The Physical Challenges of Major General Nathanael Greene

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by Salina B. Baker

Previously published by Journal of the American Revolution at www.allthingsliberty.com. Republished with permission.

 

The American Revolution provides heroes like almost no other event in American history. In a society where most of us live in comfort, with good medical care and remedies for what ails us, we recognize the sacrifices the people of the eighteenth century made for the cause of American liberty and, eventually, to build a new nation. In newspapers, public pamphlets and private letters, they proclaimed their passion for a movement rarely achieved in their time—the idea of a republic free from the bonds of monarchial rule and their mother country, Britain.

As self-educated Rhode Island Gen. Nathanael Greene wrote to his wife, Caty, in June 1775, “I am determined to defend my rights, and maintain my freedom, or sell my life in the attempt.”[1] At some time in his life he developed a limp and asthma. At twenty-eight, he was afflicted with a smallpox scar on his right eyeball that was often infected, a result of his 1770 inoculation. Before the war, Greene wrote to his friend, Sammy Ward, Jr., that he “was raised a Quaker, and amongst the most superstitious sort.”[2]

Despite the seeming austerity of his childhood, legend holds it that a teenage Nathanael and his older brother, Jacob, jumped from their bedroom window to attend neighborhood dances with the knowledge that their father would horsewhip them if they were caught. Was jumping from a window the cause of Nathanael’s limp? Was it congenital? Or was it from working the trip hammer in the Greene family iron forge that he managed and operated in Coventry, Rhode Island? There is no documented evidence of the cause of the limp. But one can imagine him working in the iron forge, the smoke exacerbating his asthma and irritating his right eye.


On August 17, 1772, the iron forge burned to the ground. Five days later, Nathanael wrote to his distant relative, William Greene, who lived in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, “News of our misfortune in the destruction of the forge doubtless will reach you before this . . . I have had a most severe turn of the phthisic or asthma; I have not slept six hours in four nights, being obliged to sit up the last two nights.”[3]

The forge was rebuilt and operating by the following winter. But 1772 was a difficult year for the Greene brothers’ other business ventures. Their ship, Fortune, was confiscated by Royal Navy officer William Dudingston for failure to pay taxes on the cargo, a violation of the recently reinforced Parliamentary Navigation Acts. Parliament levied taxes on the colonies in previous years including the despised Stamp Act and the Townshend Acts, which were resisted with violence, deliberate evasion of duties, and nonimportation agreements among merchants. All the Townshend Acts—except for the tax on tea—were repealed in April 1770. The tax on tea remained a flashpoint and a contributing factor to the Boston Tea Party of 1773, in which angry colonists destroyed an entire shipment of tea in Boston Harbor.

In response to the Boston Tea Party and other acts of tea destruction, Parliament passed the Coercive Acts. One of these acts, the Boston Port Act, was meant to punish Boston until the cost of the destroyed tea was paid. With Boston under duress and only a day’s ride north, Nathanael Greene was among those who petitioned the Rhode Island General Assembly to form a militia company—the Kentish Guards—for East Greenwich, Warwick, and Coventry. The petition was granted in October 1774. Contrary to Quaker doctrines that did not condone armed conflict, Greene joined the militia as a private and clandestinely procured a musket from Boston. Then he applied for lieutenancy. He was mortified when he was denied because of his limp. He wrote to his friend and captain of the militia, James Varnum:

I was informed the gentlemen of East Greenwich said that I was a blemish to the company. I confess it is the first stroke of mortification I ever felt from being considered, either in private or public life, a blemish to those with whom I associated . . . If I conceive right of the force of the objection of the gentlemen of the town, it was not as an officer but as a soldier, for that my halting was a blemish to the rest. I confess it is my misfortune to limp a little.[4]

When the first shots of the American Revolutionary War were fired in Massachusetts on April 19, 1775, the Kentish Guards set out for Boston. When they passed through Providence, teenager John Howland, who would fight in the war, remarked:

I viewed the company as they marched up the street and observed Nathanael Greene with his musket on his shoulder, in the ranks, as a private. I distinguished Mr. Greene whom I had frequently seen, by the motion of his shoulder in the march, as one of his legs was shorter than the other.[5]

The governor of Rhode Island recalled them. A few days later, the Rhode Island General Assembly voted to raise a brigade of fifteen hundred troops known as the Army of Observation to defend the colony. Greene worked diligently on defense committees. According to tradition, the appointment to lead the new army was offered to two others who both turned it down. It was then offered to Greene. He accepted and was commissioned a brigadier general on May 8, 1775. He immediately began to grapple with the problems of raising, equipping and drilling his brigade, valuable lessons that would serve him the rest of the war.

