Nathanael Greene

Continental Army Commander


Engraving of Nathanael Greene
(Credit: The Biographical Cyclopedia of Representative Men of Rhode Island, 1881)

Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island was known as “the Fighting Quaker” because he chose the military life over the anti-war Quaker religion of his minister father. Before that he was a blacksmith and managed his father’s mill. He owned at least one ship that tried to evade British monopolies, which a British revenue boat, the Gaspee, was chasing at Newport in 1772 when it was grounded and then burned by locals. (Greene’s boat was carrying rum, part of the slave trade.) In 1774 he married Catherine Littlefield. A few days before, he finished forming a company of Rhode Island militia. The men voted someone else captain, perhaps discriminating against his limp from a childhood incident.[1]

His skill won out, however, and he quickly rose from private to major general in charge of the state forces. Greene was in command of Continental troops at the Siege of Boston when Gen. George Washington arrived to take over. They became lifelong friends. Greene led troops in various northern battles, crossed the Delaware with Washington, and helped supply the army at Valley Forge (Penn.) as Quartermaster-General. Catherine often joined him on campaign, meanwhile having five children. Washington’s recommendation put Nathanael in charge of southern forces after a series of failures by previous commanders appointed by the Continental Congress. Greene took formal command in Charlotte in late 1780. He benefited from his quartermaster experience, having learned about arranging land and river transportation, keeping an army fed and supplied, selecting campsites, and persuading politicians to help. He devised a strategy of dividing the army to split the British, masterminded the Race to the Dan, and drew the British into attacking on ground of his choosing at the Battle of Guilford Court House. Though he retreated from the field, the British were so weakened they had to withdraw to Wilmington, which buoyed Patriot spirits. After that his army restored American control over the states to the south.

Greene put his business interests in the hands of partners during the war, who left him bankrupt and in debt. Near the end of the war, desperate to provide supplies for his troops, Greene partnered with a shady South Carolina businessman and black marketeer whose resulting debts Congress refused to honor.[2] The State of Georgia provided him a plantation outside of Savannah after the war, and he sold the Rhode Island house to his brother. But he died of sunstroke in 1786, only 44 years old, leaving Catherine a 30-year-old widow. Washington visited her as president in 1791. Catherine let Eli Whitney stay at the plantation, and while there he invented the cotton gin (engine), which cleaned seeds from cotton, perhaps with her help. (By making cotton more profitable, this greatly expanded both the acres planted and the slavery to work them.) She and new husband Phineas Miller lost Mulberry Grove, but they moved to other land given to Nathanael. She died there at 59.

More Information

[1] Pancake 1985.

[2] Causes of debts: Patton 2008.

White capy saying, "My other hat is a" and showing a tricorn hat
White capy saying, "My other hat is a" and showing a tricorn hat