Revolutionary war hero Nathanael Greene was born on August 7, 1742, at Potowomut in Warwick, Rhode Island. Before the Revolution, Greene managed his father’s iron foundries and is said to have served in the Rhode Island colonial legislature. Self-trained in military tactics and science, he was instrumental in the formation of a unit known as the Kentish Guards in October 1774, serving as a private until his commission in May 1775 as a brigadier general in the Rhode Island Army of Observation. In June of the same year he was commissioned with the same rank in the Continental Army with command of troops during the siege of Boston in 1775 and 1776.
After taking command of the troops on Long Island in 1776, he was commissioned by George Washington as major general in August 1776 but saw little action due to a severe illness. For the next four years, General Greene participated in the battles of Trenton and Princeton, endured the winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge, and served as quartermaster general while continuing to serve in the field.
Prior to taking command of the southern campaign of 1780-82, General Greene was commander of West Point, replacing the disgraced Benedict Arnold. During this period, he presided over the trial and execution of Major John André.
In January 1781, Greene contributed significantly to the defeat of British General Lord Cornwallis at Cowpens, South Carolina. Greene forced Cornwallis, whose army far outnumbered the Americans, to divide his troops and defend his territory on two fronts. The British subsequently retreated to Charleston, where they remained until Cornwallis surrendered to Washington at Yorktown, Virginia, on October 19, 1781.
Greene and Washington remained close friends after the Revolutionary War. Upon Greene’s death in 1786, Washington expressed his deep admiration and affection for Greene by offering to raise his son, George Washington Greene:
I would fain hope…that upon a final settlement of his affairs there will be a handsome competency for Mrs. Greene and the children. But should the case be otherwise, and Mrs. Greene, yourself, and Mr. Rutlidge would think proper to entrust my namesake G: W: Greene to my care, I will give him as good an education as this country (I mean No. America) will afford; I will bring him up to either of the genteel professions that his friends may chuse, or his own inclination shall lead him to pursue, at my own cost and charge.
George Washington to Jeremiah Wadsworth, October 22, 1786, partial manuscript. Series 2 Letterbooks 1754-1799: Letterbook 13. George Washington Papers. Manuscript Division.
After the war, Greene returned to Rhode Island to find his foundry business neglected and his general financial situation precarious. When the state of Georgia honored him for his service to the state with the gift of a plantation, Mulberry Grove, the retired general moved his family south. He also built a cottage at Cumberland Island in Camden County, Georgia. General Greene died of a stroke after walking in the hot sun on June 19, 1786.
- Read more of Washington’s correspondence with and about Nathanael Greene. Search the George Washington Papers on Nathanael Greene.
- Additional correspondence is located in the Thomas Jefferson Papers, 1606 to 1827.
- Search all titles under Nathanael Greene for exchanges and messages to Congress during Greene’s tenure as quartermaster general in A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1785.
- Search Today in History on Revolutionary War to read more about events in America’s fight for independence.
- Images of General Greene, including a copy of the oath of allegiance to the United States signed on May 23, 1778, are accessible among the Library’s Photos, Prints, and Drawings. Search for individual battles and events for additional images.
- Browse by location in The Rochambeau Map Collection for maps of the various campaigns.