by John Williams Haley

George Washington's right-hand man.

This article comes from The Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island, Vol. III, pages 130-132, published by the Providence Institution for Savings, 1939. Transcribed by Beth Hurd for non-commercial use only.

This painting of Greene by Melcher hangs in the State Reception Room at the Rhode Island State House.

The noted historian Sparks, writing of General Nathanael Greene, called the Rhode Islander the "most extraordinary man in the Army of the Revolution." Some may consider such a statement an attempt to undermine the reputation of General Washington. Such was neither the intention nor the case. Washington was without a peer, but Nathanael Greene was a unique individual in the true sense of the term. Perhaps the characterization "the right-hand man of Washington" would fit him more appropriately, but of course he was infinitely more than that.

Born in 1742 into one of the strictest of Quaker families, he soon acquired tendencies of thought entirely hostile to Quaker principles. He had always been a voracious reader, absorbing from books the education that had been denied to him by his too practical father, a Warwick blacksmith. Nathanael was no bookworm, but he had a passion for study and borrowed every book he could get hold of, soon acquiring a library of his own. Many books he read and re-read, but those with the greatest appeal to him were those dealing with the campaigns of past great generals and other military leaders. Such a display of taste brought upon his head the condemnation of all Quakers. But Nathanael was to do more than that to antagonize the members of his sect. He was to be one of the original organizers of the famous band of Kentish Guards and soon to embark upon a career that would separate him and Quakerism by an unbridgeable gulf.

He married in 1774, his bride being Catherine Littlefield, and went to live in Coventry, near his father's mill, of which he was then overseer. Training with the Kentish Guards became an enjoyable pastime for the young husband, particularly when his charming wife was a spectator at the drills.

A year or so of this, and then a chance to put training and long reading and research into practice. The news came to Rhode Island of Lexington and Concord, of the fact that the British were back in Boston and the American forces under Washington were preparing for a stubborn fight. Washington sent out a direct call for aid, a call that the Kentish Guards hailed with delight. They assembled their packs and fine equipment and marched off to Pawtucket and Massachusetts in fine feather. But at the boundary of Rhode Island and Massachusetts they were held up by orders from the Tory governor of their own colony, disbanded, and sent back home. But four men refused to turn back, among them Nathanael Greene. With his companions he pushed on to Boston and there laid his abilities and services at Washington's command.

Whether this token of patriotism and loyalty to the call of his commander-in-chief began Nathanael Greene's close friendship with Washington is of no great matter as a question. Such a friendship did develop, and rapidly. There was some evidence of jealousy on the part of other officers of Washington's staff, but Greene's ability as a general was too great for such criticism to exist for long. He had all the ingenuity of a typical Yankee combined with a sagacity far in advance of his years. The very training that he had had at his father's forge and mill gave him a foundation of practical experience that was invaluable, especially when he was Commissary-General faced with the enormous difficulties of providing men with food, shelter, arms, and clothing during the awful winter of 1777-1778 at Valley Forge. He proved a giant of strength under stress, indefatigable, meeting every crisis with cool judgment. Mrs. Greene was with her husband during the whole of this severe winter, giving up the luxuries of a home for a little hut scarcely larger than the type used by the regulars, going the rounds in bitter and fair weather to carry little delicacies to men who lay sick. The wives of all the officers who stayed the winter at Valley Forge met in Mrs. Washington's rooms to sew and patch the clothes of the soldiers whenever there was anything to patch with.

After this winter the Greenes were able to return to Coventry for a while, but Nathanael was always on the go, attending to official business and riding back and forth between his home and Providence. When winter came round again, the army took up its encampment on the banks of the Hudson, and it was here that the Greenes set up new quarters. Here, as formerly, they continued to be on the same terms of intimacy with the Washingtons, joining with them in what few social evenings they could arrange during the stress of the war.

Two years later came the treason of Benedict Arnold, and shortly afterward General Greene was put in command of West Point. He sent immediately for wife and children to join him there, but through some delays she was unable to reach him before he had to go away on a new commission, that of taking charge of the Army of the South.

