American Revolution Patriots > Nathanael Greene
GREENE, Nathanael, soldier, b. in Potowomut, within the jurisdiction of Warwick, R. I., 6 June, 1742; d. at Mulberry Grove, Ga., 19 June, 1786. He was the fifth in descent from John Greene, a surgeon, who came over in the next company after Roger Williams, and became an original proprietor in both Providence and Shawomet. Nathanael was the fourth son in a family of eight boys and one girl, two being the issue of Nathanael the elder's first marriage, and the others of the second. The elder Nathanael was a Quaker, exercising on Sunday his gift as a preacher, and his sons were brought up according to the strictest principles of that sect. Young Nathanael was trained in common with the other boys to work in the field, the mill and the forge. Young Greene was of a robust nature, fond of athletic sports, in which he excelled; but he was also of a studious disposition. A chance meeting with a young collegian named Giles aroused a desire for more knowledge than the crude educational materials in vogue in this Quaker community afforded. His father was appealed to, to enlarge his means of study; and shortly afterward Nathanael, under the guidance of a Scotchman named Maxwell, began Latin and geometry. Euclid became an absorbing study, and a copy of this treatise, purchased with his own earnings, was his almost constant companion on his daily round of duty. Between 1753 and 1755 he made the acquaintance of President Stiles, then a clergyman in Newport, and under his guidance acquired a knowledge of such authors as Locke, Watts, and Swift. The latter was his literary model, and he shaped his ideas of history upon Ferguson's “History of Civil Society.”
About the same time he met Lindley Murray, the “grammarian of three generations of ungrateful school-boys,” with whom he had many profitable discussions on the subjects of his readings. In 1760 Nathanael took a step that exhibited his independence of judgment and action. At that time a strong prejudice against inoculation prevailed, and the practice of it had been forbidden by the assemblies of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the latter rejecting it as late as 1772. Greene, finding the scourge of small-pox raging in New York on one of his visits, submitted to inoculation, much to the scandal, it is presumed, of his neighbors and friends. In order to conduct intelligently a lawsuit in which the family had become involved, he made, in his twentieth year, a thorough study of Blackstone's “Commentaries” and Jacob's “Law Dictionary.” As the business of the Greene forge, at Coventry, required the constant attention of one of the partners, Nathanael removed to that place in 1770. In April, 1765, he had been admitted a freeman in Warwick, by virtue of his proprietorship of an estate at West Greenwich.
Three years later he canvassed the county for signatures to the association test, and shortly after his removal to Coventry he sat in the general assembly as a representative from that place. The disputes between the colonies and the British government were commented upon by the young legislator, and so well known were his sentiments that the royal agents appointed to seek out the offenders in the burning of the “Gaspé” at once fixed their suspicions upon him, and for some time he was in danger of being summoned to the court of inquiry at Newport. He was convinced that war would be the outcome of pending troubles, and applied himself to the study of military science. From Sharpe's “Military Guide,” Turenne's “Memoirs,” Cæsar's “Commentaries,” and Plutarch, he derived that theoretical military knowledge which he so successfully put into practice in his military career. In 1774 an independent company, recruited from East Greenwich, Warwick, and Coventry, was formed under the name of the Kentish Guards, and Greene immediately enrolled himself as a private, after failing of an election to the office of lieutenant.
Even his admission as a private was some time in doubt, owing to a slight limp in his gait. In securing his military equipment, Greene showed his customary energy, making a trip to Boston, and not only bringing back the accoutrements concealed under straw in his wagon, but also having with him a deserter from one of the British regiments in Boston, whom he had employed to act as drill-master. The Quakers looked askance at Greene's interest in military matters, and a conference resulted in the severance of his formal connection with that fraternity; but he never lost his attachment for this simple religion. The news of the battle of Bunker Hill aroused the Rhode Island assembly, and they voted to raise a brigade of three regiments to join the forces around Boston, commissioning Greene as brigadier-general. This contingent joined the American army at Jamaica Plain, on 3 June, 1776, and the young officer at once proceeded with the task of organizing the undisciplined men in his command. Washington arrived at Cambridge on 2 July, and upon Greene devolved the duty of welcoming the commander-in-chief in the name of the soldiers, which task he performed in a dignified and pleasing manner. During the siege of Boston he was stationed at Prospect Hill, and in the affair of Dorchester Heights he commanded a brigade. On the evacuation of Boston he was ordered to Long Island, but during the disastrous operations in this campaign he lay at the point of death.
