Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Nathanael Greene, 2[8] February 1781

From Nathanael Greene

No.C. High Rock ford Feby. 29th. [i.e., 28th] 1781.


I had the honor of receiving a Letter from your Excellency by Major Maggill, dated the [18]th, inst.1 It would give me satisfaction to furnish the Gentleman with such intelligence as might be interesting to you, but there is such a necessity for secrecy to forward the operations of an Army that it will be utterly impossible to furnish him with facts in time to make them important. Should any thing turn up at any time, that immediately concerns the policy of Virginia I shall do myself the honor to write to you, or send it through the chanel of Major Maggill as circumstances may be.

We have had an active and difficult campaign so far, but it has been, as yet, greatly to our advantage. The Enemy have suffered in several little skirmishes, and I do not know that we have met with one disaster. On the Night of the 24th Colo. McCall surprised a Subalterns Guard at Harts Mill, killed 8 and wounded and took 9 Prisoners. On the 25th Genl. Pickens and Lieutt. Colo. Lee routed a Body of near 300 Tories on the Haw River, who were in Arms to join the British Army. They made a most dreadful carnage of them; upwards of 100 were killed, and most of the rest cut to pieces. It has had a very happy effect on those disaffected Persons, of which there are too many in this Country.

I must now take this opportunity of reminding your Excellency of the Cloathing which that part of the Virginia Line that is out here, have been in long expectation of. Many of them are so ragged that it is painful to exact common duty of them. Even those of the last detachment who had short Jackets given them are in a distressed situation, from the Jackets being made so bad. The Shoulders of them were not lyned, and the rubbing of the Musquet has worn them to pieces. I trust your Excellency will make use of every means to furnish them as soon as possible. You cannot be a Stranger to the necessity of Troops being well clad to do the necessary duties of Camp.

I have the honor to be with great respect Your mo: obt. hble. Servt.,

Nath Greene

RC (PHi); in an aide’s hand, signed by Greene; addressed; endorsed: “Genl Greene Letter recd March 8, 1781.” FC (MiU-C); endorsement alters date to “Feby. 28th.” Tr (CSmH). “Extract of a letter from High-Rochford, dated February 29” (Va. Gaz. description begins Virginia Gazette (Williamsburg, 1751–1780, and Richmond, 1780–1781). Abbreviations for publishers of the several newspapers of this name, frequently published concurrently, include the following: C & D (Clarkson & Davis), D & H (Dixon & Hunter), D & N (Dixon & Nicolson), P & D (Purdie & Dixon). In all other cases the publisher’s name is not abbreviated description ends , d & n, 10 Mch.); this extract consists of most of the second paragraph of Greene’s letter. The obvious error in the date may have been discovered at the time Greene wrote to TJ on 10 Mch., q.v., wherein Greene referred to his former letter of “the 28th of February”; the date on FC (MiU-C) was changed from the 29th to the 28th then or at some other time. TJ, however, assumed that the letter had been written on 1 Mch.; see his letters to Washington and Huntington of 8 Mch.

It must have become quite obvious to TJ by mid-February that a decided change in communications with the Southern army had taken place when Greene replaced Gates. Whereas Gates had kept TJ fully informed at frequent intervals and had often depended on him to transmit information to Congress and to Washington, Greene had not been nearly so full or frequent in his letters. After Tarleton’s defeat, when Cornwallis began pressing more vigorously, Greene’s letters had been few and brief. He had also occasionally referred TJ to Steuben for more complete information. TJ tactfully pointed out in his letter of 18 Feb. informing Greene of Major Magill’s appointment that he knew the Southern commander had been faced with a “multiplicity of … business.” Yet this could not have been the whole explanation, or an adequate one, for a condition that had existed since Greene assumed command. The plain fact is that Stevens, Morgan, Lawson, and others in these critical weeks of January and February, when so much depended on accurate communication, had furnished TJ with more frequent and more complete information than Greene had. Indeed, the exceedingly important news that Cornwallis had swung to the right toward Hillsborough came from Lawson, who naturally assumed that Greene had already informed TJ of this vital fact (see Lawson to TJ, 25 Feb.). This news from Lawson was hurried forward by TJ to Congress and Washington and was in turn dispatched to northern governors and to the French government. Yet the present letter, which was a thinly disguised rebuff to TJ for sending Magill to headquarters to obtain information, contained no mention of Cornwallis’ most important move since Greene’s last letter. Greene promised to send forward through Magill anything “that immediately concerns the policy of Virginia.” Few military facts could have more vitally affected Virginia policy at that particular moment than the news that Cornwallis’ threat of invasion was greatly diminished; yet Greene passed the matter over in silence, though on the very day that he wrote the present letter he informed Steuben in a lengthy communication of all that had transpired with the Southern army. More, he appealed to Steuben to conduct matters that would certainly seem to have belonged to TJ’s sphere of responsibility: “If the law respecting the Cavalry is a bad one, and the means of executing it ineffectual, I would wish you [Steuben] to represent it to the Legislature, and get it put upon such a footing as to enable you to procure what Horses may be found necessary to forward the operations of the Southern Army” (Greene to Steuben, 29 [i.e., 28] Feb., NHi).

Greene’s failure to communicate was probably not due to personal animosity, but rather to a conviction that military affairs should be left to the military. He frequently depended upon Steuben to convey both good and ill news to TJ and the two could scarcely have been more effectively juxtaposed than in Greene’s letter to Steuben of 24 Jan.: “I beg you will please to let the Governor know that the artillery he has sent out by Colonel Greene are totally unfit for service; and that the Agents who sent them deserves little less than hanging. You will communicate to him the good news [of Morgan’s victory at Cowpens] as I have not time to write him fully on the subject” (NHi). Another possible reason for Greene’s failure to communicate more fully to TJ is the fact that accounts from the Southern army were occasionally summarized and published in the Virginia Gazette. For example, when Greene transmitted to Steuben a copy of Morgan’s full, detailed, and official report of the victory over Tarleton, he remarked: “As it will be indelicate to publish it before it gets to Congress and the Commander in Chief, you will therefore only mention the substance of the enemy’s loss, without giving the particulars of the letter” (Greene to Steuben, 24 Jan., NHi). There is no evidence that TJ had violated the proprieties in this matter or that Greene thought he had, but the fact is that Greene did not send TJ a copy of Morgan’s letter and omitted from his communications many things that he reported freely to Steuben. Early in Feb., for instance, Greene made some remarks to Steuben that would have been highly interesting to TJ and perhaps useful in the determination of “Virginia policy” if he had been permitted to see them: “These Southern States are in such a defenceless condition that they must fall under the dominion of the enemy, unless reinforcements are immediately sent from the Northward. You know I have always considered the incursions in Virginia as of no consequence if we could prevent their penetrating this way. Pray send on all the men you can equip: and if Colo. Carrington has not left Virginia, desire him to join the army as soon as he can” (Greene to Steuben, ca. 1 Feb., NHi). This was written at the time that Steuben, who had been left in Virginia primarily to gather men and supplies for Greene, was continually protesting TJ’s inability to obtain men and supplies for efforts that were being made against Arnold in Portsmouth.

It is apparent that Major Magill had some difficulty in obtaining information during his first few days at Greene’s headquarters. But as time passed Magill’s prudence, Steuben’s growing unpopularity in Virginia, and perhaps Greene’s increasing confidence in TJ caused Magill’s reports to become more informative. So, for that matter, did Greene’s direct communications with TJ.

1The date is blank in all copies.

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