GREENE, NATHANAEL. (1742–1786). Continental general. Rhode Island. The American who emerged from the Revolution with a military reputation second only to that of General (later President) George Washington was born in Warwick, Rhode Island, to Quaker parents. His father, Nathanael Greene, Sr., had a bias against schooling, preferring that Nathanael, Jr. get his learning in the family business. Nathanael Greene therefore received no formal education. Self-taught, however, he became an avid reader, especially of military subjects, and a book collector. As a youth, Greene worked at the family iron forge at Warwick, and in 1770 he was put in charge of the family forge at Coventry, on the Pawtuxet River. He married Catherine "Kitty" Littlefield in 1774.
GREENE'S RAPID RISE
On the eve of the Revolution in 1774, Greene organized a militia unit, the Kentish Guards, which deed earned him excommunication from the local Quaker Meeting. Members of the Kentish Guards did not elect him an officer because he had a stiff knee and limped slightly, but he demonstrated his patriotism by enlisting as a private. In six months he would be a general.
Greene served in the Rhode Island legislature from 1770 to 1772 and again in 1775. During his final term, attracting notice because of his military knowledge and fervor, he was named to a committee on Rhode Island defenses. To the surprise of many, Greene, without any previous military experience other than being a private in the Kentish Guards, received a commission from the Legislature in May 1775 as a brigadier general of the new Rhode Island Army of Observation. Greene marched his brigade to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where, on 23 May 1775, he joined in the siege of Boston. In Providence at the time, he missed the Battle of Bunker Hill on 17 June 1775. On 22 June Congress brought Greene's brigade into the Continental Army and appointed him a brigadier general—the youngest officer in that grade. During the Boston siege, Greene showed an ability in facilitating logistics and smoothing relationships among troops from different geographical regions.
After the British evacuated Boston, Washington's army headed for New York City and its environs. Greene and his brigade assumed responsibility for defenses on Long Island. On 9 August 1776 Congress promoted Greene to major general, thereby making him a division commander. Too ill at the time, Greene did not participate in the battle of Long Island, 27 August 1776, and was replaced by General John Sullivan, who was captured by the enemy. Although he did not personally participate in the battle of Harlem Heights on 16 September 1776, Greene was nearby, giving encouragement to the troops. On 17 September Greene was placed in command of the Flying Corps, American troops, mainly militia, that were guarding New Jersey. On 15 October Greene led his troops across Arthur Kill to Staten Island, expecting to attack the British post there, but found it too strongly defended. He withdrew his forces to the New Jersey shore.
Unfortunately for Greene's reputation, Washington heeded his advice to retain Forts Washington (on the east bank of the Hudson River, on Manhattan Island) and Lee (on the opposite bank of the Hudson, in New Jersey). As Washington retreated across New Jersey, both forts fell behind British lines. The enemy captured them on 16 and 20 November, respectively. Fort Washington gave up 2,800 prisoners to the British. Despite Greene's bad judgment, Washington continued to trust his advice and hold him in high esteem.
Greene, again commanding a division, demonstrated his reliability at the battles of Trenton (26 December 1776) and Princeton (3 January 1777). During the winter and spring of 1777, Greene set up an advanced line of posts, forming a screen to the coast for Washington's winter quarters at Morristown. Greene's forces and other American troops persistently harassed British foraging and scouting parties, with the occasional result of major skirmishing.
POLITICAL AND MILITARY SKIRMISHES
In March 1777 Washington sent Greene to confer with Congress when that body indicated a growing dissatisfaction with the performance of the army. This and other evidence of Washington's confidence in Greene's judgment led to criticism that Greene was dominating the commander in chief. In May 1777 Greene and Henry Knox were sent to study the terrain of the New York Highlands when it appeared that the British might launch an offensive in that direction. Greene joined Generals Henry Knox and John Sullivan in a threat to resign if Congress appointed a Frenchman, Charles Phillippe Tronson Du Coudray, over their heads. The politicians resented this "dictation" by army officers, and John Adams advised Greene to apologize. Greene refused to do so, and Congress worked out a solution acceptable to the generals, making Du Coudray a major general of the staff. Du Coudray's subsequent accidental death provided a convenient solution to the crisis.
At the battle of Brandywine, 11 September 1777, Greene's division had to shift quickly from the center of the American line to cover the army's right flank against an unexpected assault by the enemy. Greene's troops met the challenge, marching four miles in forty-five minutes. The determined stand by soldiers under one of Greene's brigade commanders, George Weedon, halted the advance of the enemy. At the battle of Germantown, 4 October 1777, although Greene's division, forming the main column, arrived on the field of battle after the action had begun, it pushed the enemy to the Schuylkill River. With utter confusion developing among the American troops, Greene ultimately had no choice but to join the general retreat of the American forces.
