Commemorates Major General Nathanael Greene (1742-1786)
Location Johnson Square
Artist William Strickland
Johnson Square’s Greene Monument honors Nathanael Greene, commander of the southern forces of the American Continental Army during the War of Independence. Greene directed several battles during his leadership and was instrumental in the American victory, overcoming the superior forces of the British in the southern theater of the war.
Nathanael Greene is also honored in the name of Greene Square, in the east of Savannah’s Historic District. More recently, Nathanael Greene Park, in south Savannah, has also been named in his memory.
Nathanael Greene was born in Rhode Island in 1742. A Quaker by upbringing, he received (as was usual for Quakers) limited formal education. Instead he educated himself over the course of his early adult life, reading according to his interests.
At first, Greene worked in the family businesses. In 1770, he was elected to the Rhode Island legislature, where he became an advocate of the cause for American independence.
In 1774, Greene was active in the creation of the Kentish Guards, a local militia, of which he would later assume the command, reading up along the way on aspects of military strategy. That year, he also married his wife, Catharine Littlefield.
When the Continental Army was formed in 1775, Greene was selected as brigadier general. His performance in some of the Revolutionary War’s early battles drew the attention of George Washington.
After Greene had served in several more battles, including Brandywine and Valley Forge, by which time he had taken up the role of quartermaster general (the man responsible for arranging the army’s equipment and supplies), Washington gave him the command of the southern part of the Continental Army.
In spite of the underwhelming forces under his command, Greene was able to divide and weaken the British army, fighting a war of attrition until the British commanders were forced into a surrender.
After the war, Greene settled on Mulberry Plantation, not far from Savannah. The plantation, along with other land in South Carolina, had been given him in recognition of his military services. His wife Catharine (known as Caty) and their five surviving children, mostly conceived during Caty’s visits to Nathanael at camp, joined him there.
Nathanael Greene died an early and unexpected death. A probable victim of sunstroke, he sickened rapidly and died hours after a visit to a neighboring plantation. He was buried in Savannah’s Colonial Park Cemetery, his remains later reinterred beneath his monument in Johnson Square.
The monument in Johnson Square is the oldest major monument erected by the people of Savannah. Such a memorial on grand scale was initially proposed in 1800 – to honor George Washington – but it was never built. Instead, Savannah’s first monument was erected in memory of the man said to be the favorite of Washington’s close associates and generals.
Originally, citizens had hoped to honor two of Savannah’s Revolutionary War heroes: the Polish Count, General Casimir Pulaski, as well as Nathanael Greene.
Savannah’s citizens and officials seized the opportunity provided by a visit of the much-loved General Lafayette in 1825 (by then one of the few surviving officers of the Revolutionary War) to have him dedicate the cornerstones to both monuments.
On the morning of Monday March 21 1825, Lafayette was met by a procession of Freemasons, troops, city officials, clergymen and citizens. They marched together to Johnson Square, and then to Chippewa Square, where Pulaski’s cornerstone was laid. Both cornerstones were dedicated with much ceremony and speechmaking.
Five years later, sufficient funds had still not been raised for the creation of two suitable memorials. By way of compromise, a combined monument, which would serve to honor both Greene and Pulaski, was erected in Johnson Square in 1830.
William Strickland produced the design for the monument; he is also known for his design of the Tennessee Capitol Building in Nashville. The monument’s form is intended to resemble the Egyptian obelisk, Cleopatra’s Needle. The monument deliberately bore no inscription, the idea being that one might be placed once a separate monument to Pulaski was secured.
More than two decades would pass before Savannah had found enough money to pay for Pulaski’s own monument. It was finally erected in 1853, though in Monterey rather than Chippewa Square, as designer Robert Launitz did not feel the proposed Chippewa Square site provided a suitable backdrop to his work.
The Greene Monument itself was unfortunately ill-received, regarded by many as a monstrosity and a mistake. In the words of one critic writing in the Savannah Morning News of February 7 1853, it was an “unsightly pile.”
To another correspondent too, yet more scathing, it was “a monument of bad taste, with which nothing can be well done – absurd in its imitation of an obelisk, incorrect in its proportions, meaningless, and ill-shaped beyond bettering.” (Savannah Morning News, December 3 1879)
Various campaigns – all unsuccessful – were made to have the monument either embellished or revised. Today, the featureless lines of the obelisk are softened somewhat by the by-now-mature surrounding trees.