My Common Ancestor with General Nathanael Greene

General Nathanael Greene

Nathanael Greene // Charles Willson Peale, 1783

A few days ago, I shared the story of my Beals ancestors’ involvement in the aftermath of the Battle of New Garden during the Revolutionary War. Thomas and Sarah (Antrim) Beals–both prominent Quakers in North Carolina–adhered to a strictly-pacifist interpretation of the Christian faith, but after the fighting had ended, the Beals family re-opened the Meeting House at New Garden as a hospital and cared for the wounded soldiers on both sides of the conflict. One of the military leaders who featured prominently in the Battles of New Garden and nearby Guilford Courthouse was British General Charles Cornwallis. The other? American General Nathanael Greene.

Nathanael Greene was born on August 7, 1742 at Forge Farm in Warwick, Rhode Island to Nathanael Greene–a prosperous Quaker merchant and farmer–and Mary Mott. Greene’s father discouraged book learning–citing religious reasons–but he convinced his father to hire a tutor, and he studied mathematics, the classics, law and various works of the Enlightenment from a young age. After he moved to Coventry in 1770 and built Spell Hall, he began to assemble an extensive library–including military histories by Caesar, Frederick the Great and Maurice de Saxe–that further display his love of learning.

In the aftermath of the French and Indian War–a conflict that pitted the British colonies in America against the colonies of New France, each side aided by military units from their “parent country” and other allies–the British began imposing new policies designed to raise revenue from the colonies, including the Intolerable Acts. Greene had been distancing himself from his parents’ Quaker faith–and, by extension, from their commitment to pacifism–for a few years, and he was officially suspended from Quaker meetings in July of 1773. Greene organized the Kentish Guards–a local militia–in 1774 in reaction to the Intolerable Acts, permanently separating himself from the Quaker church.

Postage stamp featuring George Washington & Nathanael Greene, 1936

The Revolutionary War broke out in April of 1775 at the Battles of Lexington and Concord (remember the “shot heard round the world” from history class?), and the Second Continental Congress appointed Greene as a brigadier general in the Continental Army due to his military acumen and promise. And Greene proved to be an able commander: he took command of the city of Boston after the British retreat in 1776; he led troops to victory at the Battles of Trenton and Princeton; and he turned the tide of war in the Patriots’ favor as the eventual commander of the southern theater. After the British defeat at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, Cornwallis’ army withdrew to Wilmington, and Greene turned south to reconquer parts of South Carolina; this move isolated the British on the coast and, most importantly, forced them out of the south (and later, into surrender).

Russell Weigley, a military historian and distinguished professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, argued that “Greene’s outstanding characteristic as a strategist was his ability to weave the maraudings of partisan raiders into a coherent pattern, coordinating them with the maneuvers of a field army otherwise too weak to accomplish much, and making the combination a deadly one…[He] remains alone as an American master developing a strategy of unconventional war.” Greene befriended General Henry Knox, struck up a correspondence with John Adams and earned the trust of George Washington in battle; it’s no wonder that he was “regarded by peers and historians as the second-best American general in the Revolutionary War, second only to Washington.”

“Monument to General Nathanael Greene of the Continental Army, Hero of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse” // Francis Herman Packer, 1915

Our Common Ancestor

While compiling my Beals ancestors’ story a few weeks ago–and attempting to write the most-detailed description of their involvement in the Battles of New Garden and Guilford Courthouse as possible, based on the available records–the Greene surname caught my eye. I’m a Greene-of-sorts (well, a descendant of an Anne Greene from Coventry, Rhode Island, to be more specific), and I took a detour from my research to figure out if Anne and Nathanael were even distantly related. And, as it turns out, they were: Anne’s father, Caleb Greene, was Nathanael Greene’s third cousin. Their common ancestor? John “The Surgeon” Greene of Providence and Warwick, Rhode Island.

The earliest record of John Greene in England–to my knowledge so far–is his marriage record: John married Joan Tattersall at St. Thomas in 1619, and he worked as a surgeon in nearby Salisbury. On April 6, 1635, John, Joan and their children boarded the ship James at Southampton, England and sailed to New England, arriving in Boston on June 3 and residing in Salem for a few months. John was consistently resistant to the Puritan authority of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and he moved to Providence, Rhode Island with Roger Williams within a year or two of his arrival in New England. In 1638, John was one of the twelve settlers to whom land was deeded by Roger Williams, making him one of the twelve original proprietors of Providence–which remains the capital of Rhode Island to this day.

Unloading the ship James at Savannah, 1733

John Greene–like his descendant, Nathanael Greene, over a century later–was committed to public service and challenging the status quo; I guess that’s where Nathanael got his fight. After removing to Providence, John wrote a series is disparaging letters that criticized the rules and magistrates of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and he later challenged the colony for wrongful charges of fraud and banishment. John served in various public capacities–on the Warwick town council from 1647 to 1648, as the Warwick Deputy to the Rhode Island General Court from 1649 to 1657 and as the magistrate for the Rhode Island General Court of Trials in 1656–and many of his children devoted their lives to public office, as well.

And that’s my long-ago connection to Nathanael Greene: if you follow my family tree from Fern to Milton and through the series of Methodist circuit riders on my father’s side–all the way back to Captain Peter Cook, my DAR ancestor–you’ll find the Greene’s. A distant connection–a very, very distant connection–I know. But it’s starting to seem as though, in so many ways, the Greene’s story is intricately tied with the stories I would read about in my history textbooks in school, about the founding of the United States of America; indeed, it’s starting to seem as though the Greene’s have quite the story to tell.

13 thoughts on “My Common Ancestor with General Nathanael Greene

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