In vain did he try to get a little longer extension of time before setting out to fulfill his new command, but Washington, despite his great friendship for the Greenes, was unable to grant his aide the necessary time to wait for the arrival of his wife. Consequently Nathanael was only able to write Catherine an affectionate letter of farewell. It was two years before the two were reunited.

In the South began the most brilliant part of General Greene's military career. At the time of his arrival there General Cornwallis was in possession of both South Carolina and Georgia, and most of the people in these states were Tories. The situation, aggravated by the pitiful condition of the American Army in the South, provided General Greene with an even more difficult problem than that which he had had to face at Valley Forge. But he went to work with his customary precision and judgment, reorganized the troops, established a new and strict discipline, and managed to get supplies through when there had been almost none before. Most important of all he revamped the general morale, until his men were thinking only in terms of victory.

In the southern campaign against Cornwallis, General Greene's old knowledge of military strategy, developed through his constant study of world famous campaigns, proved of inestimable value. He divided his army into several divisions in order to attack the enemy at widely scattered points. This forced Cornwallis to split up his army in the same manner. The latter suffered greatly from this move because, although he had more men than his American opponent, he had a paucity of officers. Of officers General Greene had plenty, brilliant men who were able to get the utmost results out of the few men at their command. In several battles they were able to give the British a severe drubbing. Then Greene retired into Virginia to await new supplies and reinforcements.

Here the American general bided his time before striking again at Cornwallis. He finally engaged the latter in one of the severest battles of the whole war, that of Guilford Courthouse. Both sides lost hundreds of men, and the Americans were forced to retreat. And retreat in this instance was not as bad as it seems. The British had also lost so heavily that they were in a difficult quandary, being unable to pursue yet not daring to remain where they were in their weakened condition. The actual result of the engagement was to break the hold of Cornwallis on the two southern states of South Carolina and Georgia. He gave up all control over them, and General Greene, his mission accomplished, returned to join General Washington. As a reward for his success in the campaign the colonies he had freed from British control gave him valuable tracts of land.

Catherine Greene had been with her husband in Charleston, South Carolina, at the end of the campaign, and she remained there until Cornwallis' final defeat at Yorktown. After that victory, which terminated the war, the Greenes once more set out for Coventry and the peace and quiet of home. General Greene rode the thousand miles of the trip on horseback, but his frailer wife came from the South by boat.

In August, 1783, the general left the South. In every hamlet, town, and city that he passed through he was hailed with acclaim as a national hero. It was November before he finally reached Rhode Island. Here he no longer had any business interests. These had been disposed of long before. Consequently he decided to take his family to Newport, and leased a house there opposite the "Old Stone Mill." War over, the family reunited again and everything looked bright for the future. General Greene made plans in his own mind, hoping to have a happy life with his wife and children, living in Newport in the summer and on his new southern plantations in the winter.

But none of these plans could be carried out. During the war he had secured supplies for his men by giving his own bond to merchants. Now the merchants were pressing him for payment. General Greene had expected Congress to reimburse him for his expenditures for military supplies, but there were the inevitable legislative delays, and the Greenes had to give up their new South Carolina estate to pay part of their debt.

In 1785, they went to Georgia to live on their plantation there, located on the banks of the Savannah River, about fourteen miles away from the city of that name. Here the prospect did begin to look better for the future. The estate was magnificent. It had every convenience, every facility for the enjoyment of life. But for the last time Fate intervened. On June 19, 1786, General Greene died, the victim of sunstroke. His wife was left a widow with five children.

A monument was erected to his memory in Savannah, Lafayette laying the cornerstone in 1823. Now, Rhode Island, Nathanael Greene's own state, has erected the statue of her great military hero. Well may she honor her illustrious son, one of the greatest generals, one of the most distinguished men of the Revolution, second only to Washington.

Return to Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island index.

John Williams Haley (1897-1963), former vice president of the Narragansett Brewing Company, was best known for his weekly radio program, "The Rhode Island Historian," which ran from 1927 to about 1953 on WJAR. Several hundred of his radio scripts were published in pamphlet form by the Providence Institute for Savings ("The Old Stone Bank"), and many were later reprinted in the four-volume Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island.

This article last edited July 9, 2006

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