Nathanael Greene and the Revolution's Southern Front

Nathanael Greene and the Revolution's Southern Front

It is easy to overlook the importance of the Southern Department in the Revolutionary War.  George Washington spent most of the war fighting in the North; Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  The Battle of Yorktown, which ended the war, was ‘only’ as far south as Virginia.  However, since almost half the population of colonial America lived in the South the fighting there was just as important .

Early Experience

After a series of Generals had substantial losses in the South, the Continental Congress left the decision to appoint a new leader to George Washington.  Washington instantly appointed Nathanael Greene.

Greene, a former Quaker who’d been expelled for disobeying their pacifist ways, already had a large amount of experience in the war.

He’d served during the Siege of Boston, after which Washington put him in charge of the city.  He helped fortify before the Battle of Long Island, though he fell ill and did not participate in the action.

Greene was then given charge of a series of Forts.  

As a Major General, Greene was in command of large numbers of troops in the Battles of Trenton, Brandywine and Germantown.  Additionally, he joined the Marquis de Lafayette in the failed Battle of Rhode Island (his hometown).  

Furthermore, Greene was asked to be Quartermaster General of the Continental Army at Valley Forge.  Although this position typically did not take the field, he accepted on the promise that he could once again lead troops when they left winter quarters.

Southern Commander

Greene took charge of the Southern Department in December of 1780.  In this office, he was second in command of the Continental Army.

The first thing Greene did was split his Army in half, forcing British General Cornwallis to do the same.

Shortly thereafter, Greene’s men won strategic battles at Kings Mountain and Cowpens.

He followed this up with a retreat across North Carolina.  Although the British followed, Greene had boats waiting at the Dan River which they used to cross into Virginia.  Retreating may sound synonymous with running away, but as a military tactic it worked well and was actually quite an accomplishment considering the distance covered.

When reinforcements arrived, Greene went back across the river and proceeded to engage the British.  Most of the battles were losses, however, Greene forced Cornwallis to take heavy casualties for seemingly minor advantages.

After the Battles of Guilford Courthouse and Eutaw Springs, Greene’s Southern Department had Cornwallis cornered in Charleston.  Six weeks later, Washington and the rest of the Continental Army found Victory at Yorktown and the war was won.


Although there are many other Generals who overshadow Nathanael Greene in the annals of American Revolutionary History, his importance is hard to understate.  Without his success where so many others had failed, the United States simply would not have won the war.

Greene turned down offers to from the Confederation Congress to be Secretary of War.  Along with Washington and Henry Knox, he was the only General to serve for the entire duration of the American Revolutionary War.  

Greene moved from Rhode Island to Georgia, where he lived on land given to him by the State as thanks for his leadership.  Unfortunately, this may have been his undoing as the following year, at the young age of 43, Nathanael Greene died suddenly of heatstroke.  

It is impossible to know what role he may have had under the soon-to-be-written Constitution, but one thing is for sure: the liberty of the United States of America rests on Major General Nathanael Greene’s shoulders.


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