Nathanael Greene: American general in the American Revolutionary War (1742 - 1786) | Biography, Bibliography, Facts, Information, Career, Wiki, Life
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Nathanael Greene
American general in the American Revolutionary War

Nathanael Greene

Nathanael Greene
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro American general in the American Revolutionary War
Was Military officer Soldier Officer
From United States of America
Field Military
Gender male
Birth 27 July 1742, Warwick, Kent County, Rhode Island, U.S.A.
Death 19 June 1786, Savannah, Chatham County, Georgia, U.S.A. (aged 43 years)
Star sign Leo
Spouse: Catherine Littlefield Greene
The details (from wikipedia)


Nathanael Greene (August 7 [O.S. July 27] 1742 – June 19, 1786, sometimes misspelled Nathaniel) was a major general of the Continental Army in the American Revolutionary War known for his successful command in the Southern Campaign, forcing British Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis to abandon the Carolinas and head for Virginia. When the war began, Greene was a militia private, the lowest rank possible; he emerged from the war with a reputation as George Washington's most gifted and dependable officer. Many places in the United States are named after him. He suffered financial difficulties in the post-war years and died in 1786.

Early life and education

Coat of Arms of Nathanael Greene

Greene was the son of Nathanael Greene (4 November 1707–October 1768), a Quaker farmer and smith, and he was descended from John Greene, Sr. and Samuel Gorton, both of whom were founding settlers of Warwick, Rhode Island. Nathanael was born on Forge Farm at Potowomut in the township of Warwick, Rhode Island on August 7, 1742 (new style). His mother Mary Mott was his father's second wife. His father's sect discouraged "literary accomplishments," so Greene educated himself with a special study of mathematics and law. The Rev. Ezra Stiles, later president of Yale University, was a strong influence in the young Nathanael's life.

In 1770, Greene moved to Coventry, Rhode Island to take charge of the family-owned foundry, just prior to his father's death. There he was the first to urge the establishment of a public school and was chosen as a member of the Rhode Island General Assembly in the same year, to which he was re-elected in 1771, 1772, and 1775. He sympathized strongly with the Whig or Patriot element among the colonists.

Personal life

In July 1774, he married Catharine Littlefield, also known as Caty or Kitty, who was a dozen or so years younger than he. They had six children who survived infancy. He was Quaker by birth, and struggled to reconcile the faith's commitment to pacifism throughout his military career. He continued to serve despite this, as did many other Quakers in the American Revolution.



In August 1774, Greene helped organize a local militia which was chartered as the Kentish Guards that October. His participation in the group was challenged because he had a pronounced limp. At this time, he began to acquire many expensive volumes on military tactics and began to teach himself the art of war. In December 1774, he was on a committee appointed by the assembly to revise the militia laws. His zeal in fighting the British and organizing the militia led to his expulsion from the pacifistic Quakers.

American War of Independence


On May 8, 1775, he was promoted from private to major general of the Rhode Island Army of Observation formed in response to the Siege of Boston. He was appointed a brigadier of the Continental Army by the Continental Congress on June 22, 1775. George Washington assigned Greene the command of the city of Boston after it was evacuated by the British in March 1776.

New York

On August 9, 1776, he was promoted to be one of the four new major generals and was put in command of the Continental Army troops on Long Island; he chose the place for fortifications, and supervised the construction of redoubts and entrenchments (the site of current day Fort Greene Park) east of Brooklyn Heights. Severe illness prevented him from taking part in the Battle of Long Island. Greene was also a Rhode Island Freemason and bore a masonic jewel, the gift of his Masonic Brother the Marquis de Lafayette, on his person throughout the whole of the revolution.

Greene was prominent among those who advised a retreat from New York City. He also advocated the burning of the city so that the British might not use it. He justified this by asserting that the majority of property was owned by Loyalists. While Washington agreed with this, the proposal was rejected by Congress. He was placed in command of Fort Constitution (later renamed Fort Lee) on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. On October 25, 1776, he succeeded General Israel Putnam in command of Fort Washington, across the river from Fort Constitution. He received orders from Washington to defend Fort Washington to the last extremity, and on October 11, 1776, the Congress passed a resolution to the same effect; but later Washington wrote to him to use his own discretion. Greene ordered Colonel Magaw, who was in immediate command, to defend the place until he should hear from him again, and reinforced it to meet General Howe's attack. Nevertheless, the blame for the losses of Forts Washington and Constitution was put upon Greene, but apparently without his losing the confidence of Washington, who himself assumed the responsibility.

