Although the American Revolutionary War staggered into a period of inaction after the Battle of Monmouth Court House in June 1778, General George Washington, in charge of all Continental forces, remained steadfast in New York until the late summer of 1781. Even though the principal actions of the war moved to the southern colonies, resulting in catastrophic losses at Charleston, Waxhaws, and Camden in 1780 through 1781, Washington did his utmost to quell British incursions, reinforce public opinion, and provide whatever succor he could from a distance. What is evidence of his mindset and depth of concern for this theater of operations?
Simple. Look at the general officers he dispatched south from the main army to help the American cause in the Carolinas and Virginia. The list includes some of the most trusted officers that served Washington.
First, Benjamin Lincoln, who met his fate at Charleston, but had served ably in the north, even working in the tense environment of the Saratoga campaign, between the volatile Benedict Arnold and the complacent Horatio Gates.
Second, Nathanael Greene, who had overcome growing pains, the recommendation to hold onto Fort Washington in New York in 1776 comes to mind, to swallowing his pride and taking the thankless job of quartermaster general during the winter that won the war at Valley Forge. Greene was probably second to Washington in understanding the political, social, economic, even the geographical components of warfare. Although a decisive battlefield victory constantly eluded him, his leadership at Guildford Court House set in motion Lord Charles Cornwallis’s eventual demise at Yorktown in October of that same year.
Moving into the Old Dominion, Washington dispatched Baron von Steuben with Greene to recruit, train, gather supplies, and provide the steady hand that the Prussian born leader had shown so admirably at Valley Forge. As inspector general of the Continental army, Washington’s orders sending the baron south was a major testament to the importance of stopping British incursions into Virginia.
Following the baron, was another European born officer, the Marquis de Lafayette, one of Washington’s favorites. This independent field command showed the growing confidence in the young Frenchman who responded admirably to the task at hand, doing what he can and for the most part, swallowing his brashness, except at Green Spring when he precipitously attacked what he thought was a rearguard of the British. Yet, his actions, coupled with the next general to be discussed, helped keep Cornwallis in the area of operations that would lead to his demise.
“Mad Anthony” Wayne and his Pennsylvania Continentals were also ordered south to join Lafayette in campaigning in Virginia. Wayne, arguably the best combat general in the Continental army, bordering on reckless to his critics though, had masterminded the storming of Stony Point, the last major action in the northern theater. Lafayette and he would be a solid tandem as they worked with limited resources and supplies in the summer of 1781 to contain the British.
Besides these general officers of high rank, “Light Horse” Harry Lee also was sent south to assist Greene and militia, most notably Francis Marion. The partnership between Lee and Marion worked as close to perfection as humanly possible and a model for regular and militia force combined operations.
Another cavalry commander that was sent for duty in the southern colonies was a second cousin of George Washington, William. In charge of light dragoons, mounted infantry who could dismount to fight as infantry, he served admirably in the southern army until his capture at the Battle of Eutaw Springs on September 8, 1781.
This list, not intended to be exhaustive but just exploratory, is an example of the importance the southern theater had to the strategic mindset of George Washington. Although the Virginian was fixated on the recapture of New York City until the opportunity to ensnare Cornwallis at Yorktown presented itself, he provided an amazing array of officers of capability to quelling British intensions in the southern theater.
Feel free to comment below on other officers that were sent south that played vital role in the ultimate American victory in this theater of operations.