Born and raised in the Potowomut section of Warwick, Rhode Island, Nathanael Green (1742-1786) became active in the colonial movement against the British revenue policies in the early 1700s and was one of the co-founders of the Kentish Guards in 1774. During the Revolutionary War, he served as a major general of the Continental Army, where he earned a reputation for being one of General Washington´s most dependable and capable officers in the southern theater of the war.
When the legislature of Rhode Island established an army after the April 1775 Battles of Lexington and Concord, they appointed Nathanael Greene to command it. Before the year was over, he had become a general in the newly formed Continental Army.
After serving under General Washington in the Boston campaign, the New York and New Jersey campaign, and the Philadelphia campaign, General Greene was appointed quartermaster general of the Continental Army in 1778.
Washington made Greene the commander of the Continental Army in the southern theater in October 1780, an appointment that would result in engagements primarily in Virginia, Georgia and South Carolina. Greene successfully embarked on a campaign of guerilla warfare against the numerically superior British forces which were under the command of General Charles Cornwallis – one of the one leading British generals in the American War of Independence. Despite being outnumbered, the men under General Greene´s command inflicted major losses on the British forces. Examples of notable battles during this stage of the war are the ones at Guilford Court House, Hobkirk´s Hill, and Eutaw Springs, which all helped to decrease the power of the British in the American South. General Cornwallis surrendered at the Siege of Yorktown on October 1781.
General Greene served in the Continental Army until late in 1783. (The American Revolutionary War ended on September 3, 1783.) After leaving the army, he moved to the South, where he died in Georgia in 1786.
Nathanael Greene was born in Rhode Island on August 7 [O.S. July 27] 1742. His family, who were Quakers, owned the Forge Farm at Potowomut in the township of Warwick. They were very hard working and entrepreneural, and – due to their Quaker faith – pacifists.
Greene was born as the second son of Mary Mott and Nathanael Green Sr., and Green Sr. also had two sons from a previous marriage. All in all, Mary Mott and Green Sr. would come to have six children together.
In addition to running his farm, Green Sr. was a propesperous merchant. He descended from John Greene and Samuel Gorton, two of the founding settlers of Warwick. His religious faith made Green Sr. suspicious of book learning, except for Bible study and business mathematics. Eventually, the young Nathanael Greene Jr. managed to convince his father to hire a tutor for him to study more than this, including Latin, the classics, and geometry. With encouragement from the Newport minister Ezra Stile (later President of Yale), Green Jr. started reading works by Locke, Swift, Watts, and Ferguson around the age of 12.
In 1770, Green Jr. moved to Coventry, RI, to run a foundry owned by his family. Later that year, Green Sr. died. Around this time, Green Jr. began collecting books by military authors such as Frederick the Great, Julius Caesar, Henry Knox, Sharpe, Turenne, and Maurice de Saxe. No longer a firm Quaker pacifist, Green visited military organizations in neighboring colonies and worked on military committees in Rhode Island. It was also in the 1770s that he began studying law to better prepare himself for a future in business.
As he had been admitted as a freeman (recognized property owner) in Warwick, Green Jr. had voting rights in Rhode Island, and in 1771, 1772, and 1775 he was elected member of the Colonial Qassembly from Coventry.
Formation of the Kentish Guards
After the end of the French and Indian War of 1754-1763, the British parliament had begun enacting new policies to extract more revenue from their colonies in America. Tension gradually rose between the parliament and the colonists, and instead of being just indirectly impacted by the new rules, the Greene family suffered a more direct blow in 1771 when the sloop Fortune and her cargo, owned by Nathanel Green and his brothers, were seized by the British official William Dudington who was enforcing British customs laws from the Navy ship Gaspee.
Green filed a lawsuit against Dudington for damages, but without success. While the lawsuit was still pending, a Rhode Island mob set the vessel ablaze – an event which became known as the Gaspee Affair. While chasing another merchant ship in 1772, the Gaspee ran aground, and was quickly attacked by a mob from Providence who shot the captain and burned the Gaspee to the waterline.
While becoming increasingly disillusioned about British rule, Green was also drifting away from the Quaker faith in which he had been raised. In July 1773, he was suspended from the Quaker meetings.
After the Boston Tea Party in December 1773, the parliament enacted the Coercive Acts to punish the colonists in Massachusetts. These acts removed the self-governance and certain other rights that the colonists of Massachusetts had enjoyed since the founding of the colony, a move which triggered outrage in not just Massachusetts but in all of the Thirteen Colonies, where the Coervice Acts became known as the Intolerable Acts.
When the British Parliament closed the Port of Boston, East Greenwich was the first town in Rhode Island to send aid to Boston. For this, some local residents loyal to the British threatened to burn East Greenwich. A militia company was sent from Providence to maintain order and protect the town, but the event made it clear that East Greenwich needed its own militia. The passage of the Coervice Acts in 1774 had been the breaking point for Greene, who now took military action by helping to organize a local militia for East Greenwich: The Kentish Guards.
