Then and Now

General Nathanael Greene Jr., the 'Blacksmith'


In 1770, Nathanael Greene Jr., one of America's greatest Revolutionary War generals, wrote to his friend, Samuel Ward: “I compare a Country Life to a Clear Sky and a Serene air, for there and there only it's to be enjoyed and which alone can Qualify our minds properly for speculation, for here nature seems to move Gently-on undisturbed with noise and tumult, and here we may Contemplate the beauty and order of the Creation...”

For a while it seemed as though Nathanael would be able to enjoy this "serenity" he spoke of, for he had been sent by his father to supervise the family's iron works and to build a home in what was then the very sparsely populated area of Coventry. He was a part of the very important, dynamic and enterprising Greene family that controlled a tremendous amount of land in what is today Warwick, West Warwick and Coventry.

Nathanael was fifth in descent from John Greene, the surgeon, who was one of the original purchasers of Shawomet. Nathanael Greene Jr. was born in the Potowomut section of Warwick in 1742. At that time his father, Nathanael, a very successful Quaker blacksmith, expanded his interests to Coventry. He was instrumental in having the town separated from Warwick in 1741 and had obtained rights on the Pawtuxet River to establish a grist mill, a saw mill and a forge. The area (today part of Anthony and Quidneck) was called Greenville because of the mills there. The industry grew rapidly, and by 1770 the elder Nathanael decided to have one of his eight sons, Nathanael Jr., move to Coventry to supervise the work at the triple-hammer forge, which was becoming the family's main enterprise.

Nathanael and his brothers met the challenges of the business and, in spite of some major setbacks, prospered. The forge produced anchors, which were carried by ox-cart to Apponaug, where they were then shipped out to Newport and on to the Caribbean. The many enterprises of the six Greene brothers were carried out under different names. In addition to the iron mills, which employed over 20 heads of households, they conducted a retail sales and shipping business with the powerful Brown family of Providence. When the eight-gun British revenue schooner Gaspee stopped the Fortune, a sloop owned by the Greenes, and seized 12 hogsheads of rum and some sugar, a loud cry was sent up by Nathanael Greene in protest. He demanded that the Gaspee's captain, Lt. William Dudingston, appear in Kent County to answer charges.

Shortly after this episode, the Gaspee was burned. We know today that this action, which took place in June l772, was instigated by John Brown, and the man in charge of the burning was Captain Abraham Whipple. Dudingston, for a time, was convinced that it was Nathanael Greene who led the attack, especially as Whipple identified himself as the "sheriff of the county of Kent...I have got a warrant to apprehend you..." Neither Greene nor anyone else of importance was ever arrested for this first act of violence in the Revolution.

Along with the losses sustained on the Fortune, the Greenes suffered another economic setback when the Iron Works at Coventry was totally leveled by fire in 1772 and had to be rebuilt. By 1774 Greene had managed to overcome these setbacks and complete his homestead.

It was also in 1774 that Nathanael Greene married Catherine Littlefield of New Shoreham and brought her to live in his new home. In that same year he became a member of the Kentish Guards of East Greenwich and started his distinguished military career. The decision to join the Guards was a difficult one, as Nathanael had been raised by a strict Quaker father with strong anti-military views, but he believed that war was inevitable and that he had a duty to perform. While he had no formal military training, Greene devoted a great deal of time to the study of the science of war and took an active part in the actions of the Kentish Guards. Because of this he was "read out of the meeting" by the Quakers.

On the 19th of April 1775, the inevitable clash between the Americans and the British took place at Lexington and Concord, Mass. Immediately after he received the news, Greene reported to the Kentish Guards. The Rhode Island General Assembly created the Army of Observation consisting of a brigade of 1,500 men and appointed Nathanael Greene as brigadier general. He was ordered to "visit, expel, kill and destroy...a Common Enemy.…"

In a very short time, Greene's outstanding abilities in organizing and handling men, his command of military strategy, and his devotion to the American cause, prompted George Washington to add him to his staff. It would be close to impossible to exaggerate the major role played by Greene in the Revolutionary War. He was with Washington in the Middle Colony campaign. He performed brilliantly at Trenton in the victory over the Hessians on Christmas Day, 1776. He played an important role in the fighting at Brandywine, Germantown and Monmouth. When all looked hopeless at Valley Forge, Washington turned to Greene to become his quartermaster general. This was one task that Greene didn't want. He insisted that he was a "fighting general" and especially wanted to return to Rhode Island to drive the British from Newport.

