American Civil War: Major General George S. Greene

George S. Greene during the Civil War
Major General George S. Greene. Photograph Source: Public Domain

George S. Greene - Early Life & Career:

The son of Caleb and Sarah Greene, George S. Greene was born at Apponaug, RI on May 6, 1801 and was a second cousin of American Revolution commander Major General Nathanael Greene.  Attending Wrentham Academy and a Latin school in Providence, Greene hoped to continue his education at Brown University, but was prevented from doing so due to a downturn in his family's finances resulting from the Embargo Act of 1807.

 Moving to New York City as a teenager, he found work in a dry goods store.  While in this position, Greene met Major Sylvanus Thayer who was serving as superintendent of the United States Military Academy.

Impressing Thayer, Greene earned an appointment to West Point in 1819.  Entering the academy, he proved a gifted student.  Graduating second in the Class of 1823, Greene declined an assignment in the Corps of Engineers and instead accepted a commission as a second lieutenant in the 3rd US Artillery.  Rather than join the regiment, he received orders to remain at West Point to serve as an assistant professor of mathematics and engineering.  Staying in this post for four years, Greene taught Robert E. Lee during this period.  Moving through several garrison assignments over the next several years, he studied both law and medicine to ease the boredom of the peacetime military.  In 1836, Greene resigned his commission to pursue a career in civil engineering.

George S. Greene - Prewar Years:

Over the next two decades, Greene aided in the construction of several railroads and water systems.  Among his projects were the Croton Aqueduct reservoir in New York's Central Park and expanding the High Bridge over the Harlem River.  In 1852, Greene was one of twelve founders of the American Society of Civil Engineers and Architects.

 Following the secession crisis in the wake of the election of 1860 and the beginning of the Civil War in April 1861, Greene decided to return to military service.  A devout believer in restoring the Union, he pursued a commission despite turning sixty that May.  On January 18, 1862, Governor Edwin D. Morgan appointed Greene colonel of the 60th New York Infantry Regiment.  Though concerned about his age, Morgan made his decision based on Greene's earlier career in the US Army.

George S. Greene - Army of the Potomac:

Serving in Maryland, Greene's regiment later shifted west to the Shenandoah Valley.  On April 28, 1862, he received a promotion to brigadier general and joined Major General Nathaniel P. Banks' staff.  In this capacity, Greene took part in the Valley Campaign that May and June which saw Major General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson inflict a series of defeats on Union troops.  Returning to the field later that summer, Greene assumed command of a brigade in Brigadier General Christopher Augur's division in II Corps.  On August 9, his men performed well in the Battle of Cedar Mountain and mounted a tenacious defense despite being outnumbered by the enemy.  When Augur fell wounded in the fighting, Greene assumed command of the division.

 

For the next several weeks, Greene retained leadership of the division which was shifted into the newly-redesignated XII Corps.  On September 17, he advanced his men near the Dunker Church during the Battle of Antietam.  Launching a devastating attack, Greene's division achieved the deepest penetration of any attack against Jackson's lines.  Holding an advanced position, he was ultimately compelled to fall back.  Ordered to Harpers Ferry following the Union victory, Greene elected to take three weeks sick leave.  Returning to the army, he found that command of his division had been given to Brigadier General John Geary who had recently recovered from wounds suffered at Cedar Mountain.  Though Greene possessed a stronger combat record, he was ordered to resume command of his former brigade.

 Later that fall, his troops took part in skirmishing in northern Virginia and avoided the Battle of Fredericksburg in December.  

In May 1863, Greene's men were exposed during the Battle of Chancellorsville when Major General Oliver O. Howard's XI Corps collapsed following flank attack by Jackson.  Again, Greene directed a stubborn defense that employed a variety of field fortifications.  As the battle continued, he again assumed command of the division when Geary was wounded.  After the Union defeat, the Army of the Potomac pursued Lee's Army of Northern Virginia north as the enemy invaded Maryland and Pennsylvania.  Late on July 2, Greene played a key role at the Battle of Gettysburg when he defended Culp's Hill from Major General Edward "Allegheny" Johnson's division.  Threatened on his left flank, army commander Major General George G. Meade ordered XII Corps commander Major General Henry Slocum to send the bulk of his men south as reinforcements.  This left Culp's Hill, which anchored the Union right, lightly protected.  Taking advantage of the ground, Greene directed his men to build fortifications.  This decision proved critical as his men beat back repeated enemy assaults.  Greene's stand on Culp's Hill prevented Confederate forces from reaching the Union supply line on the Baltimore Pike and striking the rear of Meade's lines.

George S. Greene - In the West:

That fall, XI and XII Corps received orders to move west to aid Major General Ulysses S. Grant in relieving the siege of Chattanooga.

 Serving under Major General Joseph Hooker, this combined force came under attack at the Battle of Wauhatchie on the night of October 28/29.  In the fighting, Greene was hit in face, breaking his jaw.  Placed on medical leave for six weeks, he continued to suffer from the wound.  Returning to the army, Greene served on light court-martial duty until January 1865.  Joining Major General William T. Sherman's army in North Carolina, he initially volunteered on the staff of Major General Jacob D. Cox before assuming command of a brigade in the Third Division, XIV Corps.  In this role, Greene took part in the capture of Raleigh and the surrender of General Joseph E. Johnston's army.

George S. Greene - Later Life:

With the end of the war, Greene returned to court-martial duty before leaving the army in 1866.  Resuming his career in civil engineering, he served as chief engineer commissioner of the Croton Aqueduct Department from 1867 to 1871 and later held the post of President of the American Society of Civil Engineers.  In the 1890s, Greene sought an engineer captain's pension to aid his family after his death.  Though unable to obtain this, former Major General Daniel Sickles helped arranged a first lieutenant's pension instead.  As a result, the ninety-three year-old Greene was briefly commissioned as a first lieutenant in 1894.  Greene died three years later on January 28, 1899, and was buried in the family cemetery in Warwick, RI.

Selected Sources:

  • Civil War Trust: General George Sears Greene at Culp's Hill
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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General George S. Greene." ThoughtCo, Jan. 2, 2017, thoughtco.com/george-s-greene-2360418. Hickman, Kennedy. (2017, January 2). American Civil War: Major General George S. Greene. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/george-s-greene-2360418 Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General George S. Greene." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/george-s-greene-2360418 (accessed May 22, 2018).