The American army made a stand at Harlem in the retreat from Long Island; but the critical situation induced Greene, who had been promoted to major-general, to propose to Washington the abandonment of New York, and the occupation of the Westchester shore from King's Bridge, and the council of war finally approved the plan. Fort Washington was to be held, to obstruct the passage of the Hudson; but its downfall soon followed, and Greene, who advised its retention, has suffered in reputation in consequence. The question of his responsibility has been the subject of controversy between Bancroft, the historian, and George W. Greene. Cornwallis crossed the Hudson on 18 Nov., 1776, and made a movement to cut off the American retreat to the Hackensack; but Greene engaged him at the head of the stream, and held him until the troops had crossed. The retreat through the Jerseys now began, and the harassed army brought up at Trenton on 2 Dec., where Washington at once set about getting his baggage and stores across the Delaware.
On 25 Dec. the American army, with Greene in command of the left wing and Sullivan of the right, surprised the Hessian garrison at Trenton, and gained a complete victory. Greene urged a rapid pursuit of the enemy, but was overruled by a council of war. The victory, however, was soon followed by a strategic movement on the weakened garrison at Princeton, and after a sharp engagement the British retreated to join the main army under Cornwallis. Greene's conduct and wise counsels throughout the campaign had commended him to Washington; and when, in March, 1777, the latter found it necessary to present to congress his views and plans, Greene was selected for the mission. The “Conway cabal,” which in the succeeding winter assumed dangerous proportions, had already begun its work of discrediting Washington and Greene with congress, and partly on this account Greene was sent. He succeeded in having a resolution passed relieving Washington from subservience to a council of war.
Battle of the Brandywine
But Greene's most important work at this period was the part he took in the battle of the Brandywine, 11 Sept., 1777. The only hope of success for the British in the attempt to drive Washington from his very strong position at Chadd's and Brinton's fords was in turning his right flank by a circuitous march of eighteen miles up the Lancaster road and across the forks of the Brandywine toward Birmingham meeting-house. The British were safe in trying this, because their superior force (18,000 against 11,000) enabled them to separate the wings of their army with little risk. The movement was admirably conducted by Cornwallis, but he did not succeed in striking the American flank, because Washington made a new front with his right wing under Sullivan, near Birmingham meeting-house, so that Sullivan received the attack on his front. Yet, in spite of this, the superiority of the British in discipline gave them the advantage in the desperate fight that ensued, and Cornwallis succeeded in pushing Sullivan obliquely toward the village of Dilworth.
If this movement had been completed it would have cut the American army in two and utterly routed it; but it was foiled by the generalship of Greene in executing Washington's prompt orders to stop the dangerous gap. Greene was in command of the reserve, stationed on a lofty eminence a little in the rear of Wayne, who commanded the centre behind Chadd's ford. On receiving Washington's order he marched his brigade five miles in forty-five minutes, and, connecting with Sullivan near Dilworth, averted the impending destruction of the army. Wayne had time to withdraw the centre, and Armstrong the right wing, in good order; and so the whole army was united at Chester in excellent condition. Careless writers have sometimes vaguely described the American army as “routed” at the battle of the Brandywine, and this notion has crept into text-books of American history.
