December 20, 2014
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Apponaug’s George Sears Greene
Then and Now
Terry D'Amato Spencer

The Embargo Acts of 1807 and the War of 1812 had a profound effect upon the Captain Caleb Greene family of Apponaug. For many years Captain Greene had witnessed prosperity as had his father, Caleb and his grandfather, Samuel Greene. As had so many other members of Warwick’s early families, Captain Caleb had taken to the sea to seek his fortune. For many years, this proved a good decision.

Unfortunately, the Napoleonic Wars, the Embargo Act and the War of 1812 ended the period of prosperity for much of New England. Eventually, because the restrictions on trade seriously infringed upon the profits made by Captain Greene, he turned to his father’s textile mill to provide for his family, as the sea no longer gave him the profitable existence he once enjoyed. In time, this once prosperous mariner found various plans for his sons’ education had to be changed in order to economize.

In 1795, in prosperous economic times, Caleb Greene Jr. built the house at 15 Centerville Road shortly after his marriage to Sarah Robinson. Caleb Greene fathered a large family. In 1801 a second son, George Sears Greene, was born was born in the Apponaug house. He attended grammar school in Warwick and at a very young age displayed a remarkable aptitude for learning. Caleb fully intended to send this son to Brown University for his education. Because of declining fortunes, however, this proved to be impossible. Unable to provide his sons with a college education, Caleb Greene found it necessary to encourage his sons to seek their own way in life. During his early teenage years, in the period when his father and uncles were witnessing financial reverses, George Sears Greene, faced with a lack of economic opportunities in Rhode Island, moved to New York to work for a dry goods merchant.

New hope came when George Sears Greene, at age 18, was appointed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. In 1823 he graduated with honors and entered the army as a second lieutenant. During the next 12 years he served as an officer of artillery and taught mathematics at West Point. While serving in the army, he married Elizabeth Vinton who bore him three children.

The happiness of the early period quickly disintegrated as tragedy struck in 1832, when Elizabeth and two of the children died within a seven-month period. Greene, at 31 years of age, found the grief almost impossible to bear. His only relief seemed to be in books and he spent most of his off-duty hours studying law, medicine and civil engineering. By 1835 his outstanding talents enabled him to pass examinations, which gave him the right to practice both law and medicine.

Greene soon realized that promotions in the peacetime army were very slow and that there was a great demand for civil engineers in the new, exciting and profitable business of railroad construction. In 1836 he resigned from the army and pursued a very successful career as a civil engineer. He practiced this profession for the next 25 years. In 1837 he married Martha Dana and there were six children as a result of this marriage.

When the Civil War erupted between the Union and the Confederacy, George Sears Greene was already 60 years old. Two of his sons were of military age and had volunteered for the armed services. Fully aware of the desperate need for trained officers and civil engineers, Greene reentered the army. Oliver Payson Fuller, in his History of Warwick, tells us he was “commissioned Colonel of the 60th Regiment, N.Y. Volunteers; in 1862, he was appointed Brigadier General by the president.”

Greene very quickly distinguished himself in a number of battles as a frontline general. He fought in the battle of Cedar Mountain in August 1862, and in September of that year, according to Fuller, “a horse was shot out from under him” at Antietam. His bravery and determination won him a great deal of respect from his fellow officers and from the men under his command.

General Greene’s greatest accomplishment came in the crucial action at the battle of Gettysburg, where his courage and ability to assess a battlefield situation proved highly important. On July 2, 1863, General Greene’s brigade was placed on Culp’s Hill at Gettysburg, which protected the right flank of the Union army at Cemetery Ridge. Both the Confederate and Union armies fought to seize the high ground. Unfortunately, one of the Union commanders, General Daniel Sickles, foolishly left his position at Cemetery Ridge and went to the Peach Orchard, where he was trapped by the Confederate forces. So many Union troops were sent from Culp’s Hill to aid Sickles that General Greene was left with only five regiments to defend the hill. Greene used his engineering and military skills to fortify the hill and, during the night of July 2 and the morning of July 3, Greene’s troops were able to withstand the attack of 22 Confederate regiments. This proved to be one of the decisive factors as it helped to enable the Union Army to strengthen its artillery on Cemetery Ridge. Many Civil War historians believe that had General Greene not been able to hold Culp’s Hill this might have been impossible.  Had the Confederacy taken Cemetery Ridge victory could have been theirs.

Thanks to the action of General Greene, as well as the heroic stance of the Union soldiers in repelling the attacks, the Northern Army successfully defended the high ground at Cemetery Ridge. As a result, they were able to withstand the intensive two-hour Southern bombardment. It was during this artillery duel that the famous Rhode Island Gettysburg Gun, which is currently at the Rhode Island State house, was used. This gun belonged to Battery B of the First Rhode Island Regiment commanded by Lieutenant T. Fred Brown. One of the gun’s crew, Alfred Gardner, placed a round at the muzzle of the cannon and stepped aside to allow William Jones, another crew member, to ram the round home. At that moment, a Confederate shell hit the muzzle of the gun and exploded. Gardner was mortally wounded and Jones was decapitated as the shell struck. Ironically, the round that had been placed in the muzzle by Gardner remained stuck in place and couldn’t be removed after the gun cooled. As a result, the ball is still in place and the immobilized artillery piece was given to the State of Rhode Island as a memento of the part played by its troops in the famous three-day battle of Gettysburg.

In addition to this reminder, a boulder taken from Culp’s Hill at Gettysburg has been placed in the small Greene cemetery off Tanner Avenue in Apponaug. A plaque on this stone tells of the exploits of Greene. Because of vandalism, the plaque had been removed and is now in City Hall, where it is more accessible to the general public.

General Greene, in addition to his heroic defense at the battle of Gettysburg, distinguished himself in other Civil War actions and the plaque records the events.  Greene was the type of general who shunned the safety of a behindthelines position and often exposed himself to great danger while leading his troops. At the Battle of Wauhatchie at Lookout Mt., near Chatanooga, Tenn., in October 1864, Greene was severely wounded when a rifle ball passed through his face and severely damaged his upper jaw. After his convalescent period, Greene returned to active duty in the spring of 1865. Undaunted by his recent experience, he again personally led his men at the battle of Kingstown, N.C. and, as in the battle of Antietam back in 1862, he again had a horse shot from under him.

While George Sears Greene was becoming one of Rhode Island’s most colorful Civil War generals, two of his sons were also distinguishing themselves on the battlefields. One of them, Samuel Dana Greene, was the executive officer on board the Monitor and took part in the classic battle with the Merrimac in 1862. Another son, Brevet Major Charles T. Greene, was at the Battle of Rinegold, Ga., where he lost his right leg by a cannon shot. General Greene’s youngest son, Major General Francis Vinton Greene, too young for the Civil War, served during the Spanish American War.

On April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union commander Ulysses S. Grant, marking the conclusion of the hostilities. In 1866 General George Sears Greene, at age 65, retired from the army. Possessing a great deal of energy, he once again resumed his position as a civil engineer on a number of projects in New York and Washington, D.C.

Among his many accomplishments was the compiling of a massive genealogy of the Greene family of Rhode Island. General Greene contributed a great deal to the social and intellectual life of Rhode Island until he died in 1899 at age 98.

Thanks to the efforts of his sons who wanted to honor their father, the house at 15 Centerville Road is dedicated to his memory.

The story of the Greene Memorial House will be continued.


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