Before the Revolutionary War
“My Father was a man of great Piety, had an excellent understanding; and was govern’d in his conduct by humanity and kind Benevolence.” ~Nathanael Greene reflecting on his youth.
Nathanael was born in Potowomut, Rhode Island on August 7, 1742; the fourth son of a Quaker preacher and prosperous business man. The brothers’ education was limited to math, reading, and writing. Their father thought book learning beyond that would lead to temptation and sin. Nathanael challenged his father’s “prejudices against Literary Accomplishments.” He later broke with the doctrines of the formal Quaker religion which didn’t condone armed conflict.
He had physical challenges: a limp, asthma, and a small pox scar on his right eyeball that was often infected a result of his 1770 inoculation.
Nathanael was sent to manage and operate the family iron forge in Coventry, Rhode Island. He worked with the men who pounded smelt into anchors sold in Newport. In the house he dubbed Spell Hall he collected and studied works about human theory, civil society, military law and strategy, and poems.
He spent time in East Greenwich with his distant relative, William Greene. Discussions were held about the state of rebellion in America over Parliamentary taxes and control of colonial autonomy. William’s wife was raising her niece, Catharine Littlefield. Caty trapped Nathanael’s heart. They married on July 20, 1774. Caty was 19. Nathanael was nearly 32.
The Birth of a General
Nathanael joined the East Greenwich militia company, the Kentish Guards, as a private. He was mortified when he applied for lieutenant and was denied because of his limp. When the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired on April 19, 1775 in Massachusetts, the Rhode Island General Assembly formed an Army of Observation. Nathanael was plucked from the ranks and promoted to general. On May 8, 1775, he kissed his pregnant wife goodbye and led his new army toward Boston.
The Siege of Boston
“I am determined to defend my rights and maintain my freedom, or sell my life in the attempt.” ~Nathanael to Caty, June 1775
Militia from all over New England responded. Nathanael laid out camp with his army of 1,000 recruits on a hill in Roxbury facing the British army under siege in Boston. He reported to General Artemas Ward. On June 17, while Nathanael was on a recruiting trip in Rhode Island, 1,000 provincial soldiers were defeated by 2,000 British soldiers on the Charlestown peninsula north of Boston on Breed’s Hill.
The Arrival of General George Washington
Two weeks later, the new commander in chief of the recently formed Continental Army arrived—General George Washington. The civilian governing body, the Continental Congress, appointed four major generals and eight brigadier generals. Nathanael was the last brigadier, who at age 32, was the army’s youngest general.
Jaundice and the British Evacuation of Boston
In January 1776, he contracted jaundice. During his illness, Henry Knox, a Boston bookseller, hauled 5o tons of artillery to Framingham, Massachusetts from Fort Ticonderoga in New York. The artillery was mounted on Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston on the night of March 5. General William Howe, the British commander in chief, ordered the city evacuated. Washington placed Boston under Nathanael’s command during which he enforced martial law.
The Battle for New York
“I am confident the force of America, if properly exerted, will prove superior to all her enemies.” ~ Nathanael to John Adams, July 2, 1776
The Continental army moved to New York. Nathanael had command of a string of five strategic forts built on Brooklyn Heights across the East River on Long Island. A British armada began dropping anchor in New York Harbor on June 29, 1776. Over the next few weeks, some 32,000 troops arrived on board 270 ships. With the enemy looming, he was one of four brigadiers promoted to major general in August.
That month, he succumbed to a critical fever, possibly typhoid. General Israel Putnam assumed his command. On August 22, William Howe invaded Long Island and defeated the Continental Army stationed there. John Adams wrote that Nathanael’s sickness was the cause of the enemy “stealing a march on us.”
The Fall of Fort Washington and Fort Lee
The army began withdrawing northward from the city as the British invaded New York Island. On September 16, Nathanael experienced his first battle when it erupted at Harlem Heights. Two month later, Forts Lee and Washington perched on the Hudson River across from one another fell to the British under Nathanael’s command. He was devastated. The ragged Continental Army retreated through New Jersey with British General Charles Cornwallis in pursuit. On December 8, they crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania.
