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General Nathanael Greene

Nathanael Greene
Charles Wilson Peale, 1783

One of the most trusted generals of the Revolutionary army was Nathanael Greene, Washington's friend and comrade-in-arms. The Greene family was among the earliest settlers in Rhode Island and helped establish the colony. John Greene was the founder of the family in the new colony. Nathanael Greene was born July 27, 1742 (old style, which is August 7, 1742 new style). His education was limited but he received a thorough training in the books which were available at his time, especially the Bible, upon which were built his habits of living, moral ideals and purposes.

In due course Greene used every possible moment to read books and saved his money to buy books so that eventually he acquired a large library. Greene had also been taught blacksmithing and the milling work. His father purchased a mill in Coventry which was assigned to Nathanael to manage. He took an active part in community affairs. He knew the value of education and helped establish the first public school in Coventry. He also added books on military science to his library which he studied diligently.

When the pacifist Quaker authorities discovered his interest in military affairs, he was called before the main committee for examination. Greene stated firmly that though he was a Quaker, he would not be turned from studies which interested him and the case was dropped.

Greene's friends and neighbors liked him, because they found him very dependable; consequently in 1770 he was elected to the General Assembly of Rhode Island. He was not an unusual debater, but his sound reasoning and common sense brought him to the fore in the Assembly. In committee work he was at his best and his judgement was sound and convincing.

Because of difficulties arising between England and the colonies, groups of men were formed, drilled and armed to meet emergencies. Consequently Greene became a member of a company known as the Kentish Guards.

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In July, 1774, he married Catharine Littlefield, a young woman of a good family from Rhode Island.

When the news of the battles of Lexington and Concord reached Rhode Island, Greene was one of four men in his community who hurried to Boston to offer his services. In the meantime, the General Assembly of Rhode Island ordered a force of 1,600 men to be called into the service and Nathanael Greene was made commander with the rank of Major-General. His studies of military science helped to meet many problems but many had to be solved the hard way. He worked early and late to bring his force to a workable efficiency and good discipline. In June 1775 he had his troops in position around Boston.

When Washington arrived to command the armies around Boston in July, Greene welcomed Washington on behalf of the army. Almost from the beginning a life-long friendship began between the two men. In a little while the armies were placed on the continental organization plan which resulted in the reduction of Greene's rank from Major-General to Brigadier-General, a demotion which he accepted in good grace. He was ready to serve his country under the leadership of Washington. In the earlier days of the war there were many who did not desire to serve beyond their own immediate area, but Greene pointed out such desires would never bring victory.

It would be necessary to realize that the struggle was national in character and scope and not local or provincial. Later Greene and his troops were ordered to Long Island to drive off the British if they attacked that area. Late in the summer of 1776 the British attacked the Americans around New York when the Americans were obliged to retreat. During this period Greene was made a Major-General. At Christmas time, 1776 and early in the New Year at Princeton, under the leadership of Washington two fine victories were won, diminishing British strength in New Jersey. American morale was restored.

Washington was not in a position to attack the British because of a smaller army and a lack of necessary supplies. Late in the summer Washington moved his troops below Wilmington and invited an attack from the combined British forces under Howe. But they did not desire to open a frontal attack upon Washington. Finally Washington met the British and Hessian soldiers in the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777, southeastern Pennsylvania, and in the closing hours of the struggle Greene rendered conspicuous service by his indomitable courage. Again on October 3, 1777 with the British in possession of Philadelphia, Washington proposed an audacious attack upon the enemy forces at Germantown, Philadelphia. The British prevailed but realized that Washington was far from being a conquered man.

The continental army went into winter quarters at Valley Forge on December 19, 1777. The need of supplies of all kinds was evident from the beginning of camp. In order to secure food Washington appointed Greene to look after it. Finally, he appointed Greene Quartermaster-General. He was loathe to accept it, because he wanted to be in active service which Washington assured him he could have when the occasion would arise. Washington posted in the order of the day for March 24, 1778, the following statement:

"The Honourable Continental Congress have been pleased to appoint Major-General Greene, Quartermaster-General in the army of the United States — reserving his rank of Major-General in the same."

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