Nathanael Greene

American Revolutionary War general Nathanael Greene (1742-1786) was considered "the greatest military genius of the war." His chief contribution to the American victory lay in his brilliant southern campaign.

Nathanael Greene was born in Potowomut, R.I., on Aug. 7, 1742. Although he had only a slight formal education, he read voraciously on his own in a large variety of subjects, including military science, history, and mathematics. To satisfy his interest in learning, he amassed a private library of some 200 volumes.

As a young man, Greene went to work in the family iron foundry but moved in 1770 to nearby Coventry to operate a new forge established by his father. In the same year he was elected a deputy to the Rhode Island General Assembly and was returned to office in 1771, 1772, and 1775. On July 20, 1774, he married Catherine Littlefield.

In the growing conflict between England and its American colonies, there was no question where Greene's sympathies lay. He was on the side of the Colonies, and when, in 1775, Rhode Island raised three regiments to join the fight against England, he was named commander with the rank of brigadier general. At once he marched his troops to Cambridge, Mass., to take part in the siege of Boston under Gen. George Washington. When the British evacuated that city in the spring of 1776, Greene moved with Washington's army to New York, where a campaign was under way to save that strategic area from the enemy.

Taken with a sudden illness, Greene missed the Battle of Long Island but fought in the later, autumn engagements in and around New York. Retreating with Washington to New Jersey, at Trenton he commanded the left wing in the surprise attack on the Hessian mercenaries on the British side. In January 1777 Greene was in the Battle of Princeton. For the remainder of the year he was at Washington's side in every encounter. At Brandywine and at Germantown his superb generalship helped keep small defeats from becoming total routs.

In February 1778, when Washington was seeking to replace the quartermaster general with an officer who would bring greater efficiency to the task of supplying the army, he chose Greene. Despite his reluctance to give up commanding troops, Greene accepted the assignment and for slightly more than 2 years held that post. His performance, according to Theodore Thayer (1960), was "little less than miraculous."

Although he disliked the job, considering it derogatory, Greene was able to realize a financial profit from the 3 percent commission allowed him on all purchases made by his department. He was finally rescued from the office in October 1780, when Congress, on Washington's recommendation, appointed him to take command of the army in the south, which had been led by Gen. Horatio Gates. Three months earlier Gates had been defeated by the British at Camden, S.C., in a battle that shattered the American army and put the English in control of the Carolinas and Georgia.

Washington's choice was entirely logical, for in the 5 years since Greene had served under him, he had come to depend on the Rhode Islander more and more for advice and had repeatedly sent him on important missions. Once when he had to be away from the army, Washington had designated Greene to act as commander in chief in his place, and on one occasion he let it be known that should he be killed or captured Greene would be his best successor.

Greene lost no time in journeying south to assume command of the army and reorganize it. He arrived in Charlotte, N.C., in December 1780. By the end of the next year he had cleared the British completely from the Carolinas and Georgia (except for Charleston) and sent them scurrying into Virginia and into the trap at Yorktown which led to England's surrender. Greene's brilliant strategy, characterized as "dazzling shiftiness," consisted of dividing the enemy, eluding him, and tiring him. Greene lost battles— Guilford Court House in March 1781, Hobkirk's Hill in April, and Eutaw Springs in September—but in every instance, it was the British who suffered the heaviest losses and who found it necessary to withdraw, regroup, and await reinforcement. Meanwhile, Greene sent small units to destroy isolated British garrisons. By the time of the British surrender at Yorktown on October 1781, which brought the war to an end, only Charleston remained under British occupation; it fell in December 1782.

Greene spent the few years left to him after the war on the plantation Mulberry Grove, near Savannah, which the grateful state of Georgia had given him. There he died of sunstroke on June 19, 1786.

Further Reading on Nathanael Greene

The best biography of Greene is Theodore Thayer, Nathanael Greene: Strategist of the American Revolution (1960). A good description of his military career is Francis Vinton Greene, General Greene (1893). For Greene's southern campaigns see John Richard Alden, The South in the Revolution, 1763-1789 (1957). Information on the part he played in the north is in volumes 3 and 4 of Douglas Southall Freeman, George Washington: A Biography (6 vols., 1948-1954).

Additional Biography Sources

Abbazia, Patrick, Nathanael Greene, Commander of the American Continental Army in the South, Charlotteville, N.Y.: SamHar Press, 1976.