June 9, 2006


Greene's story, Day 13: With forces dwindling, rebels face 'victory or death' as 1776 closes (GERALD M. CARBONE, 6/09/06, Providence Journal)

Inside the damp chill of an unfinished, fieldstone house, Nathanael Greene scratched out a letter to his wife, Caty. He wrote from the Merrick House near the banks of the Delaware River, which was beginning to freeze now in mid-December 1776.

Greene and what was left of his army, fewer than 3,000 men, had just crossed the Delaware from Trenton, N.J., barely escaping before British troops swept in. His spirits were understandably low; the British had routed him from New York at Fort Washington, hounded him across New Jersey, invaded his home state of Rhode Island and were now in a good position to move on to the capital city of Philadelphia. Congress was so concerned about a British invasion that it quit the capital city and moved the nascent nation's business to Baltimore.

As a major general, Greene earned $150 per month, generous money when he was commissioned in the summer of 1775, but now just enough to cover expenses with nothing left to support a family in Rhode Island. As the American Army lost battle after battle, the paper Continental dollar fell in value against the hard silver of British coin. In Philadelphia, a dollar was worth half of what it had been, and was plunging lower.

Fortune seems to frown upon the cause of freedom; a combination of evils are pressing in upon us on all sides, Greene wrote to his wife. However, I hope this is the dark part of the night, which generally is just before day.

Nathanael Greene had a secret. Something big was about to happen, an attack; from the tone of his letters he wanted to talk about it, but had to keep it confidential. On Dec. 21, 1776, the darkest day of the year, Greene wrote to his governor, Nicholas Cooke of Rhode Island:

We are now on the West side of the Delaware, our force tho small collected together, but small as it is I hope to give the Enimy a stroke in a few days. Should fortune favor the Attack Perhaps it may put a stop to General Hows progress. His ravages in the Jersies exceed all description. Men slaughterd, Women ravisht, and Houses plundered, little Girls not ten years old ravisht, Mothers and Daughters ravisht in presence of the Husbands and Sons who were obligd to be spectators to their brutal conduct.

There was truth to Greene's stories of rape and plunder by General Howe's troops as they crossed New Jersey. The Hessians in Howe's command had no stake in this fight, other than what little pleasure and plunder they could take out of it. Even Loyalists weren't exempt from rape and looting, because the Hessian soldiers sweeping across New Jersey didn't know enough English to distinguish Tory from Whig.

On Christmas Eve 1776, Nathanael Greene again hinted at a secret plan of attack as he dashed off a note to a new friend, Col. Clem Biddle. In peacetime, Biddle had been a prosperous Philadelphia merchant; until recently he good-naturedly badgered Greene to send his wife, Caty, to Philadelphia to spend some time with his own "lady."

If your business at Newtown will permit I should be glad to see you here, Greene wrote to Biddle from his fieldstone headquarters at Coryells Ferry, on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River.

This was no Christmas party visit that Greene wanted to have with Biddle: There is some business of importance to communicate to you which I wish to do today. [Bring] No butter, No chees, No Cyder. This is not for the honnor of Pennsylvania.

That night a procession of officers crunched across the crusty snow outside the Merrick House, the chilly, unfinished fieldstone house where Greene was living. They came for a strategy session led by George Washington.

If you've not read it, David Hackett Fischer's Washington's Crossing is fabulous.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 9, 2006 5:35 PM
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