An army cannot properly be said to be “routed” when it is ready to renew the fight next day. The best commentary on the battle of the Brandywine is furnished by the fact that, while it was fought on 11 Sept., it was not until the 26th of that month that Gen. Howe reached Philadelphia. This delay was due to Washington's skilful manœuvring; but the best of generals cannot manœuvre and detain the enemy with an army that has just been routed. The reason why the Americans were not routed at the Brandywine is to be found in Greene's memorable double-quick march to Dilworth, and the admirable manner in which he sustained the languishing fight at that critical point.
On 26 Sept., Gen. Howe, having eluded Washington on the Schuylkill, entered Philadelphia, stationing the bulk of his army at Germantown, and on 4 Oct. the battle of Germantown was fought. Greene's division, moving in a circuitous course to attack the front of the British right wing, delayed by the difficulties of the route, and a mistake of his guide, did not get to the field as early as was planned, and Wayne accidentally occupied the ground assigned it. When victory seemed imminent an unfortunate mishap turned the tide, and Gen. Greene again, with wonderful skill, covered the retreat. The army went into winter quarters at Valley Forge, Greene meanwhile crossing to the west bank of the Delaware to oppose Cornwallis's march for its occupation; but he prudently retired on learning the unequal strength and resources of the opposing forces.
The defective organization and administration of the quartermaster-general's department had been, from the beginning of the war, a source of embarrassment to the army; and, at the earnest solicitation of Washington, Greene accepted, in March, 1778, the office of quartermaster-general, reserving his right to command on the field of battle. On 18 June the British evacuated Philadelphia and took up the line of march through the Jerseys. Greene and Hamilton urged giving them battle, and on 28 June a general attack was made on Clinton's forces at Monmouth Court-House. Gen. Charles Lee commanded the advanced corps, Stirling the left, and Greene the right wing of the American forces. Lee, who had frowned upon the plan of opposing Clinton's march, disgraced himself on the day of battle by dilatory and disobedient conduct. After the battle, Clinton continued his retreat to New York, and Washington, marching northward, crossed the Hudson and encamped in Westchester county. After the battle, Greene, taking no time for rest, immediately attended to the numerous orders and dispositions required of him as quartermaster-general.
On the arrival of Count d'Estaing with the French fleet, it was determined to make a combined attack on Newport. Greene, from local interest, wished to take part in the expedition, and in August took up his quarters with one division of the army at Tiverton. The designs of the allies failed through a variety of mishaps, chief among which was the disablement of the French fleet by a tremendous gale. Shortly afterward Greene went to Philadelphia, at the request of the commander-in-chief, to give information of the late expedition, and the causes of its failure, to congress, and there he was received with distinguished consideration. The year 1779 was inactive and uneventful, the Americans held the line of the Hudson, and the operations of the enemy were confined to burning defenceless towns on the coasts of Connecticut and Virginia. Greene found abundant labor in his difficult and annoying duties as quartermaster-general. The delays of congress in providing for a systematic method of raising supplies caused the greatest annoyance.
The winter of 1780 was one of great suffering to the Americans for the want of proper shelter and lack of food. A general defection of the troops was threatened, and Knyphausen, learning of it, and hoping to deal a decisixe blow, hastened from Staten Island, and on 7 July, 1780, took possession of Elizabethtown, and burned the village of Connecticut Farms, but was driven back from Springfield to the coast, where he tarried until Clinton's arrival from the south. Washington had proceeded northward with his main body, leaving Greene, with Maxwell's and Stark's brigades, Lee's corps, and the militia, to cover the country and the public stores. Clinton attacked Greene at Springfield on 23 June, 1780; but Greene held him at bay at the Rahway bridges, and, gradually contracting his front, which had been lengthened to cover the mountain-passes, secured a strong position back of the town, and there awaited another attack. Clinton's forces, after setting fire to the town, retreated, and did not halt until they had reached Staten Island. Greene and his officers were thanked in general orders.
