“We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.” – Nathanael Greene
Early Life and Education
Nathanael Greene was the second child born on May 27, 1742 in Potowmut, Kent, Rhode Island to Nathanael Greene Sr. and his second wife, Mary Mott, in the house built by his father Jabez in 1684. Nathanael Jr. was the fifth generation of Greenes in the New World, and a direct descendent of Surgeon John Greene.
Much of what is known about Nathanael’s early life comes from a biography written by his grandson, George Washington Greene and mostly based on his interviews with Nathanael’s siblings.
His father was a well respected Quakers preacher. The family owned large tracts of land with cultivated fields, pastures, and orchards as well as several mills and a forge and was economically well-to-do. Quakers believed in simple living, pacifism, and a minimalist education – they taught letters so that the children could study scripture and select approved Quaker books as well a numbers so they could attend to their businesses. From a young age, Nathanael demonstrated a desire to learn beyond Quaker teachings, although such studies were initially prohibited by his father.
As a young child, Nathanael worked on the family farm. On Sundays, his father would bring him to the Quaker meetinghouse, some two miles from their house, to pray.
Love for books came after a walk home with a local boy who had attended college and described to Nathanael what he had studied in college. He had a natural love for math and science and with his father’s permission began to devour books.
Nathanael later was befriended by the Reverend Ezra Stiles, a Congregationalist preacher in Newport who would later become the president of Yale University. Stiles lent him many books over the years, and Nathanael took a particular liking to the writings of historical philosophers like Euclid, Horace, and John Locke. Around this time, he purchased a copy of Jacob’s Law Dictionary, and eventually developed enough of a command of law to handle some of his family’s legal cases. His early library consisted of well over 200 volumes.
Later, he worked in his father’s forge, becoming particularly skilled at building anchors. He also made toy anchors that he would sell on trips with his father to Newport, enabling him to purchase additional books and continue his pursuit of knowledge.
Pre-Revolutionary War Years
He was made a freeman (the eldest son of a freeman holding real estate valued at more than 40 pounds) of Warwick in April 1765 following the death of his older half brother Thomas. This enabled him to vote at town meetings and exposed him to politics. The British Sugar Act of 1764 and Stamp Act of 1765 are generally credited as having first invoked revolutionary sentiment in Nathanael.
In 1770, he broke with longstanding Quaker tradition by moving about 10 miles from his family homestead at Potowmut to Coventry, a village of some 100 families. He lived there for four years and served on the town assembly. One of his first votes was to establish a public school in Coventry. He was subsequently elected to the Rhode Island General Assembly and reelected three more times prior to the start of the Revolutionary War.
When in June 1772, the British revenue schooner Gaspee was attacked by Rhode Islanders off the coast of Warwick, a commission from England determined that Nathanael was a part of the attack and ordered a ship belonging to Greene confiscated and sent to Boston. This act, in particular, is written to have aroused great anger in Nathanael, who declared in a letter to his cousin that the act by the British had dangerous implications for every “lover of liberty in America.”
Following the Boston Tea Party in December 1773, Nathanael began to take more interest in military affairs and the art of war, adding several books on military strategy to his library. He participated in a number of military gatherings in Rhode Island and Connecticut in the following few years, which ultimately led to his expulsion from the Quakers.
In July 20, 1774, he married a local beauty named Catherine “Caty” Littlefield, whose family was from Block Island, Rhode Island.
In October 1774, Greene enlisted as a private in the Kentish Guards, which had been chartered by Rhode Island colony to protect its towns from attack by British or Tory forces. This was despite the fact that Greene had suffered from a slight limp in his leg, a condition he had since his childhood.
In May 1775 Greene received a commission to serve in the Rhode Island continental army, and just one month later he was made a Brigadier General in the Continental Army, serving under General Charles Lee during the siege of Boston.
Once the British evacuated Boston in 1776, Greene was named commander of the city. He was later appointed to command the defenses of Fort Lee in New Jersey and Fort Washington in New York. The British attacked and routed the Continentals, who were forced to abandon them both. Greene accepted the blame for these losses, but Washington maintained his confidence in the young general.
Greene served as Quartermaster-General of the Continental Army from 1778-1780. In 1780, he succeeded the traitor Benedict Arnold as commander of West Point, where he also served as Chairman of the Commission to try British spy Major John Andre.
Greene is perhaps best remembered for his stewardship of the Southern Army. After the British captured Georgia and South Carolina by virtually eliminating the Southern Continental Army, Washington recommended Greene for the post. Congress approved, and Greene assumed command of all Continental troops from Delaware to Georgia beginning in December 1780. Badly outnumbered and greatly lacking in resources, Greene resolved to a protracted strategic retreat in order to wear down British General Charles Cornwallis’s army and inflict significant casualties while preserving his own army. On various occasions, Greene split his army and forced Cornwallis to chase him throughout South and North Carolina, rallying local militias to his cause and fighting only when the terrain was favorable on his terms. He fought a series of skirmishes whose outcomes were indecisive at best or tactical defeats at worst, but maintained the integrity of his army. His famous quote, “We fight, get beat, rise and fight again” sums up much of his campaign. He commanded at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina in March 1781, which while a strategic victory, was technically a defeat since Cornwallis held the field. But a British politician summed it up best noting that, “another such victory would ruin the British Army.” Following the battle, Cornwallis decided to head into Virginia while Greene headed back to South Carolina to liberate towns still under British control. Over the next nine months, Greene fought a series of battles to liberate smaller British garrisons and by the end of 1781 had effectively liberated the South from British control, minus a few coastal enclaves. He remained in South Carolina until after the British withdrew from Charleston in December 1782.
Greene surrendered his commission in August 1783. North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia all voted Greene large tracts of land for his service in the southern theater. Greene had wracked up much debt during the war in his attempts to keep his army well stocked, and sold most of the land to pay off these debts.
While returning briefly to his native Rhode Island, Greene in late 1785 decided to settle at Mulberry Grove, just outside of Savannah, Georgia, where he a plantation of fruit orchards. He twice declined the post of Secretary of War in the Congress of Confederation.
On June 19, 1786 Greene died of sun stroke and heat exhaustion after visiting a friend. His remains are located beneath a monument to him at Johnson Square in Savannah.
An inscription on a monument to General Greene in Greensboro, North Carolina attributed to the French aristocrat and Revolutionary War General Marquis de Lafayette reads, “…in the very name Greene are remembered all the virtues and talents which can illustrate the patriot, the statesman, and the military leader.”
And we end with a quote from Thomas Jefferson, who wrote that Greene was, “second to no one in enterprise, in resource, in sound judgment, promptitude of decision, and every other military talent.”