American Revolution: Major General Nathanael Greene

Nathanael Greene during the American Revolution
Major General Nathanael Greene. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Though a Quaker by birth, Major General Nathanael Greene rose to become one of General George Washington's most trusted subordinates during the American Revolution (1775-1783). Initially commanding Rhode Island's militia, he earned a commission in the Continental Army in June 1775 and within a year was leading large formations in Washington's command.

Though Greene's performance around New York in 1776 proved uneven, he rendered superior service during the 1777 Philadelphia Campaign and in subsequent years. In late 1780, he was given command of American forces in the South and conducted an effective campaign that greatly weakened British forces in the region and ultimately forced them back to Charleston, SC.

Early Life

Born August 7, 1742, in Potowomut, RI, Nathanael Greene was the son of a Quaker farmer and businessman. Despite religious misgivings about formal education, the young Greene excelled in his studies and was able to convince his family to retain a tutor to teach him Latin and advanced mathematics. Guided by future Yale president Ezra Stiles, Greene continued his academic progress.

When his father died in 1770, he began to distance himself from the church and was elected to the Rhode Island General Assembly. This religious separation continued when he married the non-Quaker Catherine Littlefield in July 1774. The couple would ultimately have six children that survived infancy.

Moving Towards Revolution

A supporter of the Patriot cause, Greene assisted in the formation of a local militia near his home at Coventry, RI in August 1774. Dubbed the "Kentish Guards," Greene's participation in the unit's activities was limited due a slight limp. Unable to march with the men, he became an avid student of military tactics and strategy. As such, Greene acquired a substantial library of military texts, and like fellow self-taught officer Henry Knox, worked to master the subject. His devotion to military affairs led to his expulsion from the Quakers.

The following year, Greene was again elected to the General Assembly. In the wake of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, Greene was appointed as a brigadier general in the Rhode Island Army of Observation. In this capacity he led the colony's troops to join in the siege of Boston.

Becoming a General

Recognized for his abilities, Greene was commissioned as a brigadier general in the Continental Army on June 22, 1775. A few weeks later, on July 4, he first met General George Washington and the two became close friends. With the British evacuation of Boston in March 1776, Washington placed Greene in command of the city before dispatching him south to Long Island. Promoted to major general on August 9, he was given command of Continental forces on the island. After constructing fortifications during early August, he missed the disastrous defeat at the Battle of Long Island on the 27th due to a severe fever.

Greene finally saw combat on September 16, when he commanded troops during the Battle of Harlem Heights. Engaged during the later part of the battle, his men helped push the British back. Given command of American forces in New Jersey, he launched an abortive attack on Staten Island on October 12. Moved to command Fort Washington (on Manhattan) later that month, he erred by encouraging Washington to hold the fortification. Though Colonel Robert Magaw was ordered to defend the fort to the last, it fell on November 16 with over 2,800 Americans captured. Three days later, Fort Lee, across the Hudson River was taken as well.

The Philadelphia Campaign

Though Greene was blamed for the loss of both forts, Washington retained confidence in the Rhode Island general. After falling back across New Jersey, Greene led a wing of the army during the victory at the Battle of Trenton on December 26. A few days later, on January 3, he played a role at the Battle of Princeton. After entering winter quarters at Morristown, NJ, Greene spent part of 1777, lobbying the Continental Congress for supplies. On September 11, he commanded a division during the defeat at Brandywine, before leading one of the attack columns at Germantown on October 4.

Moving to Valley Forge for the winter, Washington appointed Greene quartermaster general on March 2, 1778. Greene accepted on the condition that he be allowed to retain his combat command. Diving into his new responsibilities, he was frequently frustrated by Congress' unwillingness to allocate supplies. Departing Valley Forge, the army fell upon the British at near Monmouth Court House, NJ. In the resulting Battle of Monmouth, Greene led the right wing of the army. In the latter phases of the fighting, his men successfully repulsed heavy British assaults on their lines.

Rhode Island

That August, Greene was sent to Rhode Island with the Marquis de Lafayette to coordinate an offensive with French Admiral Comte d'Estaing. This campaign came to dismal end when American forces under Brigadier General John Sullivan were defeated on August 29. Returning to the main army in New Jersey, Greene led American forces to victory at the Battle of Springfield on June 23, 1780.

Two months later, Greene resigned as quartermaster general citing Congressional interference in army matters. On September 29, 1780, he presided over the court-martial that condemned spy Major John Andre to death. After American forces in the South suffered a serious defeat at the Battle of Camden, Congress asked Washington to select a new commander for the region to replace the disgraced Major General Horatio Gates.

Going South

Without hesitation, Washington appointed Greene to lead Continental forces in the South. Departing, Greene took command of his new army at Charlotte, NC on December 2, 1780. Facing a superior British force led by General Lord Charles Cornwallis, Greene sought to buy time to rebuild his battered army. Dividing his men in two, he gave command of one force to Brigadier General Daniel Morgan. The following month, Morgan defeated Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton at the Battle of Cowpens. Despite the victory, Greene and his commander still did not feel the army was ready to engage Cornwallis.

Reuniting with Morgan, Greene continued a strategic retreat and crossed the Dan River on February 14, 1781. Unable to follow due to flood waters on the river, Cornwallis elected to return south to North Carolina. After camping at Halifax Court House, VA for a week, Greene was sufficiently reinforced to permit him to recross the river and begin shadowing Cornwallis. On March 15, the two armies met at the Battle of Guilford Court House. Though Greene's men were forced to retreat, they inflicted heavy casualties on Cornwallis' army, compelling it to withdraw towards Wilmington, NC.

In the wake of the battle, Cornwallis elected to move north into Virginia. Seeing an opportunity, Greene decided not to pursue and instead moved south to reconquer the Carolinas. Despite a minor defeat at Hobkirk's Hill on April 25, Greene succeeded in retaking the interior of South Carolina by mid-June 1781. After allowing his men to rest in the Santee Hills for six weeks, he resumed the campaign and won a strategic victory at Eutaw Springs on September 8. By the end of the campaign season, the British were forced back to Charleston where they were contained by Greene's men. He remained outside the city until the war's end.

Later Life

With the conclusion of hostilities, Greene returned home to Rhode Island. For his service in the South, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia all voted him large grants of land. After being forced to sell much of his new land to pay off debts, Greene moved to Mulberry Grove, outside of Savannah, in 1785. Still revered for his military prowess, he twice declined the post of Secretary of War. Greene died on June 19, 1786, after suffering from heat stroke.