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Nathanael Greene Letters

Identifier: MSS 0001

Scope and Contents

The 173 letters in this collection were typed in September, 1945 from microfilm of the Bancroft Transcript of the Nathanael Greene Letter Book owned by the New York Public Library. The microfilm was obtained by Charles S. Marshall of the National Park Service, and a letter from Marshall written at Guilford Courthouse National Military Park and dated September 20, 1945 states that the generosity of the Woman's College (now UNCG) Library enabled him to complete its transcription.

The letters were written in January and February of 1781, in the months immediately preceding the Battle of Guilford Court House on March 15. It is obvious from many of these letters that Greene was appalled by the state of the army in the South. In a long letter to North Carolina Governor Abner Nash dated January 7, 1781, Greene details the present condition of the army and its needs: "Unless the men are clothed, armed and properly equipped, numbers do but add to the distress of an army. And never was there a more convincing proof of the truth of this proposition, than can be exhibited from the state of our troops at this time; more than one half of whom, are unfit for any kind of duty; hundreds being without shirts, shoes, stockings, or any other clothing, either to render them decent in their appearance, or to secure them from the weather". One of the main problems Greene faced during these months was equipping the soldiers properly and obtaining food supplies. Greene speaks frankly in his January 13, 1781 letter to General Washington: "It is true, I came to the Southward in expectation of meeting with difficulties, but they far exceed, what I had any idea of. This Country is so extensive and supplies are so difficult to obtain, that it is impossible to carry on the war, any great length of time with the militia. The waste of Stores and consumption of provisions and forage, must ruin any nation in the Universe, whose resource is not greater than ours."

Still, there are victories against the enemy, as Greene's January 23, 1781 letter to General Francis "Swamp Fox" Marion reports: "On the 17th at daybreak, the enemy consisting of 1150 British troops and 50 Militia, attacked General Morgan, who was at the Cowpens between Pascolet [sic] and Broad river, with 290 Infantry, 80 Cavalry and about 500 Militia. The action lasted about 50 minutes; our brave troops charged the enemy with bayonets, and entirely routed them, killing near 150, wounding upwards of 200 and taking more than 500 prisoners..."

Letters become more frequent in February of 1781, as Cornwallis gives chase to the withdrawing Continental troops. A letter to the "commanding officer of the Guilford Militia" dated February 5, 1781 reports that Cornwallis is moving with "great rapidity" and making preparations to cross the Yadkin River. He implores: "You will please to call out the Militia of this and neighboring Counties, and let them collect at Guilford; and they must bring with them six days provision." Continuing to withdraw toward Virginia, Greene again writes Washington on February 15, 1781: "L[or]d Cornwallis has been at our heels, from day to day ever since we left Guilford, and our movements, from that time to this, have been of the most critical kind, having a river in our front and an enemy in our rear...The miserable situation of the troops for want of clothing, has rendered the march the most painful imaginable, many hundreds of the soldiers tracking the ground with their bloody feet. Your feelings for the suffering soldiers, had you been here, must have been shocked on the occasion."


  • 1781
  • Other: Date acquired: 09/00/1945


Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright is retained by the creators of items in these papers, or their descendants, as stipulated by United States copyright law. Manuscript collections and archival records may contain materials with sensitive or confidential information. Please see our Sensitive Materials Statement.

Biographical or Historical Information

Born in Potowomut (modern Warwick), Rhode Island August 7, 1742, Nathanael Greene was the son of an iron founder, to whom he was apprenticed. He became prominent in Rhode Island political life, gaining election to the colony's General Assembly in 1770 and serving from 1770 to 1772 and in 1775. Although Greene was brought up in the Quaker faith, his revolutionary fervor prevented him from remaining a pacifist. He raised a militia company in 1774, but because he was partially lame, the militia company he had helped raise declined to elect him their captain. Greene volunteered for service as a private, and in May 1775 he was appointed brigadier general of militia. In June of 1775 he became brigadier general in the Continental Army.

Greene distinguished himself in various engagements and battles, and proved to have a natural flair for logistics. General George Washington persuaded Greene to accept the post of quartermaster general to the Continental Army, allowing him to continue to command troops in the field. After many bitter arguments with Congress over supplying the Army, Greene resigned his post as quartermaster general in 1780, and in August of that year he was given control of the Southern Department of the Army, joining forces with Daniel Morgan after the Battle of Cowpens, South Carolina on January 17, 1781. In the wake of this victory, the superior army of British general Charles Cornwallis gave chase, and Greene and Morgan withdrew into Virginia in January and February of 1781. At Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina on March 15, Greene turned on Cornwallis, letting the British commander make a costly attack.

Throughout 1781 Greene did battle against Lord Rawdon and Rawdon's successor, Lt. Col. Duncan Stuart. After Washington's victory at Yorktown on October 17-19, 1781, southern engagements became minor. Greene established headquarters in Charleston, South Carolina after the British evacuated on December 14, 1782, and remained there until the war was formally concluded. After a shameless government bickered over whether or not to reimburse Greene for personal expenses incurred in supporting his army when funding from Congress was unavailable, Greene retired to an estate near Savannah, Georgia. He died June 19, 1786.


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Language of Materials



Nathanael Greene (1742-1786) served as Brigadier General in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Greene distinguished himself in many battles, but is most famous for forcing the British commander Cornwallis into a costly attack at Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina on March 15, 1781.

Arrangement Note

The material is arranged chronologically.

Method of Acquisition

Gift of Charles S. Marshall in September, 1945.

Related Materials

The original Nathanael Greene Letter Book is located at the New York Public Library. Additional Nathanael Greene Papers (1762-1822) can be found at the University of Michigan's William L. Clements Library.

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Processed by archives staff, Encoded by Jason Alston, June, 2009

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Repository Details

Part of the Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives Repository

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