On 17 Sept., Washington set out for Hartford, for a conference with Rochambeau, leaving Greene in command of the army. The Americans moved forward to Tappan on the 19th, and late in the evening of the 25th Greene was apprised, in a few hurried lines from Hamilton, of Arnold's treason. The captive André arrived at Tappan under close guard on 28 Sept., and the following day a board of inquiry, with Greene as president, was convened for his trial. With tears Greene signed the decree of the court condemning the young officer to death. Clinton despatched three commissioners to argue André's case, and Greene was sent by Washington to confer with them; but their efforts were unavailing. It has been asserted, but not confirmed, that Greene cast a deciding vote in the council against granting André's prayer to be shot instead of hanged. He held that André, if punished at all, should receive the punishment meted to spies according to the laws of war.
In August, 1780, Gen. Greene, annoyed by the inefficiency of congress in providing supplies, and rightly suspecting an intention on its part of interfering with him in the discharge of his duties as quartermaster-general, resigned that office. Washington's enemies in congress chose to consider this action as a mark of disrespect for that body, and attempted unsuccessfully to drive him from the army. The post at West Point, left vacant by Arnold's treason, was confided to Greene, who assumed the command on 8 Oct., 1780. Gates's failure in the southern campaign compelled his recall in August, and by common consent Greene was looked upon as the fittest man to retrieve the fortunes of the southern army. Washington, empowered by congress, wrote on 14 Oct., asking Greene to take Gates's late command.
The task he found before him on taking command at Charlotte, 2 Dec., 1780, was formidable enough to daunt the boldest spirit. In front of him was an army of 3,224 men, abundantly clothed and fed, well disciplined, elated with victory, and led by an able general. To oppose this force, he had an army of 2,307 men, of whom 1,482 were present and fit for duty, 547 were absent on command, and 128 were detached on extra service, half fed, scantily clothed, cast down by defeat, and many of them defiant of all discipline. Furthermore, the country was infested with Tories. Recognizing the impossibility of facing Cornwallis with such inferior numbers, Greene resolved to divide his forces, by which means he might not only secure an abundant supply of food, but could keep the enemy within narrower bounds, cut them off from the supplies of the upper country, revive the drooping spirits of the inhabitants, threaten the posts and communications of the enemy, and compel him to suspend his threatened invasion of North Carolina.
Morgan was detached with the famous Maryland brigade, and Col. Washington's regiment of light dragoons, to take up a position near the confluence of the Pacolet and Broad rivers, in the hope of threatening his adversary's left flank. With the other division, Greene, after a laborious march through a barren country, took post at Hick's creek on the Pedee, near the South Carolina line. Tarleton, who was hastening forward from the main army, meditating a decisive blow at his despised opponents, attacked Morgan at the Cowpens, on 17 Jan., 1781, and, after a hard-fought battle, was utterly routed, losing over 300 men killed and wounded, with about 500 prisoners, out of a total force of 1,100. Cornwallis was infuriated by this disaster, and, ridding himself of his heavy luggage and whatever might impede his progress, at once set out in active pursuit of Morgan.
In a most brilliant march Greene effected a junction of the two divisions of his army at Guilford Court-House on 9 Feb., 1781. He had expected here to meet re-enforcements from Virginia, but, as they had not yet arrived, he thought it best to retreat toward them and put the broad stream of the Dan between himself and the enemy. By practising every expedient his fertile mind could devise, he succeeded in getting across the river, without loss of men, baggage, or stores. Cornwallis, who had been close upon his heels for more than 200 miles, finding his troops fatigued and dispirited by their fruitless march, prudently retired to Hillsborough. Presently Greene received his re-enforcement, and thereupon, crossing the Dan, came to battle with Cornwallis at Guilford Court-House, 15 March.
Although this battle was a tactical success for the British, the Americans nevertheless gained a decisive strategic advantage, for the enemy, being too much shattered to continue the contest, retired to Wilmington, from which point he moved into Virginia to effect a junction with the forces of Gen. Phillips. Greene immediately turned his face southward, leaving Cornwallis to proceed unmolested into Virginia. Greene's reasons for this move were given to Washington in a letter on 29 March, as follows: “I am determined to carry the war immediately into South Carolina. The enemy will be obliged to follow us, or give up the posts in that state.” If the former took place, it would take the war out of the devastated state of North Carolina, and give the inhabitants time to recuperate; and, in the event of leaving the posts in South Carolina to fall, the enemy would lose far more than they could gain in Virginia.