AN EXTRAORDINARY ADMINISTRATOR
Greene reluctantly accepted the post of quartermaster general thrust upon him by Congress on 2 March 1778. An exception to the common practice of staff officers not serving in the line, Greene was allowed to retain his field command, meaning that he, too, could participate in battle. Greene, nevertheless, thought he was forfeiting opportunity for glory, the leading motivation for his military service. Writing to General Alexander McDougall on 28 March 1778, Greene said: "All of you will be immortalizing your selves in the golden pages of History, while I am confined to a series of druggery to pave the way for it." Greene presided over a Quartermaster Department, under which an ever expanding number of agencies eventually were subordinated. Ultimately, there were three thousand employees working under Greene's authority. Greene brought greater order to his department. Not only did he supervise all kinds of provisioning but he also managed site selection and the establishment of camps for Washington's army. In addition, his department supplied General John Sullivan's expedition against the Iroquois Indians in summer 1779.
Greene and his two top assistants, Charles Pettit and John Cox, were allowed to share equally in a commission of one percent on all purchases. Until the commission system was abolished by Congress in 1780, this system gave rise to the suspicion that those administering the Quartermaster Department were unfairly reaping great personal profits. Indeed, Greene seemed to have ample funds for investment in shipping, privateering, iron-manufacture, and real estate speculation. Greene was a partner in two firms which did business in supplying the army, albeit minimally. One of these companies was headed by his brother, Jacob, and the other by an associate of Greene's, Jeremiah Wadsworth.
Despite qualms that Greene might be profiteering, Washington remained adamant in his praise of Greene's administration of the Quartermaster Department. Writing to the President of Congress on 3 August 1778, Washington asserted that "the public is much indebted" to Greene "for his judicious management and active exertions in his present department. When he entered upon it, he found it in a most confused, distracted and destitute state. This by his conduct and industry has undergone a very happy change." Indeed, Washington added, the vigorous pursuit of the American army of British troops after they evacuated Philadelphia may be credited to Greene's fine tuning of the Quartermaster Department.
The effects of Greene's able direction of the Quartermaster Department were dramatically apparent during the Morristown winter encampment, 1779–1780, with weather conditions much worse than they had been at Valley Forge. Operations in the summer of 1780 also showed that Greene's system of field depots and his improvement of the transportation system greatly increased the army's mobility. Two of his detractors in Congress, Thomas Mifflin and Timothy Pickering, presented a plan for reorganizing his department. Greene's methods, if not his results, had given Congress grounds for criticism, and the reorganization plan gathered support. Incensed, Greene demanded a vote of confidence but was refused it by Congress. After they adopted the new plan, on 15 July, Greene announced he would no longer serve as Quartermaster General. Congress considered this a second challenge to its authority and after accepting his resignation on 3 August, some delegates made an unsuccessful attempt to have him expelled from the army. With Timothy Pickering as his replacement, Greene himself moved on to assume command of American forces at West Point and the adjacent Highlands, a position just vacated by the treason of General Benedict Arnold.
RETURNING TO THE FIELD
During his tenure as Quartermaster General, Greene, on occasion, exercised field command. When Washington dismissed Charles Lee as commander of the American troops at the battle of Monmouth (28 June 1778), Greene took Lee's place, the British army left the battle site at nightfall. Greene brought his division to aid General John Sullivan's troops against the British in Rhode Island, and was in thick of the battle at Newport on 29 August 1778. In June 1780 Greene commanded 2,500 troops and Henry Lee's Legion to resist General Wilhelm Knyphausen and 5,000 troops in their second invasion of New Jersey. Although Greene himself was not in the forefront of the engagement at Springfield on 23 June 1780, units under his overall command forced the enemy to retreat and withdraw from the state.
Only a few days after Greene assumed his Highlands command, a larger challenge intervened. Authorized by Congress to name a new commander in chief of the southern army, Washington gave the appointment to Greene on 14 October 1780. On his journey southward to his new command, Greene met with the governors and legislatures of Maryland and Virginia and also communicated with officials of Delaware and North Carolina, gathering strong commitments for material aid for the southern army. On 2 December Greene officially took over command of some one thousand Continentals and twelve hundred militia at Charlotte, North Carolina. One of Greene's first actions was the unorthodox decision to divide his army, sending General Daniel Morgan and troops to scour the backcountry. Morgan's resounding victory at Cowpens on 17 January 1781 lured General Charles Cornwallis and his army from his bases in South Carolina in pursuit of Greene's army deep into North Carolina. Again demonstrating ingenuity, Greene led Cornwallis on a wild chase, with the British commander having to discard valuable supplies and munitions. Beating Cornwallis to the Dan River, Greene appropriated all the boats and crossed into Virginia, leaving the British commander in the lurch.
