Revolutionary War Historical Article

George Washington's Generals:
Major General Nathanael Greene

By David M. Hayball

Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the August 2006 Edition
of the Liberty Tree Newsletter

Major General Nathanael Greene of the American Revolution was General George Washington's most trusted General. Why he had that trust and how he earned it and maintained it is, in itself, a template for citizenship and patriotism for every generation. General Greene's dedication and service to this country was evident to his peers and fellow patriots during his lifetime. The Marquis de Lafayette proclaimed of him "..in the very name of Greene are remembered all the virtues and talents which illustrate the patriot, the statesman, and the military leader..." The only men to have served all eight years of the Revolution at the rank of General were George Washington and Nathanael Greene.

Nathanael Greene was born on July 27th, 1742, old style. Gregorian Calendar, which we use today was not adopted by England or the colonies until 1752. March 1st was considered the first day of the year until the new calendar was accepted. In his father's journal, Nathanael is shown as having been born on the twenty-seventh day of the fifth month of the year. He was named for his father, who was a respected minister of the Society of Friends (Quakers).

However, Nathanael Greene started out as a private in the Rhode Island Kentish Guards in October of 1774. Although he sought a commission, it was denied because he possessed a limp caused by a stiff knee since childhood. The powers that be in the group worried that he would make the Guards appear weak. His friends in the group insisted that he stay and he was allowed to do so as a private, but not for long.

On July 20th, 1774, he married Catharine Littlefield of Block Island. She was known as Caty, was very attractive and vivacious and would give Nathanael six children. Like many of the senior officers of the Continental Army, she would spend as much time as she could with her husband, enduring the hardships of campaigning. Caty was extremely popular among her husband's peers and was renowned for her dancing. She was a favorite dancing partner of General Washington. During those years she became a very close friend of Martha Washington.

Years later after setbacks at Guilford's Courthouse and Hobkirk's Hill and although aspiring for decisive victories Greene wrote, "We fight, get beat, rise and fight a gain." Perhaps, his lessons in military strategy began as life lessons in the Kentish Guards because on May 8th, 1775 Nathanael Greene received his commission in the Rhode Island forces and rose from the rank of private to Brigadier General. He and his men were sent to Roxbury outside Boston almost immediately, at the end of May. Joining with forces of other colonies against the British in Massachusetts gave a resounding message to Britain: a new Nation was beginning to take form; a Nation independent of British rule. Nathanael Greene was made a Brigadier General in the Continental Army on June 22nd, 1775. The following month in July he served under Charles Lee at Prospect Hill during the siege of Boston and his service and dedication were called to the attention of George Washington. Nathanael, although raised a Quaker, had a passion for military history and through this interest and his own readings had developed a knowledge of it that both interested and impressed General Washington. An immediate affinity and mutual respect for one another seemed to happen and soon Washington began to include Greene on matters of military strategy.

The bond between George Washington and Nathanael Greene was mutual and unquestionable. In 1775 Nathanael and his wife, Catherine Littlefield, named their firstborn son George Washington Greene and two years later on March 14th, 1777, a daughter Martha Washington Greene was born. There could be little doubt during the eight long years of the American Revolution that George Washington and Nathanael Greene stood shoulder to shoulder on all matters of policy and practice. General Anthony Wayne said of Nathanael Greene "He was a great soldier, greater as a citizen, immaculate as a friend." With regard to these virtues, George Washington and Nathanael Greene had much in common.

In addition to his emerging military skills, Greene also had experience in politics and diplomacy. In 1770 he served Kent County, RI, as a deputy of the Rhode Island Assembly through 1772 and again in 1775. While the Tory Governor Wanton of Rhode Island halted the Rhode Island forces march to the Massachusetts border on their way in support of Lexington and Concord, Greene a was on his way with a committee assembling and consulting with the Connecticut Assembly providing for the common defense of the colonies in New England. The meeting commenced on April 22nd, 1775, and resulted in calling for the forces of 1,500 men as an "army of observation."

On May 8th, Private Nathanael Greene became Brigadier General Nathanael Greene. Although some historians have been a bit bewildered by this incredible promotion from Private to Brigadier General, if one considers that as a veteran deputy in the Rhode Island assembly Greene enlisted as a Private and although Rhode Island forces march to aid the cause at Lexington and Concord on April 19th and were thwarted by the Governor, on April 22nd Greene was instrumental in raising an army in conjunction with the Connecticut Assembly that went to Massachusetts as an "army of observation." It is not that difficult to realize that on May 8th, 1775 Nathanael Greene was promoted to lead the army he helped create. As Alexander Hamilton observed of Greene, "His qualifications for statesmanship were not less remarkable than his military ability." Both abilities seem evident as the American Revolution begins with the "shot heard 'round the world." These moments moving toward the War of Independence demonstrate Nathanael Greene's ability to be patient and work towards a goal and at the right time move very quickly to achieve that goal. . . . skills that would once again be displayed during the southern campaign and ultimately the defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown.

