Professor Donald Elder: Washington’s Generals – Nathanael Greene

Oct 28, 2017 by

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Washington’s Generals- Nathanael Greene

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Professor Elder, as we study the American Revolution, and the generals and heroes who assisted George Washington, I at least see two trends. Some of the generals were Quakers, and some were masons. We will discuss each of these issues as we traverse our study of Washington’s Generals. Today, we look at Nathanael Greene, who apparently was born a Quaker and walked with a severe pronounced limp.  What do we know about his childhood?

While most History books refer to him as “Nathaniel” Greene, his parents actually named him Nathanael Greene. Interestingly, his father had the same name, but did not name his son Nathanael Greene Jr. The Nathanael Greene that would become an American general during the Revolutionary War was born on July 27, 1742 on a farm located near Warwick, Rhode Island. A well to do man, the senior Nathanael Greene could have easily afforded to send his son to school, but chose not to. This decision stemmed from the fact that the senior Greene belonged to the Society of Friends (better known to most people as the Quakers), and his branch of the faith felt that members should not pursue education simply for the sake of learning. For that reason, the younger Nathanael Greene had to teach himself subjects like mathematics. He also began to read History books, especially ones that focused on military matters. This put him further at odds with his faith, because Quakers practiced pacifism.

Greene’s interest in the military inspired him in 1774 to enlist in a Rhode Island militia unit. Because of his prominent position in society, Greene assumed that he would become an officer in that unit, but he did not receive such an appointment. Although given no reason at the time, Greene felt that the slight might have resulted from the fact that he suffered from what we would call today a frozen knee. This condition forced him to limp, and this probably affected the way that others perceived him. Rather than leave the militia because of this, Greene simply agreed to serve as a private. His status soon changed, however.

After the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the Rhode Island legislature authorized the formation of an “Army of Observation,” and ordered it to proceed to Boston. For reasons which remain unclear, the legislature made Greene the major general of its militia. Few individuals in history have ever gone from private to general, as Greene did. In a similar fashion, few Quakers gave up their pacifist beliefs to fight for the American cause, as Greene did. He is therefore a very unique figure in our nation’s history.

2. Washington apparently thought highly of Greene, giving him control of the city of Boston. How did this come about?

Greene and his Rhode Islanders reached Boston in June of 1775. By then, the Second Continental Congress had appointed George Washington to command the Continental Army. When Washington reached Boston, Greene met him to offer his greetings. Washington sized up his subordinate, quickly recognizing that Greene’s independent studies had given him a firm grasp of military matters. Furthermore, he appreciated Greene’s lack of pretension. As the Americans began to a siege of Boston, Washington appreciation of Greene’s talents as a military leader grew with every passing month. Obviously others saw the same qualities in Greene, as even before Washington assumed command the Second Continental Congress had given Greene the rank of brigadier general in the Continental Army. Washington and Greene discussed plans for driving the British out of Boston through an assault, but after the Americans captured artillery pieces at Fort Ticonderoga Washington used the weapons to force a British evacuation in March of 1776. Washington then gave Greene command of the city, but soon called upon him to journey to New York to help defend that city.

3. It is rumored that George Washington had indicated that if he were to be killed in battle, that he wished Nathaniel Greene to take over. Is there any truth to this story or rumor?

While certainly not a fatalist, George Washington recognized that any number of factors could lead to his death. Accordingly, he decided to officially designate a successor should he die before the United States had won its independence. Washington had a number of capable subordinates to choose from, but apparently he never seriously considered anyone other than Greene. Fortunately, the nation never needed this contingency plan, but it still speaks well to the confidence that Washington placed in Greene.

4. Apparently he was also “quartermaster general”. Now what exactly were his duties at that time?

After Washington went into winter quarters at Valley Forge in the late fall of 1777, he recognized that his army lacked the supplies that it would need for a winter encampment. Even though Greene had served in a purely combat role up to that point in time, Washington felt that he had the capabilities necessary to keep the Continental Army supplied. For that reason, he appointed Greene Quartermaster-General. This position entails procuring the food, clothing, and shelter necessary for an army to function, and requires superior administrative skills.

Greene proved up to the task, in spite of the fact that he had limited financial resources to work with. The soldiers would suffer from hunger that winter, but most historians believed that they would have suffered far more than they did with someone other than Greene serving as the Quartermaster-General.

5. Apparently, Greene’s greatest successes were in the South against Cornwallis. How did he almost single handedly regain the South?

During the first five years of the Revolutionary War, Nathanael Greene primarily served in a combat capacity, and proved himself a valorous and capable commander. He had occasionally made mistakes, but he had always learned from them. For that reason, George Washington gave him a crucial independent command in 1780. That year had seen the British capture Charleston, South Carolina, and begin a campaign to crush the American cause in the South. Congress had sent Major General Horatio Gates to stabilize the situation, but he had suffered a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Camden. Congress then asked Washington to appoint a successor, and he chose Greene.

When Greene arrived in South Carolina in December of 1780, he immediately adopted the seemingly suicidal strategy of dividing his small force. Greene commanded one wing, and gave the other to General Daniel Morgan. In actuality, this rash move was a stroke of genius, as it forced the British to then divide their forces to deal with the two groups of Americans. Hoping to crush the smaller American forces, the British failed miserably.

First, Morgan succeeded in decisively defeating the British sent to confront him at the Battle of Cowpens in January of 1781. The other British operation fared no better, as Greene inflicted heavy casualties on them at the Battle of Guilford Court House in March of that year (even though he had technically lost the battle, having chosen to abandon the field of battle after bloodying the enemy). Unable to crush Greene, the British chose instead to march the majority of their soldiers north into Virginia. It was this army that Washington would force to surrender at Yorktown in October of 1781, and act that effectively ended the Revolutionary War.

Greene’s southern campaign had thus led to the ultimate American triumph, even though he personally had not won a battle in that region.

6. What have I neglected to ask about this famous American general who so ably assisted George Washington?

Ironically, even after his death Greene played a role in American History. In gratitude for his contributions to the American cause, the state of Georgia had given him a plantation. He and his wife moved there after the war. When Greene died in 1786, his widow chose to remain in Georgia, and soon met a young man from Connecticut who had come to Georgia as a tutor.

In discussions with him, Greene’s widow learned that the young man had an inventive mind, and she allowed him to live at her plantation while he worked on bringing his dreams to life. That young man was Eli Whitney, who would invent the cotton gin while living at the plantation.

Nathanael Greene thus influenced his nation perhaps even more after death than he had while serving in the American Revolution! Reply all

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