Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Mini Lesson: Nathanael Greene Letter (Activity 1)

LWS 3257

Geared towards Middle School

Students will be able to

-          Decipher eighteenth-century handwritten script

-          Closely read a primary source document (a letter by Nathanael Greene) and to draw textually-sound conclusions about what the document says and what the document means

-          Create educated hypotheses about the historical context of this document


Historical Context: Winter descended upon New Jersey. George Washington and a large number of his troops had settled into their winter encampments, but life was far from comfortable. The average soldiers were living in hastily built huts that they had managed to finish before Christmas. Some officers lived with the soldiers in the encampment in specially designed huts, while others, such as Nathanael Greene, major general in the Continental Army, were stationed in Arnolds tavern, located in the center of Morristown, NJ conveniently close to the Ford Mansion, where Washington had established Army Headquarters. It is presumably from this location that Greene wrote this letter, for the date of writing in the midst of a four day blizzard that would have minimized travel.

The problem that Greene addressed in his letter was related to the snow and to the stinginess of the Jersey natives, to which Greene alludes. Because of these two principle causes, the Continental Army was running dangerously low on supplies. The heavy snow was deterring supplies from reaching the troops stationed at Jockey Hallow and Middle Brook (presently located in Bound Brook, NJ), while the New Jersey citizens withheld their supplies to preserve their own comfort through the winter. Since Greene had become the quartermaster general in 1778, this dilemma directly affected him. Therefore, it was in his official capacity of quartermaster general that Greene responded to three letters of Moore Furman, a quartermaster then stationed in Trenton to “forage” grain and supplies. In his letter to Greene on December 20th, Furman had asked Greene several questions related to the business of a quartermaster. On particular question he had related to how many teams of oxen he should send from Trenton to help in the winter transportation supplies. Thus, to this and other intensely practical questions, Greene, the quartermaster, wrote a reply on the wintry cold morning of January 4, 1780. But underneath the practical details, a careful reader can observe Greene’s heart as a patriot and leader as he vented to Furman his frustration at the lack of support from citizens whose liberties the army was defending and as he shared his concerns for his men suffering through the infamous winter encampment of 1779-1780.


Suggested use: Use this mini-lesson as an inquiry introduction to catch students’ attention and introduce to them topics of textual analysis. In order for them to profit the most from the lesson do not share the historical context with them, but instead allow them to struggle through the language and missing context. This strategy encourages students to develop careful reading skills. Push students to glean as much information from the text itself before sharing any extra-textual information.


Questions to Guide Investigation of this abbreviated portion of Greene’s letter: Ask students to justify the answers they give to these questions from the text.

1.      What is the author saying literally? (explain to students that some of the letters that look like Fs are actually intended to be read as Ss)

2.      What sort of person is the author of this letter?

3.      Where was this document written?

4.      When was it written?

5.      What is the author’s purpose in writing this passage?

6.      What does the author want or need?

7.      Who is the author referring to when he says “Poor Fellows!”?

8.      What is the relationship between the author and the recipient of this letter?

9.      What attitude does the author have towards his fellow countrymen?

10.  What clues about this historical context of this document can you draw from the date and location of the letter?

11.  What emotions and opinions does the author convey in this letter?

12.  What is the author’s opinion about “the Army” and the cause for which they were fighting?


Common Core Standards:

RH 6-8.2. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.


National History Standards:

Era 3, Standard 1: The causes of the American Revolution, the ideas and interests involved in forging the revolutionary movement, and the reasons for the American victory

Historical Thinking Standard 2: Reconstruct the literal meaning of a historical passage.


Sources and Additional Information:

Morristown National Historic Park. Featured Manuscript: Nathanial Greene. September 2011,

Revolutionary War New Jersey: A Photographic Field Guide to New Jersey’s Role in the Revolutionary War. Information about the Encampment at Bound Brook.

Letters of Moore Furman: Deputy Quarter-Master General of New Jersey in the Revolution. Edited by the Historical Research Committee of the New Jersey Society of the Colonial Dames of America. New York: Frederick H. Hitchcock, 1912. Available online:
ML11: Nathanael Greene (Activity 1)
Mini Lesson by Julie Carlson

1 comment:

  1. Hello, I am the President of the Gen. Nathanael Greene Homestead, the home Nathanael built in 1770 and hoped to be his home until old age, of course we know that this did not occur. The home is now a museum as well as a National Historic Landmark. We are open 7 months out of the year and conduct a multitude of educational programs. When the Homestead was sold out of the family, the ancient barn was torn down, we are attempting to build a replica on our remaining 11 acres for use as a classroom, and for special events. We are attempting to raise funds for this, any help you can provide by sharing our information is greatly appreciated.
    The link to our fundraising site is:

    Thank you
    David M. Procaccini, President, Gen. Nathanael Greene Homestead

    RI Sons of the American Revolution
    RI Society of the Cincinnati