Biography of Nathanael Greene
Nathanael Greene was an important General in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War and one of the best military strategists in the army. After Britain passed the Coercive Acts, he helped organize a militia company in Rhode Island in preparation for war. When the war started, Rhode Island raised three regiments, which included Greene and his militia, and sent them to join in the Siege of Boston. When Congress organized the Continental Army, Green was commissioned as a Brigadier General. When the British evacuated Boston, Washington went to New York and left Greene in command. Soon after, Greene went to New York to help prepare for the British attack. After several defeats, Greene crossed the Delaware with Washington and led the left wing of the army at the Battle of Trenton and then fought in the Battle of Princeton. During the Philadelphia Campaign, he led American forces at the Battle of Brandywine and Battle of Germantown. He was with Washington at Valley Forge where he became Quartermaster General. Green led men again at the Battle of Monmouth and then went back to Rhode Island and his Quartermaster duties. In 1780, Greene learned that Benedict Arnold was working with the British and he served as the head of the Board of Inquiry that tried and convicted Major John André for spying. Greene eventually resigned as Quartermaster and replaced Arnold as commander at West Point. Not long after, the American forces in the south, under the command of Horatio Gates, suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Camden. Washington sent Greene to replace Gates. Once he arrived, Gates made a bold decision to divide his army, which forced the British to chase the Americans through South Carolina. At the Battle of Cowpens, Daniel Morgan led his portion of the army to a significant victory and then moved into North Carolina to join up with Greene. General Charles Cornwallis gathered his forces and pursued the Americans into North Carolina, however, Greene escaped by leading his men across the Dan River and into Virginia. Cornwallis was unable to cross the river because the water had risen too high. Greene crossed back into North Carolina and engaged the British at the Battle of Guilford Court House. Once again, the Americans lost the battle but were able to escape. Cornwallis took his army to Wilmington, and then to Virginia. Meanwhile, Greene returned to South Carolina where he slowly took control of the state, engaged the remaining British forces at the Battle of Eutaw Springs, and trapped them in Charleston, which left the rest of South Carolina under the control of the Americans. Meanwhile, Cornwallis was trapped in Yorktown, Virginia by American forces and the French fleet, and surrendered on October 19, 1781.
This illustration by Frederick Coffay Yohn depicts the center of the British line breaking at the Battle of Eutaw Springs. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.
5 Things to Know About Nathanael Greene
- Nathanael Green was born on August 7, 1742, in Potoworout, Rhode Island, and died on June 19, 1768, on his farm in Georgia.
- Greene was suspected of being involved in the burning of the HMS Gaspee in 1772, which led to the Gaspee Affair. The ship the Gaspee seized was owned by Greene and his brothers. The incident was one of the most important moments in Rhode Island’s involvement in the American Revolution.
- He saw his first action at the Battle of Harlem Heights and was criticized for the loss of men at the Battle of Fort Washington. Greene had recommended keeping a garrison at the fort, but it was overrun by the British and 3,000 American troops were taken prisoner.
- Greene reorganized the Quartermaster Department and established critical supply depots for the Continental Army in the Jerseys and the Hudson Highlands that improved response time and helped American forces quickly respond to threats from British forces after the Saratoga Campaign.
- He waged a successful campaign of guerilla warfare in the South against Cornwallis and his forces. Even though the Americans lost most of the battles from a tactical standpoint, it resulted in strategic victories and contributed to the British surrender at the Battle of Yorktown.
Nathanael Greene is important to United States history because he led American forces to a strategic victory in the Southern Campaign that forced British forces to Yorktown where they were trapped by the Continental Army and the French fleet. Greene was not only a close friend of George Washington, but Washington trusted him and personally chose him to take command of the Southern Department after a string of commanders failed.
Alexander Hamilton Quotes from His Eulogy of Nathanael Greene
On July 4, 1789, Alexander Hamilton delivered a eulogy in memory of Greene to the Society of the Cincinnati. The following quotes have been selected from Hamilton’s speech to show how his fellow officers felt about Greene, as a friend, Patriot, and leader.
“As a man the virtues of Greene are admitted; as a patriot he holds a place in the foremost rank; as a statesman he is praised; as a soldier he is admired. But in the two last characters especially in the last but one his reputation falls far below his desert. It required a longer life and still greater opportunities to have enabled him to exhibit in full day the vast, I had almost said the enormous powers of his mind. The termination of the American war not too soon for his wishes nor for the welfare of his country, but too soon for his glory, put an end to his military career. The sudden termination of his life cut him off from those scenes, which the progress of a new immense and unsettled empire could not fail to open to the complete exertion of that universal and pervading genius, which qualified him not less for the senate, than for the field.”
“From you who knew and loved him, I fear not the imputation of flattery or enthusiasm when I indulge an expectation that the name of Greene will at once awaken in your minds the images of whatever is noble and estimable in human nature. The vigor of his genius corresponding with the importance of the prize to be contended for, overcame the natural moderation of his temper…animated by an enlightened sense of the value of free government, he chearfully resolved to stake his fortune his hopes his life and his honor upon an enterprise of the danger of which he knew the whole magnitude in a cause which was worthy of the toils and of the blood of heroes. But where alas is now this consumate General, this brave soldier, this discerning statesman, this steady patriot, this virtuous citizen, this amiable man? Why could not so many talents, so many virtues, so many bright and useful qualities shield him from a premature grave? Why was he not longer spared to a country which he so dearly loved, which he was so well able to serve, which still seems so much to stand in need of his services? Why was he only allowed to assist in laying the foundation and not permitted to aid in rearing the superstructure of American greatness? Such are the inquiries, which our friendly, yet short sighted regrets would naturally suggest. But inquiries like these are to be discarded as presumptuous. Tis not for us to scan but to submit to the dispensations of heaven. Let us content ourselves with revering the memory, imitating the virtues, and as far as we dare emulating the glory of the man, whom neither our warmest admiration nor our fondest predilection could protect from the fatal shaft. And as often as we indulge our sorrow in his loss let us ⟨not⟩ fail to mingle the reflection that he has left behind him offspring who are the heirs to the friendship which we bore to the father and who have a claim from many, if not from all of us to cares not less than parental.”