"Old Man Greene," his soldiers called him, or sometimes, "Old Pop"--at sixty-two, George Green was the oldest general in the army. He was far from doddering or ineffectual, however. He was a hardy war-horse, a man who spent most of his time in the saddle, an officer who insisted on hard drilling and discipline in camp and hard fighting on the battlefield. Harsh in his manner, Greene was not a man who won immediate affection, but those under his command soon learned to appreciate his ability. He was a colorful figure, with a full head of silver hair, huge mustachios, a large grizzled spade beard, and an easy-going style of dress that made him look more like a farmer than an Old Army regular.

To the New Yorkers of his brigade, most of whom were under twenty-one, the old man seemed an ancient out of the Revolution or the War of 1812. In fact (though he was a relative of Revolutionary War hero Nathaniel Greene), he was the son of a shipowner who was financially ruined by the War of 1812, a native of Warwick, Rhode Island. It had been intended that young George would enter the great Rhode Island institution Brown University, but his father's sudden plunge into poverty made this impossible, so instead George went to New York, where he could work. He received an appointment to West Point, and graduated 2nd in his class of 35 cadets in 1823. In view of his high ranking, he was posted to the artillery. For thirteen years, he interspersed teaching engineering at the Academy with dull garrison duty in New England. Restless, he left the army to enter civil engineering, and for the next quarter century, he built railroads and designed municipal sewage and water systems for Washington, Detroit, and several other cities. The Central Park reservoir in New York City was his handiwork, along with the enlarged High Bridge over the Harlem River.

Then the Civil War came. Greene didn't re-enter the army in the first rush, as most West Point men did. He waited until January 1862, and then he quit work on the Croton Reservoir in Central Park to take command of the 60th New York volunteer regiment, men from New York State's "North Country" along the St. Lawrence River. In April 1862 he was promoted to brigadier general, and in May was given command of his brigade. His first duty was in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, but Greene and his men did no fighting there.

Greene's first fight came instead at Cedar Mountain in August 1862, where he succeeded to the command of the division after Brig. Gen. Christopher Augur was wounded and Augur's first replacement, Brig. Gen. Henry Prince, was captured. He was praised by Maj. Gen. John Pope and Augur after the battle.

Greene led the division through the Battle of Second Bull Run, where it was only lightly engaged, then continued to lead it through the Battle of Antietam in September, where he pushed his brigades forward, alone, in the strongest penetration of the Rebel left flank all day. He received no support in his exposed position, however, and after holding it for several hours, was forced to retreat. In October, command of the division was transferred to Brig. Gen. John Geary, who had returned to the army after being wounded at Cedar Mountain and who outranked Greene (Geary's appointment to brigadier general pre-dated Greene's by three days). Greene went back to leading his brigade, which was reorganized in April 1863 so as to be composed entirely of New York regiments.

At Chancellorsville, Greene again assumed division command in the middle of heavy fighting after Geary was knocked unconscious by a near hit from a cannonball. Greene's brigade of New Yorkers, meanwhile, fought well, but, assaulted from two directions, lost a terrific 528 men before falling back.

By the summer of 1863, "Pop" Greene was a seasoned veteran, with plenty of battle experience in high command at Cedar Mountain, Antietam, and Chancellorsville. He had been in command of his brigade for more than a year, since the Shenandoah Campaign.

At Gettysburg
Greene and his New Yorkers arrived with the rest of Geary's division by the Baltimore Pike shortly after 5:00 in the afternoon of July 1. He was directed to the army's left, where Greene's men spent the night on Little Round Top.

Moved to Culp's Hill the next morning, Greene's engineering skill proved invaluable to the army when he convinced his reluctant superior Brig. Gen. John Geary to permit the men to construct defensive fieldworks to strengthen their positions along the crest. Early that evening, after the rest of the Twelfth Corps had been marched away from Culp's Hill to reinforce the Union left against Longstreet's assault and Greene's brigade was left alone to defend the hill, his preparations proved crucial when he was attacked by the entire Stonewall Division. Greene's men were able to hang on to their section of the line against a hillside full of surging Confederates. Greene's tenacious defense saved Culp's Hill--the key to the army's right--and thereby turned back a serious threat to the entire Union position at Gettysburg. Corps commander Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum attributed "the failure of the enemy to gain possession of our works . . . entirely to the skill of General Greene and the heroic valor of his troops."

When the rest of Geary's division returned after dark that night, they found the enemy in possession of their lines, and filed into positions protected by Greene's weary defenders until resumption of the battle in the morning. At daybreak, around 4:00 A.M. on July 3, the fighting for the hill resumed, with Greene's men still on the crest where the bullets flew the thickest. By 11:00 that morning, the Rebels had been pushed out of the lines they had captured the night before, and the Union army's right flank was again safe.

In the fighting of July 2 and 3, Greene's men had done the lion's share of the fighting by the Twelfth Corps, and suffered 303 casualties, more than any other brigade in the corps.

After his distinguished performance in a crisis at Gettysburg, Greene continued in command of his brigade until he was severely wounded in the face at the battle of Wauhatchie near Chattanooga on October 29, 1863.

For further reading:
Greene, George Sears. "The Breastworks at Culp's Hill."in Johnson and Buel, eds. Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. 3, New York, 1884-7
Motts, Wayne E. "To Gain a Second Star: The Forgotten George S. Greene." Gettysburg Magazine 3, Jul 1990

Excerpted from "The Generals of Gettysburg: The Leaders of America's Greatest Battle" by Larry Tagg