The Union left had almost broken late on the afternoon of July 2, 1863, the second day of fighting around Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s Rebels had hit the Federals hard for more than an hour, with the 15th and 47th Alabama storming up Little Round Top, the key high ground on the Union left flank. Only the heroics of Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his tiny 20th Maine had prevented the hill’s capture.
Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Union Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg, responded to the threat on his left by ordering up reinforcements just after 6:00 p.m. Reserve units from Major General John Sedgwick’s VI Corps, brigades from Meade’s old V Corps, and battered portions of the I Corps all answered his call. Meade then called for the XII Corps, which was guarding the Union right on Culp’s Hill.
Upon receiving Meade’s instructions, Major General Henry Slocum — normally the commander of the Union XII Corps, but at Gettysburg the commander of the army’s right wing — requested permission to leave one of his two divisions on Culp’s Hill as a precaution. But Meade was adamant in his call for all available troops and allowed Slocum to pick only one brigade to stay behind. So Slocum made his choice: the weight of Meade’s questionable decision would fall on the shoulders of Brigadier General George Sears Greene, an austere 62-year-old Rhode Islander who commanded a veteran brigade of New Yorkers, the 3d Brigade of the XII Corps’ 2d Division.
Strengthening the Union left at the expense of the right “nearly proved a calamity to the whole army,” Colonel Lewis R. Stegman of the 102d New York, in Greene’s brigade, later wrote. “It was a suicidal move.” Meade had taken a risky gamble that his right was secure for the day, even though Confederate batteries had just exchanged fire with Federal artillery on Culp’s Hill between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m. Greene, however, approached the predicament calmly.
As a descendant of Nathanael Greene, George Washington’s second-in-command, and as the father of two Union soldiers and a Federal naval officer, Greene seemed to have Yankee blue in his blood. He had graduated second in his class from the U.S. Military Academy and afterward spent 13 years in uniform. For the next 25 years, he worked as a civil engineer, rising to the top ranks of his profession before the Civil War drew him back into the army.
At ease, Greene looked more like a kindly preacher than a soldier, but he could conjure up a fierce gaze that, coupled with his commanding voice, made subordinates scramble. One of his soldier sons, Francis Vinton Greene, described him as “a very strict disciplinarian” who demanded “unquestioning obedience to his orders.” In essence, he demanded that his troops respect him, and they did. Eventually he even won their affection.
When Greene first arrived at Culp’s Hill early on the morning of July 2, he immediately realized his position demanded breastworks. Disregarding the objections of his division commander, Brigadier General John Geary, Greene ordered construction to begin. Captain Jesse H. Jones of the 60th New York noted that the men took to the task eagerly because they “instinctively felt that a life and death struggle was impending, and that every help should be used.” Fortunately, the hillside yielded ample supplies for their work. The result was an imposing rampart of wood, stones, and earth that would give Confederate attackers few targets.
The breastworks offered a measure of security, but the fact remained that Greene’s troops on the hill’s ridge held an incredibly vulnerable and tenuous position. When the other five XII Corps brigades headed south in response to Meade’s order just before 7:00 p.m., Greene’s five regiments — a total of just 1,350 men — had to occupy all the vacated works. As dusk set in, Greene ordered his 60th, 78th, 102d, 137th, and 149th New York to stretch out in a line one man deep, with one foot of space between the men. The fortified trenches were nearly half a mile long, and as Green inspected them, he wondered if he had enough manpower to hold his ground.
It was already too late to do anything more than wonder, however. By 7:15 p.m. skirmishers led by Lieutenant Colonel John C.O. Redington of the 60th New York spotted Confederates crossing Rock Creek, near the foot of Culp’s Hill. As the drab butternut-and-gray mass approached, the skirmishers fired a few volleys and raced up the rocky, wooded hill for the safety of the breastworks. As they frantically leapt over the works, Greene dispatched a courier to XI Corps commander Major General Oliver O. Howard and to Brigadier General James S. Wadsworth of the I Corps’ 1st Division with an urgent plea for reinforcements.
The Confederate advance was long overdue. Miscommunication and vacillation had plagued General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia all day. Lee had planned for Longstreet’s First Corps to attack the Federal left while Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps hit the Union right. He later amended the plan so that Longstreet would attack after Ewell first made a feint. Ideally, Ewell’s display would then expand into a full assault. This scheme, originally set to unfold in the morning, was postponed until the late afternoon because Longstreet failed to move.