Nathanael Greene was appointed to the rank of Major General on August 9th, 1776. He was in command on Long Island in April of 1776. Greene had taken ill and was not present for the Battle of Long Island and did not see combat again until the Battle of Harlem Heights. Although the American forces were greatly outnumbered by the British in the New York and Hudson area George Washington hoped to keep control of the territory. The two forts on either side of the Hudson River were Fort Washington on the east and Fort Lee on the other bank in New Jersey. Nathanael Greene reasoned that Fort Washington was essential in keeping the British from advancing into New Jersey as well as stemming the British threat to Westchester County and Charles Lee's forces. The strategy that Greene implemented was on the hope that he could draw the British into another Bunker Hill. It was true that the American forces had fared better in fighting defensively in conflicts with the British; and the supplies and material at Fort Washington were substantial as well as the 3,000 American troops stationed there seemed a great resource. Unfortunately when the British attacked on November 15 with 10,000 men under General Howe what resulted was a complete disaster. For a short time Washington himself lost confidence in Greene. Nathanael Greene said himself of the defeat "I feel mad, vexed, sick, and sorry. . . ." The Major General had fought, gotten beaten, and now was about to rise and fight again. However, like many great leaders in history Nathanael Greene would learn from his mistakes, change his strategy, and alter the course of events.

The accomplishments of Greene are almost too numerous to catalogue in a small article, however two essential assignments given him were decisive in the victorious outcome of the American Revolution: the assignment as Quartermaster General of the American Forces, and the assignment of Command of the Southern Campaign culminating in the defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown.

Taking on the task of Quartermaster-General of the Army was daunting. Greene himself was not keen on the idea saying, "No one ever heard of a quartermaster in history." He finally consented to the assignment but insisted that he still retain some command and participate in battle. However, in spite of his reluctance to take the assignment he understood its vital importance to the cause and immersed himself to successfully carry out the task. The American forces were under funded, under supplied, and had little if any system of transportation of supplies. Greene's predecessor had not done well in allocating the scarce resources effectively. However Nathanael Greene got to work and turned the situation around. Sometimes he even spent some of his own money, and at one time guaranteed personally expenses that would cost him all of his holdings in Rhode Island, and the money and lands given him by the state of North Carolina at the end of the Revolutionary War.

However, the lessons he learned as Quartermaster-General would benefit him as a leader when he assumed command of the Southern Campaign. Allocation and distribution of scarce resources, transportation and mobility, as well as the crucial aspects of setting up and maintaining supply lines, would be lessons that he carried with him to the South. His strategy would evolve into a comprehensive plan to conserve his troops and supply lines, striking when essential while at the same time exhausting the enemy's troops and harassing and overextending the British supply lines. This new strategy was one that both he and George Washington came to agree upon, or perhaps developed together. Once, when Washington placed Greene in charge while he went to attend a conference he said: "In my absence the command of the army devolves upon you. I have such entire confidence in your prudence and abilities that I leave conduct of it to your discretion, with only one observation: that with our present prospects it is not our business to seek action, nor to accept one, except upon advantageous terms." Perhaps, in this short statement Washington with his "one observation" reveals the key to the Revolutionary Army strategy - - a strategy that Major Greene implemented with a religious devotion in the South.

After the horrific defeat of General Horatio Gates by the British at Camden, South Carolina, on August 16th, 1780 Alexander Hamilton said, "For God's sake, overcome prejudice and send Greene." Someone must have listened for indeed Major General Nathanael Greene was appointed commander of the Southern Campaign. Although the remnants of the battle were hardly enough to comprise an effective army, partisan guerillas led by men such as Francis Marion, Andrew Pickens, and Thomas Sumter were ready, willing and able to harass the enemy, antagonize their supply lines and thwart the efforts of the British forces. As a matter of fact the victory of the Battle of King's Mountain that on October 7th, proved the efforts of Patriot guerrillas against American Tories was as Major General Greene himself said "the first turn in the tide in favor of the Americans." Although the Battle of King's Mountain did not directly hurt Cornwallis and his troops, it did defeat local Tory support in North Carolina. Cornwallis retreated across the state. Major General Greene left Philadelphia on November 3rd, 1780, to take his position as Commander of the South, and arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina on December 2nd. The situation was bleak when he arrived. In charge of between 1,000 to 2,200 Continental and militia, Greene had to preserve what had already taken a serious beating and build support and supply lines. He was able to coordinate and command the efforts of separate partisan groups into a unified effective effort. Most notably he put the efforts of Francis Marion the "Swamp Fox," Andrew Pickens and Thomas Sumter in conjunction with one another and the Continental Army for the first time.