It was impossible for his appointment to abrogate his limp even if it soothed his sensitivity to criticism. He led his new army toward Boston and arrived in Cambridge on May 23. They joined provincial New Englanders who were holding the British army under siege in Boston. The Battle of Bunker Hill was fought on June 17, while Geeene was on a recruiting trip to Rhode Island.

On July 2 Gen. George Washington, the new commander-in-chief of the recently formed Continental Army, arrived in Cambridge. Greene was appointed a brigadier general in the new army. No one knows exactly what Greene and Washington said to one another at their first meeting, but we do know that they developed a strong, trusting relationship. In January 1776, sixty tons of artillery from Fort Ticonderoga arrived at Boston for the Continental Army. An attack on Boston was planned. Greene was sick with jaundice, and he wrote to his brother Jacob on the February 8:


I am as yellow as saffron, my appetite all gone and my flesh too. I am so weak that I can scarcely walk across the room . . . I am grievously mortified at my confinement, as this is a critical, and will be to an appearance an important period of the American War.[6]

The cannon were mounted on Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston on the night of March 4, 1776. Greene had recovered, and he prepared flat-bottomed bateaux in anticipation of a retaliatory amphibious British assault from Boston. But there was no battle; with cannon staring down at them, the British army evacuated the city.

The Continental Army moved to New York. Greene was given command of a string of five strategic forts on Brooklyn Heights on Long Island. When the British army arrived in New York Harbor in June 1776, Greene worried that his fortified works and often sick troops would be vulnerable to a British assault. In August, he was promoted to major general. Despite his best efforts to issue orders to keep camps clean and his concerns about the soldiers’ nutrition, he himself fell ill. By August 16, with battle looming, Greene was in bed with a raging fever. He was taken to a “healthy air house” in Manhattan. He helplessly heard the thunder of the battle taking place on Long Island and the destruction of American troops.

On August 30, Greene wrote, “I have not the vanity to think the event would have been otherwise had I been there, yet I could have given the commanding general a good deal of necessary information.”[7] Col. Henry Knox agreed in a letter to John Adams reporting on the battle of Long Island.

We had one chance and only one for the defence of New York and that they completly put into our hands, and which some of our Ge[nerals?], most vilely miss’d improving. The ignorance of the Grounds and the not occupying the passes on that Island sufficiently has been the sole and only cause of our subsequent Retreats and—had General Greene been fit for duty I flatter myself matters would have worn a very different appearance at present.[8]

General Greene was well enough to participate in the Battle of Harlem Heights on September 16 and events of the battle for New York that culminated in the loss of Forts Washington and Lee under his command. The Continental Army retired to Morristown, New Jersey, after their triumphant attacks on Trenton and Princeton that began the year of 1777 with new hope that the Patriots had a chance to win the war. In the summer of 1777, the bulk of the British army embarked on a mysterious sea journey that sent Washington and Congress into a frenzy. The British armada sailed up the Chesapeake Bay and disembarked at Head of Elk, Maryland. General Washington sent Greene to reconnoiter the countryside for a good defensive position from which they could challenge their opponent and move stores out of the enemy’s reach.

The mission was exhausting, and the army’s position at Wilmington, Delaware, was untenable. On September 10, the British army began moving. In response, Washington drew up his main body at Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania. Greene wrote to his wife:

I am exceedingly fatigued. I was on horseback for nearly thirty hours; and never closed my eyes for near forty. Last night I was in hopes of a good night’s rest; but a dusty bed gave me asthma, and I had very little sleep the whole night; but little as it was; I feel finely refreshed this morning.[9]

We cannot know how many nights Greene lost sleep due to his struggles with asthma. Yet Greene—whose twenty-four-hundred-man Virginia division was held in reserve during the Battle of Brandywine on September 11—endured the smoke from thousands of firearms, artillery and the scene of panicked Americans running for their lives after the British turned Washington’s right flank on Birmingham Hill. Greene’s division rushed to the rescue and formed a line that surprised and stopped the British from doing more damage to the Continental Army. Two weeks later, the British took Philadelphia.

