Nathanael Greene (1742-1786)

Greene, Nathanael

One of the most effective American generals of the War for Independence, Rhode Island's Nathanael Greene was one of those extraordinary figures who excelled as a commander despite having no formal military training or experience. He is perhaps best known for his success in the southern campaign of 1780-1781, during which Greene battered the British forces under Charles Cornwallis enough to force him to seek refuge, reinforcement, and resupply at Yorktown, Virginia, where Cornwallis surrendered in October 1781.

Born to a Quaker family in Warwick, Rhode Island, on July 27, 1742, Greene studied under Ezra Stiles (the future president of Yale University) and assisted in the management of his father's ironworks. In 1774, he helped form a local militia company, the Kentish Guards, but was denied an officer's commission, so he chose to serve as a private. In May 1775, however, Greene was appointed Brigadier General of Rhode Island's militia and one month later the Continental Congress made the 32-year-old the youngest Brigadier General in the Continental Army.

During the Siege of Boston, Greene impressed George Washington with his abilities, particularly when it came to addressing the logistical challenges facing the army, such as procuring sufficient supplies. After the British abandoned Boston in March 1776, Greene served under Washington in New York and New Jersey and was promoted to Major General before suffering the most damage to his reputation with the loss of Fort Washington, 3000 men, and artillery on November 16, 1776 (it was Greene who had convinced Washington and the other senior officers to hold onto the untenable post). Greene soon redeemed himself in action at the Battle of Trenton, New Jersey, on December 26, 1776. Washington then chose Greene to represent him in a conference with members of Congress over their increasing disappointment with the army's effectiveness. Washington's supreme confidence in Greene's talents were justified again at the Battle of Brandywine, Pennsylvania, on September 11, 1777, when Greene's division practically sprinted for four miles (covering the distance in only 45 minutes) to stop the British from overwhelming the retreating Continental Army. Two weeks later, at the Battle of Germantown on October 4, 1777, his column held while the others gave way, once again saving the army from being routed. Greene also commanded the right wing at the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey, on June 28, 1778, repulsing a furious assault by the some of the finest troops in the British army and led personally by Charles Cornwallis.

After the privations suffered by Washington's troops during the winter encampment at Valley Forge, Greene spent most of the period from 1778 to 1780 as Quartermaster General. He reorganized the system of supply with such skill that the army suffered nowhere near the same difficulties the following year at Morristown, despite much worse weather conditions. On October 14, 1780, Greene returned to the field when Congress agreed to Washington's request that the Rhode Islander be appointed to command American forces in the south. As a result of the new British strategy to win the war by relying on loyalists and naval power to assist British forces moving up the Atlantic coast to recover the southern colonies, Georgia and most of South Carolina were in the hands of Charles Cornwallis, commander of the southern British army. Greene, vastly outnumbered, split his troops into several virtually independent commands in order to harass and delay Cornwallis as much as possible. In response, Cornwallis split his forces, which allowed Greene to concentrate on engaging each of them in isolated tactical actions. The strategy worked, in particular at the Battle of Cowpens, South Carolina, on January 17, 1781, where Brigadier General Daniel Morgan virtually destroyed Lieutenant Colonial Banastre Tarleton's Legion, and at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina, on March 15, where Greene battered Cornwallis' army so badly that Cornwallis, despite holding the field, was forced to retreat to Wilmington to regroup. When Cornwallis subsequently invaded Virginia, his force was considerably depleted and no match for the combined American and French armies under Washington and Rochambeau that Cornwallis encountered at Yorktown. Greene was then able to destroy what was left of British authority in the areas that Cornwallis had abandoned on his trek northward.

After the war, Greene was treated as a hero in both his native Rhode Island and in the southern states he defended, South Carolina and Georgia, but also had to suffer through charges of making a personal profit from dealing in military supplies while he was the army's quartermaster. He was also in considerable debt, which forced him to sell his property in New England and move to an estate, Mulberry Grove, given to him in gratitude by the state of Georgia. He died there at the age of 44 on June 19, 1786. When Washington learned of the death of the only one of his generals to serve throughout the entire war, he wrote to Thomas Jefferson of his expectation that "you will, in common with your Countrymen, have regretted the loss of so great and so honest a man."

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