The Papers of General Nathanael Greene

About the Papers of General Nathanael Greene

Nathanael Greene was the Revolutionary War general responsible for recapturing the lower South from British control. He is considered by most to be the best strategist of the American Revolution and one of the greatest military minds the United States has ever produced. The Greene Papers Project, which has been in existence since 1971, is publishing the nearly 10,000 letters and orders written by and to Nathanael Greene. To date, there are nine letterpress volumes published by the University of North Carolina Press. When completed the project will have produced thirteen volumes, most dealing with Greene's military career.
For more information about the Greene Papers, contact:

Dr. Dennis M. Conrad

Editor and Project Director

The Nathanael Greene Papers

Rhode Island Historical Society

110 Benevolent Street

Providence, RI 02906

phone: 401-331-8578


Historical Introduction

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 was, surprisingly, appointed to command the Rhode Island troops besieging Boston in May 1775, making him the youngest general in the Continental Army. Appointed a major general in 1776, he commanded troops in several important battles in 1776-7, performing so well that he soon became George Washington's key advisor. At Washington's behest, Greene became Quartermaster General from 1778 until 1780 when he resigned in protest of congressionally mandated changes in 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 there 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.
In 1971, Albert T. Klyberg, then and now the director of the Rhode Island Historical Society, proposed the publication of a letterpress edition of Greene's papers, the "bound books" of correspondence whose creation Nathanael Greene had desired and Congress had endorsed. The William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan, holder of the largest collection of the papers, co-sponsored the proposed project. In March 1972, Richard K. Showman, who had been the assistant editor of the revised edition of the Harvard Guide to American History, was chosen as editor. Editorial offices were established at the headquarters of the Rhode Island Historical Society. Showman headed the project until his retirement in 1993, when he was succeeded as editor by Dr. Dennis Conrad, a specialist in Greene's Southern campaigns, who had been with the project since 1983.

Race to the Dan: The Greene Mini-Edition

The documents contained in this sample comprise the critical period of Greene's campaign in the South—19 January 1781 through 15 February 1781. Starting with the battle of Cowpens, a pivotal battle in the war in the South, they highlight what has become known as the "Race to the Dan" as the British general, Lord Cornwallis, used all his resources to attempt to overtake and destroy Greene's army as the Americans retreated across the Dan River toward safety and succor in Virginia. This American retreat, which extended across the breadth of North Carolina, is considered one of the masterful military achievements of all time and set the stage for the battle of Guilford Court House, which severely weakened British power in the South, led Cornwallis to abandon the lower South, and set the stage for Greene's recapture of South Carolina and Georgia.

The Purpose of the Mini-Edition

In the letterpress editions of the Greene Papers, space limitations force the editors to present abstracts of 60% of the documents. In this electronic edition, the abstracted documents, including the annotations done by the editors for the letterpress edition will have a hypertext link to the full transcripts of these abstracted documents. They are also linked to the index, which will allow the user to utilize the extensive, analytical index of the letterpress edition to find people, places, ideas, or events that a key word search might miss. There will also be links between place names mentioned in the text to the maps in which they are displayed. These maps are the best available maps of the Revolutionary South and have been hailed as an important contribution to scholarship.
The possibility of linking the Greene Papers to the papers of other Revolutionary generation figures so that a user could search across projects for a person, place, idea, or event is the most exciting possibility. This sample is the first step in the construction of such a network, which would be a real boon to scholars, students, and interested lay persons.
The Greene Papers welcomes feedback on the usefulness of this sample by interested users. As this sample is just a model in a proposed system of document delivery on the Internet, this is a perfect opportunity for input on whether the sample, as it is designed, is accessible and useful to viewers.