On his return to North Carolina, Greene chose favorable ground and met the enemy at Guilford Courthouse on 15 March 1781. Greene disposed his troops, as he would also do in later battles, and just as Morgan had done at Cowpens: militia in the front line, backed up to Continentals, and on the flanks, cavalry and light infantry. Greene was forced to abandon the battlefield, but not before Cornwallis lost one-fourth of his army in casualties. Biographer Theodore Thayer notes that "the long sequence of brilliant maneuvers which culminated in the Battle of Guilford Courthouse was Nathanael Greene's principal contribution to the final American victory in the War of Independence" (p.331).
Cornwallis licked his wounds at Wilmington, North Carolina, and soon invaded Virginia, leaving other British troops under Lieutenant Colonel Lord Francis Rawdon to secure the British gains in South Carolina and contend with Greene. Engaging Rawdon at the battle of Hobkirk's Hill (Camden) on 25 April 1781, Greene replicated his operations at Guilford Courthouse, with the same result—once again abandoning the battlefield, but leaving the enemy heavily damaged. From then on, it was a matter of constriction for British forces in South Carolina, the pulling in from interior posts, one by one, through pressure exerted by Greene, Henry Lee's Legion, and militia units. After the battle of Hobkirk's Hill, Greene declared that "we fight, get beat, rise, and fight again" (Thayer, p. 348).
Greene's sole attempt at siege tactics failed when he applied them against the British post at Ninety Six, from 22 May to 19 June 1781. An important mistake was to run an initial parallel line of troops too close to the enemy's fortifications. Greene lifted the siege when Rawdon's relief column approached the fort. Rawdon pursued Greene, but could not catch him. The British commander subsequently ordered the evacuation of Ninety Six, in effect giving Greene the victory. Greene was earning a reputation as "the strategist of the American Revolution." Indeed, Greene wrote General Henry Knox in July 1781: "There are few generals that have run oftener, or more lustily than I have done. But I have taken care not to run too far, and commonly have run as fast forward as backward, to convince the Enemy that we were like a Crab, that could run either way" (Thayer, p. 367).
At Eutaw Springs, South Carolina, on 8 September 1781, Greene fought his last and most bloody battle of the southern campaign. Greene's forces were nearly equal in size to those of the British that were arrayed against him. The battle ended in a draw; Greene withdrew from the field, and the British commander, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Stewart, brought his army southeastward to Charleston. Greene lost one-fourth of his men at Eutaw Springs, whereas the British lost more than forty percent. British troops had now been cleared out of the Deep South except for Charleston and Savannah, although partisan militia leaders and General Anthony Wayne's Continentals performed some mop-up operations.
LIFE AFTER THE WAR
After the war, Greene and his family resided at Mulberry Grove, Georgia, a 2,000-acre plantation, twelve miles from Savannah. The estate had been confiscated from a former Tory governor, John Graham, and given to Greene. Greene cultivated corn, rice, and fruit orchards, and engaged in logging. He struggled in an attempt to pay off enormous debts, accrued in part by his having provided surety for John Banks and Company, which supplied Greene's Southern army. Despite Greene's financial support, the company went bankrupt. Rumors persisted that Greene profited from the provisioning of his troops. It was discovered that two of Greene's most trusted aides, Robert Burnet and Robert Forsyth, had been secret partners of John Banks and Company, and Greene himself was suspected of having been a silent partner of the firm.
Nathanael Greene died on 19 June 1786, probably from a sunstroke suffered during his homeward trip from Savannah. His wife, Kitty, and five of their children (all under the age of eleven) survived him. Greene would have been pleased had he known that Congress, over the succeeding decade, honored his military service by paying off most of his debts.
The exalted military esteem in which Nathanael Greene is held results from a combination of factors. He retained the complete trust and friendship of George Washington, and, for that matter, of several other key generals, including Henry Knox and Anthony Wayne. Even among the lower-ranked brigadiers, there were many such as George Weedon who cherished Greene as a hero and friend, although the two men were not closely connected. Greene, with a winning smile and cheerful disposition, made friends easily. He had the knack of smoothing out differences among colleagues, whether as a field commander or in his role as quartermaster general. It was also a plus for Greene that he was married to the prettiest wife among the officer corps. Kitty Greene enthralled the commander in chief, who found in her his favorite dancing partner—on one occasion the two danced continuously for three hours. Greene might be compared to General Henry Knox, with whom Washington established a close friendship. Knox gave Washington costly wrong advice (at Germantown), as did Greene (regarding Forts Washington and Lee), and both Greene and Knox were self-taught in military science.