The Attack on Trenton
Washington recrossed the icy Delaware on Christmas night 1776 and launched a successful surprise attack on the garrison at Trenton, New Jersey manned by 1,400 Hessian (German) soldiers. On January 3, the patriots achieved a victory at Princeton.
The Philadelphia Campaign
“O my sweet angel how I wish—how I long to return to our soft embrace. The endearing prospect is my greatest comfort amidst all the fatigues of the campaign.” ~Nathanael to Caty after the British defeated the American army at Brandywine, autumn 1777
In 1777, the Continental Army wintered in Morristown, New Jersey. Late in July, William Howe loaded the bulk of his army on his brother’s ships leaving the Continental Army and Congress baffled over his destination.
Battle of Brandywine
Howe’s armada sailed up the Chesapeake Bay and disembarked at Head of Elk, Maryland. His target was Philadelphia. In response, Washington positioned his army on Brandywine Creek. On the afternoon of September 11, General Cornwallis turned Washington’s right flank on Birmingham Hill. Nathanael and his 1,200 Virginians marched toward Sandy Hollow where they formed a line that surprised and stopped Cornwallis. The Americans fell back to Chester, Pennsylvania. Two weeks later, the British took Philadelphia.
Victory at Saratoga and a Cabal
On October 17, British General John Burgoyne surrendered to General Horatio Gates in Saratoga, New York where Gates was sent to stop Burgoyne’s march to Albany. Spawned from this victory, a loose plot to overthrow Washington was executed. Some in Congress believed that Washington was failing and that the victorious Gates was the answer.
General Mifflin, who resigned as Quartermaster General of the Continental Army proclaimed, “The ear of the Commander-in-chief was exclusively possessed by Greene.” General Conway wrote that Washington was a “weak General and Bad Counsellors would have ruined it [the country],” The cabal collapsed in early 1778.
“They have taken me from the line of splendor.” ~Nathanael to Pennsylvania politician Joseph Reed after he accepted the position of Quartermaster General of the Continental Army, March 1778
The Continental Army wintered at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania in 1778. A committee from Congress arrived to discuss the state of the army and a new quartermaster general. The duties of the quartermaster general encompassed obtaining and transporting supplies, and scouting for new camp sites.
Washington and the committee pressed Nathanael to take the job that he thought would confine him “to a series of drudgery.” Congress admitted that the next quartermaster general would “face Confusion of the Department.” With a sense of duty he accepted the position, but complained, “No one has ever heard of a quarter Master in History.”
A French Alliance and a Return to Field Command
In February 1778, the French entered into an alliance with the United States. General Henry Clinton replaced William Howe as commander in chief of the British army in America. Clinton evacuated Philadelphia to move his 10,000 troops to New York.
During that summer, Nathanael played a dual role when Washington deemed his council and command on the battlefield valuable in the days leading up to and during the Battle of Monmouth, a draw, fought against Clinton’s retreating army at Monmouth Courthouse, New Jersey. Thanks to Nathanael and his deputies’ excellent quartermaster and commissary planning, essential supplies were adequate.
The war ground to a stalemate in the north. The value of the Continental dollar plunged. Nathanael made several trips to Philadelphia during the spring of 1779. Congress was questioning the large receipts he and his deputies were receiving from commissions. Compounded by their refusal to provide more money and support, he tendered his resignation in a less than a diplomatic tone to match the insulting letters he received from the Board of Treasury. Congress ignored it.
Bleak Prospects and a Fine Son
The Continental Army returned to Morristown, New Jersey in the winter of 1780. Nathanael lamented, “Provisions are scarce indeed…from the want of money to purchase it.” A snowstorm blocked the roads and cut supply lines. When the storm passed, Nathanael relieved the starving soldiers by ordering the roads cleared and pressing farmers to load wagons with provisions.
Caty arrived in camp eight months pregnant. On January 30, she gave birth to their fourth child a son they named Nathanael Ray. Baby Nathanael joined the Greene’s growing family: George 4, Martha 3, and Cornelia 16 months. He and the two youngest were conceived during Caty’s visits to camp.
That spring, the American garrison in Charleston, South Carolina under General Benjamin Lincoln surrendered to Henry Clinton in the worst loss of the Revolutionary War.