Since Greene walked with a limp (due to some incident in his since childhood), he was not selected as an officer in the militia. There was even some talk that he would not be allowed to become a regular member, but one of his friend James Varnum encouraged him to apply anyway, and he was voted in. This proved to be a correct choice, as Greene quickly distinguished himself as a brave and cunning militia man.
The Kentish Guards Fife & Drum Corp consider Greene one of their founders, as he arranged for the Guards to hire a fife and a drum instructor to teach four men for the militia. Copies of the contracts have been found in his collection of papers.
April 1775: The Kentighs Guards march north
In April 20, 1775, the Kentish Guards marched northward to aid the Patriots, after finding out about the hostilities in Lexington and Concord. Greene and several of his cousins met up with them in Apponaug, and a witness would later write that he saw Nathanael Greene marching with them despite his noticeable limp.
When the Guards reached Providence they received instructions from Deputy Governor Darius Sessions “not to leave the colony”, so they marched up to the border and waited there, ready to move in if new orders came. This did not happen; they instead received word that it was over.
Greene becomes Brigadier General of the three Rhode Island regiments
In May 1775, the colony Rhode Island decided to form three regiments to support the Patriots in the Siege of Boston. One of the regiments raised was the Kent and Kings County Regiment, and Colonel James Varnum – who was commanding the Kentish Guards – was appointed Commander of it.
When it was time to appoint a General to command the three regiments, Greene was the third and final proposal, even though he was just a Private in the Kentish Guards. He thus went from being a Private to being Brigadier General of the three Rhode Island regiments.
During the Siege of Boston, the three Rhode Island regiments caught the attention of George Washington, as they were so well organized and disciplined, and actually followed the British military manual “down to the tent peg”. Many of the other New England militias were disorganized, and the militia men had a tendency to be insubordinate in the name of independence. Also, Rhode Island did not have a Royal Governor, so the training of Rhode Island militias had not been suppressed.
During this early organization of the Continental Army under George Washington, 35 members of the Kentish Guards were recruited as Continental Army officers.
The death of Agust Mumford
The first Rhode Island causality was Adjutant August Mumford from the Kentish Guards, who was killed by a cannon ball. The event took place within sight of Greene, who would later write about the experience.
Greene becomes Major General
Greene´s skills as a field commander was noticed by his superiors, and he was promoted to Major General in August 1776 and tasked with laying down the defenses on Long Island. He was not present for the initial British assults there, however, as he was very ill at the time.
The defense of Manhattan was a loss for Major General Greene, as his unwillingness to abandon Fort Washington resulted in thousands of American soldiers being captured, and the British getting their hands on a lot of cannons and other useful goods.
General Washington did not demote Greene after Fort Washtington, and Greene performed well at Trenton, Brandywine, and Germantown. At Brandywine, Greene´s brigade helped save the Continental Army from annihilation by marching five miles in just 45 minutes to fill-in a gap in the battle line at Dilworth.
Greene becomes Quartermaster General
Greene was appointed Quartermaster General in March 1778. At this point, the Quartermaster´s Department at Valley Forge was in chaos and the Continental Army severely lacked food and other necessary supplies. Greene managed to take control of the situation and drastically improve conditions for the soldiers, before resigning as Quartermaster in June 1780.
A stand-in for Washington
From time to time, Greene would stand in for General Washington when he could not be present. Always ready to receive field command assignments, Greene even took charge of the Army in September 1780 when Washington had to leave to meet up with General Rochambeau, commander-in-chief of the French Expeditionary Force sent by France to help the Continental Army.
With Greene in charge of the Army, the Americans successfully repulsed an attack made by Clinton´s forces at Springfield and Rahway Bridges in New Jersey.
After the discovery of Benedict Arnold´s treason against America, Greene took charge of West Point and formally assumed command there on October 8th, 1780.
Commanding General of the Southern Army
After General Gates failure at the Battle of Camden, South Carolina, the Continental Congress replaced him with Greene, who was appointed Commanding General of the Southern Army on October 14, 1780 and assumed command in Charlotte, NC, on December 2. At this point, the Southern Army had been severely diminished, so instead of continuing with traditional warfare, Greene embarked on a path of guerrilla resistance against the British – who vastly outnumbered Greene´s men. The small Southern Army focused on disturbing British supply lines and communications, and taking control of the back country, while refraining from attacking the British in the major port cities of the South. By treating the British-loyal local populations fairly in the back country, Greene earned a great deal of tacit support for his troops. Greene proved to be skilled at gauging the British into meeting the Southern Army where the Americans knew the land better and were at a tactical advantage.
Through a series of battles, the Southern Army under Greene completely drove the British away from the back country. Subsequently, Greene was instrumental in re-establishing a state government in South Carolina and Georgia.
After the war
Greene survived the Revolutionary War, and in 1785, the State of Georgia gave him the plantation Mullberrry Grove to which he moved with his family. Greene died from sunstroke on his plantation in 1787, survived by his wife and five children.