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).
Nathanael Greene (August 7 1742 – June 19, 1786) was a major general of the Continental Army in the American Revolutionary War. 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 for him.
In 1770, Greene moved to Coventry, Rhode Island, to take charge of the family-owned forge (foundry), shortly prior to his father's death. There, he was the first to urge the establishment of a public school and in the same year he was chosen as a member of the Rhode Island General Assembly, to which he was re-elected in 1771, 1772 and 1775. It is debatable that he was a member of the General Assembly since there is no mention of his participation in his personal papers and because there were several of his contemporaries with the same name from Rhode Island. He sympathized strongly with the "Whig," or Patriot, element among the colonists. In 1774, he married Catherine Littlefield Greene of Block Island. "Caty," as she was known by friends, had been living in East Greenwich with her aunt and uncle (William and Catharine [Ray] Greene of Greene Farm, East Greenwich, R.I.) since her mother died when she was ten years old. Her uncle was a Whig Party leader and governor of Rhode Island. Her aunt and namesake, Catherine Ray, was a close friend and correspondent of Benjamin Franklin from 1751-1784.
Nathanael Greene and Catherine Littlefield were married in the "best parlor" at Greene Farm, East Greenwich, R.I. where a framed invitation to their wedding hangs on the back wall to this day (2008).
In August 1774, Greene helped organize a local militia, which was chartered as the Kentish Guards in October. His participation in the group was challenged because he had a slight limp. It was 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. It has been speculated that his zeal in attending to military duty led to his expulsion from the Quakers. However, his separation from the Society of Friends was more gradual and actually began with his marriage to Cathy. At this time, marriage to a non-Quaker was grounds for expulsion.
Greene's letters of October 1775 and January 1776 to Samuel Ward, then a delegate from Rhode Island to the Continental Congress, favored a declaration of independence. 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 built the redoubts and entrenchments of Fort Putnam (the site of current day Fort Greene) 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 comrade 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 and the burning of the city so that the British might not use it. He was placed in command of 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 Lee. 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 Lee was put upon Greene, but apparently without him 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, having a greater distance to march than the right wing under Sullivan, failed to arrive in good time: a failure which Greene himself thought would cost him Washington's trust. But when they arrived at length, Greene and his troops distinguished themselves.
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, has been characterized as "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. In August, Greene and Lafayette commanded the land forces sent to Rhode Island to co-operate with the 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, on September 29, 1780, condemned Major John André to death.
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. In the summer of 1780, near Camden, South Carolina, on August 16, the British attacked Horatio Gates' army, which broke and ran in wild confusion. This 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 southern ports to move men and material into the interior of North and South Carolina.
When Gates' successor was to be chosen the Congress decided to entrust the choice to 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". Greene took command at Charlotte, North Carolina on December 2. 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.
With over 800 prisoners Morgan began a strategic retreat, moving north towards Salisbury 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 to Guilford Courthouse. Arriving on February 9 at Guilford, Greene summoned his field officers to a council of war of his chief officers 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 writes 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 & 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."
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 Caswell County, North Carolina. 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."
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 penned them 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. He was greatly assisted by able subordinates, including the Polish engineer, Tadeusz Kościuszko, the brilliant cavalry officers, Henry ("Light-Horse Harry") Lee and William Washington, and the partisan leaders, Thomas Sumter, Andrew Pickens, Elijah Clarke, and Francis Marion.
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 Gates, who had repeatedly intrigued against him, when Gates's conduct of the campaign in the South was criticized.
A monument (under which his remains are interred) to Greene stands in Johnson Square in Savannah (1829). 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. There is a small statue of Greene by Lewis Iselin, Jr. in front of 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. Greeneville, Tennessee is 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.