Major General Nathanael Greene

Much has been written about Nathanael Greene in numerous biographies and several websites; this posting will just highlight his local history and connection with the Kentish Guards, and give a summary of his major life events.

Greene was born in 1742 and raised at his father's home in the Potowomut section of Warwick; by 1770 he would have his own 'homestead' in Coventry. Both areas are part of Kent County, which had its courthouse and principle market town in East Greenwich. The Kentish Guards would have its headquarters at this County seat, from which it would also derive its name.

Greene's father was a very strict Quaker, which resulted in his family being very hard working and enterprising, but also pacifistic, and believing in a restrictive education … limited to the Bible and business mathematics, so as to avoid the vanities and temptations of the world. Upon appeal Nathanael was allowed to study Latin and Geometry, Euclid becoming a favorite; around age twelve he began reading the works of Ferguson, Locke, Swift and Watts suggest by Ezra Stiles, then a minister in Newport and later President of Yale. Green was very enterprising, financially successful and politically active, being admitted as a 'freeman' (recognized property owner) in Warwick and (having moved to Coventry in 1770) elected a member of the Colonial Assembly from Coventry in 1771, 1772 and 1775. In preparation for conducting business and necessary law suits be began reading about law in Blackstone's and Jacob's writings.

Under the benign neglect of Prime Minister Walpole, the English colonies were allowed to control their own affairs; but after the French & Indian War / Seven Years' War England needed funds to pay for the war. The British were already heavily taxed and the English colonies were not; so the British Parliament thought it only fair that the colonies should assume part of the burden. This greatly chaffed the colonist, who had grown very used to governing themselves, who particularly resented having a tax imposed by a polity beyond their control. Also, while the colonies were richer in food and materials goods than the Mother Country; there was a persistent shortage of specie money, which these taxes would only exacerbate. And, for the wealthy land owners, especially in Virginia, the closure of the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains (to save on the expense of Indian control) meant the lost of much property and expansion opportunities.

Greene was well aware of the grown animosity against the British; he began buying military books from his Boston book seller friend, Henry Knox: Caesar's Commentaries, Sharpe's Military Guide, Turenne's Memoirs, and others. He visited military organizations in nearby colonies to 'compare notes' and worked on military committees in the Rhode Island Colonial Assembly; his interest in military affairs would later lead to his being dropped from membership in the local Quaker assembly.

With trade being a large part of the local economy, Rhode Islanders were acutely aware of the growing political tensions with Great Britain; having a rare colonial charter which granted near total autonomy to the colonial government, they were also very independently minded. In 1771 the British Navy ship, Gaspee, while enforcing the customs laws, seized the sloop, Fortune, and its cargo; this belonged to Nathanael Greene and its seizure left him with a burning resentment against British rule. These known sentiments briefly made him a suspect in the later burning of the Gaspee.

Much later while chasing another merchant ship, the Gaspee ran aground in June of 1772; before it could be freed by a rising tide, it was attacked by people from Providence, who shot the captain and burned the Gaspee to the waterline. The December 1773 Boston Tea Party led to the Coercive Acts of 1774, whereby the British Parliament closed the Port of Boston. East Greenwich was the first town in Rhode Island to send aid to Boston, an act for which some local Tories threatened to 'burn the town down' in September 1774. A militia company from Providence was dispatch to maintain order, resulting in no violence, but the local townsfolk decided to form their own militia company to protect themselves.

In July 1774 Nathanael Greene married Catherine Littlefield; she was from Block Island but, being orphaned, lived with her aunt, Catharine Ray , who was a very well establish social leader who had trained her nice is all of the social graces. The aunt had been a close friend of Benjamin Franklin and remained a frequent correspondent with him, and had married William Greene, who was to become the Governor of Rhode Island; they lived in the house at the corner of Division Street and Love Lane just over the border from East Greenwich in Warwick. It is still used by the Greene family today.

