July 4, 2012
Nathaniel Greene

by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer

Every year on the Fourth of July, all of America stops to celebrate our nation’s birth. It was an occasion worth remembrance: when 56 American patriots signed the Declaration of Independence – including John Hancock, whose signature in large, bold script sits atop the list – they defied a king and created a nation.

The list of signers includes some of the most familiar Founding Fathers – Adams, Jefferson, Franklin – but one name is conspicuously absent: George Washington. No less a patriot, Washington’s name is missing because while the others were in Philadelphia discussing independence, Washington was actually busy fighting for it.

The war for independence was well under way by the time the declaration was signed, and Washington was already the commander of the army. Under Washington’s unmatched leadership, a poorly equipped, amateur army eventually defeated the British, a professional military force as formidable as any on earth at that time.

Historians have called Washington the “Indispensable Man,” the one man without whom the revolution would have failed. His importance to the cause is indisputable, but even the greatest of leaders must have capable people surrounding them. Washington was no exception; his officer corps was filled with men who proved their worth. And none more so than Nathanael Greene.

Greene, the third of eight sons, was born in Rhode Island on August 7, 1742. His father was a prosperous Quaker who owned a farm, a general store, a sawmill and a forge. Nathanael received limited formal schooling, but on his own he read all the books he could find.

Historian David McCullough, in his superb book, 1776, wrote that Greene’s family described Nathanael as a “‘cheerful, vigorous, thoughtful’ young man who, like his father, loved a ‘merry jest or tale.’” Greene “relished the company of young ladies, while they, reportedly, ‘never felt lonely where he was.’” By the time he was full-grown, Greene had a robust physique, but he walked with a limp, the remnant of a childhood accident.

In 1770, while still in his twenties, Greene took charge of the family businesses after his father’s death. But war with Britain was looming by that time, and Greene began reading books on “tactics, military science, and leadership.”

He helped organize a militia unit in Rhode Island, but then he was told his bad leg disqualified him from being an officer. A lesser man might have quit, but Greene stayed on, marching for months in company drills as a private until it finally became apparent that a limp shouldn’t disqualify a man with his knowledge and ability. “Almost overnight,” McCullough wrote, Greene “was given full command of the Rhode Island regiments.”

At 33, Brigadier General Nathanael Greene was the youngest general in the American army. “Unlike any of the other American generals, he had never served in a campaign, never set foot on a battlefield.” His knowledge of “warfare and military command came almost entirely from books.”

When the British occupied Boston in 1775, Greene was put in command of the troops surrounding the city. Later, when General Washington rode onto the scene at Boston to take charge of the American army, he was immediately impressed with the young general who had performed so capably. Their meeting marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship. When the British evacuated Boston in March 1776, Washington put Greene in command of the city.

And so commenced a military career that would be vital to the birth of America. When the fighting moved to New York City, Greene was promoted to major general and put in charge of the troops on Long Island. The Americans lost the New York battles, but Washington, Greene and the other officers managed to keep the bedraggled army together on a successful retreat through New Jersey. That retreat made possible the famous crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas night that culminated in the victorious Battle of Trenton, where Greene commanded one of the two American columns.

During the brutal winter at Valley Forge, Greene accepted the office of Quartermaster General – at General Washington’s urgent request. Under difficult circumstances, Greene provided food and equipment for the worn-out soldiers, somehow succeeding where others had failed. After Valley Forge, Greene returned to commanding troops in the field.

Many of the Revolutionary War’s most famous battles took place in the northern colonies, but the fighting stretched all the way to the south. After a series of generals had failed in the southern command, Congress asked Washington to choose a replacement. Without hesitation he named Greene to lead the southern army.

Under Greene’s steady leadership and brilliant strategy, American troops – despite facing a superior force – eventually defeated the British in the southern campaign. For his service, three southern states voted to give Greene grants of lands and money. The gifts were most welcome: throughout the war Greene had sacrificed much of his personal wealth to help support the war.

By war’s end, Greene was considered second only to Washington in military leadership. And Greene, Washington, and Henry Knox were the only generals to serve the entire eight years of the revolution.

After the war, Greene settled on some of that gifted land near Savannah with his wife and children. But the move proved ill-fated – Nathanael Greene, the self-taught son of Rhode Island who contributed so much to the cause of liberty, died of sunstroke in 1786. He was only 43.

Today, Greene is not so famous as some of his contemporaries, but upon his death, the nation mourned – and remembered. Dozens of cities, counties and parks are named in his honor, including Greeneville, Tennessee, Greenville, South Carolina, Greensboro, North Carolina, and Ohio’s own Greene County.

Greene’s rise to a leading role in the revolution was an unlikely circumstance, but then, as McCullough reminds us, “Greene was no ordinary man. He had a quick, inquiring mind and uncommon resolve. He was extremely hardworking, forthright, good-natured, and a born leader.”  And perhaps most importantly, “his commitment to the Glorious Cause of America ... was total.”

Happy Fourth of July everyone.