N ATHANAEL GREENE had a busy happy boyhood. His home was in a little Rhode Island town. His Quaker father was a preacher and a miller, and an anchorsmith as well. He owned a gristmill, a flour mill, a sawmill, and a forge. And, better than all, he had eight sons.
In the elder Nathanael Greene's opinion, his mills, his fields and his forge furnished a good school for his boys. Of other learning they had little. They were taught to read that they might read the Bible, and taught to write and cipher as a help in business.
Theirs was a simple, healthy life with work and play
all mixed together. Many a field was plowed in testing
who could turn the deepest furrow. Many a harvest was
gathered in proving who could cut the widest swath, or
shape the best and firmest stack of
Well content with such a life, Nathanael Greene reached the age of fourteen. But now a chance acquaintance, talking of college life, showed him how meager his learning was; and he began to think and wonder about things that he had never considered before.
At last his new thirst for knowledge led him to ask his father for more schooling, and a new master was arranged for. Under his guidance Nathanael studied Latin and geometry, and laid the foundation for the good general education which he finally acquired through his steady perseverance. Thus the boy came to early manhood, in the years when his country needed the help of every strong arm and active brain at her command.
At Covington, about ten miles from his home forge,
the elder Nathanael Greene owned a second forge; and
in 1770 he decided that one of the sons should leave the
old home, move to Covington and take charge of the
smithy there. Nathanael was chosen. It was a great
event when his neat
Soon came the stirring times of the tea tax, the Boston Tea Party and the closing of Boston's port. All Covington was aroused; and in 1774 Nathanael Greene had a hand in organizing a military company, which was called the Kentish Guards. Greene joined the company as a private. But as he was a soldier without a gun, he resolved to go to Boston and get one.
Even for an enemy there was a certain fascination in
What he saw must have pleased him well, for before he left Boston he had engaged a British deserter to go back with him to drill the Kentish Guards. Having bought his musket, he was in doubt as to how he could get his gun out of Boston. At last a farmer agreed to hide it under the straw in his wagon. And following the wagon at a safe distance, Greene set out for home.
In April, 1775, a messenger rushed into Providence with the news of Lexington and Concord. A few days later the Rhode Island Assembly voted to raise an army of fifteen hundred men, and Nathanael Greene was chosen brigadier general and placed in command of the fifteen hundred. In due time he led them to join the American forces; and so it was that Greene was already in the army that waited before Boston to welcome Washington, when he came to be its chief.
Washington was quick to see Greene's sterling
qualities, and a close and lasting friendship grew up between
the two. In the battles of Trenton, Princeton,
Brandywine, and Germantown, Greene led a division of
Washington's army. And while at Valley Forge, he accepted
the position of quartermaster general, to please
Washington. Thus the Commander-in-chief came to know his
friend's value both in the camp and on the field of battle.
Was it not natural, then, that, when the English turned
their attention to the South, Washington's choice for
commander of the Southern Department was Nathanael
Greene? But Congress did not see with Washington's
In carrying the war to the South, the English reasoned somewhat in the following way: We have not been very successful so far. These northern colonies are surely strong in their rebellion. However, the South does not seem equally determined. Would it not be our wisest plan, therefore, to subdue the southern colonies first? Then, if worst comes to worst, and we are obliged to make terms with the North, at least we shall still have a foothold in the colonies.
The conquering of the South was to begin with Georgia. In December, 1778, an expedition attacked Savannah; and with three men to our one the British found the city an easy prey. A few more minor victories followed, and the English soon claimed Georgia as their own.
Till the end of 1779 the conditions were practically unchanged. But early in 1780, the English reopened their southern campaign with vigor. This time South Carolina was attacked; and a mighty army advanced against Charleston, and completely surrounded it. It would have been a waste of life for the American force, gathered to protect the city, to have risked battle with such an army. Even the citizens of Charleston petitioned that terms be made with the British. They were accordingly made, and the city surrendered. The English at once sent detachments to take possession of Camden, and other points throughout the State.
