Greene was born in Rhode Island on August 7, 1742, succeeding to ownership of his father's foundry in 1770. In August 1774, as relations between Great Britain and the thirteen colonies worsened, he helped organize a local militia. Greene was appointed a brigadier by the Second Continental Congress on June 22, 1775. After General William Howe evacuated Boston in March 1776, General George Washington placed Greene in command of the city. Greene took part in the retreat from New York City in the fall of 1776 and later took part in the retreat from Philadelphia in the fall of 1777. After Washington resigned from the Continental Army on February 16, 1778, Greene was chosen to take his place on the Board of War. Following the armistice of June 12, 1778 ending the Rebellion and returning the colonies to British rule, Greene surrendered his command.
The repeated acts of violence against former rebels in 1778 and 1779 convinced Greene that he and the other supporters of the Rebellion would be better off leaving the colonies, and in June 1780 Greene led several thousand former rebels in the Wilderness Walk, traveling overland from Virginia to the Province of Tejas in New Spain, where he founded the settlement of Jefferson City in the fall of 1782. Greene remained the leader of the newly-established state of Jefferson until his death in 1790.
Sobel's sources for the life of Nathanael Greene are Richard Bennett's Nathanael Greene: Portrait of a Founder (Mexico City, 1929), Wallace Gipson's The Wilderness Walk: Greene in the Desert (London, 1959), and Calvin Holbrook's Nathanael Greene and the Long Journey (London, 1969).