Nathanael Greene was born in the Potowomut section of the town of Warwick on July 27, 1742 (or August 7, according to the New Style Julian calendar adopted in England and the American colonies in 1752). His father, for whom he was named, was a farmer and an iron maker whose second wife, Mary Mott, was Nathanael’s mother. Both parents were devout Quakers who did not encourage literary accomplishments and advanced learning, so young Nathanael educated himself while working at his father’s forge. As an ironmonger, Greene made frequent trips to Hope Furnace in Scituate, establishing a business and a personal relationship with the furnace owners–Scituate native Stephen Hopkins and the Brown family of Providence. These contacts undoubtedly aided his later meteoric rise in the military service.
In 1770, Greene moved to Coventry, just before his father’s death, to take charge of the family forge in that town. Meanwhile, he continued his studies in law, politics, mathematics, and, especially, military strategy and tactics. Eventually, he would develop a personal library on these subjects that exceeded two hundred volumes.
This militant Quaker greatly enhanced his political (and military) fortunes) in 1774 by marrying Catharine Littlefield Greene (“Caty”), a leading Block Island family member. At the time of the wedding of the thirty-two-year-old businessman to the vivacious nineteen-year-old Caty, the bride was living in East Greenwich with the aunt for whom she was named and her aunt’s husband, William Greene–future House Speaker, then Rhode Island governor (1778-1786), and member of the Council of War. Another of Caty’s aunts, Ann Ray, was married to former governor Samuel Ward of Westerly, who befriended Greene and corresponded with him. In business and by marriage, Nathanael had bridged the famous Ward-Hopkins political divide. So, too, did these former antagonists, who in 1774 joined hands as the Rhode Island delegates to the First Continental Congress.
Some accounts of Greene’s life assert that he was elected as a deputy from Coventry to the General Assembly in 1770, 1771, 1772, and 1775. In-depth research by Richard Showman and Robert McCarthy, editors of the thirteen-volume Papers of General Nathanael Greene, persuasively contend that another Coventry man with an identical name was the state legislator. The future general had powerful legislative allies but never served in the Rhode Island General Assembly.
Rumors of resistance to British rule and such local acts of defiance as the burning of the English revenue ship Gaspee in June 1772 had already mobilized Greene to action. He was expelled from the Quakers in 1773 for his martial spirit, and in 1774, he served on a legislative committee to revise the colony’s militia laws and to plan for the defense of Rhode Island against British invasion. In that eventful year, he was also a prime mover in creating an East Greenwich militia company that became the Kentish Guards. When he was rejected as an officer in this unit because of a limp caused by a childhood injury, he volunteered as a private.
Realizing the ridiculousness of this situation, on May 8, 1775, Nathanael’s friends in the General Assembly commissioned him a brigadier general in the 1,500-man “army of observation” that it created on April 25, 1775, a week after the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord. Perhaps never in the annuals of American military history did a man experience such a rapid rise in rank from private to general!
Greene promptly reported with his army to General George Washington to join in the siege of Boston. Washington, the newly installed commander-in-chief of the Continental Army (appointed to his top post with critical support from New Englanders such as Sam Ward and Stephen Hopkins), promptly gave Greene the rank of brigadier general in the Continental Army on June 22, 1775.
Greene’s first military venture ended well for the Americans when the British evacuated Boston on March 17, 1776, an event that allowed future generations to create a state holiday that honored both Washington and St. Patrick. At Boston, Greene won the friendship and earned the respect of Washington, who marked the Rhode Islander for future high responsibility in the Continental Army. While conducting the siege, Greene wrote several times to Congressman Sam Ward. “Permit me then,” he wrote on one occasion, “ to recommend from the sincerity of my heart, ready at all times to bleed in my country’s cause, a Declaration of Independence, and call upon the world and the Great God who governs it to witness the necessity, propriety, and rectitude thereof”–sentiments amazingly anticipatory of Jefferson and his actual declaration.
In 1776, Greene moved to the New York theater of war, where his performance was as undistinguished as American operations there. Partially because of his decision not to evacuate Fort Washington in Manhattan when it became endangered, the British captured the fort and took 2,800 American prisoners. He was then given command of Forts Washington and Lee on the New Jersey side of the Hudson north of New York City, but he relinquished them to General William Howe’s superior force. Fortunately, Washington (who shared in these setbacks) retained confidence in Greene’s military knowledge and ability and in his ardent dedication to the cause of independence. Greene was promoted to the rank of major general in August 1776.
In the retreat of the continentals across New Jersey, “the cockpit of the Revolution,” Greene vindicated Washington’s confidence in him, especially in developing the plan for the successful attack on Trenton, in thwarting Howe’s maneuver against Washington’s right flank at Brandywine, and in his penetrations of enemy lines at Germantown, followed by a masterful retreat to safety. Greene spent the winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge with Washington, an experience that impressed upon Congress America’s dire need to feed, clothe, equip, and supply its fighting men. Accordingly, both Congress and Washington pressured the reluctant Greene to assume the vital and thankless post of quartermaster general.
Greene accepted, but on condition that he not be relieved of battlefield command. During the next two years, he vastly improved the flow of supplies to the troops in the field, but the thanks he received from some quarters were counteracted by baseless charges of war profiteering. Actually, Greene often expended his own funds or his own credit during the course of the conflict and left the army in 1783 heavily in debt.
During his stint as quartermaster, Greene managed to excel in the American victories at Monmouth and Springfield, New Jersey, and in the August 29, 1778, American victory in the one-day Battle of Rhode Island. Here, he joined with fellow Rhode Islanders General James Mitchell Varnum, Colonel Christopher Greene, Major Sam Ward Jr., Captains Silas Talbot and Stephen Olney, and the Black Regiment–all under the command of General John Sullivan–to decisively repulse a determined British-Hessian effort to disrupt the American withdrawal from Aquidneck Island after the failed siege of Newport. The victory of Sullivan and Greene in this battle, the largest in the history of New England, prevented the capture of a 5,000-man American army by a British force of comparable size and ensured its safe and unimpeded evacuation to the mainland.
In October 1780, Greene received the military opportunity for which he had worked and studied: the command of the southern theater of war, replacing General Horatio Gates, who had just been routed at the Battle of Camden. When Congress granted Washington the discretion to choose a new commander, he unhesitatingly selected Greene, who accepted the appointment enthusiastically, having resigned his quartermaster post in disgust in August 1780. En route South, Nathanael stopped at Philadelphia to make a successful request that the troops commanded by Virginia’s Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee be added to his army.
During a campaign of less than two years’ duration, Greene justly earned a reputation as “strategist of the Revolution” and proved as adroit at hit-and-run warfare and strategic retreat as General George Patton would at sustained offense. Greene took command of a depleted force of 2,200 men, two-thirds of whom were militia, at Charlotte, North Carolina, on December 3, 1780. Learning that his foe, Lord Charles Cornwallis, was awaiting reinforcements in Winnsboro, South Carolina, Greene divided his small force before these reinforcements could arrive, sending Daniel Morgan with 600 riflemen to shadow Cornwallis while Greene rebuilt his own army. Morgan scored a brilliant victory over the brutal British cavalry leader Banastre Tarlton at Cowpens on January 17, 1781, and a reinforced Greene headed north through the breadth of North Carolina to rendezvous with Morgan across the Dan River into Virginia, a move military historians have described as “masterful.”
Acquiring additional troops in Virginia, Greene recrossed the Dan with 4,200 soldiers to battle Cornwallis at Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina. On March 15, Greene retreated after a furious fight, but not before inflicting casualties on approximately 30 percent of the British force. Cornwallis headed for the coast at Wilmington to reorganize. Then he made his fateful decision to march north to Yorktown, where his battered army might be evacuated in the event of additional military damage.
While a badly bruised Cornwallis headed north, Greene went south with 1,500 Continental troops to engage a total of 8,000 British troops garrisoned throughout South Carolina and Georgia and occupying both Charleston and Savannah. Fortunately, he had the assistance of such able, daring, and resourceful “partisans” as Thomas Sumter, Andrew Pickens, and “the Swamp Fox” Francis Marion. Often outnumbered, Greene fought skirmishes (rather than large pitched battles) with the British and their Loyalist allies at Hobkirk’s Hill, Fort Ninety-Six, and bloody Eutaw Springs near Charleston. Greene was forced from the field in each encounter during his relentless campaign of attrition, prompting him to utter his famous remark: “We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.”
Aided by General “Mad” Anthony Wayne and “Light Horse” Harry Lee, Greene’s constant pressure (akin to guerilla warfare) and his gradual control of the interior areas of Georgia and South Carolina first forced the British to the coast and then induced them to evacuate Charleston and Savannah in 1782. Both towns hailed the Rhode Islander as their liberator.
After the conflict formally ended in 1783, North and South Carolina and Georgia granted Greene money or estates in gratitude for his heroic service. Although he returned to Rhode Island briefly, his huge personal war debts prompted him and Caty to seek a more promising economic future in Georgia after twice refusing offers from the Confederation Congress to become secretary of war. Of his several land grants, Greene chose the “Mulberry Grove” plantation, fourteen miles outside Savannah, as his new home. He took up residence there in 1785, but he died of sunstroke on June 19 of the following year at the age of forty-four, before he could extricate himself from debt, leaving Caty and her young children to fend for themselves in a new and challenging environment.
Greene is regarded by military historians as Washington’s ablest general. Other than Washington himself and Henry Knox, he was the only general to serve the entire eight years of the war. Thomas Jefferson, the wartime governor of Virginia, asserted that Greene had no equal as a military thinker among his peers in the officer corps. Numerous cities, counties, schools, and parks are named for Greene across America, especially in the South. A monument to Greene, under which his remains are interred, stands in Johnson Square, Savannah; his statue, with that of Roger Williams, represents the state of Rhode Island in the National Hall of Statuary in Washington’s Capitol Building; his homes in Potowomut and Coventry’s village of Anthony are well preserved, and the Rhode Island Historical Society has completed a thirteen-volume critical edition of his papers, published by the University of North Carolina Press. Both his military ardor and his humane spirit are best expressed to our age by Greene himself: “We are soldiers who devote ourselves to arms, not for the invasion of other counties but for the defense of our own; not for the gratification of our private interests but for public security.”
Nathanael Greene was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1965.
For additional reading: Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.