Skip to main content
Select Source:

Nathanael Greene

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

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 Sources

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

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Nathanael Greene." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Nathanael Greene." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/nathanael-greene

"Nathanael Greene." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved June 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/nathanael-greene

Greene, Nathanael

Greene, Nathanael (1742–1786), Continental army general.Nathanael Greene was born into a Warwick, Rhode Island, family of anchorsmiths and millowners. Raised a Quaker, Greene nevertheless developed a youthful fascination for military history. In 1775 Private Greene joined patriots besieging Boston. His intelligence, knowledge of military affairs, and managerial skills, led Congress to appoint him a brigadier general and placed him in charge of Boston when the British left.

Greene was one of George Washington's favorite lieutenants. An amateur, Greene initially made by‐the‐book mistakes; learning war through war, however, he grew as a leader. Promoted to major‐general, Greene fought the Battles of Trenton and Princeton (1776–77), Brandywine (1777), Germantown (1777), Monmouth (1778), and Newport (1778), and often commanded in Washington's absence. Appointed quartermaster general (1778), his business experience aided him immeasurably. Resuming field duty, Greene fought at Springfield (1780) before accepting command of the Southern Department in December 1780.

In the South, Greene's position appeared hopeless. Georgia and South Carolina had fallen, North Carolina and Virginia lay exposed to British invasion, and his small detachment of the Continental army was ill‐clothed, starving, and demoralized. Greene quickly restored discipline and morale. Next, he boldly divided his force, detaching Daniel Morgan into South Carolina's backcountry and Henry Lee's cavalry to join Francis Marion's coastal guerrillas. It was a stroke of genius. With one order, Greene recaptured the strategic initiative. After Morgan's victory at the Battle of Cowpens (1781), Greene concentrated his forces and led British Gen. Charles Cornwallis deep into North Carolina. At the Battle of Guilford Courthouse (1781) they fought a bitter engagement, with Cornwallis winning a Pyrrhic victory. Lord Cornwallis retired to Virginia to meet ultimate defeat by Washington at the Battle of Yorktown.

Greene returned south. Combining guerrillas, militia, and regulars as integral parts of his operational strategy, he fought several battles (Ninety‐Six, Hobkirk's Hill, Eutaw Springs). The British won all of them, but at high cost. By October 1781, except for Charleston and Savannah, the South was under American control. A brilliant, innovative leader practicing in guerrilla warfare, Greene left the army in 1783. Soon after (1786), he died of sunstroke in Georgia.
[See also Revolutionary War: Military and Diplomatic Course; Yorktown, Battle of.]

Bibliography

Theodore Thayer , Nathanael Greene: Strategist of the Revolution, 1960.
Morgan Dederer , Making Bricks Without Straw: Nathanael Greene's Southern Campaigns and Mao Tse‐Tung's Mobile War, 1983.

John Morgan Dederer

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Greene, Nathanael." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Greene, Nathanael." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/greene-nathanael

"Greene, Nathanael." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Retrieved June 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/greene-nathanael

Greene, Nathanael

Nathanael Greene, 1742–86, American Revolutionary general, b. Potowomut (now Warwick), R.I. An iron founder, he became active in colonial politics and served (1770–72, 1775) in the Rhode Island assembly. At the beginning of the American Revolution he commanded a detachment of militia at the siege of Boston and was in charge of the city after the British evacuation (1776). Greene helped plan the defense of New York (1776), but illness kept him from the battle of Long Island. He was with Washington (1776–77) at Trenton, Brandywine, Germantown, and Valley Forge. In Feb., 1778, he became quartermaster general while still holding his field command; he reorganized the department, found supplies for the army, and rendered fine service in this capacity. His notable ability at organization also appeared in his fieldwork. He fought (1778) at Monmouth and in the Rhode Island campaign and was president (1780) of the court-martial board that sentenced Major John André. After Gates was defeated at Camden (1780), Greene became the commander in the Carolina campaign. He reorganized the Southern army, and he and his lieutenants (notably Daniel Morgan and Henry Lee), with aid of partisan bands under Francis Marion, Thomas Sumter, and Andrew Pickens, turned the tide in Carolina. Greene's forces were defeated at Guilford Courthouse, Hobkirks Hill, and Eutaw Springs, but each time the British victory was reversed, and he pushed south to surround Charleston until the British evacuated it (1782). The campaign is generally considered an example of excellent strategy, and Greene's generalship is much admired. To get supplies for the Continental Army, Greene often had been forced to endorse personal notes. After the war the dishonesty of a contractor forced him to sell his estates to honor those pledges. The people of Georgia, however, gave him a plantation.

See biographies by his grandson, G. W. Greene (3 vol., 1867–71), and T. G. Thayer (1960); W. Johnson, Sketches of the Life and Correspondence of Nathanael Greene (1822, repr. 1973).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Greene, Nathanael." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Greene, Nathanael." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/greene-nathanael

"Greene, Nathanael." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved June 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/greene-nathanael

Greene, Nathanael

Greene, Nathanael (1743–86) American general. He was George Washington's second-in-command in the American Revolution. In 1776, he skilfully led the left wing of the American forces at Trenton, Princeton, and Brandywine. Greene assumed command of the Southern army in 1780. His reorganization and strategy ensured the success of the Carolina Campaign (1780–82), resulting in numerous British defeats.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Greene, Nathanael." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Greene, Nathanael." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/greene-nathanael

"Greene, Nathanael." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved June 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/greene-nathanael