At the Battle of Trenton, Greene commanded one of the two American columns. After the victory there, he urged Washington to push on immediately to Princeton, but was overruled by a council of war.


At the Battle of Brandywine, Greene commanded the reserve. At Germantown, Greene's command failed to arrive in good time, having a greater distance to march than the right wing under Sullivan – a failure which Greene himself thought would cost him Washington's trust. But when they arrived at length, Greene and his troops distinguished themselves.

Painting by Charles Willson Peale

At the urgent request of Washington on March 2, 1778, at Valley Forge, he accepted the office of Quartermaster General. His conduct in this difficult office, of which Washington heartily approved, was said to be "as good as was possible under the circumstances of that fluctuating uncertain force." However, he had become Quartermaster General on the understanding that he should retain the right to command troops in the field. Thus, we find him at the head of the right wing at Monmouth on June 28, 1778.

Rhode Island

In August, Greene and Lafayette commanded the land forces sent to Rhode Island to co-operate with French admiral d'Estaing, in an expedition (the Battle of Rhode Island) which proved unsuccessful. In June 1780, Greene was in command at the Battle of Springfield. In August, he resigned the office of Quartermaster General after a long and bitter struggle with Congress over the interference in army administration by the Treasury Board and by commissions appointed by Congress. Greene had vehemently argued with Congress over how to supply the Continental Army. Congress was in favor of having the individual states provide equipment, which had already proven to be ineffective since the federal government held little to no power over the states. A month before Washington appointed him commander of West Point, it fell to Greene to preside over the court which condemned Major John André to death on September 29, 1780. Greene spent the winter of 1780-81 at the house of John Tillinghast, an important Newport merchant.

Command in the South

Washington & Nathanael Greene

The Congress had been unfortunate in the selection of commanders in the South. It had chosen Robert Howe, and he had lost Savannah. It had chosen Benjamin Lincoln, and he had lost Charleston. The British attacked Horatio Gates' army near Camden, South Carolina on August 16, 1780, which broke and ran in wild confusion. This defeat effectively ended the American Southern army as a cohesive fighting force. It left the way clear for Cornwallis to pursue his goals of gathering southern Loyalists and taking the war to Virginia. He planned then to use his captured Southern ports to move men and materiel into the interior of North and South Carolina.

When Gates' successor was to be chosen, the Congress decided to entrust the choice to General Washington. On October 5, it resolved "that the Commander-in-Chief be and is hereby directed to appoint an officer to command the southern army, in the room of Major General Gates." Washington delayed not at all in making his selection. On the day after he received a copy of the resolution, he wrote to Nathanael Greene at West Point, "It is my wish to appoint You." The Congress approved the appointment, gave Greene command over all troops from Delaware to Georgia with extraordinarily full powers, "subject to the control of the Commander-in-Chief", effectively making him the second-in-command of the entire Continental Army. Greene took command at Hillsborough, North Carolina, on December 3, 1780. Brig. Gen. Isaac Huger of the South Carolina Continentals was appointed his second in command. He was one of the dependable leaders in the state.

The strategic retreat

The American army was weak and badly equipped and was opposed by a superior force under Cornwallis. Greene decided to divide his own troops, thus forcing the division of the British, as well, and creating the possibility of a strategic interplay of forces. The campaign changed, starting with the success at the Battle of Kings Mountain in 1780 under Colonel William Campbell (he was later appointed as a Brigadier General in 1781). The entire British force was captured or killed (100% of all opposing forces). A new strategy led to General Daniel Morgan's victory of Cowpens on January 17, 1781, where nearly nine-tenths of the entire British force were killed or captured. Many of the same forces who were at Kings Mountain also came to Cowpens.

