Even though a person may appear to be “down and out” during a struggle, it is precisely at that moment when he or she should rise up and fight back. The determination to continue the fight demonstrates an inner strength and character that oftentimes ultimately leads to victory. In the early part of the American Revolution there was an American officer who, much like his commander, George Washington, refused to give up easily. He often personally led attacks against the British. One of these attacks came in the aftermath of one of America’s worst humiliations, yet the officer saw the battle as an important achievement in the long struggle for independence. He was Major General Nathanael Greene. This is the story of his participation in the daring attack aimed at the very heart of the British army at Germantown, Pennsylvania.
Nathanael Greene rose to national prominence while overcoming a number of obstacles in his path. He was born in August 1742 in Warwick, Rhode Island into a prominent family of Quaker foundry men. Despite being the third son, it was he that his father expected to manage the family’s enterprises like the iron forge used to make anchors. Working at the forge, Greene grew into a robust young man, but he frequently suffered from asthma attacks as well as from a limp in his right leg. His father’s unyielding beliefs prevented Nathanael from receiving a proper education, so he largely educated himself using works like Euclid and John Locke. He also read books dealing with the art of warfare. His interest in military affairs eventually forced him to leave the Quakers, who held fast to pacifist beliefs. As protests against Britain intensified, he joined the local militia as a private after initially being denied an officer’s commission due to his limp. He trained with the militia until word of Lexington and Concord reached him in April 1775. At that point he was appointed to the rank of major general in the Rhode Island militia and charged with leading the Rhode Island Army of Observation to Boston. In the coming years, he would repeatedly prove his fighting ability, even when the odds were stacked against him.
During the first two years of the American Revolution, Nathanael Greene gained George Washington’s trust with his aggressive, fearless leadership. After arriving in Boston, Greene engaged his troops in consistent training. Washington appreciated such professionalism and soon elevated Greene to brigadier general and then to major general in the Continental Army. Although Greene’s troops performed poorly in the battles around New York City, as shown by the loss of Fort Washington on Manhattan and Fort Lee in New Jersey, he personally led the attack that captured Trenton, New Jersey in December 1776. Then in January 1777, he again demonstrated conspicuous valor when he risked his life to rally withdrawing militiamen at Princeton, New Jersey. Nine months later, on September 11, 1777, it was he who led the rearguard action that allowed the American army to withdraw safely from Brandywine Creek. He then watched as the British captured the American capital of Philadelphia on September 26, 1777. Like George Washington, Greene wanted a chance to strike back at the British and to demonstrate that the American fighting spirit remained unyielding.
Nathanael Greene and the American army had retreated to a position nearly fifteen miles from the small village of Germantown, which was located only five miles from British-occupied Philadelphia. Due to the crisis, reinforcements from New York, New Jersey and Maryland had poured into camp and swelled the ranks of the American army to eleven thousand strong. On October 2, 1777, the Americans captured several British dispatches that revealed British General William Howe only had nine thousand soldiers in Germantown. It was clear that the Americans outnumbered the British, and if there was going to be an attack, it had to happen immediately. Greene and the other senior commanders all agreed that the time to attack had come. It would be a surprise, just like the attack on Trenton. The proposed attack would occur at dawn on the morning of October 4, 1777. Greene’s division, nearly five thousand strong, was the largest force in the attack and would be placed on the left end of the army. Greene had agreed that an attack was necessary to remind the British of the Americans’ resolve, but before he could do that, he and his men first had to fight their way through the Pennsylvania forest to the battlefield.
At 7 p.m. on the evening of October 3, 1777, Greene began the march, plagued with problems from the start. Many of the soldiers did not have shoes or any covering for their feet. In addition, Greene had to cover almost seventeen miles instead of the fifteen discussed by the officers. The entire journey had to be made in the dark over back roads so the British would not detect their approach. Greene had hired a local guide to direct his men, but the guide became disoriented and lost the way. After stumbling around for a time, the guide finally discovered the correct path and led Greene in the direction of Germantown. Instead of becoming discouraged, as some would have, Greene maintained his composure and quickened his advance towards the village, eventually making up a half hour of marching. Greene and his troops reached the outskirts of Germantown as the sun rose in the sky and as the noise of battle swept across the field.
