Childhood & Early Life
Nathanael Greene was born on August 7, 1742 on Forge Farm at Potowomut in Warwick, Rhode Island, then still a part of British North America. The second of six children of Nathanael Greene Sr., an affluent Quaker merchant and farmer, and his second wife Mary Mott, he had descended from two of Warwick's founding settlers, John Greene and Samuel Gorton.
Despite the fact that his father, a devout Quaker, discouraged book learning, Nathanael convinced his father to appoint Ezra Stiles— a local minister and future President of Yale University—as his tutor. He extensively learnt several subjects including mathematics, law, and the classics, and had amassed a substantial collection of books including military histories, in sharp contrast to Quaker pacifism.
After his father bought a foundry in Coventry, Rhode Island, Nathanael Greene settled there in 1770 and subsequently helped establish the first school in the town. He participated in politics and was elected to the general assembly from there and developed a greater passion studying military doctrines.
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In 1772, after British officer William Dudington seized one of Nathanael Greene's family vessels, a Rhode Island mob burned Dudington's vessel 'HMS Gaspee', which was enforcing the Navigation Acts in and around Newport. Nathanael Greene subsequently helped form the local militia known as the Kentish Guards, even though he was not made an officer and remained a private due to a slight limp he had developed during his youth.
On the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War in 1775, he was put in charge of the Rhode Island Army of Observation and was instructed to march to Boston to help the colonial forces. In June 1775, when George Washington was appointed to command the colonial forces, Greene was named a brigadier general in the Continental Army and also briefly commanded the military forces in Boston.
After the British forces evacuated Boston, he joined Washington's army in April 1776 and was given the task of leading the invasion of Long island, which he eventually missed due to high fever. Now a major general, he was instrumental in convincing Washington to withdraw from Manhattan, which he thought was indefensible, and participated in the Battle of Harlem Heights, which registered one of the first American victories.
Following his success, he was given the commands of both Fort Constitution and Fort Washington, situated across the Hudson River, and established supply depots in New Jersey, in case retreat was required. In November 1776, during the Battle of Fort Washington, he decided not to remove the garrison, which eventually fell to the British forces, but his retreat line allowed Washington's army safe passage to Philadelphia.
He took charge of part of Washington's army and secured two victories for the Continental Army at Battle of Trenton in December 1776 and the Battle of Princeton in January 1777. As the British attempted to capture Philadelphia at the Battle of the Brandywine in September that year, his division allowed the Continental Army safe retreat.
In October 1777, his unit arrived late at Battle of Germantown, which was Washington's failed attempt at a surprise attack, and served as a rear guard to his army and saved it from certain destruction. Noticing severe mismanagement of the army's resources at Valley Forge, Washington appointed Greene the quartermaster general. As quartermaster general, he helped strategic establishment of supply depots across the United States.
Despite being a staff officer, he participated in Washington's councils-of-war and suggested attack on the retreating British army at the Battle of Monmouth, which ended in a stalemate. He was allowed a temporary relief in July 1778 to participate in the inconclusive Battle of Rhode Island in his home state, and later rejoined as the quartermaster general.
In June 1780, he led a successful offensive on an advancing British contingent at the Battle of Springfield against a larger army, and subsequently resigned from his post in a letter criticizing the Congress. George Washington saved him from being relieved and at a later point, he briefly took command of West Point until the arrival of Washington.
Greene was appointed the commander of the Southern Department of the Continental Army following its devastating defeat in the Southern theater in October 1780 and employed guerrilla warfare against a stronger British army. He divided his army and sent Daniel Morgan southwest, where he registered a massive victory against the British, and subsequently made a tactful retreat into North Carolina to cut supply of the chasing British forces.
He faced General Cornwallis led British army at the Battle of Guilford Court House in North Carolina in March 1781 and inflicted severe damage on his opponent before eventually retreating to reduce casualties. When Cornwallis marched to Yorktown, Virginia, Greene cleared out the British forces from several forts in the south while Washington laid a successful siege at Yorktown and forced Cornwallis to surrender on October 19, 1781.
Family & Personal Life
Nathanael Greene began courting fellow Rhode Islander, Catharine Littlefield, in 1772 and they got married in July 1774. He was called to war within a year, and she often accompanied her husband at his military headquarters.
He fathered seven children with Catharine between 1776 and 1786, and after the war was over, settled with his family at a plantation called Mulberry Grove, in Chatham County, Georgia. He had hoped to pay off his debts incurred during the war by cultivating rice, and while he had previously made statements against slavery, he employed slaves in his plantation.
He suffered from sunstroke in early June 1786 and died at the age of 43 a few days later on June 19, 1786. He was initially interred at the Graham Vault in Colonial Park Cemetery in Savannah, but his remains were moved to a monument in Johnson Square in November 14, 1902.