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leader of the drive to push Britain out of the South
Nathanael Greene was born in Potowomut (now Warwick), Rhode Island, on July 27, 1742 (old style; August 7 new style). His father was a minister in the Society of Friends (Quaker) church. Although his education was limited, he was an avid reader and built a fairly substantial personal library. Despite his Quaker upbringing, he developed an interest in military science at an early age. That interest initially caused few problems in his community, however, as Nathanael's personality overcame many of the objections his friends and neighbors had. In 1770 he was elected to the Rhode Island Legislature, where he became a vocal advocate for independence from Great Britain; he served in that body until 1772. His calls for military action against Britain resulted in his being expelled from the Society of Friends in 1773. He married Catharine Littlefield in 1774, and the couple eventually had six children.
In 1774, when trouble with Great Britain appeared imminent, Greene organized a militia company called the Kentish Guards. Because he had a slight limp (a condition he had had since birth), his men would not let him serve as an officer, and he served in the ranks. After the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the Kentish Guards set out to aid the patriot cause. The Governor of Rhode Island was loyal to the British, however, and recalled the Guards, but Greene and three other men went to Boston anyway.
Soon after arriving at Boston, Greene was made a Brigadier General in the Continental Army and, in 1776, participated in the siege of the city. His actions during the siege impressed General George Washington, who promoted him to Major General and placed him command of the army of occupation; only 34 years old, he became the youngest Major General up to that time. He subsequently served with great distinction in the battles of Trenton, Brandywine and Monmouth, and spent the winter of 1777-78 with Washington at Valley Forge. Named Quartermaster General by Washington in 1778, Greene's efficiency in the position is cited as a major factor in ensuring that Washington's army survived at Valley Forge.
On December 2, 1780, Greene replaced General Horatio Gates, whose army had been badly beaten at Camden, South Carolina. Knowing that his army was too small and ill-equipped to face the British army, then under Lieutenant General Charles Earl Cornwallis, head-on, Greene focused on sudden, brief attacks and skillful maneuvering to wear the British down. On March 15, 1781, after luring Cornwallis as far away from his supply bases as possible, Greene's army met a sizable British force at Guilford Court House, and was able to force the British to withdraw. His men scored another similar victory at Eutaw Springs on September 8, 1781. Despite not scoring a single decisive victory against Cornwallis, Greene was able to force the British back into Charleston by the end of December.
In addition to his actions in South Carolina, Greene also oversaw the expulsion of the British from Georgia. In 1781, he sent Colonel Henry Lee to support the efforts of Elijah Clarke and Andrew Pickens that led to Augusta being retaken within two weeks. In 1782, he sent General Anthony Wayne on a mission against the British at Savannah that resulted in the British evacuation of Georgia. He then helped create an official Georgia Brigade and oversaw the organization of a constitutional government for the colony.
Greene had sold his Rhode Island home to help support the war effort, so Georgia thanked him for his service by giving him a plantation (Mulberry Grove) outside Savannah. His time as a country gentleman was short-lived, however, as he died of sunstroke on June 19, 1786. Originally buried in Savannah's Colonial Park Cemetery, Greene's remains were exhumed in 1902 and reburied beneath a monument to him in Savannah's Johnson Square.
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This page was last updated on June 18, 2017.