Anyone who studies history soon finds herself picking favorites. I have several from the Revolutionary Era, but none draws my admiration quite so much as General Nathanael Greene, who was given command of the Continental Army after the debacle of Camden under Horatio Gates. (See also my article Heroes, Rogues, and Villains.)
The first thing I found fascinating was Greene’s background. Sometimes dubbed the Fighting Quaker, he came from a family who were considered pillars of the community in Rhode Island. Nathanael himself always tended to be very un-Quaker-like in his craving for classical learning even while he applied himself to learning a trade. Later, this turned to interest in military matters—strictly forbidden in Quaker pacifist beliefs— and an involvement in his local militia. Both he and his brother were expelled from Meeting after their attendance of a military parade.
His famed sensibility and wisdom led to his being elected to the Rhode Island General Assembly, and later being appointed as Major General and then Quartermaster-General of the Continental Army. Greene was rather deprecating about the position, preferring a more active role and stating that no one in history ever distinguished themselves as quartermaster, but he applied himself with remarkable dedication and the same conscientiousness he gave everything else. It was his job, then, to feed and provide for the starving troops that terrible winter in Valley Forge, and their survival was likely to his credit.
After the disaster at the Battle of Camden, Washington hand picked Greene to succeed Horatio Gates as general of the Continental Army in the South. He not only scraped together the ragtag army, patiently but relentlessly trained the militia to withstand fire in battle, but also drew from his personal funds to feed and clothe them. His determination paid off, and the Continental Army once more became a force to be reckoned with, winning few actual battles but costing the British so much that they were forced to retreat time after time from what should have been a technical win. The most notable example of this was the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, where a full third of Cornwallis’s forces were killed, and by some accounts up to half of his officers.
Just a month or so before Guilford Courthouse comes one of my favorite accounts of Greene:
In the morning Cornwallis brought up the rest of his command and had a full view of Greene’s camp across the river. Cornwallis had his cannon brought up and began firing into the camp. The only target they could hit was a cabin where Greene had set up his headquarters. The round shot splintered the walls and shingles, but did no real damage. During the cannonade Greene calmly sat inside the cabin and wrote orders. (Patrick O’Kelley, Nothing But Blood and Slaughter Vol. 3)
The next thing that caught my imagination, after the calm determination that made him such a favorite of George Washington, was the scandalous love he held for his young wife, Catharine (also known as Caty) ... but more on that, and her, next time.