In this era, every male between 18 and 45 was 'in the militia', but this was a very casual organization; the well-to-do merchants of East Greenwich wanted to form a 'good unit'. In June 1774 Rhode Island had taken the hitherto unheard of step of chartering their own militia company; a charter was usually acquired from either the King or Parliament. This was possible because Rhode Island had a totally locally elected government; Massachusetts, in contract, had a Royal Governor, appointed by the King. Being aware of this legal possibility, a local lawyer, James Varnum, arranged to have a charter granted by the Colonial Assembly to this militia company being formed in East Greenwich.

First meeting on September 24th, 1774 and formally meeting on October 16th in Arnold's Tavern (which occupied the site of the current Greenwich Hotel) the Kentish Guards were granted a charter by the Colonial Assembly on October 29th; the Kentish Guards were formed with James Varnum as its first Commander. The admission requirements for this unit were high; it was considered an 'elite militia company'. Members had to be voted in, have sufficient funds for dues and to supply themselves with a full uniform and equipment. The well-to-do men of Kent County wanted to be in a quality unit, and so this unit attracted the cream of the county.

While not having any military experience, Nathanael Greene was well read on military subjects, but he was not voted in as an officer; there was even talk that he wouldn't be voted-in as an enlisted member. Much has been written on this subject with the majority view being that he was looked down-upon for having a noticeable limp, this not giving him a military bearing. The Kentish Guards wanted to have a 'top notch' organization. He became depressed by this rejection, he appeared to have an inferiority complex; but he was strongly encouraged to join the Kentish Guards as an enlisted member by his friend, James Varnum, and so he did, proving to be a very strong, contributing member.

Greene was able to get a British Drill Sergeant in Boston to desert and to train the Kentish Guards in proper military drill. It is written that, during the closure of Boston when access roads were blocked by British sentries, that Greene was able to smuggle a musket out of Boston under a wagon load of hay. Smuggle a musket he did (it currently resides in the Greene Family Collection), but one does not cart hay out of a city; one brings hay into a city and carts out manure…

Greene also arranged for the Kentish Guards to hire a fife and a drum instructor to teach two lads each this military music; copies of these contracts exist in the collection of his papers. The Kentish Guards have a fife & drum corps, which today can claim Nathanael Greene as one of its founders.

In April 1775 dispatch riders spread word throughout New England and beyond of the hostilities in Lexington and Concord. On April 20th the Kentish Guards set out to aid the Patriots, marching northward in their proper, red regimental uniforms. Nathanael Greene and a few of his cousins met-up with them in Apponaug, a section of Warwick just north of East Greenwich. A witness would later write that he saw the Kentish Guards march to the north with Nathanael Greene marching noticeably among them, noticeable by his limp. When the Guards reached Providence, they received word from Deputy Governor Darius Sessions "not to leave the colony"; so, obedient to civilian control, they marched up to the border and there waited, until they received word that it was all over.

In May 1775 Rhode Island decided to raise three regiments in support of the Patriots in the Siege of Boston. James Varnum, the Colonel commanding the Kentish Guards became the Commander of one of these regiments, the Kent and Kings County Regiment. At that time the southern-most county of Rhode Island was named "Kings County"; this would later be changed to "Washington County" or informally "South County". In the General Assembly there were three candidates for the General commanding the three regiments; Nathanael Greene was the third proposed. As it was said, "That the Baptist couldn't, the Methodist wouldn't, but the Quaker would." Nathanael Greene, in one step, went from being a Private in the Kentish Guards to Brigadier General of the three Rhode Island regiments.

During the Siege of Boston and the formation of the Continental Army, Greene caught the eye of the new Commander in Chief, George Washington. Many of the New England militia units from colonies with Royal Governors, who suppressed militia development, were disorganized and insubordinate, which Washington thought they mistook for independence; but the Rhode Island regiments were organized and run straight out of the British military manual "down to the tent peg." Washington would also take a liking to Greene's Boston friend, Henry Knox, who later would distinguish himself with the artillery. During this early organization of the Continental Army, thirty-five members of the Kentish Guards would become officers, by virtue of their military knowledge. The first Rhode Island causality was Adjutant August Mumford, one of these Kentish Guardsmen; he was killed by a cannon ball within sight of Nathanael Greene, an upsetting sight about which he wrote.