The most important strategic post in South Carolina was Camden, which stood at the intersection of the principal roads leading to the north and west with those leading down to the seaboard. On 20 April the American army established itself in a strong position at Hobkirk's Hill, near Camden, and on the 25th it was assaulted there by the British under Lord Rawdon. This was exactly the move for which Greene had been preparing. The assault ought to have resulted in the total ruin of the British army; but, through an accidental misunderstanding of orders, Greene's very best men in the Maryland brigade behaved badly, and he was forced to abandon his position.
The defeat, however, did not prevent his reaping, as he invariably did, all the fruits of victory. He had already sent Marion and Lee to take Fort Watson, and thereby cut Rawdon's communications with the coast. This operation, admirably planned and brilliantly successful, obliged Rawdon to abandon Camden and fall back toward Charleston, and from this time Greene had the game entirely in his own hands. During May and June he reconquered all the back country of South Carolina and Georgia, capturing Fort Motte, Fort Granby, Orangeburg, and Augusta, with all their garrisons. After a sanguinary siege of twenty-eight days, he forced the British to evacuate Fort Ninety-Six, and thus give up their last hold upon the interior.
Greene's army had now been incessantly in motion for seven months. After a rest of about six weeks in a secure position on the high hills of Santee, he met the British army, in the command of which Rawdon had been succeeded by Stuart, in a decisive action at Eutaw Springs. In the morning the British were driven off the field by a superb charge upon their left Hank; but, after retreating some distance in disorder, they rallied in a strong position, protected by a brick house and palisaded garden, and succeeded in remaining there during the afternoon, but only because Greene desisted from further attack until the cool of the evening. For thus holding their second position a few hours, albeit on sufferance, the British absurdly claimed a victory, and the error has been repeated by American writers who ought to know better.
At nightfall the British retreated, as Greene saw they must, and he now renewed his attack. The enemy were chased nearly thirty miles by Marion and Lee, and there was a wholesale capture of prisoners. Of the 2,300 men with whom Stuart had gone into the battle, scarcely more than 1,000 reached Charleston, where they remained for the next fourteen months, shut up under the shelter of their fleet. The battle of Eutaw Springs was a decisive and final victory for the Americans in South Carolina.
Congress testified its appreciation of Greene's brilliant conduct by a gold medal and a vote of thanks. Little more was done till the next July, when Savannah was taken by Wayne. On 14 Dec., 1782, Greene marched into Charleston at the head of his army, and the next summer, when the army was disbanded, he journeyed homeward, stopping at Philadelphia, where he was greeted by enthusiastic crowds and treated with high consideration by the congress that had come so near depriving the country of his services. In the autumn of 1785 he removed to a plantation at Mulberry Grove, which had been presented to him by the state of Georgia. Although his fortune was impaired by the war, and he was compelled to bear a heavy pecuniary responsibility incurred through the dishonesty of an army contractor for whom he had become security while quartermaster-general, his life on his plantation was very happy in the society of his charming wife and genial friends.
His death, at the age of forty-four, was caused by sunstroke. In a speech before the Society of the Cincinnati, Alexander Hamilton said that Greene's qualifications for statesmanship were not less remarkable than his military ability, which was of the highest order. His series of campaigns from December, 1780, to September, 1781, will bear comparison with the best work of Turenne or Wellington. What he might have done on a greater scale and with more ample resources, it is, of course, impossible to say; but the intellectual qualities that he showed were precisely those that have won distinction for the foremost strategists of modern times. It would be difficult to praise too highly the superb maneuvring that drew Cornwallis 200 miles from his base, forced a battle on him at Guilford under such circumstances that victory proved hardly less fatal to him than defeat, and thus turned him off into Virginia, leaving Greene's hands free to drive Rawdon from Camden and reconquer South Carolina. Congress voted that a monument to Greene be raised at the seat of government; but more than ninety years elapsed before the resolve was fulfilled by placing an equestrian statue, from the hand of Henry Kirke Brown, in Washington. A monument, dedicated to Greene and Pulaski jointly, stands in a public square in Savannah. Greene married, 20 July, 1774, Miss Catherine Littlefield, niece of the wife of the governor of Rhode Island, the Catherine Ray of Franklin's letters, and by her he had two sons and three daughters.
