Soldier. Greene was born in Potowomut, Rhode Island, July 27, 1742, the second son of Nathanael Greene and Mary Mott. He was trained in the family iron business. Raised a Quaker, he was read out of meeting after joining the Kentish Guards, a local militia unit. He married Catherine Littlefield around July 20, 1774.
When the Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, Rhode Island troops were formed into a brigade with Greene, a surprise choice, as commander. His appointment was confirmed by the Continental Congress on June 22, 1775, making Greene the youngest general officer in the Continental army. During the siege of Boston, Greene began working with General George Washington, an association that would continue throughout the war. Greene’s service with the main (“northern”) army included being the first general to command troops not from his own state. His most important contribution was as quartermaster general, successfully reorganizing the main army’s supply system. After the defeat of General Horatio Gates at Camden (August 16, 1780), Greene was personally selected by Washington to take charge the southern army. As army commander, Greene never won a battle but did win the war.
On December 3, 1780, Greene assumed command of the southern army at Charlotte, North Carolina. He soon divided his forces, demonstrating his grasp of both the strategic situation and its logistical requirements. Greene took most of his army to winter at Cheraw, but sent General Daniel Morgan westward in a maneuver that culminated in the Battle of Cowpens (January 17, 1781). After Cowpens, British pursuit of Morgan and Greene turned into the “race to the Dan,” eventually resulting in the Battle of Guilford Courthouse (March 15, 1781), which badly damaged Lord Cornwallis’s British forces. When Cornwallis marched into Virginia, Greene returned to South Carolina and set about winning back the south.
Greene’s strategy in the “War of Posts” was simple but effective. The British could not meet him in open battle unless they consolidated their forces, leaving their garrison posts undefended. While Greene maneuvered to threaten one post, partisan raiders under
Francis Marion and Andrew Pickens cooperated by attacking other isolated garrisons. Though he refused to cooperate with Greene, Thomas Sumter’s movements also helped keep the British off balance, even as they conflicted with Greene’s plans.
Greene’s maneuvering brought on the battle at Hobkirk’s Hill, April 25, 1781. This American tactical defeat nevertheless forced the British to evacuate Camden. Greene then laid siege to Ninety Six. While Lord Rawdon relieved Ninety Six, he lost key interior garrisons, including Augusta, Georgia, to patriot partisans. Unable to bring Greene to battle, Rawdon evacuated Ninety Six and returned to the coast.
The partisan engagements during the summer of 1781 generally went the American’s way. Greene’s last major battle occurred when he fought Colonel Alexander Stewart at Eutaw Springs on September 8, 1781. Once again, the British held the field as Greene withdrew with his army intact. The British then retired, occupying a thin coastal zone from Charleston to Savannah that could not supply enough food or forage.
Over the last year of campaigning, Greene aided restoration of civil government by protecting legislative meetings and using his army to restore order in the interior. When the British evacuated Savannah and Charleston, state governments were already in place and operating, providing continuity that went a long way to restoring peace after a brutal civil war. Greene was not a brilliant tactician, but possessed a solid grasp of strategy and logistics. His army provided opposition to the British and a rallying point for Americans. He kept the army in the field because he supplied it, albeit marginally.
Georgia and South Carolina gave Greene plantations in recognition of his service. After the war, Greene lived at Georgia’s Mulberry Grove Plantation northwest of Savannah. He died June 19, 1786, and was buried in the cemetery of Christ Episcopal Church in Savannah. His remains were later placed in Savannah’s Johnson Square.
Greene, George W. Life of Nathanael Greene, Major-General in the Army of the Revolution. 3 vols. New York: G. P. Putnam and Son, 1867–1871.
Showman, Richard K., and Dennis Conrad, eds. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene. 12 vols. to date. Chapel Hill: University of North Car- olina Press, 1976– .
Thane, Elswyth. The Fighting Quaker: Nathanael Greene. New York: Hawthorne, 1972.
Thayer, Theodore. Nathanael Greene: Strategist of the American Revolution. New York: Twayne, 1960.