Nathanael Greene has been variously exalted or reviled, dubbed the “strategist of the Revolution” and even identified as Washington’s best trusted subordinate (Nelson 530). His was a story of snowy winters and sultry Southern summers, but foremost a tale exemplifying the valor and courage of each and every Revolutionary soldier. For the services he rendered to the patriotic cause, he will ever be known as the Fighting Quaker.
Yet, despite his truly critical role in the American Revolution, the dusty passage of time has left Nathanael Greene largely forgotten. Sadly, it was one of his most fervent desires to be remembered.
Recognizably, there is a great need for Greene’s memory to be dragged from out of the shadows, dusted off, and restored to its proper place in the historical limelight. Great deeds make great men, and he has infinitely many to his name. Like so many others, he sacrificed nearly everything he owned for the cause of liberty, eventually becoming indebted after paying the salaries of his officers with his own money (Thayer 416).
The shaping of such a selfless citizen soldier must doubtless begin in childhood, and the formative years of Nathanael Greene were no doubt extraordinary. Though raised a Quaker, something innately ingrained deep in Greene’s character seemed to cry out against the intemperate restraint of strict pacifism. When not dancing or working at his father’s forge, he could often be found furtively reading military classics by such geniuses as Julius Caesar and Frederick the Great (Golway 3). He might have supposed that some causes were indeed worth fighting for.
If the cause was wanting on the eve of revolution perhaps, the British soon provided a spark that could burn through his pacifistic armor. When the Gaspée, a British revenue schooner was burned, Nathanael Greene was unjustly implicated as an outlaw wanted for the attack (Thayer 38). Unknowingly, the British drove Greene into the welcoming arms of the Patriots, and he soon joined the Kentish Guards (NPS), one of the many militia units forming throughout the country as tension over the Boston Port Act and the Intolerable Acts worsened.
Therefore, just after the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord, he was offered command of the newly formed Rhode Island Army of Observation (Golway 46), despite the detraction of his slight limp, and his sole former experience as a militia private.
He was able to prove himself at Boston; however, where he and his men were placed under Artemis Ward in the American lines besieging the city (Thayer 55). Of his troops, Washington noted approvingly that they were “under much better government than any around Boston,” while Knox said that “in less than twelve months, he was equal, in military knowledge, to any General officer in the army, and very superior to most of them” (Thayer 67). In his first few months, he had shown a great ability to learn and improve, which was very likely his most unusual and enduring strength. One can almost imagine the other officers nodding approvingly at his progress.
Of course, by the time that the British had retreated from Boston, he was already of such undeniable value to the army that Washington was prompted to give him command at Long Island, a key position in the defense of New York (Thayer 85). From then on, he commanded troops at Trenton on Christmas Day and also at the Battle of Brandywine (Golway 139), having been promoted to the position of major general on August 9, 1776 (Golway 129). In ascending the ladder of success so quickly, he very nearly burned the rungs.
Perhaps, though, it was not his fate to receive military glory at the time, and he was promoted to the position of quartermaster general after showing a knack in obtaining food for the starving troops at Valley Forge (Nelson 529).
This was a terrible blow, for he detested the office as a metaphorical quagmire in the middle of his ladder. Indeed the conditions were terrible. Most of the wagons necessary for transport were scattered throughout the country and no one knew what had become of many of the horses (Thayer 228). It would be hard to find a position more lacking in glory throughout the entire army.
Even so, he was determined to serve, for there was no one better suited for the job. In essence, he had decided to sacrifice personal ambition for the sake of his beloved country, and is perhaps the less remembered for it. The question begs, should such selflessness not be remembered all the more?
There was, all the same, the slight consolation that he would retain his position as a commander in the army. Somehow, consolation turned to mischance, and it was his luck to be temporary commander in chief when Benedict Arnold defected to the enemy (Golway 228). Consequently, it was he who was forced to order the hanging of John André (Golway 230).
Therefore, with the question of the southern command still open after the disastrous defeat at Camden, Greene had shown that he possessed three essential qualities. By displaying a mastery of supply logistics as quartermaster, military acumen at Trenton and the Brandywine, and decisiveness as temporary commander in chief, he showed every necessary trait that a good general should possess.
As such, it did not surprise many when he was appointed commander of the Southern department in Gates’ place in October of 1780 (Nelson 529). The prospect; however, was dismal. Greene hopelessly lacked almost every necessity of war, and the Southern army almost nonexistent (Thane 178).
Once again, he agreed to serve his country, knowing as he did that it was his one chance for lasting renown.
Truly, it can be stated that the odds were not in his favor. Cornwallis was in the process of bloodily subduing North Carolina, and the turncoat Benedict Arnold was busily smashing his way through Virginia (Thane 194).
Despite the odds, Greene managed to achieve the impossible, winning two stunning victories at Cowpens (Thane 200), and Eutaw Springs (Golway 284). In the latter battle the British received staggering losses, and John Adams later wrote that it was “quite as glorious for American arms as the capture of Cornwallis.” (Thayer 381)
The key to these victories was superior tactics, which Greene relied upon almost as much as the British relied on transient numerical superiority. Not only did Greene divide his smaller force in the face of all military convention, but he also recognized the strengths and weaknesses of his militia which could be expected to fire a few extremely accurate volleys before hightailing it out of the battle.
Though he suffered not insignificant losses, it was thanks to Greene that civil administration was returned to a region that had been almost wholly in British hands only a few months before (Golway 285).
In fact it is testament to his great abilities that the little boy who had once padded his coat with shingles to ward off a whipping became a true American hero (Golway 20).
It is only to our own greatest detriment that we have allowed time to dim our remembrance of the part he played in the fight for independence.
NPS. “The Commanders.” Guilford Courthouse National Military Park.
24 Aug 2006. National Park Service, Web. 29 Dec 2009. http://www.nps.gov/guco/historyculture/people.htm.
Thayer, Theodore. Nathanael Greene: Strategist of the American Revolution. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1960. Print.
Thane, Elswyth. The Fighting Quaker: Nathanael Greene. New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1972. Print.
Golway, Terry. Washington’s General: Nathanael Greene and the triumph of the American Revolution. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2005. Print.
Nelson, Paul. “Greene, Nathanael.” American National Bibliography. 9. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.