NEA Leader Compares RI Revolutionary War Hero to My Lai War Criminal

I suppose when you’ve established a weekly shtick, you gotta keep doing it. Even when the source material is a Revolutionary War hero. So sometimes you overreach. Like comparing Rhode Island’s own Revolutionary War hero General Nathanael Greene to Lt. William Calley, the war criminal notorious for his role in the My Lai massacre. It might be even worse if you’ve made this comparison based on your own ill-informed, uncritical supposition based on an “appeal to authority” (something for which you often criticize others) to a snippet of context-missing history by a well-known partisan historian. Or maybe its worse that you advocate for the state’s biggest education entity, the NEA.
Way to set an example!
In his weekly quest to harpoon his very own white whale, NEA’s Pat “Ahab” Crowley has decided to deride the topic of Ed Achorn’s latest book review/column, war hero Nathanael Greene.

Why not an editorial piece lauding the work of Lt. William Calley? Do you remember Rusty Calley? He led an operation very similar to one that Greene led during the Revolutionary War, though he doesn’t have any schools named after him (at least I hope not.) What was the operation that Calley led? You have probably heard of the My Lai massacre, right?
Well, Nate Greene described similar operations in his diary.
{Technically, I believe Greene described the events and the aftermath in a letter to Thomas Jefferson-ed.}

Crowley then quotes from Howard Zinn*:

Washington’s military commander in the lower South, Nathanael Greene, dealt with disloyalty by a policy of concessions to some, brutality to others. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson he described a raid by his troops on Loyalists. “They made dreadful carnage of them, upwards of one hundred were killed and most of the rest cut to pieces. It has had a very happy effect on those disaffected persons of which there were too many in this country.” Greene told one of his generals “to strike terror into our enemies and give spirit to our friends.” **

Based on his reading of Zinn, Crowley wrote:

This wasn’t an attack on soldiers, by the way…..a “raid” on “loyalists” meant an attack on civilians. He cut them to pieces. Greene….Calley…..My Lai…..

Wrong. “Loyalists” in this context were male American colonists who enlisted in loyalist militias to fight for the crown. Not women and children. Further, while it is true that Greene noted in his letter to Jefferson that the affect of the “massacre” was beneficial in that it helped to tamp down counter-revolutionary actions, he didn’t directly take part in the action, as did Calley at My Lai. In fact, Greene didn’t even order the attack!
Zinn isn’t the only one to have written about this particular incident. But first, here is some additional context. In late May 1780, before Greene took over command of the Continental forces in the south:

Cornwallis had detached a cavalry force under Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton, by reputation hard and unsparing, to mop up the last remaining Continentals in that area, some 350 Virginians under Col. Abraham Buford. Tarleton’s 270-man force had caught up with Buford’s retreating soldiers on May 29 and quickly overwhelmed them. But when the Continentals called for quarter—a plea for mercy by men who had laid down their arms—Tarleton’s troops hacked and bayoneted three-quarters of them to death. “The virtue of humanity was totally forgotten,” a Loyalist witness, Charles Stedman, would recall in his 1794 account of the incident. From then on, the words “Bloody Tarleton” and “Tarleton’s quarter” became a rallying cry among Southern rebels. {These events were dramatized in the movie “The Patriot.”-ed.}
Following Buford’s Massacre, as it soon came to be called, guerrilla bands formed under commanders including Thomas Sumter, Francis Marion and Andrew Pickens. Each had fought in South Carolina’s brutal Cherokee War 20 years earlier, a campaign that had provided an education in irregular warfare. Soon, these bands were emerging from swamps and forests to harass redcoat supply trains, ambush forage parties and plunder Loyalists. Cornwallis issued orders that the insurgents would be “punished with the greatest vigour.”

It was a nasty portion of the war before Greene assumed command in December of 1780. He soon adjusted, which leads to the description given by Zinn, mentioned above. Here’s another description of the event.

As Greene headed toward Hillsborough, members of his cavalry, commanded by Col. Henry Lee, surprised an inexperienced band of Tory militiamen under Col. John Pyle, a Loyalist physician. In an action disturbingly similar to Tarleton’s Waxhaws massacre, Lee’s men slaughtered many of the Loyalists who had laid down their arms. American dragoons killed 90 and wounded most of the remaining Tories. Lee lost not a single man. When he heard the news, Greene, grown hardened by the war, was unrepentant. The victory, he said, “has knocked up Toryism altogether in this part” of North Carolina.

Finally, here is another more critical and more contemporary account (from 1822) that also provided some context (this is a very descriptive account and warrants a fuller read):

Many a son, a husband, and a father, met with a most sudden and unexpected fate.
The soul sickens at such an instance of unresisted slaughter, and it has called down the severest animadversions upon the conduct of the American party. It is enough to be said of it, that there cannot be found such another instance of military execution inflicted by the American arms in the whole history of the revolution. Far be it from us to stand forth the apologist of unnecessary bloodshed. Yet two things cannot be denied, that the humanity of Pickens was proverbial, and that Colonel Lee was never charged with any other instance of unnecessary severity. Let the extraordinary peculiarity of the circumstances attending the affair be considered, and it will be difficult to point out how such an issue could have been avoided. The first blow would probably be decisive between the parties. Had the enemy been allowed time to deliver their fire, the cavalry would have been prostrated, and that event would have brought destruction upon the whole corps; for Tarleton would soon have been upon the infantry. Nor would the evil have stopped there, the dispersion of this party must have been followed by that of all the detachments on their march to join it. It is appalling to follow up the train of consequences.

