Arriving at the ramshackle camp of the Continental Army at Charlotte, North Carolina, on Dec. 2, 1781 to take up the reins of command, Major General Nathanael Greene wrote to his commander and confidante, George Washington, “I cannot contemplate my own situation without the greatest degree of anxiety. I have to prosecute a war with almost insurmountable difficulties.”
Greene, surely the most brilliant American strategist you’ve never heard of, was an unlikely general. Born in Rhode Island in 1742, he was the son of a prominent Quaker preacher. An anchorsmith and mill owner by trade, Greene was gifted with penetrating intelligence and stupendous energy. Seized by Revolutionary fervor in his late twenties, he forswore his Quaker faith, and read everything he could get his hands on about military history and science. Before the first shots were fired at Lexington, he’d managed to teach himself a great deal about 18th century tactics and logistics. More importantly, he had begun to form a sophisticated understanding of the relationship between revolutionary politics and warfare.
Although he had no military experience beyond participation in a local militia unit, leaders of the Rhode Island General Assembly sensed his promise: they promoted him from militia private to brigadier general of the little army they sent to support the patriots in the siege of Boston in spring 1775. George Washington, too, recognized Greene’s extraordinary potential, placing him in charge of the defense of Boston after the British departed. The two soldiers formed a mutual admiration society that would last until Greene’s untimely death in 1786 at age 44.