What about General Nathanael Greene?


By Joan Baxter



As you are no doubt aware, when Ohio became a state it was considered desirable to name several of the counties after Revolutionary War heroes such as Montgomery, Hamilton, etc. Greene County was named for General Nathanael Greene.

Nathanael, born May 27, 1742 was the third son of John Greene, a devout Quaker who owned a mill and forge in East Greenwich, R.I.

In addition to the mill and forge which he owned for more than 40 years, his father was a Quaker minister. John thought that everyone should read the Bible on a regular basis and that this was the only book needed for a complete library. His strict father did allow him to read other material, however and even allowed lessons in Latin, mathematics and geometry along with navigation and surveying lessons.

Nathanael was about 14 when he discovered the real joy of reading. He borrowed books from his friend’s libraries and when he was able to secure a few cents of his own, he rowed a boat to Newport to the book store. When the proprietor asked what book he wanted to purchase, he was so awed, he could not choose. Dr. Stiles a local clergyman happened to be in the store and took the lad under his wing, suggesting some titles. Several years later Dr. Stiles became the President of Yale University.

In spite of the fact that his father did not approve of dancing, Nathanael would slip out to go to the local dances. One night, returning very late, he saw his father waiting for him. Being a clever young man, he stopped to pick up some shingles which he put inside his shirt and was able to accept the ultimate beating very well.

In addition to studying books, he visited the courts to listen to the attorneys and learned a great deal about the law and politics.

His father purchased another mill which Nathanael managed. He took an active part in the new community and while there was instrumental in starting a public school. In 1770 he was elected to the General Assembly of the Colony of Rhode Island. It was said that he seldom spoke, but when he did it was with a clear, dignified and unembarrassed manner.

When he enlisted in the Kentish Guards as a private, he could no longer be a member of the Quaker church. He purchased a musket in Boston and watched the soldiers drilling there. Oddly enough he brought back a British deserter who was willing to train the Guards to march and carry arms. In July 1774, he married 18-year-old Catherine Littlefield.

The spring of 1775, the Kentish Guard was directed to go to Boston to defend that city, but the order was rescinded. However Greene and three companions went on to Boston but arrived too late for the battle.

The Assembly of the Colony voted to induct 1,600 men into the Army. Nathanael was appointed commander with the rank of Major General. At this time he was 33 years of age, 5 foot, 10 inches, athletic and symmetrical. He took command in May 1775 of the Army of Rhode Island.

When George Washington took command of the Continental Army in July, he found Greene’s troops to be the best disciplined in the whole army. When the armies merged, Nathanael was demoted to Brigadier General but quickly recovered his previous rank. Greene was appointed Quartermaster General, a job which he did not want, but because he was a good soldier, he accepted.

Both the Continental and British armies retired into winter quarters. The Continental Army camped at Valley Forge, about 16 miles from Philadelphia while the British stayed in Philadelphia. Washington had about 3,000 men compared to the 20,000 Brits. There were a few skirmishes, but for the most part, the winter job of the Continental army was to keep England from moving further. Washington allowed his troops camped at Valley Forge to forage throughout the countryside, taking whatever food they could find to sustain themselves. Greene continued training his troops during this period which kept the moral high.

Even though Greene did not want to be the Quartermaster General, he kept very close records. But as often happens when someone is in control of funds, his integrity was questioned. He vowed he had done nothing wrong, had not profited from the position, but the rumors continued.

His brother, who was a staunch Quaker, heard the news and journeyed 200 miles to Morristown to see Nathaniel. Upon arrival, he did not greet his brother in a friendly fashion but merely said, “I am come, brother to inform you that you are charged with improper conduct in your office. Are you innocent?” Nathanael looked his brother in the eye and calmly said “I am.”

Being confident that Nathanael was indeed telling the truth, the brother got back on his horse and rode home. Congress passed a resolution declaring its confidence in his ability and integrity, but the rumors persisted.

He was finally able to leave the Quartermaster General position and go back to his position as Major General, which he much preferred.

Benedict Arnold was sent under close guard to the American Camp. Washington sent a private letter to Greene with instructions to hold a court of inquiry. Greene presided over the court composed of some of the greatest military minds of the day. The opinion of the court was unanimous. Arnold was guilty. The decision was handed to Greene who, it is said lowered his head when signing the declaration in order to hide a tear which he shed over the incident.

Greene was sent to command the post at West Point previously commanded by Arnold and found that the Post was not in good order. The topic will continue next week.

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By Joan Baxter

Joan Baxter is a local resident and weekly historical columnist.

Joan Baxter is a local resident and weekly historical columnist.