Additionally, Greene worked with local political leaders and militia to help increase local support and build supply lines, improve roads and build distribution networks in the area. His years as Quartermaster-General and as a deputy in the Rhode Island Assembly paid off. It would take a good soldier and statesman to get the job done, but it would take the knowledge of the headaches of a Quartermaster-General to pull it off. Even if no one had ever heard of a quartermaster in history, no war was ever won without a quartermaster either. Nathanael Greene was a learning animal, and the harsh lessons he had learned transformed his native intelligence into military genius. Greene knew that he had to take care of the men as well as the politics. His awareness of his obligation to his soldiers is best exemplified in his statement "no man will think himself bound to fight the battle of a state that leaves him to perish for want of covering."

 After his concentrating on consolidating and coordinating his forces and supply lines, Nathanael Greene made a bold move. He divided his forces and coordinated their efforts into a ”flying army” thus spreading his resources even thinner, or at least that it was how it appeared to Cornwallis. This move by Greene confounded Cornwallis at first, but sensing this move to be one towards greater vulnerability of the American forces, Cornwallis also divided his forces and sent Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton after the Revolutionary forces under Daniel Morgan. Cornwallis considered Morgan to be a more eminent problem than Greene's forces and decided to move northwest to cut off any chance of retreat by Morgan from Tarleton. Nathanael Greene received reports of this plan and sent a message to Morgan stating, "Colonel Tarleton is said to be on his way to pay you a visit." What resulted was the victory of Morgan's forces at the Battle of the Cowpens.

Inflamed by the news of Tarleton's complete defeat by Morgan, Cornwallis wanted revenge and complete victory over the Revolutionary Army. He marched toward Morgan and the Cowpens but Morgan reckoned that this might occur and quickly evaded him and moved to reunite with the main force and Greene. What resulted has been called the "race to the Dan" river. When Greene heard that Cornwallis was in hot pursuit, he said, "Then he is ours." and indeed that is what he became eventually at Yorktown. The race to the Dan exhausted Cornwallis and his troops on every level. Cornwallis said of the ordeal, "Greene is as dangerous as Washington. I never feel secure when encamped in his neighborhood. He is vigilant, enterprising, and full of resources." After the race to the Dan River, Greene continued to thwart and exhaust Cornwallis and his forces. After the British claimed a pyrrhic victory at Guilford Courthouse the British statesman Charles James Fox exclaimed, "Another such victory would destroy the British Army. "

Other battles leading to the defeat of the British included Hobkirk's Hill, siege of the Ninety-six, and Eutaw Springs. Each time Greene’s forces reinforced one another where they might have been defeated alone. The irregulars, partisan guerillas and militia were coordinated into a united effort with his main army. The main army would have been annihilated in short order, but the other groups harassed and cut off British supply lines to the point of exhaustion. Nathanael Greene commented on his strategy saying, "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 our enemy that we were like a crab, that could run either way.”

A little over a month after the battle of Eutaw Springs, Cornwallis surrendered to Washington at Yorktown. Major General Greene wrote of the surrender at Yorktown "We have been beating the bush and the General has come to catch the bird." Although we remember the victory of Yorktown as the end of the Revolutionary War, it was not until 1783 with the Treaty of Paris that it was over. Nathanael Greene held his army together until that event and paid them with almost all of the money awarded him by the state of South Carolina. Furthermore, because of the dishonesty of a businessman named Banks, Greene had to liquidate all of his fortunes in Rhode Island and his awards from southern states in order to pay for war expenses that were supposed to be financed by Banks. Banks had asked Nathanael Greene to personally guarantee his financing and then Banks himself never paid the debts. Years later Nathanael Greene was exonerated, but this was not until after his death. Congress reimbursed his family some of the expenses.

After liquidating his assets and losing all of his fortune in Rhode Island, Nathanael Greene went to live at Mulberry Grove, an estate outside Savannah, a gift of the State of Georgia in the fall of 1785. In less than a year, at the age of forty-five he was dead. He is said to have died of sunstroke and heat exhaustion. It was June 19th, 1786. No one will ever know what he might have become in the years ahead, but Thomas Jefferson was certain when he wrote of Greene, "Second to no one in enterprise, in resource, in sound judgment, promptitude of decision, and every other military talent. "

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