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Men of the Revolution: 3. Nathanael Greene

May 2024
3min read
Overcoming painful ailments, Greene emerged from the Revolution with a military reputation second only to that of George Washington.

The American who emerged from the Revolution with a military reputation second only to that of George Washington was a Quaker with a physical affliction that had caused him to be rejected as an officer by the men in his militia company. Nathanael Greene’s career was a curious interplay of such contradictions, with the result that his fortunes seemed always at the flood or the ebb, never fully resolved. Raised a Quaker, he never lost the deep sense of piety he learned at meeting, but could not go along with the doctrine of pacifism, which he regarded as impractical under such circumstances as the “business of necessity” in which the colonies found themselves in 1775. A big, husky man, Greene had a powerful frame that came from years at his father’s forge in Coventry, Rhode Island, but his robust appearance camouflaged chronic ill health. Asthma plagued him, inoculation against smallpox left a spot in his right eye that pained him frequently, and a stiff right knee caused him to limp noticeably. None of these ailments kept him from being something of a lady’s man in his younger days, but the gimpy leg frustrated his first attempt to become an officer. In 1774, when the men of the Rhode Island Kentish Guards were choosing officers, they refused to have Greene even though he was thought to be the best qualified; what kind of volunteer company, the men asked, wanted a captain who limped across the parade ground? The word that he was “a blemish to the company” mortified Greene, who was sensitive about his leg and about how it would seem for a successful, thirty-twoyear-old man to serve as a private. But he swallowed his pride and let it be known that he was willing to carry a musket in the ranks.

At daybreak on the morning after the battles at Lexington and Concord the Kentish Guards were on the march toward Massachusetts. It turned out that the company was not needed near Boston just then, but the Rhode Island assembly voted to raise a i,5oo-man brigade known as the Army of Observation to preserve “the liberties of America”—somewhat ironically in the name of His Majesty King George in. And when it came time to select a commander, no one could think of anyone better qualified than Nathanael Greene, who was given the rank of brigadier general. During nine years of service with the Continental Army Greene’s career was a series of ups and downs, a frustrating blend of military defeats or personal disappointments leavened with moments of triumph. His first and worst defeat came with the fall of Fort Washington in November, 1776, which Greene had stubbornly insisted on defending despite the better judgment of Washington. It was one of the most costly losses of the entire war, but from it Greene learned never again to rely on raw, inexperienced troops to withstand a heavy assault by disciplined British regulars. At the battles of Trenton, Brandywine, Germantown, Monmouth, and Newport the Rhode Islander distinguished and redeemed himself, but he had a rare capacity for alienating the civilians who ran the shaky new government. There were complaints that he dominated the Commander in Chief; angry disputes followed Congress’ appointment of a French volunteer to higher rank than Greene; and when he reluctantly accepted the post of quartermaster general at Washington’s insistence and Congress tried to reorganize his department, Greene resigned from the job, and several members of Congress tried to have him cashiered from the Army for challenging their authority. When Washington sent him south in 1780 to replace Horatio Gates, whose army had been annihilated at Camden (Greene wrote him magnanimously but ungrammatically that “you was unfortunate but not blameable”), Greene came into his own at last. Usually outnumbered, cursed with a continual lack of men and supplies, he learned “to practice that by finesse which I dared not attempt by force.” His insight into the mind and strategy of his able foe Lord Cornwallis and Greene’s adept use of guerrilla warfare involving a mastery of swift, deadly movement were bolstered by a dogged determination summed up in his statement, “We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.” Ina land of steaming swamps and musical names—the Congaree, the Wateree, the Pee Dee, the High Hills of Santee—Greene fought a desperately difficult, dirty war against the British and Tories, shortages, and disease; and although he never won a major victory, he never lost a campaign. Even before he had pushed Cornwallis toward Yorktown and defeat, it began to dawn on Americans that, as Washington’s military secretary Joseph Reed put it, if Greene “cannot preserve the Country it is because it cannot be preserved.” In mastering the technique of survival, Greene wrote, “There are few generals that has run oftener, or more lustily than I have done, But I have taken care not to run too far, and commonly have run as fast forward as backward, to convince our Enemy that we were like a Crab, that could run either way.”

For months after the American victory at Yorktown he went on fighting; and when he finally returned in triumph to Providence, he was plagued with debts he had contracted in order to supply his army. He sold his Rhode Island property and returned to a plantation that a grateful Georgia had given him, where he worked hard to scratch out a meager livelihood but was so overwhelmed by difficulties that he scarcely knew where to turn. In June, 1786, after a long, hot day in the rice fields, he died of sunstroke at the age of forty-four. A half dozen years passed, and an inventive young man from Connecticut named Eli Whitney visited Greene’s widow at the plantation, where he perceived the manifest need to make such unprofitable land productive. In 1793, within a period of only ten days, Whitney designed a machine called the cotton gin.

—Richard M. Ketchum


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