Nathanael Greene: A Biography of the American Revolution

Nathanael Greene: A Biography of the American Revolution

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by Gerald M. Carbone

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When the Revolutionary War began, Nathanael Greene was a private in the militia, the lowest rank possible, yet he emerged from the war with a reputation as George Washington's most gifted and dependable officer--celebrated as one of three most important generals. Upon taking command of America's Southern Army in 1780, Nathanael Greene was handed troops that

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When the Revolutionary War began, Nathanael Greene was a private in the militia, the lowest rank possible, yet he emerged from the war with a reputation as George Washington's most gifted and dependable officer--celebrated as one of three most important generals. Upon taking command of America's Southern Army in 1780, Nathanael Greene was handed troops that consisted of 1,500 starving, nearly naked men. Gerald Carbone explains how within a year, the small worn-out army ran the British troops out of Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina and into the final trap at Yorktown. Despite his huge military successes and tactical genius Greene's story has a dark side. Gerald Carbone drew on 25 years of reporting and researching experience to create his chronicle of Greene's unlikely rise to success and his fall into debt and anonymity.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Although Nathanael Greene's military accomplishments generally receive less attention than Benedict Arnold's or Lafayette's, historians consider him the better general. Journalist Carbone's lively chronicle corrects this neglect. A young Rhode Island businessman, Greene (1742-1786) was only a private in his state militia, but his political influence vaulted him to its command when fighting broke out in 1775. Washington saw Greene's impressive astuteness, and Greene became the Continental Army's youngest general. His greatest feats came after 1780, when Washington sent him to the south, an area that had ruined three previous generals. Leading poorly equipped troops and vastly outnumbered by Cornwallis's forces, he fought off the British; frustrated, Cornwallis marched north to Yorktown and defeat. Bad investments and his guarantee of loans to obtain military supplies left Greene owing huge sums, and he spent the last two years of his life struggling with creditors. Inevitably the book focuses on the war, wartime politics, the Americans' inability to support the army financially and Greene's military success. He should be better known, and this well-researched history aimed at a popular audience is a good first step. (July)

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Kirkus Reviews
Rhode Island journalist Carbone gives a little-known Revolutionary War leader his due in this admiring biography. Frequently dubbed Washington's best general, Nathanael Greene (1742-86) played an active role in the Rhode Island militia during the turbulent years before the revolution. The son of a wealthy businessman, he disliked British taxes as much as the average American merchant. At the outbreak of hostilities in 1775, the state's General Assembly appointed him commander of Rhode Island's army. Most of Greene's military knowledge came from books, but he was a quick learner and a natural leader. Observers at the 1775 siege of Boston noted that the Rhode Island camp stood out for its order and hygiene, as well as the professional deportment of its men. Although historians debate Washington's military talents, they agree he was a shrewd judge of men; when he arrived to command the colonial forces he quickly approved of Greene, who at 32 became the rebel colonies' youngest general and Washington's right-hand man. He participated in most campaigns and was appointed to the Southern Command in 1780. Despite leading a few thousand ragged, unpaid, often unfed troops far less numerous than the enemy, Greene conducted a brilliant campaign, reversing a string of defeats to frustrate Cornwallis's offensive and lead him to disaster at Yorktown. Receiving little support from the Continental Congress or the states, he pledged his personal fortune to obtain supplies and ended the war with massive debts that burdened him for the three years that remained in his short life. Drawing on Greene's papers and the usual 18th-century sources, Carbone writes a straightforward biography while touching thetraditional historical bases. A lucid account of the Revolutionary War from the point of view of its most successful general.
Rhode Island Bar Journal

Carbone has produced an enjoyable, informative, and worthy addition to the ever growing library of scholarly biographies of the American Revolutionary generation.
The Washington Times

The personality of George Washington has so dominated the story of the American revolution that many of his able lieutenants have been relegated to history's sidelines. One of these, Nathanael Greene, is now the subject of…a engaging new biography by Rhode Island journalist Gerald M. Carbone…[who] has made extensive use of the Greene papers, and these afford a rounded portrait of his subject.