With over 800 prisoners, Morgan began a strategic retreat, moving north towards the Salisbury District where he was joined by Greene at Cowan's Ford on the Catawba River where a force of Patriot Militia fought a small engagement against Cornwallis's forces. Greene then wrote to Huger to direct his troop movement from Guilford Courthouse. Arriving on February 9 at Guilford, Greene summoned his field officers to a council of war and put forward the question of whether the army should give battle. It was voted that for the time being, the army should continue retreating to gather more forces, and defer engagement with Cornwallis. On the tenth he wrote to Patrick Henry requesting troops, "If it is possible for you to call forth fifteen hundred Volunteers & march them immediately to my assistance, the British Army will be exposed to a very critical and dangerous situation."

"In all probability you will find me on the North side of Dan River. I must repeat it, the present moment is big with the most important consequences, & requires the greatest & most spirited exertions."

The race to the Dan River

The Council of War letter (this copy made contemporaneously with original) that Greene sent of the proceedings to Samuel Huntington, the president of Congress. Written at Guilford Court House on February 9. 1781. This is a scan of the photograph from the National Archives.

Greene at this same time formed a special light corps to be commanded by Col. Otho Williams to cover the main army’s retreat. In a letter to George Washington on February 9, he described the "light army" he had formed under Williams as composed of: "cavalry of the 1st and 3rd Regiments and the Legion amounting to 240, a detachment of 280 Infantry under Lieut. Col. Howard, the Infantry of Lieut. Col. Lee's Legion and 60 Virginia Riflemen making in their whole 700 men which will be ordered with the Militia to harass the enemy in their advance, check their progress and if possible give us opportunity to retire without general action." Also saying "I called a Council, who unanimously advised to avoid an action, and to retire beyond the Roanoke immediately. A copy of the proceedings I have the honor to inclose." The re-united army only numbered two thousand and thirty-six men, including fourteen hundred and twenty-six regulars. Col. Edward Carrington joined the command, with the report that boats had been secured, and secreted along the Dan River in Virginia, so as to be collected on a few hours' warning. The British army was at Salem, only twenty-five miles from Guilford. This was on the tenth of February.

By the fourteenth, Greene's army had outrun the British and crossed the Dan River at Irvine's ferry in Halifax County, Virginia with boats being delivered from Boyd's ferry in Halifax and from Dix's ferry in Pittsylvania County, Virginia. Cornwallis got the news in the course of the evening. The river was too high to cross without boats, and every boat was on the farther shore. Greene had won the race.

"This American retreat, which extended across the breadth of North Carolina, is considered one of the masterful military achievements of all time." Dennis M. Conrad, Project Director and Editor, The Papers of General Nathanael Greene.

In a letter to General John Butler, Greene writes "I have some expectation of collecting a force sufficient in this County to enable me to act offensively and in turn race Lord Cornwallis as he has done me."

Battle of Guilford Court House

Monument to General Nathanael Greene, Guilford Courthouse National Military Park

After only a week's encampment at Halifax Court House, Greene had sufficient promises and reports of help on the way to recross the river. Greene and the main army re-crossed the Dan River into North Carolina on the 22nd, then pursued Cornwallis and gave battle on March 15, 1781, at the Battle of Guilford Court House in North Carolina, on ground which he had chosen. Greene's army engaged Cornwallis's Army. At the height of the battle, as the Continentals started to turn the British flank, Cornwallis ordered his artillery to fire grapeshot into the thick of the battle, killing as many of his own men as Greene's. Greene ordered his army to execute a tactical retreat and left the field to Cornwallis, but inflicted a great loss of men to the British. Three days after this battle, with his army battered and exhausted, Cornwallis withdrew toward Wilmington, North Carolina. Greene's generalship and judgment were again conspicuously illustrated in the next few weeks, in which he allowed Cornwallis to march north to Virginia and himself turned swiftly to the reconquest of the inner country of South Carolina. This he achieved by the end of June, in spite of a reverse sustained at Francis Rawdon's hands at Hobkirk's Hill (2 miles north of Camden) on April 25. From May 22 – June 19, 1781, Greene led the Siege of Ninety-Six, which ended unsuccessfully. These actions helped force the British to the coast.

