The Financial Ruin of an American Legend

The Financial Ruin of an American Legend

Nathanael Greene was the most important Major General in the Southern Theater of the Revolutionary War.

Unfortunately, while awaiting a treaty of peace with Great Britain, Greene was forced to take out loans in his own name in order to feed and clothe his men.

This left him heavily in debt for the remainder of his life. Here is how it happened:

Post War Southern Department

A year after the Victory at Yorktown, a large portion of the Continental Army was still active in the Southern Department.

Led by Major General Nathanael Greene, these soldiers were stationed in Charleston and awaiting an official peace to end the Revolutionary War.

Supplies were very low and the men were preparing to mutiny just to feed and clothe themselves. 

Something had to be done.

Bills of Credit

Greene had previously been authorized by Secretary of Treasury Robert Morris to issue bills of credit on his behalf. This essentially meant Greene could take out loans which would be repaid by the Continental Congress.

Unfortunately, the Continental bills of credit were decreasing in value every day. This turned most Charleston merchants away from contracting with the military.

The only person who was willing to make a deal was John Banks.

John Banks

John Banks was a local trader who accepted an agreement to supply Greene’s soldiers, though it was at the incredibly high rate of 11%.

Now, to be fair to Banks, he was taking a huge risk of not being paid which is why his rates were so high.

John quickly sent food and clothing to the Continental Army which saved the Southern Department from falling apart in the final months of the war.


Nathanael Greene signed his own name to the bills of credit, making him responsible. He did this assuming Robert Morris would honor his word and pay back the loans.

This is where things become a bit murky.

Greene contacted Morris about the debts...and a year later John Banks passed away.

Somehow, the bills were never paid to Banks’ company. 

Perhaps Banks had the money on his person but not labeled it for the company. Perhaps Morris never paid Banks at all (which may have been because the Continental Congress was as good as broke or because there were false rumors spreading that Greene was using public funds to start a private business with Banks).

Greene’s Debt

For whatever reason, the money was never reimbursed.

Greene seems to have been oblivious to this, as he returned home with no concerns.

When the outstanding debt was brought to his attention, Greene did everything he could to zero them out.

He sold all the properties he owned in Rhode Island and moved to land he was granted by the South Carolina Government.

Three years later, Nathanael gave up and asked for assistance from the Continental Congress, seeing as they were the ones responsible for the Army’s finances in the first place.

Sadly, Greene died of sunstroke shortly thereafter while still in his early 40’s. His estate would not be resolved until several years later when Alexander Hamilton assisted Greene’s widow with a petition to Congress.

This article was much easier to make objective after reading The Vindication of John Banks.

This essay was written by his brother and can be read for FREE here.

Here are some more stories from the Southern Department of the Revolutionary War:

The Swamp Fox - Francis Marion’s Alter Ego

Robert Howe Fights with The South About How to Fight in the South

Benjamin Lincoln Accepts The British Surrender

Nathanael Greene is easily one of the most underrated American Founders. Without him, the Revolutionary War simply would not have been won at Yorktown.

‘Washington’s Genera’ is my favorite biography of Greene and it is an absolute must read for anyone who wants to understand the man who led the Continental Army to Victory.

If you’d like a copy you can get one through the Amazon affiliate link below (you’ll support this site, but don’t worry, Amazon pays me while your price stays the same).

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