A brisk march through Greene's short life (44 years) but action-packed military career…Arranging events in a chronological illustration of Greene's canniness in the duel of Cornwallis, Carbone's informative portrait should connect with the American Revolution readership.
award-winning author of Freedom's Altar and of No Charles F. Price

To this much-needed new biography of America's most unjustly neglected Revolutionary War hero, Gerald Carbone brings a journalist's concision, a storyteller's eye for illuminating detail, a wry New England sensibility, and a historian's diligence. The result is a compelling account of how Nathanael Greene, the self-taught former Quaker ironmaster from Rhode Island, made himself over into the Continental Army's finest strategist and one of the best minds of Enlightenment America. Carbone carries us deftly through the triumphs and tragedies of this remarkable life, offering us a Founder of flesh, blood, acumen and ambition who, had he lived longer and his luck been kinder, might even have become president.
author of The Road to Guilford Courthouse John Buchanan

Ged Carbone has written a lively, accessible biography of one of the truly great strategists in American history, Major General Nathanael Greene, second only to Washington in the pantheon of heroes of the War of the Revolution.
award-winning author of Samuel Adams and of Henry Mark Puls

Nathanael Greene remains one of the American Revolution's most compelling yet unsung heroes. In Nathanael Greene Gerald Carbone provides a complex and absorbing portrait of a resourceful general, a devoted husband, an unfortunate businessman and an ardent American patriot. Carbone cleary admires his subject but also portrays his all-too-human human sides. Well-researched, the general's story is told against a backdrop of dramatic battle scenes, wonderful characters and revolution that seems on the verge of collapse if not for the extraordinary sacrifices of figures such as Greene, to whom all Americans will be forever indebted.
Dennis Conrad

With a journalist's eye for telling anecdote and pithy, but illuminating, quotation, Ged Carbone makes Nathanael Greene come alive in this lively, readable biography that is also very good history.

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Nathanael Greene

A Biography of the American Revolution

By Gerald M. Carbone

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2008 Gerald M. Carbone
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-61293-8


War, War Boys!

From the deck of his sloop anchored in Narragansett Bay, Rufus Greene watched a two-masted ship armed with cannon bearing down on him. Rufus stood atop a valuable cargo stored in his hold: twelve hogsheads of West India rum, forty gallons of Jamaica spirits, and a barrel of brown sugar. Technically the cargo was contraband as it had not cleared the customs house in Newport, but by 1772 Rhode Islanders had grown accustomed to ignoring London's laws, and sporadic attempts to enforce them often excited violence.

The cargo belonged not to Rufus but to the sloop's owners, Nathanael Greene & Co., his cousin's business on nearby Potowomut Peninsula. Rufus was twenty-three, brown-haired, tall, and slender. As young and strong as he was, he was no match for the armed boarding party bent on invading his ship, the Fortune.

The raiders were not pirates; they were British seamen in the King's Navy, sent into Narragansett Bay in the winter of 1772 to enforce the often-ignored customs laws. This was dangerous duty, for Rhode Islanders had been known to savagely beat customs collectors.

The British had sent a tough man for the job: Lt. William Dudingston, who had recently been sued for beating a Delaware River fisherman while a mate held the man helpless. From his ship, the revenue schooner Gaspee, Dudingston lowered a row boat into the still, winter-blue waters of Narragansett Bay. A Naval officer named Dundass rowed over from the Gaspee, climbed aboard the Fortune 's deck, and asked Rufus if he would carry some freight for the King's Navy.

Rufus said he would not.

"Unlay the hatches," Dundass said.

Rufus said that the hatches were already unlocked.

The officer ordered Rufus below decks. Rufus asked Dundass by whose authority did he order him about on his own boat.

With the whetting sound of steel on steel Dundass drew his sword.

"If you do not go into the cabin I'll let you know." He grabbed Rufus by the collar and shoved him below. Footsteps sounded on the deck above as a boarding party from the Gaspee invaded the Fortune. At swordpoint Dundass kept Rufus Greene confined below decks, and then let him up to watch as the boarding party marked the sloop's hatches with the letter "R," signifying that the Fortune and its cargo, valued at 295 pounds, now belonged to His Royal Highness, England's King George III.

It would prove to be a costly seizure; arguably it cost the king the loss of his schooner, the Gaspee, and the colonies of South Carolina and Georgia. For in seizing the Fortune, the King's Navy had stoked the slumbering fires of its owner, Nathanael Greene.