While Greene exhibited congeniality, his character had some defects, namely (as Douglas S. Freeman has noted), "haste in decision, an overconfidence in his judgment, an insistence that his integrity be acknowledged formally whenever any act of his was criticized. The less reason he had for heeding carpers, the more sensitive he became" (Washington, vol. 4: p. 367).
Greene proved to be a superb administrator of a large staff department, and he planned and executed complex military operations. He was always solicitous of both public and military officials for the welfare of his men, although he did not hesitate to mete out the death penalty for desertion and mutiny. He also set an example on how to employ flexibility and mobility in the use of his army. In addition, he was willing to borrow from the successful practices of other generals. Learning from Washington, like Lafayette, Greene was convinced that a maneuver and harassment strategy would pay off in the long run. Greene's major battles in the Southern campaign were fought according to Morgan's tactics at Cowpens, with little variation.
The insufficiency of the British prosecution of the war in the south made Greene's task easier. Cornwallis removed his army, small as it was, from the Carolinas by invading Virginia in May 1781. The total of 5,000 troops dispatched from New York City, including those under Arnold in December 1780 and those under General William Phillips in March 1781, were not matched by reinforcements in the deep south. A circumstance that further contributed to British failure in the Carolinas and Georgia was the neglect to reestablish royal government, except for a limited effort in Georgia. A policy of retrenchment led to withdrawal of British forces to Charleston and Savannah.
When Greene assumed command of the Southern army, the pendulum had already swung against British military fortunes in the region. The crushing of the Loyalist militia at Kings Mountain on 7 October 1780 ruined any chance that the British could count on an outpouring of backcountry Loyalist support. The victory at Cowpens three months later indicated that the British would have difficulty holding onto the interior regions. These were not the only events that eased Greene's mission; also helpful was the relentless pounding of Loyalist positions, ending in victory for the rebels, by partisan leaders such as Thomas Sumter, Andrew Pickens, Francis Marion, and others. The roving Patriot bands, in what amounted to a civil war, also helped to quash potential support for the British cause. If circumstance and British military policies contributed heavily to Greene's success in the southern campaign, this does not render his accomplishments unworthy of praise. Greene's accomplishments in the Southern campaign may not have been extraordinary, but it is undeniable that he was the right man, in the right place, at the right time.
Conrad, Denis M. Nathanael Greene and the Southern Campaigns, 1780–1783. Ph.D diss., Duke University. Ann Arbor, University Microfilms, 1979.
Freeman, Douglas S. George Washington: A Biography. Vols. 3-5. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1951–1952.
Lumpkin, Henry. From Savannah to Yorktown: The American Revolution in the South. New York: Paragon Books, 1981.
Pancake, John S. The Destructive War: The British Campaign in the Carolinas, 1780–1781. University, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1985.
Risch, Erna. Supplying Washington's Army. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, U.S. Army, 1981.
Russell, Phillips. North Carolina in the Revolutionary War. Charlotte, N.C.: Heritage Printers, 1965.
Showman, Richard K., et al., eds. The Papers of Nathanael Greene. 12 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1976–2001.
Thayer, Theodore. Nathanael Greene: Strategist of the American Revolution. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1960.
Treacy, M. F. Prelude to Yorktown: The Southern Campaigns of Nathanael Greene, 1780–1781. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1963.
Weigley, Russell. The Partisan War: The South Carolina Campaign of 1780–1782. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1970.
revised by Harry M. Ward
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.
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).
Abbazia, Patrick, Nathanael Greene, Commander of the American Continental Army in the South, Charlotteville, N.Y.: SamHar Press, 1976. □
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.]
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
GREENE, Nathanael. American, b. 1935. Genres: History. Career: Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT, Instructor, 1963-64, Assistant Professor, 1964-68, Associate Professor, 1968-74, Professor of History, 1974-, Vice-President for Academic Affairs, 1977-90. Publications: (ed.) Fascism: An Anthology, 1968; Crisis and Decline: The French Socialist Party in the Popular Front Era, 1969; From Versailles to Vichy: The Third French Republic, 1919-1940, 1970; (ed.) European Socialism since World War I, 1971. Address: Dept. of History, Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT 06457, U.S.A.