The authoritative life of the great general is by his grandson, George Washington Greene (3 vols., 8vo, New York, 1867-'71). The sketch previously published by the same author in Sparks's “ Library of American Biography” was compiled from printed sources, not from original documents. The controversy between George Bancroft and George W. Greene, occasioned by some remarks in Bancroft's history, was carried on in the pages of the “North American Review” and the “Historical Magazine.” The letters connected with this controversy are published in the second volume of Greene's life, which also contains numerous extracts from the general's private correspondence.
The addresses on the presentation of the statue of Gen. Greene were published by the government at Washington in 1870, in a pamphlet of eight pages. A selection from his despatches relating to the southern campaign is preserved in two folio volumes in the state department. Some of his letters may be found in Force's “Archives,” and others in Sparks's “Correspondence of the American Revolution”; but the bulk of his correspondence still remains in manuscript. The latest life, entitled “General Greene,” by Francis V. Greene, U. S. A. (New York, 1893), is the fourth of the “Great Commanders” series. — His grandson, George Washington, author, b. in East Greenwich, R. I., 8 April, 1811; d. there, 2 Feb., 1883, entered Brown university, but left before graduation on account of failing health. From 1825 till 1847 he resided in Europe, and in 1837 he was appointed U. S. consul at Rome.
On his return to this country in 1848 he was appointed professor of modern languages at Brown. In 1852 he removed to New York, and devoted himself to teaching, and writing historical and other articles for periodicals. In 1853 he edited Addison's works, with copious notes (6 vols., New York). He took up his residence at his native place in 1865, and soon afterward was chosen to represent the town in the legislature. He made speeches in 1867 and 1869 on the ratification of the 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution of the United States. In 1872 he was chosen professor of American history at Cornell. His published works include, besides two text-books of botany, one of French grammar, and several addresses: “Historical Studies” (New York, 1850); “History and Geography of the Middle Ages” (1851); “Biographical Studies” (1860); “Historical View of the American Revolution” (Boston, 1865); “Nathanael Greene: an Examination of the Ninth Volume of Brancroft's History” (1866); a life of Gen. Nathanael Greene in Sparks's “American Biography,” and a more extended one, published separately (3 vols., New York, 1867-'71); “The German Element in the War of American Independence” (1876); and a “Short History of Rhode Island” (Providence, 1877). — Nathanael's nephew, Albert Collins, U. S. senator, b. in East Greenwich, R. I., 15 April, 1791; d. in Providence, 8 Jan., 1863, was the son of Perry Greene. He received an academic education, and then studied law in New York city, where he was admitted to the bar. Subsequently he returned to Rhode Island, and there practised his profession. In 1815 he was elected to the lower branch of the state legislature, in the year following was chosen brigadier-general of the militia, and later major-general. He was again elected to the legislature, and held office from 1822 till 1825, being speaker during the last year. From 1825 till 1843 he was attorney-general of Rhode Island, then for two years a member of the state senate, when he was elected as a Whig to the U. S. senate, serving from 1 Dec., 1845, till 3 March, 1851. Subsequently he served for a single term in each branch of the legislature, and finally retired in 1857.
The 1892 edition notes “Mr. [George W.] Greene's intention, announced in 1870, of publishing all his grandfather's papers in a work of several volumes, was never carried out.”
Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography (1900)