On March 2, 1778, under pressure from Washington and a committee from Congress, Greene reluctantly accepted the position of quartermaster general. Two months before on January 1, he wrote to Washington to inform him that the officers in camp at Valley Forge had grievances over lack of spirits and vegetables. At the end of the letter, he wrote, “I have got a very disagreeable pain in one of my Eyes, or else I should have waited upon your Excellency.”[10] He did not indicate whether it was his right eye with the smallpox scar, but later in the war he repeated the complaint.

The British had occupied Newport, Rhode Island, since December 7, 1776. In the summer of 1778, Washington sent Gen. John Sullivan to attack them. Greene’s family home at Potowomut lay across Narragansett Bay from Newport. He asked Washington for permission to join the Patriot forces at Tiverton. Washington denied his request, citing that he needed Greene to attend to his quartermaster duties for the main army in New York and the Newport expedition. By mid-summer, Washington relented and wrote to Congress that it was advisable to send General Greene.

It was to be a joint expedition with French Adm. Charles-Hector, Comte d’Estaing and his fleet with four thousand marines. Greene had written to Sullivan in July, “You are the first General that has ever had an opportunity of cooperating with the French forces belonging to the United States.”[11] A storm and a battle with a British fleet left d’Estaing’s ships damaged, and he decided to sail for Boston for repairs. The decision infuriated Sullivan. He had ten thousand men besieging Newport, and he needed sea fire power. He sent Greene and Gen. Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette to d’Estaing’s flagship to beg him to reconsider. Lafayette later recalled that, as the two men stepped into a waiting skiff, Greene remarked to Lafayette, “If we fail in our negotiation, we shall at least get a good dinner.”[12]

Greene never did get that good dinner. He was too seasick. Yet he fought through his nausea and penned a letter of negotiation. Admiral d’Estaing sailed away anyway. On August 26, 1778, Greene wrote to his wife, “I’m not very well in health. I have been a little troubled by the asthma, but have got over it.”[13] The Battle of Rhode Island occurred on August 29 as Sullivan’s troops abandoned their siege; two days later, from “Camp Tivertown,” Greene wrote to Washington to report on the battle and complained about his asthma:

I would write your Excellency a more particular account of the battle & retreat, but I immagin General Sullivan & Col. Laurens has done it already; and I am myself very much unwell have had no sleep for three Night & Days; being severely afflicted with the Asthma.[14]

Despite his health problems, Greene did not shirk his duties as quartermaster general. It was an exhausting job made more exhausting by the Continental Congress’s inability to provide money and support. Congress further exacerbated the issues when they questioned Greene about the large receipts he and his deputies were receiving from their agreed upon one percent commissions. On April 24, 1779, from Philadelphia, Greene wrote to Washington that, “The business of financeing is in a poor way. There is no plan formd or scheme digested for mending our Money.”[15] Greene told Washington in the same letter:

I have desird Congress to give me leave to resign as I apprehended a loss of Reputation if I continued in the business. They are not disposd to grant my request at all. But unless they change the system or publish their approbation upon the present. I shall not remain long in the business . . . Nothing shall induce me to continue in the business; even if the profits is made five times as large as they are . . . No body ever heard of a quarter Master in History as such or in relateing any brilliant Action.[16]

Congress did not grant Greene leave to resign. His patience came to an end when “The two principal characters on whom I depended for support, and whose appointment under the former arrangement . . . are now left out” and Congress introduced “a new systim in the middle of a Campaign” that he thought was “a bold and dangerous experiment.”[17] He wrote a scathing resignation letter to Congress on July 26, 1780, in which he pointed out, “My rank is high in the line of the army; and the sacrifices I have made on this account—together with the fatigue and anxiety I have undergone, far overballance all the emoluments I have derived from the appointment.”[18]

On August 15, from his headquarters in New Jersey, Washington demonstrated his support and unwavering belief in his discontented major general and replied to the letter Greene sent him on July 27, 1780, with his resignation letter enclosed. “You conducted the various & important duties of it with capacity & deligence—entirely to my satisfaction—and as far as I had an oppertunity of knowing—with the strictest integrity.”[19]

Greene’s abilities never wavered in Washington’s eyes. By the summer of 1780, three of Washington’s major generals who Congress had appointed to command in the South had failed. Robert Howe surrendered Savannah, Georgia; Benjamin Lincoln surrendered Charleston, South Carolina; and Horatio Gates lost an army at Camden, South Carolina. After Gates’s loss on August 16, Congress left the choice of commander of the Southern Army to Washington. He chose Nathanael Greene. On October 16, Greene accepted the appointment Washington’s offered him in a letter written two days before. He was ill and asked for time to put his “domestic concerns” in order.