As dusk settled in, Ewell launched an entire division at Greene’s single understrength brigade. Three brigades of Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and Louisiana troops under the command of Major General Edward Johnson waded through Rock Creek and stormed up the rise through the near-darkness created by the canopy of leaves that blocked the fading sun. Johnson’s fourth brigade, the famed Stonewall Brigade commanded by Brigadier General James Walker, had been engaged with Union forces to the east on Brinkerhoff Ridge. Walker had orders to rejoin the division as soon as possible, but he deemed it more prudent to protect the division’s flank and rear with his tired-out troops.
Random shots rang out as the Confederates approached the top of Culp’s Hill. Federals crouched anxiously behind their bulwarks, listening to the ominous footfalls in the woods. Suddenly, the lead Confederate ranks appeared out of the shadows, and Greene’s officers ordered the New Yorkers to open fire. “Out into the night like chain-lightning leaped the zig-zag line of fire,” recalled the 60th New York’s Captain Jones. Scores of Southerners dropped as the New Yorkers’ burst of flame and lead found its mark. Rebel officers pulled their shocked troops back into the woods to regroup.
For the adrenaline-charged Union troops, the respite was brief. Their shaken attackers reorganized quickly and opened fire from behind large rocks and trees. But it soon became clear that with the Federals heavily entrenched on high ground and shrouded in darkness and smoke, Johnson’s men could not capture the hill with long-range fire. The order to charge came again.
About 8:00 p.m., Confederates from Virginia and Maryland under the command of Brigadier General George H. Steuart assaulted Greene’s extreme right. Holding the position were the 456 men of Colonel David Ireland’s 137th New York, a hefty regiment by mid-war standards. As the Confederate fire intensified, the 71st Pennsylvania arrived to reinforce the hill. Greene immediately posted them to Ireland’s right, momentarily slowing Steuart’s momentum. Strangely, however, the 71st stayed on the line only long enough to exchange several volleys with the Confederates, then withdrew suddenly at the height of the attack. Such an unintelligible retreat left the Union right, as Greene put it, “in a very critical position.”
About this time, units from the I and XI Corps began to reach Culp’s Hill. The 14th Brooklyn, 6th Wisconsin, and 147th New York arrived first. Greene sent the 147th New York into the heart of his lines; the 6th Wisconsin, under the command of Colonel Rufus Dawes, to take and hold the breastworks to the 137th New York’s right; and the 14th Brooklyn to Ireland’s immediate aid.
Ireland, whose men had been fielding fire from three sides, desperately moved his line through the dark, smoky air behind a traverse of stacked wood, rocks, and brush that stood perpendicular to the brigade line. His new position faced the attackers and temporarily kept them at bay, but he needed more men to hold it. The Federal reinforcements arrived just in time to help stop Steuart’s determined troops. Even though they gained part of the vacant Union works, the attacking Virginians and Marylanders were unable to push through the thin, defiant line.
Meanwhile, the fighting raged on all along the line. On Greene’s left, six regiments of Virginians under the command of Brigadier General John Marshall Jones tangled with the 60th and 102d New York. In the center, Brigadier General Francis R. Nicholls’s five Louisiana regiments stormed the works in front of the 78th and 149th New Yorkers. With help from the 82d Illinois, 45th New York, and 61st Ohio of Howard’s XI Corps, however, Greene’s troops on the left and at the center held fast. The Confederates made four separate charges between 7:00 and 10:00 p.m., but each met the same bloody end.
Though 755 men from the I and XI Corps bolstered the five New York regiments, Greene never had more than 1,350 troops in line to face 4,000 to 5,000 Confederates. He maintained his bristling defense of the hill by using his limited resources wisely, rotating troops to and from the battle line to restock their cartridge boxes and clean their weapons. The eager Union troops cheered on their comrades as they raced back and forth, pushing each other to greater and greater heights of fervor and determination. Greene rode up and down the line, showing no regard for his personal welfare.
About 10:00 p.m., the Confederate attacks ceased, though sporadic musket fire continued for some time. At the same time, Union Brigadier General Thomas Kane’s 2d Brigade of the 2d Division returned and was followed soon by the other XII Corps units. For the second time that day, a Union flank had bent but not broken. The left flank had been severely pressed on Little Round Top, but Chamberlain and his 20th Maine had stood firm. Now the right flank had been tested, and it too had been saved by a small, gutsy force and a gallant leader.
Fire opened up again about 4:00 a.m. the next day as the Confederates tried one last time to take Culp’s Hill. But lacking a demonstration by Longstreet on the Union left, and with the entire Union XII Corps back in place on the hill, three more Confederate attacks proved fruitless. Ewell withdrew his frustrated forces late in the morning, and tired Federal soldiers fetched water down at Rock Creek. There, they tallied the awesome price their foes had paid trying to unseat them. Greene reported 391 dead Rebels immediately in front of his works. His men found another 150 corpses on the creek’s banks and roughly 2,000 muskets strewn all over the hill. Adding the 130 prisoners captured, Greene estimated the Confederate losses at 2,400, including several officers. By contrast, the 3d Brigade’s losses amounted to a mere 307 killed, wounded, and missing.