Greene then gave his forces a six weeks rest on the High Hills of the Santee River, and on September 8, with 2,600 men, engaged the British under Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Stewart at Eutaw Springs. Americans who fell in this battle were immortalized by American author Philip Freneau in his 1781 poem "To the Memory of Brave Americans." The battle, although tactically a draw, so weakened the British that they withdrew to Charleston, where Greene pinned them down during the remaining months of the war.

Greene's Southern Campaign showed remarkable strategic features. He excelled in dividing, eluding, and tiring his opponent by long marches, and in actual conflict forcing the British to pay heavily for a temporary advantage, a price that they could not afford. However, he was defeated in every pitched battle which he fought against the British during his time as southern commander. He was greatly assisted by able subordinates, including Polish engineer Tadeusz Kościuszko, brilliant cavalry officers Henry ("Light-Horse Harry") Lee and William Washington, and partisan leaders Thomas Sumter, Andrew Pickens, Elijah Clarke, and Francis Marion. In the end, Greene and his forces liberated the southern states from British control. When the Treaty of Paris ended the war, British forces controlled a couple of southern coastal cities, but Greene controlled the rest.

Later life and death

Greene was an original member of the Rhode Island Society of the Cincinnati and served as the Society's president from its founding in 1783 until his death.

North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia all voted Greene liberal grants of lands and money, including an estate called "Boone's Barony" which was south of Edisto in Bamberg County, South Carolina, and Mulberry Grove Plantation near Savannah, Georgia. He sold Boone's Barony to pay bills for the rations of his Southern army.

After twice refusing the post of Secretary of War, Greene settled in 1785 on his Georgia estate at Mulberry Grove. He died there at age 43, on June 19, 1786. For 114 years his remains were interred at The Graham Vault in Colonial Park Cemetery of Savannah. Later his remains were moved to a monument in Johnson Square in Savannah.


Greene was singularly able and, like other prominent generals on the American side, a self-trained soldier. He was second only to Washington among the officers of the American army in military ability, and the only general, other than Washington and Henry Knox, to serve the entire eight years of the war. Like Washington, he had the great gift of using small means to the utmost advantage. His attitude towards the British was humane and even kindly. He even generously defended Horatio Gates, who had repeatedly intrigued against him, when Gates' conduct of the campaign in the South was criticized.

For his actions at Eutaw Springs, the Continental Congress awarded him a Gold Medal.


Greene's grave in Johnson Square, Savannah, Georgia

There are many cities, counties, and parks named in honor of Nathanael Greene across America. In addition, there have been four Coast Guard revenue cutters named for him. There was also the Navy's USS Nathanael Greene, a James Madison-class nuclear submarine (decommissioned in 1986). Other vessels include an Army cargo ship, hull number 313 (1904), Liberty class steam merchant (1942), which was sunk by a U-boat during World War II, and a 128-foot Army tug, USAV MG Nathanael Greene (LT 801), which is still in service today.

A large oil portrait of Nathanael Greene hangs in the State Room in the Rhode Island State House, and a statue stands outside the building's south facade. A cenotaph to him stands in the Old Forge Burial Ground in Warwick.

His statue, with that of Roger Williams, represents the state of Rhode Island in the National Hall of Statuary in the Capitol at Washington; in the same city there is a bronze equestrian statue of him by Henry Kirke Brown at the center of Stanton Park. A small statue of Greene by Lewis Iselin, Jr. is part of the Terrace of Heroes outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

He is also memorialized by an equestrian statue designed by Francis H. Packard at the site of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse near what is now Greensboro, North Carolina, the city named after him. Another statue stands in the middle of the traffic circle between Greene Street and McGee Street in downtown Greensboro. Greeneville, Tennessee and Greene County, Tennessee are also named after him. In 2006, the city of Greenville, South Carolina, also named for him, unveiled a statue of Greene designed by T. J. Dixon and James Nelson at the corner of South Main and Broad Streets.

In 2000, a six-foot tall, bronze statue of Greene by sculptor Chas Fagan was unveiled in St. Clair Park, in Greensburg, Pennsylvania.

On August 7, 2015, his 273rd birthday, the General Society Sons of the Revolution dedicated a statue to General Greene on the Washington Memorial Chapel grounds located in Valley Forge NMP, Pennsylvania.

The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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