* * *

Word of the Fortune's seizure spread through every smuggler's port in Narragansett Bay. Within a week the Newport Mercury newspaper was reporting that the "piratical schooner belongs to King George the Third." When Rufus's cousin, Nathanael Greene, Jr., learned that the King's Navy had taken his ship he grew furious. Until that point in his life, Nathanael Greene had steered clear of the trouble brewing between England and her colonies. Now it was personal, and Greene became obsessed.

Nathanael Greene came from a family of influence. His great, great, great grandfather had been a contemporary of Roger Williams, fleeing with him from the theocracy of Massachusetts to begin a new colony of true religious freedom in 1620. By the time Greene was born, his family had been in Rhode Island for nearly 130 years. Greene's father had been the Quaker preacher at the Greenwich Meeting House, and had built a prosperous business at the family's old homestead on Potowomut Peninsula.

The gabled, two-story house where Greene grew up with five brothers sat atop a hill that sloped gently to Hunt's River. The river splashed noisily over the Greene family's dam and gurgled through the sluiceway that turned the wheels of their mill and forge. Here in Potowomut the Greenes' mill wheels ground grain hauled there by ship and in the carts of local farmers. Here, too, the Greene brothers forged red-hot iron and banged it into massive fishermen's anchors that they shipped across the bay to Newport, a hub of international shipping. On nearly two hundred acres, Nathanael Greene & Co.

owned a wharf, warehouse, saw mill, and store, as well as the dam, sluiceways, forge, and anchor works. The Greene homestead was very much a man's world; Greene's mother, Mary, died when he was eleven, leaving the six boys under the tutelage of a loving but stern father who believed in hard work and plain living. Greene's father did remarry, to another devout Quaker named Mary a year later, but judging from the few references Greene made to "Mother Greene" in his voluminous correspondence, the relationship was more formal than loving.

The elder Greene and his six surviving sons also owned a forge at Coventry, a small inland village where they smithed more anchors, a staple in seagoing Rhode Island. Months before Greene's father died in 1770, he built a drafty, fourteen-room house at the Coventry forge so he could better manage his workforce of one hundred men there. Nathanael Jr. drew the job of moving out to Coventry to oversee the works.

Greene found Coventry a dismal place. It was a smoky, isolated village that essentially owed its existence to the Greene family's forge, where men from dozens of families toiled, stoking furnaces to smelt iron with rough ore and black sand to make a malleable metal for the smiths to hammer into big black anchors.

For companions in Coventry, Greene generally had only the unschooled, rough-handed men who wrestled his iron into anchors. In some ways Greene was a lot like his laborers; he had little schooling and was accustomed to hard work, having grown up stoking the furnaces of his father's forges, plowing his fields, and grinding grist in the mill at the family's main homestead in Warwick.

In other ways Nathanael Greene was very much different, not only from his laborers but from most men: He was richer, smarter, driven, and relentlessly curious. Although his father had discouraged reading as an idle waste of time, Greene was exceptionally good at it. Those who knew Greene best said that, "Nobody could get the substance out of a book as he could."

In satiating his driven curiosity, Greene had amassed in his Coventry house an eclectic library of 250 volumes, an impressive collection in an eighteenth-century village. His shelves held the four thick octavos of the Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Locke's An Essay on Human Understanding, Euclidian geometry, and Ferguson's Essay on Civil Society; he read Roman history, the novels of Swift and Sterne, and four quartos of Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England. To help deal with the everyday details of running the family business he consulted Book-keeping Methodized.

When he lost the sloop Fortune, Greene was single, closing in on thirty, rambling around a big, lonesome house in which every wall was painted white. He had recently been spurned in love by Nancy Ward of Westerly, a fair-haired woman with "soft eyes of bluish gray."

Nathanael and Nancy traveled in the same social circle, so their meeting was inevitable. Nancy was one of six rich and pretty daughters of the eminent merchant Samuel Ward, a former governor; Greene was one of six brothers, excluding two older half-brothers who had died in their twenties. During Greene's stormy, on-again, off-again courtship of Nancy, he was introduced to her little brother, Sammy Ward, and a strange, strong, lifelong friendship blossomed between them. Greene may have begun writing to Sammy in order to ingratiate himself with Nancy. Sammy was fourteen years younger, but he had a classical education that Greene sincerely envied. Around the time of Greene's breakup with Nancy, Sammy became Greene's epistolary confidant, the one person to whom Greene confided his innermost thoughts on everything from theology to the latest gossip.

