Nathanael Greene remembered on his 275th birthday
About 30 people gathered on the lawn of the Nathanael Greene Homestead in Coventry to pay respect to the Warwick-born historical icon who progressed from an unknown militia private in the Kentish Guards into the youngest Major General in the Continental Army – personally recommended by George Washington.
The event was part of Greene’s 275th birthday celebration – which happened on August 7 or July 27, 1742 depending on whether you use old or new dating formats – and featured former Providence Journal staff writer, Gerald “Ged” Carbone, retelling some of Greene’s incredible civilian and military accomplishments.
Born at the Forge Grist Mill in the village of Potowomut in the summer of 1742, Greene and his brothers were raised to be ironworkers by their strict father. Successful in their trade, Nathanael was sent to preside over the newly established second forge located in Coventry, the operations of which helped support over 100 families who lived nearby.
Carbone’s research showed how personal letters revealed that Nathanael Greene was more concerned with the unrequited love of a woman he fancied in Westerly in the years leading up to the American Revolution than he was about a possible war. However Greene eventually came around to the inevitability of conflict and enlisted in the Kentish Guard – a Rhode Island militia based in East Greenwich – ready to fight for revolution.
Once word had reached him of a British attack that had occurred at Lexington, he rode to East Greenwich to assemble with other members of the Kentish Guard and then rode on to Boston. Despite once being told he was unfit to be an officer in the militia, Greene was ultimately chosen to become the General of the Army of Observation. Soon after, he was appointed to be the youngest brigadier general in the Continental Army by the Continental Congress.
“Without Nathanael Greene, you can arguably say that there’s no United States of America,” said Carbone, referring to the series of military victories that resulted from Greene’s leadership during the American Revolution. Carbone challenged anyone to find another figure in the Revolution who was more strategic or successful on the battlefield, and ranked him with certainty above General George Washington in terms of military prowess.
Carbone spoke briefly about Greene’s success in the Southern campaign of the war where, despite being outmanned some 9,000 to 800 by the British (led by the decorated General Charles Cornwallis), he managed to drive them out of their strongholds in Georgia and most of South Carolina into a trap in Virginia using not much besides his skills as a strategist.
“That could be another 45-minute talk alone,” Carbone said of the campaign. “If there’s no Nathanael Greene, then certainly the South would look different.”
By the end of the war, Greene was well established as one of Washington’s most trusted officers. Greene went from the lowest possible rank – a private in a militia – to essentially becoming second-in-command of the entire Continental Army for the Southern Campaign. He presided over the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, the first military unit in the United States that allowed the enlistment and eventual emancipation of enslaved soldiers.
Where did Greene, an ironmaster with no formal education, learn the skills necessary to become such a revolutionarily powerful military commander, who eventually outwitted a trained military commander in the likes of General Conrwallis, pondered Carbone? “Right here,” he said, pointing down to the soil of the Nathanael Greene Homestead. “That’s why this place matters.”
While presiding over the forge, Carbone talked about how Carbone needed to become well-versed in how supplies were shipped from place to place, and how to maneuver politics and people. He needed to deal with many serious and time-sensitive crises during his time in Coventry, most prominently when the forge burned down in 1772.
These lessons taught him to always be prepared, Carbone said, which came in handy when the Continental Army had to retreat across New Jersey in 1775. The retreat was successful due to well-stocked supply depots that Greene had created across the state.
However, perhaps some of Greene’s military brilliance was simply a result of inherent intelligence.
Thomas Casey Greene Jr. – a descendant of General Greene’s brother, Christopher, who still lives in a first-period house in Potowomut where Greene once lived – told a story that had been handed down in his family about how Greene once lined his pants with tree bark in advance of what he knew would be a whipping from his father.
“It seems he was always a cunning strategist,” Greene Jr. said.