The Fighting Quaker: Nathanael Greene

Nathanael Greene Courtesy Library of Congress

Nathanael Greene was born on August 7, 1742 in the small State of Rhode Island, then a British colony. As a child his mother died, and his father Nathanael Greene, Sr. a Quaker preacher, remarried. Greene Sr. did not encourage education among his sons and as a result the younger Greene found himself in want of more schooling. He became a ravenous reader, learning geometry among other things. The Greenes operated a prosperous forge in Coventry, Rhode Island and in 1770 Greene Jr. was given the task of running it. That same year his father died. Two years later the foundry burned down and had to be rebuilt.

In 1773, Greene and his cousin were suspended from the Society of Friends. He had been asking for it, with his continual growing interest in the military. It had most likely been fueled by the fact that the Colonies were inching closer and closer into conflict with Great Britain. In 1772 Greene’s smuggled cargo on his ship was seized by the British. With ever increasing hostilities Greene joined the militia (the Kentish Guards) and also enlisted a British deserter to drill the militia properly. Greene was turned down for the position of an officer, but stayed on as a private. A year after his break with the Quaker church, Greene married Catherine ‘Caty’ Littlefield.

Amazingly, when news of the Battle of Lexington and Concord reached Rhode Island in 1775, Private Nathanel Greene was chosen to lead Rhode Island’s army. To many he didn’t look like officer material, being an asthmatic and walking with a limp. Greene drilled his hungry troops and insisted on high standards (e.g. latrines, clean uniforms and weapons). Greene’s troops stood out to General George Washington and he was soon given a commission of Brigadier General in the young American army.

Battle of Long Island Courtesy Wikipedia

Greene took part in the siege of British occupied Boston. Occasionally the redcoats would fire on the encamped Americans. One such attack killed one Greene’s men. During the siege Greene suffered from jaundice, but was well enough to take over Boston when the British evacuated. Then the race was on for New York City. Washington’s forces arrived first, and the now Major General Greene was put to work building fortifications on Long Island. The British fleet arrived shortly after, but before the enemy attacked Greene fell deathly ill and had to be moved elsewhere. He was unable to take part in the battle, but he would in others to come.

Philippe du Coudray wreaked havoc in the ranks when Congress gave the French engineer a commission that would make him superior to Greene and other officers. Greene threatened to resign and Congress demanded an apology or they would have his resignation. Greene would not apologize and so Congress, fortunately, compromised. On the other hand Greene liked the Marquis de Lafayette. He was sincere about the American cause and came to be well liked among the Americans.

With winter, battles stopped and Greene found himself at the notorious Valley Forge. The American troops were starving, thirsty, without clothing, proper shelter and many ill. Animals dropped dead and laid where they had fallen. As terrible as it was a more disciplined army would emerge from the bleak winter with the help of drilling from Baron Friedrich von Steuben. Washington, as much as he hated to, resorted to foraging, sending Greene out to gather the needed supplies for the soldiers. But Greene was also to give IOU’s to those who supplies were taken from. With the resignation of the former quartermaster, Congress wished Greene to take his place as quartermaster general. Frankly, Greene didn’t want it, but eventually gave in. Greene proved very efficient at the task. Roads were fixed and supplies were coming in. During Spring news arrived of a French alliance with the Americans. Things were beginning to look up.

When American general, Benedict Arnold betrayed his countrymen to the British, Greene was given temporary command of West Point which had been Arnold’s command. Afterward Greene took command of the Southern Army. Although past generals had their careers ruined in the South, Greene desired the position. In late 1780 General Horatio Gates handed over the command to Greene. The two had never liked each other, but at this point they treated one another cordially and respectfully.

Surrender of Cornwallis Courtesy Wikipedia

In the South, Greene led British general, Lord Charles Cornwallis on a merry chase across the Southern terrain. Greene got precious  little sleep as he and Cornwallis matched wits. He summed it up when he said “We fight, get beat, rise and fight again”. Now and then combat would erupt between the two and towards the end of the game of cat and mouse Cornwallis forces were dwindling. What was left of his once glorious army had been reduced to pitiful and hungry redcoats. It went from Cornwallis dogging Greene to Greene chasing Cornwallis, before Greene stopped his chase. One by one British strongholds in the South began to fall. In 1781 combined American and French forces defeated Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia. Greene was camped at High Hills of Santee when Cornwallis surrendered in October 1781. The war would not end officially until 1783.

When the war ended Greene found himself in deep debt and no way of paying it. Whenever things began to look hopeful, something would happen. Greene’s rice crops were repeatedly destroyed at his Southern plantations (former Tory homes given to Greene by the government). His post-war life was anything but peaceful. In 1785 his children fell ill and the youngest died. He then, with his family, left Rhode Island for his plantation in Georgia. Things didn’t get any better. His rice crop was devastated by a fire and his goods on a ship were lost when the ship sunk. In one day ‘Caty’ fell hurting herself, and ultimately leading to a miscarriage, an employee’s son was kicked in the face by a horse and Greene’s daughter Martha suffered so that she “lay in a lifeless situation for two hours”. She recovered.

In 1786, Greene suffered a sunstroke. He had been, a few days before his death, observing a friend’s rice crops in the heat of the South. On the way home a headache came on and the next day his eyes were paining him. On June 19, 1786, Nathanael Greene died, having dodged British lead only to die three years after the war’s end.

Source: Carbone, Gerald M. Nathanael Greene : A Biography of the American Revolution.


19 thoughts on “The Fighting Quaker: Nathanael Greene

    • Yes, it really was a pity that he had survived the war only to die of sunstroke. Having ‘collectors’ pestering him nonstop about his debts must’ve been very stressful, as well. Thanks for reading and for your comment!


  1. Great entry! I just read under your ‘About Map of Time’ that “Nearly every other post is on a nautical subject”, which I think is awesome! On my blog yesterday, I was covering part of the Civil War and ran across The Battle of the Ironclads and I thought that the topic and history behind it was so interesting… glad I ran across you..


    • Yes, I admit I’m bit overenthusiastic about maritime subjects. I’m glancing over that post now and will read it in a short while. You’re blog looks so interesting. Thanks for stopping by, glad you like the blog!


    • It’s really a shame Greene doesn’t get the deserved recognition. My interest in him was first ignited by a TV series on the American Revolution.

      I wonder how the Revolution would have ended, had he resigned and Congress not compromised, during that question of superiority?

      Thanks for reading!


    • He had a few bad defeats during the war, but, I’m not a military expert, seems to have been a very good leader.

      It was peacetime that did him wrong. Plus he made a number of bad investments.

      Thanks for your comment and for reading!


    • I’d read Greene’s biography once before, but had forgotten that little detail. It’s little instances like this that makes you wonder how history would have turned out. He had considered, when not given an officer’s position with the Kentish Guards, to leave the militia. Thank goodness he stayed on!

      Thanks for reading and for your comment!


  2. Hello, I am the President of the Gen. Nathanael Greene Homestead, the home Nathanael built in 1770 and hoped to be his home until old age, of course we know that this did not occur. The home is now a museum as well as a National Historic Landmark. We are open 7 months out of the year and conduct a multitude of educational programs. When the Homestead was sold out of the family, the ancient barn was torn down, we are attempting to build a replica on our remaining 11 acres for use as a classroom, and for special events. We are attempting to raise funds for this, any help you can provide by sharing our information is greatly appreciated.
    The link to our fundraising site is:

    Thank you
    David M. Procaccini, President, Gen. Nathanael Greene Homestead

    RI Sons of the American Revolution
    RI Society of the Cincinnati


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