Nathanael Greene, Self-Taught, Military Strategist And Overlooked American Hero

Having recently completed cataloging for our September 2011 Philadelphia Americana Sale, the diversity and significance of the offerings in that catalog are still very fresh in my mind. These Americana Sales are particularly enjoyable to prepare and present as they bring in completely different kinds of consignments than those which fill most pages in, say, our various Baltimore auctions. Medal, token and other exonumia consignments predominate in our Americana Sales, giving me the opportunity in my capacity as Chief Cataloger for Stack’s Bowers Galleries to study and research items that I do not normally get to handle. Many items in our September Americana Sale are simply fascinating, and for a wide variety of reasons—rarity, artistic beauty, historical significance, provenance, etc. The list of enticing items is too long to detail here — that is why we print and distribute the catalog! — yet even so personal interest and taste make my mind gravitate toward certain items as favorites. Since my interest in military history is second only to my interest in numismatics among the scholarly pursuits in my life, it is perhaps only natural that I have chosen some of my favorite items in this sale from among those pieces that combine elements of both disciplines. The standout item in the September Americana Sale that appeals to both the numismatic expert and the military historian in me is definitely lot 84, the fascinating and extremely rare 1781 Nathanael Greene at Eutaw Springs medal.

The numismatic aspects and significance of the Greene medal are expertly detailed in the comprehensive yet thoroughly readable catalog description researched and written by our Numismatic Consultant John Kraljevich. If you have not read it yet, I encourage you to do so by accessing the description in the online catalog right here on this website. But what of Greene himself, the man whose military achievements inspired, if not demanded creation of this medal and whose bust dominates the obverse design? Admittedly a biographical sketch of Greene is beyond the scope of a catalog description that is right to stay focused on the numismatic aspects of the medal. Stack’s Bowers Galleries is, after all, a numismatic auction house and the significance and value of the Greene medal stems from its place of honor in the realm of numismatics. Yet the military historian is so engrained in me — I have been studying military history academically and as a hobby for more than 20 years — that I cannot help but share a little bit of what I know about Greene as a Revolutionary War hero. He is, after all, one of the most important American commanders of that conflict and, although often overlooked today in favor of the more famous Founding Fathers, Nathanael Greene played a role no less important in securing our independence from Great Britain.

Much of what makes Nathanael Greene so interesting is that he rose to prominence by the end of the American Revolution, after beginning that conflict with the lowly rank of private. It is with that rank that he entered the local militia in his native Rhode Island in 1774. Unlike most of his compatriots, however, he was not content to merely serve "in the ranks." Around the same time he entered the militia, Greene began to acquire and study volumes on military tactics, educating himself on the art of war. He was a self-taught military commander and strategist, much like other prominent commanders on the American side during the War, and that is perhaps why I admire and can identify with him to the degree that I do. After all, in the absence of a formal educational path to being a professional numismatist (no college in the United States of which I am aware offers a major in numismatics) most of us who have achieved that distinction are self taught. Indeed I myself began to acquire the knowledge that would eventually lead me to a successful and ongoing career as a professional numismatist by buying, reading and re-reading as many books on coins as I could find. The process for me began in earnest when I was only eight years old; Greene was 32 when he entered the militia in Rhode Island in 1774. Admittedly, Greene’s chosen profession is not only more deadly than mine, but it also developed through necessity brought about by the political and other circumstances of his time. Fortunately, I was able to choose numismatics as both a hobby and a career because I enjoy it, not because of a need to defend my hearth and home.

Greene took to soldiering so well, learned so quickly and made such a profound impression on his superiors that he received the meteoric promotion from private to brigadier general in the Rhode Island Army of Observation on May 8, 1775. On June 22, 1775 he was commissioned into the Continental Army with the same rank and was appointed by Washington to command the city of Boston in March of 1776 after it was evacuated by British troops under General William Howe. Just a few months later, on August 9, 1776, Greene was promoted to major general, the rank that he would hold for the duration of the War.

Greene would go on to serve throughout the entire Revolutionary War, one of only three generals on the American side to hold that distinction (the other two are Washington and Henry Knox). He is second only to Washington among military strategists and commanders who served in the Continental Army, and played a prominent role in many of the most famous and important campaigns and battles in the War. Early battles in the North in which Greene figured prominently (although not always successfully) include Trenton, Brandywine, Germantown and Monmouth, and he even served as Quartermaster General of the Continental Army during the difficult winter at Valley Forge (1777-1778).

Greene’s most significant contribution to ultimate American victory, however, came with his appointment to command all Continental Army troops in the South at Washington’s request in late 1780. Interestingly for a man who played so prominent a role in the British defeat, Greene lost every pitched battle that he fought in the South, if only from a tactical standpoint. Strategically, Greene proved adept at using his inferior Continental forces to divide, elude and tire the British, and he also forced them to pay dearly in casualties and other losses for the tactical victories that they won over him. In the long run Greene knew that the British could not sustain such a campaign on the strategic level. From 1778 on, the American Revolution became part of a global war for empire that pitted Great Britain against other European powers that eventually included France, Spain and the Dutch Republic. Ranking Continental Army strategists like Greene realized that Britain’s ability to sustain large-scale operations and absorb significant losses in the American land war was severely compromised by their commitment to a global war, thereby explaining the strategy he adopted while commanding in the Southern theater. That strategy was vindicated when, at Eutaw Springs in South Carolina on September 8, 1781, Greene inflicted such losses on the British that they were forced to withdraw to Charleston. Although tactically Eutaw Springs was a draw, it proved to be the last major engagement of the Revolutionary War in the Carolinas, since it led to Greene’s siege of Charleston, which continued until the end of the conflict.

Eutaw Springs was the culminating strategic victory of Greene’s military career, and it is a fitting battle to honor alongside the commander on his medal. Sadly, Greene never received the unique gold Eutaw Springs medal struck for him since he died of sunstroke on June 19, 1786 on his newly acquired Georgia estate named Mulberry Grove. He was only 43 years old, which means that he achieved lasting fame as a military strategist and hero in the span of just 11 years. The brevity of his career and the achievements that he attained during that brief career are also part of what make Greene — the self-taught military hero — such an interesting personality. Held in high esteem by his contemporaries, as evidenced in part by the medal commissioned in his honor, Nathanael Greene is certainly one of the more overlooked American heroes today. Even many numismatists familiar with the rarity and desirability of the Greene medal are unfamiliar with the man depicted on that medal beyond the fact that he was a prominent Revolutionary War commander. Hopefully this brief presentation sheds some light on a forgotten American hero and adds greater significance to our offering of the Greene medal.

Join our mailing list

Don't miss an auction!

Subscribe to our newsletter.


Contact Us

West Coast Office • (800) 458-4646

Midwest Office • (800) 817-2646

East Coast Office • (800) 566-2580

[email protected]

Hong Kong, China Office • +852 2117 1191

[email protected]

Follow Us

Subscribe to
Our Newsletter

We are sorry, an unexpected error occurred!
Please enter a valid email address

I'm Interested In...

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Stack's Bowers Galleries e-newsletter.