* * *

In April 1772, Greene took quill in hand to write Sammy from Coventry, with the loss of his sloop very much on his mind. Noah Webster's efforts to standardize spelling did not take root until the early nineteenth century, so as he wrote to Sammy, Greene was free to punctuate as he saw fit and to spell words with a Yankee drawl in the way he might pronounce them:

I ... have been engageed in the pursuit of a Searover who took into his Custody a quantity of Our Rum and carried it round to Boston (contrary to the Express words of the Statute) for Tryal and condemnation. The illegality of his measure together with the Loss sustaind createed such a Spirit of Resentment That I have devoted almost the whole of my Time in devising and carrying into execution measures for the recovery of my Property and punnishing the offender.

What Greene had in mind for "punnishing" Lieutenant Dudingston, the Gaspee's captain, was legal action: His company's lawyer, James Varnum, was even then drafting a suit against Dudingston for illegally capturing the Fortune.

Others had different ideas about a just punishment for Lt. Dudingston. On June 9, 1772, five dozen Rhode Islanders served the Gaspee's commander and crew with the maritime version of vigilante justice.

On the morning of June 10, 1772, a young man paraded along the Great Bridge in Providence, wearing the gold-laced beaverskin cap he had stolen from a British Naval officer. He proudly told the story of the night before—how he and sixty others had burned the king's revenue schooner Gaspee while it lay aground on Namquid Point, until some older men warned him to hold his tongue.

The story circulated to the Providence home of Darius Sessions, the deputy governor. Sessions smelled trouble. He saddled a horse and galloped the five miles south to Pawtuxet Village, where the Gaspee was still smoldering out on Namquid Point. He found the ship's commander, Lieutenant Dudingston, lying wounded in a small house by the shore. Dudingston's left thigh was wrapped tightly with a linen bandage, concealing the hole that a musket ball fired by the raiders had blown through his groin, spilling the first British blood of the American Revolution. Sessions asked Dudingston for his version of the nighttime raid on the Gaspee, but the lieutenant would not say much. Sessions wrote:

Mr. Dudingston answered that he would give no account of the matter; first, because of his indisposition of body, and secondly, because it was his duty to forbear anything of the nature till he had done it to his commanding officer, at a court martial, to which, if he lived, he must be called, but if he died, he desired it might all die with him.

While Dudingston lay convalescing in Pawtuxet, the sheriff of Kent County came calling with a warrant for his arrest. Dudingston did not know it but the sheriff, Abraham Whipple, had actually led the sixty-man party that raided the Gaspee. Dudingston's condition was too critical for Whipple to haul him off to jail, but the sheriff left the warrant charging him to appear in court as a defendant in Nathanael Greene's lawsuit alleging illegal seizure.

Naturally, Nathanael Greene was a chief suspect in the torching of the Gaspee, but he had an alibi: On the night in question he had hosted his brother Kitt, his cousin Griffin, and a woman named Mrs. Utter out at his big house of all-white walls.

"Mrs. Utter an Old Lady Sat up with me till near Twelve OClock," Greene wrote to Sammy Ward. "Kitt and Griff staid till 10 O Clock, Mrs Utter saw me go to Bed, and my People saw me get up, and Griff Saw me about Sunrise."

On July 22, 1772, Greene saddled his favorite horse, a bay stallion named Britain, for the ride from Coventry to the courthouse in East Greenwich, where his lawsuit against Lieutenant Dudingston was being heard. During the trial he lodged at the East Greenwich home of William and Catharine Greene, his distant relatives, who happened to be Sammy Ward's aunt and uncle. Catharine Greene was then raising her late sister's child, Caty Littlefield, a sixteen-year-old girl who was blossoming into a true, dark-haired beauty. Caty was the antithesis of the fair-haired Nancy Ward in looks and in temperament; but something about her caught Nathanael Greene's eye.