However, it will not be possible for me to leave this place for several days, if I put my baggage in the least order, or my business in a proper train for such a long journey. Nor is my health in a condition to set out immediately, having had a considerable fever upon me for several days.[20]

Washington denied Greene’s request for time. On October 20, Greene set out with his second-in-command, Gen. Friedrich, Baron von Steuben. Greene took great care to learn all he could about his command and to outfit the army. When he arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina, on December 3, he was unprepared for what he found: “the Embarrassments far exceed my utmost Appre[he]nsion, nor can I find a Clue to guide me through the complicated Scenes of Difficulties.”[21] His army was “naked and destitute.” There was only a “shadow” of government. Human misery abounded, and the war between Whigs and Tories was “savage.”

Within two months, he was contending with another eye infection. On March 5, 1781, he wrote to Col. Henry Lee, Jr.,

I am the most unfortunate of all Men, while I am distressed for want of officers, I am rendered incapable of business my self, by a violent inflammation in my eyes. I have been bleeding and physicking for several days to correct it, and in part have succeeded; but the inflammation is still troublesome and my eyes weak and painful.[22]

On March 18, Greene wrote to Washington from his camp near Guilford Courthouse:

The service here is extreme severe, tho the officers and soldiers bear it with a degree of patience, that does them the highest honor. I have never taken off my cloaths since I left the Pedee. I was taken with a fainting last night, owing I imagine to excessive fatigues, and constant watching. I am better to day, but far from being well.[23]

Greene wrote to Pennsylvania politician Joseph Reed the same day and reiterated what he told Washington, admitting, “We have little to eat, less to drink, and lodge in the woods in the midst of smoke. Indeed, our fatigue is excessive. I was so much overcome night before last that I fainted.”[24]

On April 16, 1783, at his headquarters in Charleston, South Carolina, Greene received notification that preliminary articles of peace had been signed between the United States and Great Britain. He issued final orders to his troops on June 21, and then left Charleston in a carriage bound for Philadelphia. On September 13, he recorded in his journal that they stopped at Mount Vernon and then set out for Alexandria. “That evening I was taken very ill with a fever, after my arrival, which lasted me, with very little remission and no intermission, eight days. The constancy of the fever and the excess of the pain reduced me very low.”[25]

Greene went home to his wife and children living in a rented house in Newport, Rhode Island. He took home with him a crushing debt of over £30,000 sterling, a guarantee he had signed in 1782 with a Charleston speculator to clothe his army when Congress was not forthcoming with the money needed to provision his Southern troops.

In April 1784 Greene received several letters from Washington protesting the decision that only one of the three Rhode Island delegates should go to Philadelphia to the May meeting of the Society of the Cincinnati because there was an “uproar” that the society did not meet the principals of Republicanism. Greene wrote that he “had the Honor of being appointed President of the Cincinnati of Rhode Island,” but begged off the trip to Philadelphia, including his predisposition toward seasickness among his reasons:

My indisposition is such I fear it will not be in my power to comply with your wishes if there was no other obstacle. I have a constant pain in my breast and am now so weak as to be incapable of bearing the fatigues of a Journey. Besides which the Doctor thinks it would be dangerous to go by water for fear I might burst a blood vessel as I am very subject to sea sickness and the Vessels of the stomach are exceedingly uncoated. And he thinks it equally dangerous to ride for fear of the same evil. My complaint arose from a strain I got in Providence last Winter in making a violent exertion to save my self from a fall.[26]

Later that year Greene went to Charleston to try to clear some of his debt. On August 29 he wrote to Washington again, explaining his difficulties and that “The clamour raised against the Cincinnati was far more extensive than I expected.”[27]

My ill health and the distressing situation of my private affairs for some time past has claimed too much of my Attention to afford me either time or inclination to attend to any thing else. At the time of the meeting of the Cincinnati in Philadelphia I had a dangerous and disagree[able] pain in my breast. It had hung about me then upwards of two months; but by the use of balsam of firr soon after I wrote you from Newport I got better of it.[28]

Greene petitioned Congress for indemnity in case of loss on August 22, 1785, just two months before he wrote his will and moved his family to Mulberry Grove on the Savannah River in Georgia. He died there on June 19, 1786, at age forty-three from sunstroke a week after walking a neighbor’s rice fields without a hat. His wife Caty inherited his debt. She filed an indemnity claim with Congress in 1791 and won with the help of Alexander Hamilton, Anthony Wayne and others who had served with her husband during the war.

