aspects of the Revolutionary War was the constellation of events in its southern theater. While less widely discussed than the many iconic events in the north, the southern campaign was crucial to American victory and was the setting for many remarkable stories. John Buchanan's 1997 book The Road to Guilford Courthouse, which relayed the early stages of the southern campaign and introduced readers to its fascinating commander, Nathanael Greene, is one of the most celebrated Revolutionary War histories of the past few decades—and yet Buchanan has only now published The Road to Charleston: Nathanael Greene and the American Revolution, which finishes the story in a (literally) triumphant fashion. We interviewed Buchanan, and began with a question about why such a successful book had to wait so long for its sequel.

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Q: Your current book is a sequel to your earlier The Road to Guilford Courthouse, which was a very popular work and a classic of Revolutionary War history. Did you always intend to do a second book?

Buchanan: I always intended to do a sequel, but while researching The Road to Guilford Courthouse, I came across thirteen-year-old Andrew Jackson serving in a militia unit commanded by William Richardson Davie, who by all accounts became Jackson’s ideal of officer and gentlemen. Well, that got me interested in Jackson, and in 2001 I published Jackson’s Way: Andrew Jackson and the People of the Western Waters. I then proposed the sequel to Guilford Courthouse, but my publishers preferred a book on an iconic figure, so I gave in and wrote The Road to Valley Forge: How Washington Built the Army That Won the Revolution (2004). Bad Timing: David McCulloch’s book, 1776, was published that year. By then my wife was stricken by a long, terminal illness and I was her caregiver and had little time for research or writing. All that is why twenty-two years passed before The Road to Charleston appeared. I regret that the late Don Higginbotham, dean of Revolutionary War studies, didn’t live to see it published, because he liked the Guilford Courthouse book so much that he encouraged me to write the sequel.

Q: When people think of the Revolutionary War, images of New England settings such as Saratoga or Lexington and Concord typically come to mind. But your book focuses on the southern campaign, which was not only massive in scope but pivotal in the war’s outcome. What was the particular importance of the southern colonies in the American effort?

Buchanan: Yes, for a wide reading public New England, New York State, and the middle colonies bring up images of the war. In the Preface to The Road to Guilford Courthouse, I wrote, “On learning of my subject, a friend of mine, well educated, well read, intellectually curious, looked surprised, and said, ‘I really don’t know what happened south of Philadelphia.’” Southerners say that is because, “Yankees wrote the history.” Partly true, but that’s another subject. In my opinion, the importance of the South was twofold.

The British turn South spread their forces thin over a vast area. George Washington recognized this, and wrote, “They have not a stamina of force sufficient for such extensive conquests, and by spreading themselves out as they are now doing, they will render themselves vulnerable.” Secondly, the key to control of the Carolinas was control of the Back Country, where some two-thirds of the white population lived. Both the Americans and British knew this. But George III and his ministers misread that region, believed that the majority was loyal to the crown. The opposite was true. The Back Country Rebel militia rose against the British occupation, prevailed on almost all occasions against Loyalist forces, and stymied the British pacification effort. But the militia could not drive the British from the Carolinas and Georgia. The Rising bought the time necessary for the appearance of a Continental army under the command of Nathanael Greene. It was a combination of the Rebel militia effort and Greene’s campaign that drove Lord Cornwallis out of the Carolinas to Virginia, to Yorktown, to the loss of his army, and thereby the loss of America.

Q: The war in the south was more complex than simply American colonists engaging with British forces. There were various parties, with different agendas. Can you say something about the factions involved and how they interacted?

Buchanan: There were two major factions involved: Rebels on one hand, Loyalists, or Tories, on the other. Each, of course, broke into parts: diehards, fair weather fighters, and in the words of a teenage Rebel, to those who wanted the “benefit but would not risk one hair of their heads to attain it.” And there were men like Solomon Beason, described by his neighbors as “half whig, half Tory, as occasion required.” There were also neutrals, who wished the warring factions would go away and let them carry on the business of everyday living. This is not, of course, to deny the bitterness of the civil war between diehard Rebels and Tories. Nathanael Greene wrote to his wife, who wanted to join him, “My dear you can have no idea of the horrors of the Southern War. Murders here are as frequent as petty disputes to the northward.” And the Rebel general, William Moultrie, wrote in his Memoirs, “The civil war destroyed more property and shed more American blood than the whole British army.”

Q: There was no guarantee that the Americans would prevail. What personal characteristics, or even lucky breaks, allowed the hero of your story, Nathanael Greene, to be successful?

Buchanan: Unlike his predecessors who commanded the Southern Department, Greene moved skillfully through political minefields and worked closely with governors and other political leaders in his effort to restore civil government. Greene lost every battle he fought, but unlike one of his predecessors his personal courage in battle was never questioned, and he always managed to withdraw his army to safety and prepare it for more battles, thus his famous words: “We fight get beat rise and fight again.” In addition, like many successful commanders in history, he had a gift for adapting to changing conditions. Greene was the only one of Washington lieutenants who had the skill, the judgment, and the character to overcome the extreme vicissitudes of the southern campaign and emerge triumphant. 

Q: What light can this story shed on the modern world?

Buchanan: It’s always tempting to try and tie past events to the present, and always precarious. Is there a lesson from the American Revolution, and specifically Greene’s performance in the southern campaign, that can be learned to guide actors today engaged in upheaval and strife? I would look at Greene’s activities not on the military front but his political engagement. Greene was as one with Washington in recognizing and supporting the primacy of civil power, a critical concept of governance that would spare the new nation the ambitions of military adventurers—and for today one might add, dictators supported by military power. 

The Road to Charleston: Nathanael Greene and the American Revolution is available now.

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