Greene would become a close friend and tactical advisor to Washington during the course of the war. A very active field commander, Greene was promoted to Major General in August 1776. He was largely in charge of laying down the defenses on Long Island until he was immobilized by a severe illness and missed the initial British assaults there. Later, during the defense of Manhattan, he committed his greatest blunder by declining to abandon Fort Washington, which led to the capture of thousands of American soldiers and many cannon and other equipment; but Washington continued to have faith in him and Greene performed well afterwards at Trenton (where Greene commanded the left wing), at Brandywine (where the Continental Army avoided annihilation by Greene's marching a brigade five miles in 45-minutes to fill-in a gap in the battle line at Dilworth) and at Germantown (covering the retreat after the confusing results of the battle).

At Valley Forge, with the Quartermaster's Department in disarray and the Continental Army in grievous need of food and supplies, Greene accepted the position of Quartermaster General in March 1778, much to his displeasure; but the situation was critical and Washington needed to have a competent  person in that position.  Greene straightened out the mess and performed miracles until he resigned as Quartermaster in June 1780. From time to time, he was given field command assignments and even took charge of the Army during Washington's absence while consulting with Rochambeau in Hartford in September 1780. During Washington's absence, the Army under Greene repulsed an attack made by Clinton at Springfield and Rahway Bridges, New Jersey. In position in Tappen, New York, Greene took charge of West Point after Benedict Arnold's treason was discovered, until Washington returned. He formally assumed command of West Point on October 8th.

On October 14th Greene was appointed Commanding General of the Southern Army by the Continental Congress, replacing General Gates, who had failed significantly at the Battle of Camden in South Carolina. When he assumed command in December 2nd in Charlotte, North Carolina the Southern Army was virtually non-existent; Greene displayed his brilliance conducting a guerrilla campaign, disturbing British communications and supply lines. Greene's army gained control of much of the back county and won the tacit support of the local Tory population by treating them fairly; this left the British in control of only the major port cities of the South. His actions frustrated British General Cornwallis so greatly that Clinton went 'off station' and, with limited supplies to allow for faster movement, chased Greene's army northward until Greene fought him at a battlefield of Greene's choosing. At Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina Greene met Cornwallis' attack with a three zoned defense wherein he brilliantly employed the lay-of-the land and the virtues and limitations of the troops under his command.

In the first zone Greene placed his most inexperienced troops, local North Carolina militiamen just recruited, behind a slip-rail fence (upon  which they could rest and better aim their muskets) facing a newly plowed field (which would slow the initial British assault). When the British came too close, ready to start a bayonet assault, this first line of militia ran away, as planned; they did not have bayonets. This led the British into dense woods, which broke-up their formations; where they were met by experienced Virginia militia, who engaged them in sniping and prolonged hand-to-hand combat. Finally emerging from the dense woodland, the British had to cross a brook and proceed uphill to attack the well rested Continental Troops. At one point the lead British unit was surrounded and could have been annihilated; to forestall this Cornwallis had British field cannon fire into the melee, injuring as many of his own troops as those of Greene. Greene's army was forced to withdraw from the field, the first priority being the survival of the Continental Army; Cornwallis was left holding the field and technically winning the battle, but his army had been mauled.

Cornwallis retired to Wilmington, North Carolina and then moved to Yorktown, Virginia, where another fate awaited him. Greene circled back into South Carolina and in several battles completely drove the British out of the back country. He was instrumental in re-establishing a state government in South Carolina and Georgia; an important consideration in advance of the final treaty negotiations, or the British might have continued to claim jurisdiction over these states at the end of the war. In 1785 he moved to Mulberry Grove, a plantation given to him by the State of Georgia, where he died in 1787, age 44, of sunstroke. He was survived by his wife, two sons and three daughters. An idea by Catherine Greene was developed and engineered by the family tutor, Eli Whitney, creating the cotton gin, which would revolutionize agriculture in the South. The patent, however, could not be easily enforced; so this invention brought Catherine Greene and Whitney little financial reward.

© Copyright 2014-2015 Kentish Guards. All rights reserved.
Kentish Guards • 1774 Armory Street • East Greenwich, RI 02818-3747

MouseWorks