General Washington's need and Greene's own sense of patriotism won out. Greene did a masterful job of finding food and supplies when seemingly there were none. To pay for this, he was willing to risk his Coventry holdings to raise money. Greene was able to return to his home for a short while and distinguished himself there by playing a key role in the Battle of Rhode Island in August 1778.

General Greene would have preferred to remain at his homestead in Coventry after the Battle of Rhode Island. He was reluctant to leave his beautiful wife, Catherine, and his small children. Within the next few years the commitment that he made to the "patriot" cause in the Revolutionary War was to lead him over 1,000 miles from home.

The Coventry general's major contribution took place in the campaign in the south. When General Gates proved inadequate to the task of driving the British from South Carolina and Georgia, the command fell to Greene. Most often his army was vastly outnumbered by the British. Greene would feign a retreat, drawing the enemy away from their strongholds. When the British tired of the pursuit and their lines were lengthened and weakened, Greene would attack and inflict heavy casualties on them. The American's strategy was successful. As the British losses mounted far in excess of the Americans they began to grow weary of war. Greene's campaign was the key to the British move to Yorktown and their defeat there, which ended the war.

Philip Freneu, often called the poet of the Revolution, made these comments about Greene's 178l victory at Eutaw Spring, South Carolina.

"…Led by the conquering genius, Greene, The Britons they compelled to fly, None distant viewed the- fatal plain, None grieved in such a cause to die."

During the war years, Catherine Littlefield Greene converted the homestead into a convalescing hospital for officers who had been vaccinated against smallpox.

Wherever and whenever possible, she joined her husband. The vivacious “Kitty” was always welcome whenever there was a break in the fighting. General Washington found her to be an excellent dancer and on more than one occasion danced with her for hours. The attachment of the Greene and Washington families was evident in that the Greenes named a son and daughter after the commander-in-chief and his wife. Among the many lifelong friends the Greenes made during this period were General "Mad" Anthony Wayne and the Marquis de Lafayette.

As the campaign in the south increased in intensity, Catherine reluctantly returned to Coventry to await her husband. In 1783 the Revolutionary War ended and the "Blacksmith" General was able to return home. He received a hero's welcome all along his 800-mile journey to Rhode Island.

Unfortunately, the crowds and the cheers of a grateful nation did little to get the general out of the debts he accrued as a result of the war. The years that followed the American Independence were not happy ones for the general because of his finances. Congress owed him a considerable amount of money in back wages, but were very slow in paying. As a result, Nathanael Greene felt compelled to sell out his holdings in Rhode Island. He accepted a gift from the State of Georgia of a 200-acre plantation at Mulberry Grove, near Savannah.

The Greenes hoped for financial success through the growing of cotton, but a series of unfortunate events made that impossible. On a hot, summer day in 1786, Nathanael Greene, the "Blacksmith" general from Rhode Island suffered a severe stroke and died. He was 44 years of age. His children and his young widow, Catherine, had a long, hard struggle financially in the years that followed.

The price of cotton wasn't high enough to meet the expense of keeping slaves. The process of removing the seed from the cotton by hand was so time-consuming that Catherine nearly sold the plantation.

In spite of all her difficulties, Mrs. Greene was kindhearted enough to allow a young schoolteacher to live on the plantation while he was seeking a tutorial position. He was Eli Whitney. According to the often told story, Mrs. Greene, exasperated by the slow progress of removing the cotton seed, supposedly said to Whitney, "Eli, you're so smart you can fix clocks. Why can't you make a machine to separate cotton?" The result was the cotton gin, which revolutionized the industry. Even this remarkable invention was not enough to ease the financial burdens for it was so simple that it was easily copied.

When Catherine left Coventry in 1783, the house and property was purchased by the General's brother, Jacob. The homestead remained in the Greene family for 125 years until the death of Mrs. Elizabeth Margaret (Greene) Warner in 1899.

Twenty years later, the Nathanael Greene Homestead Association, Inc. purchased the property and began the task of repairing and restoring the historic home. Today, it stands at Taft Street in Coventry as an excellent visual reminder of the contributions of Nathanael and Catherine L. Greene.


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