In short, Lee stumbled into a group of loyalist militia and a battle ensued in whose aftermath loyalists attempting to surrender or flee were killed. Fighting men get carried away and nasty things happen in war.** And though he condoned the results, Greene had no direct part in the affair. Yet, lest we forget–according to Crowley–Greene is just like Calley. Hardly:

Soldiers went berserk, gunning down unarmed men, women, children and babies. Families which huddled together for safety in huts or bunkers were shown no mercy. Those who emerged with hands held high were murdered. … Elsewhere in the village, other atrocities were in progress. Women were gang raped; Vietnamese who had bowed to greet the Americans were beaten with fists and tortured, clubbed with rifle butts and stabbed with bayonets. Some victims were mutilated with the signature “C Company” carved into the chest. By late morning word had got back to higher authorities and a cease-fire was ordered. My Lai was in a state of carnage. Bodies were strewn through the village.

It would be debatable to compare Lee with Calley, nevermind Greene. (Does this mean that everything Crowley does is directly attributable to Bob Walsh?)
All of this context makes Crowley’s closing accusation against Achorn all the more laughable.

Your minimalist approach to the history of the founding of our country does it a disservice.

This from someone who approaches history as a means to a political end, regardless of the deeper facts and context….which he doesn’t care about anyway. For Crowley, history is only valuable as rhetorical ammunition for his ideological shotgun. It doesn’t matter if he misses the target, so long as he gets his shot off.
*Zinn is the favorite historian of many on the left and he is best known for his People’s History of the United States of America. He is known for his openly-biased, non-sourced method of doing history. He likes to pull from hither and yon to make his larger ideological points, a method that leaves out important context regarding particular events. Further, because he doesn’t include footnotes, he makes it difficult for other historians to check his sources for that context. This is well known in the history field (here, here and here). In other words, Zinn is an important historian (because so many people read him), but one that should be read very carefully: often with another history book for comparison. But hey, he’s preaching to a choir member named Crowley who has an Achorn to roast, damn the particulars!
**Crowley left out this part while quoting Zinn: “On the other hand he advised the governor of Georgia ‘to open a door for the disaffected of your state to come in…'” I wonder why he left that last sentence out. I guess such nuance would have grayed up Crowley’s “Black Hat” caricature of Greene.
***There are several “massacres” recorded and all that I could find involve British troops killing American revolutionaries after they had surrendered (or in their sleep). There was at least one instance of British (and their Native American allies) killing non-combatants (the Cherry Valley or Wyoming Massacre). That doesn’t mean there weren’t instances of American revolutionaries acting similarly, it’s just that a quick survey of sources didn’t bring any to light. Though hardly an all-inclusive list, see Cherry Valley, Hancock’s Bridge, Fort Griswold (in Groton), and the Baylor Massacre for a fair representation.

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12 years ago

Calling Howard Zinn an historian is just a further debasement of the English language.

12 years ago

Great analysis, Marc.

Tom W
Tom W
12 years ago

I was a political science major – and the department chair was Zinn.
A Marxist propagandist cum quasi-cult leader: sparsely-bearded, wimpy young men who sought masculinity through unquestioning embrace of the romanticism and mythology of class struggle and revolution and “social justice” followed him around like ducklings following their mother, only these ducklings were attired in Che t-shirts and black berets.
Of course were there a real revolution with real bullets they’d have gone running home to mother.

12 years ago

Is there a more contemptible disciple of Saul Alinsky in Rhode Island than Pat Crowley?
Only if Obama should visit the Ocean State.

12 years ago

“Is there a more contemptible disciple of Saul Alinsky in Rhode Island than Pat Crowley?”
I don’t think there is a chapter of the Church of Satan in RI, so the answer is, “not that I’m aware of.” He probably prefers it that way.
I think he was trying to be provocative (what’s new there). I can’t imagine anyone taking Zinn at face value to be serious about getting to the truth about anything. He’s a bizarre creature worshipped by the same folks who like Noam Chomsky and that sort of stuff.

Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
12 years ago

When considering the comparison with Greene, it is easy for us in the Northeast to forget just how long and bloody the Revolutionary war was in the South. We are weaned on the Battle of Bunker Hill, and know nothing of the Battles of Ninety Six, the capture of Charleston and other engagements in the south. Banastre Tarleton (Col. Tavington in the “Patriot”) went a long way towards legitimizing the slaughter of innocents. He also popularized killing the wounded. I am not sure “civilized warfare” was well developed at the time. The South was largely populated by Scotch-Irish, never well disposed towards the English.

Scott Bill Hirst
Scott Bill Hirst
12 years ago

Simeon Perry (twice) and his sister Elizabeth Perry (thrice) are my direct ancestors. THey were second cousins to Gen Greene. As a kinsman he is STILL regarded as the second important General after George Washington in the American Revolution. Gen. Greene is a second cousin also to Christopher Raymond Perry father of Commodore Matthew Perry and Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry.
These me in American history textbooks brought great credit to Rhode Island among other personages from R.I.,.

Charles Bell
12 years ago

I am not sure how anyone could compare Gen. Greene and Calley. How someone who might consider himself any kind of educator could come to a conclusion that the two were similar must have just been talking off the cuff and had not studied the subject at all. Why he would do that in the position he is in also amazes me!! I taught school for 20 years and I have learned that before I open my mouth I had better have some valid and verified information to back up what I say.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion as long as there are some facts to back it up. Taking things out of context always backfires like a bucket of water with holes in it.
I now work for a company that deals in primary source documents and we happen to have the original letters that General Greene wrote during the war.
Here is the URL in case anyone out there is interested in seeing what he was really like. We also have all of George Washington’s original correspondence and it is all free. The following “link” will take you to this particular place on

joe bernstein
joe bernstein
12 years ago

Crowley has a habit of throwing verbal bombs and not apparently thinking much beforehand on occasion.It’s no surprise to anyone who regularly visits/contributes to RI political blogs.

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