Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Greene's Greene

 In his new 900-age biography of George Washington, Ron Chernow describes another Revolutionary general, whose name adorns this county (and a dozen more around the United States) in these terms:       

Nathaniel Greene of Rhode Island was one of the first brigadier generals picked by Congress; having turned thirty-three that summer, he was the youngest general in the Continental Army.  Tall and solidly built with striking blue eyes, full lips, and a long straight nose, Greene had been reared in a pious Quaker household by a prosperous father who owned an iron forge, a sawmill and other businesses.   Discouraged from reading anything except the Bible, he had received little school and missed a college education as much as Washington.  “I lament the want of a liberal education,” he once wrote.  “I feel the mist [of] ignorance to surround me.”  To compensate for this failing he became adept at self-improvement and devoured authors both ancient and modern….
     After his father died in 1770, Greene inherited his business but was shadowed by mishaps.  Two years later one of the forges burned, and the following year he was banned from Quaker meetings, possibly because he patronized alehouses.  In 1774 Greene married the exceptionally pretty Catharine ‘Caty’ Littlefield, who was a dozen years younger and a preeminent belle of the Revolutionary era.  As relations with Great Britain soured that year, Greene struggled to become that walking contradiction, ‘a fighting Quaker,’ poring over military histories purchased in Henry Knox’s Boston bookstore.  At that point his knowledge of war derived entirely from reading.  Greene was an improbable candidate for military honors: handicapped by asthma, he walked with a limp, possibly from an early accident.  When he joined his Rhode Island militia, he was heartbroken to be rejected as an officer because his men thought his limp detracted from their military appearance….
    Nevertheless, within year, by dint of dawn-to-dusk work habits, Greene emerged as general of the Rhode Is;and Army of Observation, leading to his promotion by the Continental Congress.  Washington must have felt an instinctive sympathy for this young man restrained by handicaps and with a pretty and pregnant wife.  He also would have admired what Greene had done with the Rhode Island troops in Cambridge [MA.]—they lived in “proper tents…and looked like the regular camp of the enemy,” according to the Reverend William Emerson.
     Nathaniel Greene had other qualities that recommended him to the commander in chief.  Like Washington, he despised profanity, gambling, and excessive drinking among his men.  Like Washington, he was temperamental, hypersensitive to criticism, and chary of his reputation; and he craved recognition.  As he slept in dusty blankets, tormented by asthma throughout the war, he had a plucky dedication to his work and proved a battlefield general firmly in the Washington mold, exposing himself fearlessly to enemy fire.  Years later Washington described Greene as “a man of abilities, bravery and coolness.  He has a comprehensive knowledge of our affairs and is a man of fortitude and resources.”  Henry Knox paid tribute to his friend by saying that he “came to us the rawest, the most untutored being I ever met with” but within a year “was equal in military knowledge to any general officer in the army and even superior to most of them.”  This tactful man, with his tremendous political intuitions, wound up as George Washington’s favorite general.  When Washington was later asked who should replace him in case of an accident, he replied unhesitatingly, “General Greene.” 
  --Washington. A Life.  NY: Penguin Press, 2010, p. 202.

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