Henry Atwell Greene
Co. G, 1st California Infantry
Co. B, 2nd U.S. Veteran Volunteer Infantry
4 X Great-grand-uncle of Sebastian Nelson
Henry Atwell Greene was born in North Smithfield, Rhode Island on October 26, 1826 to Samuel and Ruth Greene. Henry’s early life was spent working as a machinist in New England and Indiana, and on August 28, 1851 he married Mary Ann Hawks in Providence, Rhode Island. Less than six months later, Henry left Rhode Island for California. Henry’s military records state that he arrived in California in February of 1852, and for the next nine years Henry worked as a mining engineer in California and Nevada. Flooding along the Sacramento River and fires in San Francisco, however, wiped out most of Henry’s earnings. Henry was living in Nevada City, California in 1861 and he had apparently decided to return to Rhode Island when the war began. Although Henry had been a private in the Nevada Rifles, a local militia unit, he decided to raise a company of infantry at his own expense.
Henry set up headquarters in Nevada City’s Metropolitan Theater, and according to the Nevada City Morning Transcript newspaper of June 13, 1861 “Mr. H. A. Greene is gradually swelling his roll of recruits at his rendezvous at the Theater…Mr. Greene is pleased with his prospects, and is confident of raising a full company, in Nevada county, within a week.” A fortnight later Henry was elected captain of this new company of infantry. According to one contemporary, Henry’s new recruits “would doubtless prefer a campaign in Virginia or down the line of the Mississippi, still they ought not to hesitate to march wherever duty calls them.” Duty did call, and Henry and his men would be mustered into federal service as Company G of the First California Volunteer Infantry Regiment.
According to the surviving diary of George Hand, one of Henry’s sergeants, “Capt. H. A. Greene of Co. ‘G,’ known by some as Humpy from his round shoulders, by others as Shoulder Arms or Right Face from the way he speaks the command. He showed his incapacity to command a company at the start and gets no better fast.” In spite of his inexperience, Henry and his company received orders to participate in what one writer called California’s “one lone example of what might be termed contact between the Union and Confederate forces” during the Civil War. On November 27th, Major Edwin A. Rigg ordered Henry and his men, who by now were stationed in San Diego county, to the San Jose Valley (about fifty miles northeast of San Diego). They were ordered to capture a band of heavily armed Confederate sympathizers led by a California Assembly Member named Dan Showalter which was trying to head back east to join the rebel army. According to Henry’s report, “on my arrival at Santa Isabel scouts were sent to learn the movements of the enemy. At 12m the scouts returned, informing me of the capture of the enemy.” Another unit had apprehended Showalter’s men without any resistance.
By the middle of 1862, Henry and his company, along with over 2,000 other California troops, began their march into Arizona, New Mexico and west Texas to repulse efforts by the Confederate government to seize the southwest. Company G did not participate in any engagements with rebel troops, but were instead busy with garrison duties and battles with Indians. On April 3, 1863, Henry established Fort McRae (named after a Union cavalry officer killed the year before at the Battle of Valverde) in New Mexico Territory, about 120 miles northwest of El Paso, Texas. Fort McRae was founded to protect travelers from Apache attacks along a nearby route called the Jornada del Muerto. For the next year Henry and his men scouted for Apache rustlers. In August of 1863 Henry led twenty men for almost 200 miles and recovered 1,600 sheep from the Apaches. Four months later Henry and seven men recovered 200 sheep from the Apaches in the Sierra Caballo mountains. In August of 1864 Henry and his men recovered nineteen head of cattle, but only after a brief skirmish during which three Apaches were killed (their scalps were brought back to Fort McRae as gruesome trophies).
Henry’s performance as a soldier was praised by some of his fellow officers. According to a report from August of 1864 written by Lieutenant Colonel Clarence E. Bennett, Henry “is a splendid officer and is truly deserving great credit.”
Brigadier General Joseph R. West wrote to Henry in a letter from August of 1863 that “the zeal which you and your men display renders it unnecessary for me to prompt you to further efforts.” Sergeant Hand, however, regarded Henry with disdain. According to his diary, “it is a shame and an outrage on good and loyal men to allow such a man as Capt. H. A. G. to hold office in the army of a free nation. He is known (not only by every man in his co. but by all officers in this department) to be a thief and a robber, and to allow good men to be commanded by such men is worse than a shame, it is an insult. And worse than all, to ask them to enlist for three years more under such men is trying to rub it in…if ever a man deserved the ill will of a company and a ball and chain from a court martial, it is certainly Capt. H. A. Greene.” Hand’s feelings towards Henry were sometimes tempered, however. At a new year’s banquet in 1864, Hand wrote that “the best thing of the day was the Captain’s toast, which was, as near as I can recollect, as follows: ‘Fill up your tin cups and all rise.’ He then stretched out his arm full length, and with a faltering voice and trembling frame pronounced these immortal words: ‘Is it not a splendid thing for an officer of the American Army?’ Well, I’m almost ashamed to remember it, as it came from my Captain, but as we are not very friendly it may not be out of place, so here it is – but first imagine a man unused to speaking or giving commands and nearly scared out of his wits: ‘Here’s to Co. ‘G’ who from danger never flee. May they live in prosperitee and be discharged in native Amerikee.’ I’ve no doubt but that he felt very proud of that. If he did, I’m glad to please him once.”
Regardless, Henry’s value as an officer was recognized by New Mexico’s Territorial Governor Henry Connelly, who on July 18, 1864 commissioned him a Major in the First New Mexico Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Henry and much of the First California Infantry were scheduled to be mustered out of the army at the end of August of 1864, and it may very well be that Henry’s superiors did not want to lose a valuable and experienced officer. Henry, however, declined this major’s commission in a letter dated August 14, 1864. Like many of his men, Henry was determined to see the war to its conclusion. While many of the men of Company G reenlisted and continued to serve in New Mexico, Henry decided to head back east. On February 6, 1865, Henry reenlisted and was commissioned Captain of Company B, Second U.S. Veteran Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He was assigned to the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp at Elmira, New York, where he served out the rest of the war. After the end of the war Henry remained in the army and was transferred to the fort at Sandy Hook, New Jersey. He eventually resigned his commission in August of 1866. Henry returned to Rhode Island and worked at various times for the Providence Police Department, as a traveling salesman, and as deputy collector of the port of Providence. Henry died of cirrhosis of the liver in Providence on June 22, 1903.