On October 1, 1786, from his home in Hartford, Connecticut, Greene’s friend and business partner, Col. Jeremiah Wadsworth, wrote to Washington:

I am persuaded he was just before his death, or rather before he fell sick—in better Spirits than he had ever been before, since his arriveing with his family in Georgia—as he had good prospects of geting clear of his troubles with the crediters of Banks & Co. and a Contract with the French Nation for Timber was so nearly compleated as to promise him sufficient funds for all his other purposes. Mr Miller a Young Gentleman who went with him to Georgia & lived on terms of intimacy & confidence with him assures me the General was in good Spirits and that he is persuaded he died of a fever in the Head which might have been removed if the Physicians had understood his disorder he had for some time before had an inflamation in one Eye—which was almost done away, when he was Sezed at table with a Violent pain in his Eye & Head which forced him to retire, a fever ensued the Symptoms increased and a few days put an end to his existance.[29]

For all of his physical, emotional and mental suffering, Nathanael Greene never wavered in his determination “to defend my rights, and maintain my freedom, or sell my life in the attempt.” When giving up or crumbling under pressure may have been an easier route than forging ahead and forging a new nation, Greene did neither. Much gratitude is due the man they called “The Savior of the South,” who drove a British army out of the Carolinas and into Virginia where it surrendered at Yorktown. We owe it to remember this hero.

Sources

[1] George Washington Greene, The Life of Nathanael Greene, Major General in the Army of the Revolution Vol. 1 (New York: Hurd and Houghton. Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1890), 84.

[2] Ibid., 59.

[3] Ibid., 65.

[4] Ibid., 49-50.

[5] Ibid., 78.

[6] Ibid., 143.

[7] Ibid., 204.

[8] Henry Knox to John Adams, September 25, 1776,” https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-05-02-0021.

[9] Greene, The Life of Nathanael Greene, 438.

[10] Nathanael Greene to George Washington, January 1, 1778, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-13-02-0086.

[11] Greene, The Life of Nathanael Greene, 100.

[12] Ibid., 117.

[13] Ibid., 123.

[14] Greene to Washington, August 28–31, 1778, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-16-02-0439.

[15] Greene to Washington, April 24, 1779, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-20-02-0171.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Greene to Washington, July 27, 1780, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-27-02-0267.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Washington to Greene, August 15, 1780, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-27-02-0490.

[20] Jared Sparks, Correspondence of the American Revolution Vol. III (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1853), 116-117.

[21] Richard K. Showman, Dennis M. Conrad and Roger N. Parks, ed. The Papers of Nathanael Greene: Vol. VII (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), xi.

[22] Ibid., 395.

[23] Greene to Washington, October 25, 1781, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-07269.

[24] William B. Reed, Life and Correspondence of Joseph Reed (Philadelphia: Lindsay and Blakiston, 1847), 349-350.

[25] George Washington Greene, The Life of Nathanael Greene, Major General in the Army of the Revolution Vol. III (New York: Hurd and Houghton. Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1871), 508-509.

[26] Greene to Washington, April 22, 1784, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-01-02-0221.

[27] Greene to Washington, August 29, 1784, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-02-02-0056.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Jeremiah Wadsworth to Washington, October 1, 1786, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-04-02-0255.

 

 

Author: Salina B. Baker


Salina B. Baker is a multiple award-winning historical fiction author, presenter, and historian of the American Revolution. She has presented at events such as History Camp Boston and Valley Forge as well as Authors of the American Revolution Congress at Washington Crossing Historic Park, and Sons of the American Revolution/Daughters of the American Revolution chapters throughout Texas. She has been interviewed on podcasts such as Revolution 250 and American Revolution Podcast. Her latest published work is a biographical novel about Major General Nathanael Greene titled The Line of Splendor, A Novel of Nathanael Greene and the American Revolution.

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