I am to request Congress will appoint another Quartermaster General
Congress adopted its new system for the Quartermaster Department. With the states now responsible for supplies, a decrease in salaries, and the principal men on whom he depended removed, Nathanael believed it was impossible to conduct business. He wrote to Washington outlining his grievances and seeking approval of his intention to quit. But the wording and tone of his resignation letter to Congress dated July 26, 1780 so infuriated members that they threatened to remove him from the army. Washington supported him and put a stop to the threats.
While Nathanael resigned, General Horatio Gates rode into camp in North Carolina and took command of the remnants of the Southern army. On August 16, General Charles Cornwallis, now in command of the British army in the south, defeated Gates near Camden, South Carolina. Gates abandoned his vanquished army and rode 180 miles to Hillsboro, North Carolina. What Washington needed was a good general in the South. Congress’ previous choices had failed. This time they left the choice to him. He chose Nathanael Greene.
The Southern Army
“My Dear Angel, What I have been dreading has come to pass. His Excellency General George Washington by order of Congress has appointed me to command of the Southern Army. God bless you my love and support your spirits. I am yours.” ~Nathanael to Caty, October 1780
Nathanael and his second in command General Baron von Steuben rode to Virginia and stopped along the way to gather troops and supplies from various states. Their efforts were largely futile. Leaving Steuben in Virginia to continue recruiting efforts with Governor Thomas Jefferson, Nathanael went in search of his army, and on December 2, 1780 in Charlotte, North Carolina, he “found nothing but a few, half-starved soldiers who are remarkable for nothing but poverty and distress.”
He adapted quickly to the breakdown of civil authority in the south. A large part of the population was poor. A civil war raged between loyalists and Patriots. Malaria was rampant. Before taking command from Gates, he studied maps and ordered a survey of the nearby rivers so he could understand the geography.
The circumstances forced him to embrace partisan strategy. He reached out to militia generals Francis Marion, Thomas Sumter and Andrew Pickens operating in South Carolina. Cornwallis’ principal force of 4,000 was posted at Winnsborough, South Carolina 70 miles south. What was a general with a new independent command, to do? Ignore every military doctrine that warned of the dangers of dividing an army in the face of a superior foe.
He detached General Daniel Morgan to march to northwest South Carolina. Nathanael led the remainder of his little army to Cheraw. Cornwallis ordered cavalry Colonel Banastre Tarleton to rid the countryside of Morgan. Morgan prepared for the inevitable battle at a place called the Cowpens. On the pastures, he formed his men into three lines. On the morning of January 17, 1781, Morgan shouted “Boys get up, Banny is coming.” They deployed, fired one shot, and then retired so the next line could step up. The British infantry and cavalry broke. Tarleton fled.
To The End of the World
“In this situation, without baggage, necessaries, or Provisions of any sort for Officer or Soldier, in the most barren inhospitable unhealthy part of North America, opposed to the most savage, inveterate perfidious cruel enemy… it was resolved to follow Green[e]’s Army to the end of the World.” ~British General Charles O’Hara referring to Cornwallis’ decision to burn the army’s baggage train.
Cornwallis lost 1,000 men at Cowpens. Furious, he went after Morgan. Nathanael ordered his wing to march to Salisbury, North Carolina. With a small contingent of guard, he set out through 300 miles of perilous loyalist country to support Morgan where they began a retreat toward Salisbury.
Cornwallis burned his baggage train to lighten his army’s pursuit. The further Cornwallis marched, the more his army succumbed to exhaustion and starvation. Nathanael, also exhausted, shifted his army’s junction to Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina. When the army linked up, he held a rare war council.
Nathanael laid it out. They had 2400 men, many of whom were badly armed and clothed. Cornwallis was less than twenty miles away. It was agreed that a retreat to the Dan River on the border of North Carolina and Virginia was the only option to avoid annihilation.
The Race to the Dan
Nathanael detached 700 men and formed a light corps, to screen his main army from the British and detract them from the lower fords of the Dan River where he intended to cross. The ailing Daniel Morgan went home to Virginia. Colonel Otho Holland Williams was selected to command and with Colonel “Light-Horse” Harry Lee’s cavalry legion, they kept Cornwallis at bay while Nathanael led the army toward the Dan River at a frantic pace.
On February 15, Cornwallis’ troops marched up to the banks of the Dan where the campfires of the American army burned on the other side. Nathanael had taken every boat in the Roanoke Valley across the river and there was nothing Cornwallis could do but stare.
With thousands of new militia and some Continentals, the Southern Army swelled to 4,500 men. Nathanael moved back to Guilford Courthouse. Cornwallis led his 1,900 men toward a long awaited battle with Nathanael Greene.
Nathanael’s order of battle was a model of Daniel Morgan’s at Cowpens, but the wooded terrain at Guilford Courthouse prevented his three lines from seeing or supporting one another. He rode among the troops to encourage them. Artillery opened up. His lines began to fall apart under advancing British fire. The enemy turned his left flank. After two hours, he prudently called a retreat to preserve his army.
It was a pyrrhic British victory that cost Cornwallis more than 500 men. He retreated to Wilmington, North Carolina, a coastal port 200 miles away. Nathanael moved to Troublesome Creek. In a letter to Caty, he expressed his desire to be “on a farm with my little family about me.” In return, he received a letter from her that contained a locket with her picture in it.
War of the Posts
Nathanael turned his attention to the British outposts in the interior of South Carolina. With his usual preachy admonishments, he ordered Baron von Steuben and Thomas Jefferson to send militia. The Virginia Assembly blocked his request because Henry Clinton had sent British troops and reinforcements to that state.
Infuriated with Jefferson and frustrated with a lack of support from Washington in New York, he turned his army southward toward the primary outpost at Camden. They arrived at the stockade walls on April 20 where Lord Francis Rawdon had 900 loyalist and British troops garrisoned. Aware that it was too strong to attack, Nathanael pulled his army back to Hobkirk’s Hill, a ridge two miles north.
On the morning of April 25, Lord Rawdon approached. Nathanael’s infantry rolled forward but then the Maryland line bowed causing the Virginia regiments to fall back. Nathanael called a retreat. The loss angered him and wounded his pride. He directed his anger at Maryland Colonel John Gunby saying his actions were the cause for the loss and had Gunby court-martialed. As one of his biographers said, “This was Greene at his worst: petulant, filled with self-pity, and desperately trying to protect his reputation from those confounded critics.”
Persevere and Fortitude
At this time, he wrote to the exiled governor of South Carolina, John Rutledge, stressing the importance of reestablishing government. His concern extended to his command in Virginia where the Marquis de Lafayette arrived to stop the British path of destruction there. By April 24, Cornwallis had had enough of Nathanael Greene. He abandoned the Carolinas and marched to Virginia.
Nathanael’s strategy began to strangle the British. He cut off Lord Rawdon’s supply line and forced him to evacuate Camden on May 9. Over that month under Nathanael’s orders, the British outposts fell at the hands of “Light-Horse” Harry Lee and militia generals Francis Marion and Andrew Pickens. Nathanael laid siege to the last remaining outpost at the fortified town of Ninety-Six on May 22. The siege ended in bloody, hand to hand combat. Nathanael called off the assault and retreated on June 18. Lord Rawdon marched into Ninety-Six two days later and burned the outpost.
The High Hills of Santee
Nathanael moved his army to the High Hills of Santee where the air was cooler and the mosquitos were less relentless. Although it was a camp of repose, there was not a moment that allowed him to let his guard down or cease his endless letters of instruction, exhortation, and solicitation regarding the condition of his ragged, malaria-ridden army and their needs. Still, Nathanael’s sense of humor didn’t completely escape him. He wrote to Henry Knox that no general had run as often or “more lustily” as he had and likened his flight to that of “a Crab, that could run either way.”
The Valiant Died at Eutaw Springs
The Southern Army rested for six weeks in the High Hills of Santee. Lord Rawdon fell ill and Colonel Alexander Stewart replaced him. Stewart pressed his 1,500 men toward Orangeburg, South Carolina. Nathanael called in the militia under Francis Marion and Andrew Pickens. On August 23, his army marched out of the High Hills looking for a fight.
On September 8, at 4:00 a.m., after weeks of mucking through swamps and heavy rain, Nathanael’s army marched toward the enemy at a place called Eutaw Springs. Musket fire and artillery exploded from both sides of the line as they clashed on wooded grounds near a three-story mansion. Some of the British locked themselves in the mansion. Artillery fire proved useless in dislodging them. Nathanael’s cavalry tangled in the bushes near the creek and their commander, Colonel William Washington was bayonetted and captured. After 4 hours of fighting, Nathanael ordered a retreat. Losses that day totaled a staggering 1,400. Both sides claimed victory.
Laurels of a Hero
The Battle of Eutaw Springs was the last significant land battle of the Revolutionary War. The months of sacrifice and perseverance led to the recognition and laurels Nathanael so desperately wanted. He was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor bearing his likeness.
A few days after the battle, he learned that Cornwallis was entrenched in the village of Yorktown, Virginia. There on October 19, 1781, Lord Charles Cornwallis surrendered following a three-week Franco/American siege under Washington. Nathanael wrote to Washington, “Nothing can equal the joy it gives this country.”
Nathanael’s army returned to the High Hills of Santee. He lobbied military and government authorities to provision his army and send reinforcements, but he received almost no help. Beginning in the first week of December, he moved his army to positions between Charleston and Savannah. He was given a boost when General Anthony Wayne arrived from Yorktown.
In early April 1782, after nearly two years of separation, Nathanael and Caty were enveloped in each other’s arms. He was sunburned and thin. He told her about the tracts of land South Carolina and Georgia gifted him for his service in the south. In addition, he invested in 7,000 acres on Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia. With the military and government coffers empty, he was forced to buy uniforms for his troops on credit through a Charleston speculator named John Banks.
The Evacuation of Charleston
The British evacuated Charleston on December 14, 1782. There was a peaceful transfer of power between Nathanael and British General Alexander Leslie. The Greenes moved into the residence of former governor John Rutledge. The mansion became army headquarters. Nathanael was hailed as the conquering hero. Caty was referred to as “Lady Greene.”
Nathanael was still faced with clothing and providing for his army. His own financial affairs fell apart. A business he formed in 1779 came to its conclusion and Nathanael garnered only 10% of his original 10,000 pound investment. His clothing supplier, John Banks, entered a moneymaking scheme that went bad. Congress delayed paying Banks’ creditors. Banks in turn refused to deliver the provisions without a guarantee. Nathanael signed what amounted to a personal loan for 30,000 pounds.
On April 16, 1783, preliminary articles of peace were signed between the United States and Great Britain. He dismissed his soldiers on June 21 saying “We have trod the paths of adversity together, and have felt the sunshine of better fortune.”
He left Charleston on August 11. On his journey he was greeted with fanfare. He briefly reunited with Washington. On October 7, he formally requested that Congress accept his resignation as major general and asked that he be allowed to go home to Rhode Island. He didn’t attend Washington’s farewell address delivered on December 4. Nathanael was already home.
“My family is in distress and I am overwhelmed with difficulties and God knows when or where they will end. I work hard and live poor but I fear all this will not extricate me.” ~ Nathanael to Henry Knox, March 12, 1786
Pressures and Perplexities
He arrived at the docks of war torn Newport, Rhode Island in late November 1783. He had written to Caty that he trembled to think of the enormous sums of money he owed and that he was doomed to a life of hardship. The Greenes had no home of their own. In the coming year, they decided that Mulberry Grove on the Savannah River in Georgia held fruitful possibilities.
He reunited with his four children, George 7, Martha 6, Cornelia 5, and Nat 3 who looked upon him at first as a stranger, but he was soon their “companion and playfellow.” On April 17, 1784, the Greenes welcomed the arrival of their seventh family member, a baby girl they named Louisa.
He made business plans with his brother, Jacob. On December 17, he was elected the president of the Rhode Island Society of the Cincinnati. But his despondency grew. He received a letter from a firm demanding money for the army clothes they had sold John Banks. On August 1, he sailed to Charleston to look for Banks. He found him dead and buried. He asked his lawyer to file a claim against Bank’s estate.
He returned to Newport, but was soon back on his way south to tend to legal matters and prepare to move his family to Mulberry Grove. His business kept him away until mid-August 1785. When he returned home, Caty had just given birth to their sixth child, a girl named Catharine. The children came down with whooping cough. The older children recovered, but baby Catharine died. Caty was despondent. She missed her monthly “complaint” and chalked it up to her nervous state.
