Nathanael Greene's great-great-grandfather, John Greene, was a surgeon in Salisbury, England, in the seventeenth century. In about 1632, he migrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony to escape religious persecution in England. Greene was a follower of John Wintrop, a Puritan preacher, who soon fell out of favor in Massachusetts. In 1636 Williams, accompanied by Greene, established a new colony which he called Providence. In Providence, Greene associated himself with Samuel Gorton. Gorton and Williams had a falling out and Gorton, accompanied by Greene, left Providence to found a new town which he called Warwick. In subsequent years the area became known as Rhode Island and the Greene family converted to Quakerism. Nathanael Greene Senior was a prosperous farmer, iron smith, and merchant living in Potowomut, near East Greenwich, Rhode Island, when Nathanael Greene Junior was born on August 7, 1742. Young Nathanael's father was a devout Quaker, but was unable to convince his son to adhere to the strict rules imposed by the religion. Although formal education was discouraged, Nathanael learned to read and write. As a young man he read extensively and became acquainted with a number of well educated men living in Newport.
In 1763 England began enforcing the Sugar Tax on molasses imports into the American colonies. This tax adversely impacted Rhode Island's very important rum trade and this in turn depressed the general economy of the colony. In 1764 the Sugar Tax was renewed and the British Parliament announced that there would be more taxes to help pay for the governance of the colonies. In 1765, Parliament passed the Stamp Act which was designed to help pay for British troops stationed in the colonies. Heretofore all British taxes on the colonies had been designed to regulate trade. This was a new type of tax and many within the colonies felt that they should be consulted before such a tax was levied. Resistance was such that the Stamp Act was repealed in 1766, but the Townshend Acts quickly followed. This legislation provided for taxes on glass, lead, imported paper, and tea. In about 1769 Nathanael moved out of his father's house and built his own house (Spell Hall) near Coventry, Rhode Island, where the family business had opened a new iron foundry. Nathanael's father died in 1770. In 1772 a merchant ship owned by Nathanael Greene and Company was seized by a British warship and its cargo confiscated. The master of the merchant ship, a cousin of Nathanael, was roughed up in the process. The family initiated legal proceedings to recover their cargo and obtain compensation for damages. A short time later the British warship (HMS Gaspee) was destroyed by a group of Rhode Islanders. That same year the family forge in Coventry burned down. At about the same time as the Coventry disaster, Nathanael was accused of having been one of the leaders in the destruction of the British warship.
In 1773 Nathanael was suspended from Quaker meetings for breaking their rules. Some say that it was because he had been seen in a tavern and others that it was because he had participated in some sort of militia exercise. In 1773 the British Parliament reorganized the East India Company in such a way as to damage colonial merchants dealing in the tea trade. On December 17, 1773, colonial activists boarded British merchant ships in Boston harbor and dumped their cargo of tea over the side. In March 1774 Britain ordered the port of Boston closed and sent General Thomas Gage to become the military governor of Massachusetts. Parliament also passed a series of new laws that became known as the Intolerable Acts. These new laws reduced the colony's powers of self-government and correspondingly increased the powers of the military governor. Nathanael, next door in Rhode Island, was incensed by British actions and was beginning to make revolutionary statements. On July 20, 1774, Nathanael married Catherine Littlefield and they set up housekeeping in Coventry. Nathanael joined a militia unit being formed in East Greenwich as a private. In October 1774 the Rhode Island Assembly incorporated the unit into the state militia for Kent County. He hoped to be elected as an officer, but was not. Several of his friends explained that he was considered to be something of an embarrassment because he limped. On April 19, 1775, Greene learned that the British troops had fired on colonists at Lexington and Concord. The next day Greene's unit left for Massachusetts. The British troops retired into Boston and Greene returned home.
The Rhode Island Assembly deposed the colonial governor and voted to establish an Army of Observation composed of fifteen hundred men. Nathanael's older brother, Jacob, was a member of the Assembly's Committee of Safety. On May 8, 1775, the Assembly appointed Nathanael Greene general and gave him command of the army. On May 23 Greene reported to the Massachusetts commander, Artemas Ward, and offered to serve under him. Other New England colonies also sent militia units to help Massachusetts and the city of Boston was effectively besieged. The Rhode Islanders under Greene's command distinguished themselves during the siege and Greene was credited with having a well disciplined command. Greene was in Coventry when the British attacked Bunker Hill and Breed's Hill and his troops did not participate in the action. On June 14, the Continental Congress created the Continental Army and absorbed all of the militia units surrounding Boston into it. George Washington was appointed lieutenant general and named commander-in-chief. Nathanael Greene was appointed brigadier general. Washington took command outside Boston on July 4, 1775. Greene was soon given command of a brigade composed of three Rhode Island regiments and four Massachusetts regiments. Greene reported to Major General Charles Lee. By October 1775 Greene was talking openly about the possibility of independence. At the end of the year many soldiers refused to reenlist and Greene's brigade was reduced to just over seven hundred men. Washington reorganized his army and during the first months of the year enlistments picked up and the siege continued. On March 17, 1776, General William Howe and the British Army evacuated Boston. Greene was promoted to major general and on March 20, Washington named him military commander of Boston.
On April 1, 1776, on Washington's orders, Greene led a brigade of five regiments out of Boston and headed for New York in an effort to beat General Howe who was thought to be about to land there. Howe went on to Halifax, Nova Scotia to refit and Greene arrived in New York on April 17. Greene was named commander of American forces on Long Island. On May 4, the Rhode Island Assembly renounced their allegiance to King George. Greene applauded the vote and regarded it to be a call for independence. On June 29, the British attack on New York got underway with the arrival of the Royal Fleet and the advance guard of Howe's thirty-two thousand man invasion force. On August 15 Greene became ill with what was then called "putrid fever" (probably typhoid fever). Greene was evacuated and Israel Putnam was selected to replace him in command of the defense of Long Island. On August 29, the British pushed the American defenders off of Long Island. On September 15, the British pushed them out of New York City. Greene, now fully recovered from his fever, saw his first combat while fighting a rear guard action (Harlem Heights) connected with the withdrawal from New York. Even though it was a small action, he performed well as a combat leader. Greene was next assigned to take over the defense of New Jersey. In November Greene reinforced Fort Washington on the Hudson River when many others including Washington thought that it should be abandoned. When the British captured the fort and took its garrison prisoner Greene was severely criticized, but Washington stood by him. After the fall of Fort Washington, nearby Fort Lee was overrun and Washington was forced to retreat west in an effort to protect Philadelphia. On December 8, 1776, the Continental Army crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania.