Nathanael Greene was born near Warwick, Rhode Island, on August 7, 1742. His parents were strict Quakers. He was largely self-educated and took a special interest in mathematics and military tactics. In 1770, he moved to Coventry, Rhode Island, and was chosen as a member of the Rhode Island General Assembly. He was reelected in 1771, 1772, and 1775, and began to sympathize with the Patriot cause. In 1774, he married Catherine Littlefield. Later that year, Greene established a local militia and resumed his study of war tactics. Because of his involvement in warlike activities, he was expelled from Quaker society.
In 1775, Greene organized a group of men to join the Patriot cause in Boston. In May of that year, he was promoted to brigadier general of the Rhode Island Army of Observation. In June of 1775, he was appointed brigadier of the Continental Army. In March of 1776, General George Washington appointed him in command of the city of Boston after British forces had evacuated. In August of 1776, Greene was promoted to major general and placed in command of Continental troops on Long Island, NY. He would see action in many important battles including the Battles of Trenton, Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth.
After serving as quartermaster general (staff officer in charge of the army’s supplies) until 1780, in between leading troops into battle, Greene was assigned to take over command of the Southern Army. This was a particularly important position as the British had decimated the Southern forces and were poised to control the entire southern portion of the colonies. Greene made the strategic decision to split his forces, which in turn provoked the British to do the same. Rather than having to fight one army against the other, Greene’s plan would force smaller detachments to fight. The plan worked brilliantly. Patriot forces, able to engage in guerilla-style warfare, won surprising battles at Cowpens and King’s Mountain in South Carolina. Furthermore, they inflicted heavy casualties on the British Army at Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina, and later at Eutaw Springs, South Carolina. The battles weakened the British Army, forced them to retreat north into Virginia and east to Charleston, and raised the morale of the Patriots. Greene’s management of the Southern Army was crucial to the eventual British surrender at Yorktown.
After the war, Greene was given a land grant by the state of Georgia. He named it Mulberry Grove. Although he was offered the position of secretary of war twice, he refused. He died in 1786, apparently of sunstroke. He is remembered as a general of great military intellect. Other than George Washington, he was the only general to serve all eight years of the Revolutionary War. Statues of Nathanael Greene stand in Savannah, Georgia, and at the Guilford Courthouse battle site. The city of Greensboro, North Carolina, is named after him.