The Greene brothers prevailed in their lawsuit, winning a judgment against Dudingston of six hundred pounds for the illegal seizure of their sloop, rum, and molasses. Winning that judgment was likely the high point of Greene's summer. After winning the lawsuit he rode Britain back out to his lonely house in Coventry where, a month later, on August 17, 1772, the intense flames required to shape steel in the forge burned out of control. Fires were an occupational hazard of the forging industry, and this one burned the forge to its foundation. Greene wrote his young friend, Sammy Ward:

Your Letter reacht me the Morning after the Destruction of the Forge. I sat upon the remains of one of the old Shafts and read it. I was surrounded with Gloomy Faices, piles of Timber still in Flames, Heaps of Bricks dasht to pieces, Baskets of coal reducd to ashes. Everything seemd to appear in Ruins and Confusion.

He then turned his attention to the blue-eyed Nancy Ward, Sammy's sister. Clearly, Greene still wanted to marry her; she, just as clearly, had no interest in marrying him. Greene wrote Sammy:

I have seriously considered the connexions between me and your Sister, the way it began and the manner it has been carried on, and if I was to consult my Pride instead of my Reason, perhaps I might think I had a sufficient Cause to Lay a foundation for resentment.... It is your advice to stop our Correspondence. What can I say to it? If you was to see her last Letter perhaps youd be of a different opinion. To stop the Correspondence is to loos her for Ever; to continue it is to overwhelm myself with agreeable Distress and pleasant pains.

The smoldering ruins of the forge aggravated Greene's asthma, a condition that plagued him for life; six days after the forge fire he wrote to Sammy's uncle, William Greene, down in East Greenwich: "I have had a most severe turn of the phthisc [asthma]; I have not slept six hours in four nights, being obliged to sit up the last two nights."

Nathanael Greene could not breathe, nor could he sleep. And the family forge with which he'd been entrusted had turned to ashes.

* * *

By January 1773, a rebuilt Coventry forge rose phoenix-like from the ashes, and its massive bell hammer was again banging out steel. "The Sound of the Hamer is once more heard in our Land," Greene reported to Sammy Ward. But that year, in which he turned thirty-one, brought few improvements to Greene's life. He bought a lottery ticket and fantasized that if he won "I intend to turn Beau with my part of the Money, and make a Shining Figure amongst the Greenwich Bucks," the fancy folk of East Greenwich, the nearest village to the homestead where Greene grew up. Living outside the outskirts of town, Greene was always something of a country bumpkin, his shoulders and torso thick from hard work, his plain Quaker's clothes smelling of smoke from the forge. A chronic stiffness in one knee, which may have come from the hours spent working the huge, foot-powered bellows in the forge, lent him a stiff, ambling gait. His family held wealth and position, but he did not cut, to use his phrase, "a shining figure" among East Greenwich society.

In the summer of 1773, Greene and his cousin Griffin were suspended from the Quaker church that his late father had led for going to "a place in Conecticut of Publick Resort where they had No Proper Business." A suspension was not as harsh as expulsion, but it generally required public atonement for readmission.

There is no way to ascertain exactly what Greene did to be "put out from under the care" of the meetinghouse. Whatever the specific violation was, Greene was drifting from the principles of his father's faith, and he had given the Society of Friends multiple reasons to suspend him. Suing a man in court violated the conduct of the Society of Friends, for they saw litigation as an act of violence. Not only had Greene sued Dudingston, but in the months before his suspension, Greene acted as a lawyer for a man in a lawsuit involving the Town of Coventry. In writing to his client about the lawsuit, Greene used martial terms: "You go fourth to battle armed with solemn instruments." And Greene certainly was taking an interest in military affairs at this time, eventually agreeing in 1774 to serve on the state's Committee to Revise Militia Laws. Being seen either at a martial parade, as some said he was, or at a place of "publick resort" (a pub), or in a courthouse would have been the last in a string of transgressions that put Greene out of his father's faith.

Greene was an irreverent, practical, and funny man who was never much interested in the Society of Friends anyway. When he eventually parted ways with the Quakers in April 1775 it was his decision to leave, not theirs. Greene held the Society responsible for his own lack of an education, something he truly desired.


Excerpted from Nathanael Greene by Gerald M. Carbone. Copyright © 2008 Gerald M. Carbone. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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