WHO WAS NATHANAEL GREENE?

< back

Nathanael Greene has yet to take his appropriate place of honor as a founding father whose decisions and actions were pivotal to the establishment of these United States. Though properly referred to as the ‘strategist of the American Revolution’, even that forgotten title does not offer a true picture of his importance. He was in truth, thrice the savior of the Continental Army.

Greene was born and reared in what is now East Greenwich, RI (1742). The home where he was born is still owned by a Greene descendant. Nathanael was one of eight sons born to Nathanael Greene, Sr. The elder Greene was well established in the Rhode Island Colony with various businesses, including two iron works. At the age of twenty-eight, young Nathanael Greene (who would become the General) took charge of the iron works in Coventry, RI. He had a house built (The Nathanael Greene Homestead), married Catherine (Caty) Littlefield of Block Island, and intended to forge ship anchors and the chains that held them, while raising a family with Caty. Growing friction with the mother country of Great Britain would quickly change his plans.

Iron Master Nathanael Greene was a practicing Quaker until 1774. That same year, he helped form a local militia regiment known as the Kentish Guards, and took his place within the ranks. Though he had no military training, in April of 1775 Greene’s rank went from private to brigadier general, literally over-night. He would rise to major general in the Continental Army, and second in command. A confidant and intimate friend of George Washington’s, Greene remained loyal to his command and friendship throughout the War. Indeed, Washington and Greene were the only two general officers who remained in that position from the start of the Revolution to its end.

Major General Greene’s first action in saving the Continental Army was at the Battle of Brandywine in Pennsylvania (1777). Here, he moved his division four miles in only forty-five minutes to aid General John Sullivan’s division, which was being decimated by his second action was in accepting the difficult position of Quartermaster General at Valley Forge (1778). Within a few weeks, supplies were arriving for the Continental Troops. Had it not been for Quartermaster General Greene, the army would have disbanded that cruel winter. General Von Steuben would not have had an army to drill, nor General Washington an army to lead into battle the following spring.

Were it not for Greene’s acceptance to take command of the Southern Campaign, again our history, in all likelihood, would be vastly altered. By 1780, the British had turned their attention to the Southern States. Two generals had failed miserably in holding the South. General George Washington sent his second in command, General Nathanael Greene to accomplish the task, or lose the War in the attempt. Greene’s remarkable innate skill in tactics and strategy; his newly acquired skill in supplying an army; his unique ability to adapt to drastic change in circumstances; and his selfless determination to ‘get the job done’ saved the South from British domination – and saved the new nation from ultimate defeat. Greene’s masterful strategies in Guerilla warfare and retreat, weakened the British. In regard to his Southern Campaign, Nathanael Greene wrote, “We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.” As well as his admission that few generals had, “run oftener, or more lustily than I have done…I have taken care not to run too far and commonly have run as fast forward as backward, to convince our enemy that we were like a crab that could run either way.” Such precision in retreat weakened the British bit by bit, drawing them further and further from their supply base.

General Greene pulled the British to the shores of Yorktown, Virginia (1781), where General Washington and the main army forced their surrender. Though Nathanael Greene played a vital role in setting up the Battle of Yorktown, he took no part in the actual battle. With some British forces remaining in the Deep South, Greene turned his troops around, and continued to keep the British in check for another year. At the close of the War (1783), Nathanael Greene left Rhode Island and moved his wife Caty and five young children to Savannah, Georgia. Abandoned by the Continental Congress, General Greene was left with the enormous debt for the supply of his Southern troops. He sacrificed his youth and health in the Southern Campaign. This financial stress, now added, was overwhelming. Nathanael Greene died of a stroke at the age of forty-four (1786).

Major General Nathanael Greene’s pivotal role in the American Revolution gets little attention. Why? According to his earliest biography written by Supreme Court Justice William Johnson in 1822, there were a number of reasons:

  • When he took command of the South, he dared to take command of the state militia companies as well as the Continental Army.
  • He asked the governors of the South to free slaves in return for their service in the Continental Army.
  • He sought forgiveness for those Americans who remained loyal to Great Britain throughout the War.
  • He died before the United States Government was firmly established.
  • As Quartermaster General and Commander of the Southern Campaign, Nathanael Greene dared to oppose men in powerful political positions when it came to the proper supply of the army.

Though abandoned by Congress, and almost forgotten in the re-telling of the history of the American Revolution – except in the South – Major General Nathanael Greene has been, and continues to be honored in Military History. His tactics and strategies are taught at West Point. His near miraculous achievement at Valley Forge as Quartermaster General is recognized by the US Army Quartermaster Museum. His gets no credit for this monumental feat — not even on the website or in the information given at the Valley Forge National Historical Park.

A number of statues and monuments have been dedicated to him in the states of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. On August 7, 2015, a statue of General Greene will be dedicated by the General Society of the Sons of the Revolution at the Washington Memorial Chapel located just outside the Valley Forge National Historical Park. This statue is in honor of his role in saving the army at Valley Forge, as well as his extraordinary sense of duty, courage, and selflessness as a general officer in the Continental Army.