Greene’s service as a field commander did not end at Gettysburg. The aging general fought on until a Confederate bullet struck him in the face at the Battle of Wauhatchie, Tennessee, in October 1863. Though he briefly returned to the battlefield in 1865, his duty had been served. He was breveted a major general of volunteers before he marched in the Grand Review of the Armies in Washington just after the war. He performed his last act as an officer as a member of a courts-martial panel, on which he served until early 1866.
After the war, Greene returned to civil engineering and worked diligently to compile his proud family’s genealogy. He lived until 1899 — a vigorous old warhorse until the end.
The magnitude of Greene’s heroic defense of Culp’s Hill cannot easily be overstated. Had Ewell’s forces overwhelmed the small Union force, the Federal rear would have been exposed to direct attack, and the Army of the Potomac, with Confederates already in place in its left and center fronts, would then have been encircled. The fight that Greene’s stalwart men put up on the night of July 2 ranks among the best of any Civil War brigade. Anything less than their tireless, courageous effort would have given the Confederates victory. Greene offered his troops his “hearty commendations for the good rendered their country.” Greene also credited Slocum, who had seen the danger in leaving the hill unprotected, with “having saved the army from a great and perhaps fatal disaster.”
Although Greene credited others for the victory, he was the true hero. Since his reentry into the army as the 60th New York’s colonel in January 1862, his hard-driving style had brought him much praise and a promotion. He had led a division at Antietam in September 1862, skillfully managing limited resources to give his men every advantage possible. At Gettysburg Greene remained conspicuous, constantly moving along his lines to encourage his besieged troops.
Greene’s most important contribution at Gettysburg was his early-morning decision to construct breastworks. At that point in the war, many officers on both sides still opposed their use. Confederate General John Bell Hood, for example, felt they “would imperil that spirit of devil-me-care independence and self-reliance” that supposedly helped make Confederate troops effective. Some thought breastworks diminished soldiers’ courage. Not Greene; he believed human lives were too important to be sacrificed to bravado and unproved theories.
Without the protection of breastworks, Greene’s heavily outnumbered brigade probably would have been swept from the hill, to the great peril of the Union army. Under Greene’s direction, the works were perfectly located, and constructed not only to protect the defenders but also to conceal them. Thus the 4,000 to 5,000 attackers did not know their enemy was a mere 1,350 men. Greene’s 25 years as an engineer, designing and building railroads and waterworks such as the Central Park Reservoir in New York City, had paid off. And his aggressive leadership style made him the ideal man to lead the defense of Culp’s Hill.
Joshua Chamberlain became a national hero after the Battle of Gettysburg. Glory, however, did not immediately come to George Sears Greene. Part of the reason for Greene’s relative obscurity is that even his fellow Rhode Islanders were slow to lionize him. They reserved most of their adulation for another native of their state, the equally devoted but less skilled Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, partly because Burnside had marched off to war in 1861 in command of Rhode Islanders. Greene, on the other hand, was employed in New York when the war broke out, and he received his commission in 1862 from the Empire State’s governor, Edwin Morgan. Consequently, he led New York troops almost exclusively during the war. Still, the main factor in Greene’s passage into obscurity may well have been that Meade did not properly credit Greene or his scrappy New York troops in his official report on the Gettysburg Campaign.
Slocum waged a lively campaign to correct that oversight. On December 30, 1863, he wrote a letter to Meade proclaiming, “the failure of the enemy to gain possession of our works was due entirely to the skill of General Greene and the heroic valor of his troops.” Meade’s failure to acknowledge that fact in his report, the letter continued, was an “injustice which not even time can correct.” Meade agreed that Greene’s efforts were heroic and countered that he did not properly credit the Rhode Island general only because his subordinates had misinformed him. He made some meek attempts to have the record changed, but with little effect.
Others had immediately realized the importance of Greene’s efforts and had never forgotten it. At an 1888 ceremony to dedicate a monument to the 3d Brigade, Longstreet gave Greene and his New Yorkers “the credit of having successfully prevented the Confederates from turning Meade’s right flank.” Longstreet, a friend of Greene’s in the antebellum U.S. Army and a circumstantial enemy at Gettysburg, left Greene that day in 1888 with the highest praise: “There was no better officer in either army.”
This article was written by Eric Ethier and originally published in the December 1997 issue of Civil War Times Magazine. For more great articles, be sure to subscribe to Civil War Times magazine today!