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Historical Introduction
Nathanael Greene

Nathanael Greene (1742-1786) was born into a Rhode Island Quaker family. His father did not believe strongly in formal schooling, so at an early age Nathanael stopped attending school and apprenticed in the family's anchor-making business. A voracious reader, Greene made friends with many important Rhode Islanders and was elected to the state's legislature. When the Revolutionary war broke out, Greene, surprisingly, was appointed to command the Rhode Island troops besieging Boston in May 1775, thus becoming the youngest general in the Continental Army. Appointed a major general in 1776, he commanded troops in several important battles in 1776-77, performing so well that he soon became George Washington's key advisor. At Washington's behest, Greene served as Quartermaster General from 1778 until 1780, when he resigned in protest of congressionally mandated changes as to how the department was staffed and run. In October 1780, he was named commander of the Southern Department, which included states from Georgia to Pennsylvania. When he arrived in the South, the British virtually controlled South Carolina and Georgia, were poised to overrun North Carolina, and faced a Continental Army that bordered on dissolution. Greene reversed that situation in less than a year and by December 1781 had confined the area of British control to the immediate environs of Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga. Greene remained commander in the South until war's end, the only one of Washington's original generals to serve the duration of the war. He settled in Georgia after the war on a plantation, Mulberry Grove, given him in recognition of his service to that state. Stricken by heat stroke, he died on 19 June 1786.

On 8 August 1786, the Continental Congress passed a resolution committing itself to erect a monument to the memory of Greene, who had died two months earlier at the age of forty-three. With the publication of The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, the nation is finally making good on this resolution of Congress, mandating a monument to Greene. Begun in 1971, the Papers project is a multi-volume edition of the correspondence of Greene, drawn from more than 100 repositories in numerous states and abroad. These documents have important national significance as a complete first-person account of the American Revolution, expressed in the words of some of the nation's most noted patriots. The Greene Papers contain numerous military orders, petitions, court martials, and general military, business, and personal correspondence--including Nathanael Greene's letters to his wife, Catharine Littlefield Greene, and his brothers. Also to be found are letters from all the presidents of the Continental Congress, the Board of War, almost all the state governors, and most of the major generals of the Continental Army, as well as men of lesser rank who served under Greene and from women whose lives were profoundly affected by the tolls of the war. Greene's correspondence with George Washington alone constitutes well over 600 documents.

Greene himself was aware of the significance of his letters to the history of his newly independent nation. During the last months of the war, he assembled his surviving documents in some order and filled two trunks with some 6,000 documents of a personal and official nature. He was concerned that Congress should have copies of the papers, and on his return to his native Rhode Island in 1783, he stopped at Princeton, where Congress was in session, and wrote about the significance of these materials in a letter to President Elias Boudinot, on 1 November,

"The letters and miscellaneous papers containing a history of the most material parts of the Southern operations may contain some things which Congress or their officers may hereafter have occasion to refer to. Loose files are easily disordered and where recourse is often had to them papers often get lost.

If Congress should think it an object worthy the expence and would indulge my wishes, I should be glad to get the whole papers transcribed into bound books. Having taken the liberty of suggesting my wishes I shall be happy to take the trouble of directing the business if Congress will be at the expence of a Clerk to do the writing."

On the same day, Congress ordered Secretary Charles Thomson to furnish Greene with a clerk. In 1785 Greene hired Phineas Miller, a young Yale graduate, to tutor his children and transcribe his papers. At the time of Greene's death in June 1786, Miller had barely started copying the documents.


 

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