As Green and his troops advanced toward the fighting, they were able to make out the musket and cannon shots coming from the vanguard of the American army’s assault. Greene later learned that the British had been taken by complete surprise and quickly withdrew from their camps as the Americans pursued them. Suddenly, a dense fog settled over the combatants, and the smoke from musket rounds lessened visibility even more. Greene caught the tail end of this pursuit as he deployed his men for battle. It appeared as if the American attack would be a success, just as Greene and the other commanders had hoped. Greene was so eager to join the fight that he barely noticed when a musket ball clipped a lock of hair off his head. The division surged forward, but some of Greene’s troops became disoriented in the fog and mistakenly fired on their fellow Americans. At the same time, other American units were bogged down firing on British troops who had taken up position in in a brick house. The British took advantage of the Americans’ distraction to regroup and launch a counterattack that slowly pushed the Americans out of Germantown. Greene and others reformed the soldiers before withdrawing twenty miles from the scene of the battle. Despite the defeat and the loss of eleven hundred men, Greene and the majority of the army saw the engagement at Germantown as a badly needed moral victory. They recognized that they had carried the battle to the enemy and had even succeeded in briefly driving the British soldiers out of their camps. Every officer and soldier in the army could take justifiable pride in that. Many officers and soldiers, including Greene, even saw the defeat as the result of bad luck rather than a problem with tactics. The high morale indicated that Greene and the American army were becoming a more professional lot.
Nathanael Greene understood what the fight at Germantown meant to the fighting spirit of the American army, and it gave him the determination to see the Revolution through to the end. Not long after Germantown, Greene was named the quartermaster general and set to work purchasing supplies for the army at Valley Forge. He served as quartermaster general for the next three years, even while serving as a battlefield commander in his native Rhode Island and in New Jersey. In late 1780, he was appointed by Washington to be the new commander of the Southern Department. For the next two years, he led the American army across North and South Carolina and Georgia in an effort to wear down his British pursuers. He periodically engaged them in fierce fights in the backcountry, such as at Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina. Of these fights, he famously said that the Americans would “fight, get beat, rise and fight again.” Although some of the battles were military defeats, they were strategically successful in eventually forcing the British to leave the backcountry, which bottled them up at their main base in Charleston, South Carolina. Finally, on December 14, 1782, the British boarded their ships and allowed Greene and his troops to proudly march into the city. When the war officially ended in 1783, Greene was one of only three general officers who had served continually throughout all eight years of it — George Washington and the American army’s artillery commander Henry Knox were the other two.
Sadly, Nathanael Greene did not live long after the American Revolution ended, but he remained a hero to the American public, especially in the South. He often travelled back and forth between Rhode Island and his plantations in the states of South Carolina and Georgia. On these trips, he observed how his family business in Rhode Island and other pieces of real estate he owned had been laid waste by the years of war. He eventually settled down on his Georgia plantation, called Mulberry Grove. He found himself deeply in debt and would spend the rest of life fighting to repay those debts. In mid-June 1786, Greene travelled to Savannah, Georgia for a meeting with one of his creditors. As he returned home to Mulberry Grove, he experienced a severe headache, which soon turned into a swelling of the forehead and a loss of consciousness. He died on June 19, 1786 at age forty-three with his old comrade, General “Mad” Anthony Wayne, at his bedside. He was buried in an unmarked vault in Savannah, Georgia, only to be recovered and reinterred in a public ceremony in 1901.
Nathanael Greene was one of those individuals who possessed a fierce desire to come back from whatever defeat he had been dealt. He did not allow himself or those around him to stay down long. He fought through personal and professional obstacles throughout his life. In the long and trying struggle for independence, he understood that it was important for the American soldiers to pick themselves up and continue to engage the enemy even when things looked bleak. He urged them to “rise and fight again.” Greene’s support for military action at Germantown, Pennsylvania showed that he never allowed himself or his men to believe they were out of the fight for good. His “never say die” attitude was the key to victory for the fledgling country that took on the mighty British Empire.