The Greenes boarded a ship bound for Savannah, Georgia on October 14, 1785. Nathanael would never see Rhode Island again.
Legacy of a Fond Father
In April 1786, he described his new life at Mulberry Grove as “a busy time” surrounded by gardens and fruit trees. His library was well-stocked with his beloved books. General Anthony Wayne was also awarded land by the State of Georgia and was a close neighbor. Years later Nathanael’s son, Nat, recalled his father holding him on his knee and teaching him “funny songs.” Little George often walked the fields with his father.
In late April, a very pregnant Caty fell. The accident brought on premature labor and the baby died soon after. One day, seeking the comfort of Nathanael’s arms, she found him by the river weeping. When he looked up at her, she saw the haggard face of a man who had sworn to give everything including his life and his future to the cause of freedom, and had done just that. She, too, had sacrificed. Only as one, could they survive and thrive.
I Have Seen a Great and Good Man Die
“Pardon this scrawl, my feelings are but too much affected, because I have seen a great and good man die.” ~ General Anthony Wayne to Colonel James Jackson, June 19, 1786
Caty and Nathanael drove to Savannah on Monday June 11, 1786 and spent the night with a friend. The next day they stopped at a neighbor’s home. Under the hot sun and without a hat, Nathanael walked the fields with his neighbor. On the way home, he complained of a headache. By Thursday, the pain had intensified over his eyes and his forehead swelled. He became unresponsive. He was suffering from sunstroke and the standard treatments of the day, bleeding and blistering, were useless. The children were sent to a neighbor. Anthony Wayne arrived and for two days he and Caty held vigil. At six o’clock in the morning on June 19, 1786, Nathanael Greene stopped breathing. He was 43.
His body was dressed in the uniform he had worn on formal occasions as a major general of the Continental Army. White silk gloves, a gift from the Marquis de Lafayette, were slipped on his hands. His body was floated down the river to Savannah and carried ashore where Caty and the children waited among silent citizens. A military corps escorted his coffin to Colonial Cemetery. A service was read and then Nathanael’s body was placed in a vault and a 13 gun salute was fired. No one thought to erect a marker.
Congress passed a resolution to erect a monument to General Nathanael Greene. The statue by Henry Kirke Brown and a gift from Rhode Island was erected in 1877 in Stanton Park, Washington D.C.
Sacred To The Memory of Nathanael Greene, Esquire
A Native Of The State Of Rhode Island
Who Died On The 19th Of June 1786
Late Major General In The Service Of The U.S.
And Commander Of Their Army In The Southern Department
“I found the South in confusion and distress and restored it to freedom and tranquility.” ~Major General Nathanael Greene
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Greene, Nathanael. “Letter of General Nath’l. Greene to Gen’l. Washington, 1781.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 30, no. 3 (1906): 359–65. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20085346.
Johnson, William. Sketches of the Life and Correspondence of Nathanael Greene Volume 1 and II. Charleston, South Carolina 1822
Reed, William B. Life and Correspondence of Joseph Reed. Philadelphia: Lindsay and Blakiston, 1847
Schecter, Barnet. The Battle for New York. New York: Walker and Company, 2002
Showman, Richard K. Editor. The Papers of Nathanael Greene: Volume V and VII and pages 612-613. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press. 1989.
Stegeman, John F. and Janet A. Caty A Biography of Catharine Littlefield Greene Athens, Georgia University of Georgia Press, 1977.
Thayer, Theodore. Nathanael Greene Strategist Of The American Revolution. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1960.
Upham, Charles Wentworth. The Life of General Washington: First President of the United States, Volume I. London: Officer of the National Illustrated Library, 1852
Waters, Andrew. To The End of World. Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, LLC, 2020
To George Washington from Major General Nathanael Greene, 15 August 1776
To George Washington from Major General Nathanael Greene, 27 July 1780
To George Washington from Major General Nathanael Greene, 5 August 1780
To Thomas Jefferson from Nathanael Greene, 6 December 1780
*Featured Image. General Nathanael Greene, painting by Charles Willson Peale from life, 1783. Author image rights ©Alamy Ltd.