The Siege of Charleston
At this time Congress put Gates in command of what was left of the southern army, even though Washington had recommended Greene. Puffed with pride over his stolen victory at Saratoga, Gates had dreams of promptly defeating the English. He determined to surprise them at Camden before Lord Cornwallis could reach there. But Lord Cornwallis got to Camden first, prepared a warm welcome for Gates, and even advanced to meet him.
When the battle began, the English came on with such a rush that the Virginia troops threw down their loaded guns and took to their heels. Seeing them disappear, others did the same; and the troops that did stand their ground were soon routed. Nor was General Gates left behind in the headlong flight. Deserting his artillery, his baggage, and his few stanch followers, he covered sixty miles before night.
Although the Americans won a brilliant victory at King's Mountain in October, the disaster at Camden had convinced Congress that, after all, General Gates was not much of a success as a commander.
Washington was now asked to suggest some one to take the place of Gates. Thoroughly convinced that Nathanael Greene was the man of all men, Washington again unhesitatingly recommended him.
In December, 1780, General Greene arrived in North Carolina and took command of the American forces. These forces were so small that Greene himself said they seemed but "the shadow of an army." And they were a disheartened, discouraged, unpaid, and poorly fed shadow at that. Still the man who had come to command them was the best general the Americans had, Washington alone excepted. His very presence soon inspired his forlorn troops, and they took heart once more.
Map of General Greene's Campaign in the South
Before he had been long in the camp, General Greene sent part of his men, under Morgan, to threaten the English in the northern part of South Carolina. Then General Cornwallis, in his turn, sent out a detachment to drive Morgan back. Morgan heard that the English were coming, and he waited for them at Cowpens.
Here, on the 17th of January, 1781, he was attacked by the British. But so well had he planned his defense, and so bravely did his men do their part, that the English were terribly and utterly defeated.
Cornwallis was astonished. More determined than ever that Morgan should be crushed, he hurried against him before Greene could come to his aid. However, Morgan did not intend to be crushed, and started north before Cornwallis could get to him.
Here was General Greene's chance. His army was far too small to risk meeting the English in open battle. He must find some other way of getting the best of them. And what other way could be better than to tire them out by leading them a long, merry chase, all the time coaxing them farther and farther from their base of supplies?
With all speed, therefore, he hastened to join Morgan; and together they retreated, while Cornwallis followed in hot pursuit. Across the State of North Carolina went the Americans; and a few hours behind them came the British. Realizing that more than one river lay in his path, Greene had wisely ordered boats to be mounted on light wheels and taken along on the retreat. When a river was reached, it was an easy matter to put the wheels into the boats and carry the army safely to the opposite shore.
At last Greene and his men came to the Dan River, which was too deep for Cornwallis and his men to ford. Once in Virginia, General Greene received reinforcements until he felt his army could hold its own with the English. Then he went back into North Carolina once more, bent on battle with his enemy.
Cornwallis, too, was willing and anxious to meet the Americans. And on March 15th the two armies came together at Guilford Court House. It was a furious and bloody battle. General Greene was defeated. But though the English loudly boasted of their victory, they had paid dearly for it. So heavy had been Cornwallis's losses that he dared not stay where he was. He retreated therefore nearly as fast as he had come, and made his way to Wilmington on the shore of North Carolina.
From Wilmington, Cornwallis marched into Virginia. Meanwhile, General Greene had begun his campaign to retake South Carolina and Georgia. It was no simple matter; but by patient, tireless effort, he at last won back the conquered southern states.
In marching into Virginia, Cornwallis was unconsciously marching toward his surrender. Finally he went to Yorktown. Washington came and shut him in, and the Revolution was over.
Touching Off the First Gun at the Siege of Yorktown
Soon after its close, the State of Georgia gave General
Greene a plantation; and to this Georgia plantation he
moved with his family. But his pleasure in his new home
was to be short. In June, 1786, he died of sunstroke, at
the age of
His boyhood in the forge, the mill, and the field, had given him strength. His efforts to become a scholar had broadened his mind. Vast common sense and good tact were his by nature. A lasting patriotism came to him from seeing his country oppressed. These were what he had to give America, and he gave them with all his heart and all his energy. Great is the honor due Nathanael Greene.