(Charles W. Peale)
Nathanael Greene’s rise to prominence as one of the most skilled and celebrated generals of the American Revolution appears unlikely based upon his early life. Greene was born to a devout Quaker family in Rhode Island in August of 1742. Known for their strict pacifism, Quakers, including Greene’s family and congregation, disagreed with military endeavors, and Greene struggled throughout his early life to reconcile this Quaker pacifism with his devout interest in military science.
Ultimately, Greene chose the military over Quakerism, separating himself from the faith and his community in 1773 just as revolutionary unrest began to flare in the American colonies. His military career started with a rather modest post, as a private in the Kentish Guards, a Rhode Island militia unit he helped to organize. A visible limp did not prevent Greene from realizing his full martial potential; in fact, he rose to the rank of brigadier general within a year, and, at age 34, became the youngest man with the position.
Greene’s early military career insured that the Continental Congress never regretted its decision to promote him. After the Siege of Boston in 1776, Greene proved to be an able commander when he took command of the city upon the British retreat. However, the young general’s career was not without blemish: during the New York campaign, he lost Forts Washington and Lee. Although racked by guilt for these loses, Greene subsequently led a column of troops to victory at the Battle of Trenton and the Battle of Princeton. Following the Battle of Brandywine and the Battle of Germantown in the Pennsylvania campaign in 1778, the Continental Congress appointed him Quartermaster General under the condition that he retain the right to command troops in the field. He performed his duties as Quartermaster brilliantly, skillfully supplying Continental troops while dealing with logistical and bureaucratic challenges.
Greene’s most notable promotion came in October 1778 when the Continental Congress granted Washington with the power to appoint a new southern commander. Washington selected Greene. Continental troops from Delaware to Georgia fell under Greene’s command. Up to this point, Congress struggled to select the right commanders in the South: Robert Howe lost Savannah, Benjamin Lincoln lost Charleston, and Horatio Gates was defeated at Camden, South Carolina. Greene stepped in just as the British moved to re-annex Georgia and the Carolinas.
Greene’s martial skills shone brightest as commander of the southern theater. Soon after he took command, the tide of war began to turn in favor of the Patriots. Greene decided to divide his troops in the hopes that the British would be forced to follow suit. Two consecutive victories at the Battle of Kings Mountain and another at Cowpens early in 1781 helped to realize the value of Greene’s new strategy. After the British victory at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, the much depleted British force under George Cornwallis withdrew to Wilmington while Greene and his men turned south to reconquer the South Carolina backcountry, a crucial move that helped to isolate the British on the coast and, eventually, to force them out of the south completely.
George Washington trusted Greene immensely, and that trust only grew over the course of the war. Greene’s legacy endures. He is one of the most celebrated generals of the Revolution for his crucial role in wrestling the southern theater from the British and securing a revolutionary Patriot victory.