Orange County Branch Newsletter

November 2012

Secretary's Column

Secretary's Column - One of My American Civil Engineer Heroes

By Cindy Miller, PE

In my introductory Secretary’s Column last month, I mentioned that one of my passions is American history.  Most recently, my historical interests have been directed towards the Civil War. I continue to be impressed by the Ken Burns series, and I think I’ve read Gods and Generals and Killer Angels at least three times each, along with a variety of Civil War non-fiction.  So, it came as no surprise to my family last year when I started planning a trip back east to Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, with our entire itinerary centered around visiting historic Civil War sites, including Harper’s Ferry, Antietam, and of course Gettysburg.  Visiting each of these historic locations was like a pilgrimage, where I saw the history that I had been studying come to life before my eyes. It was a profound, humbling, and emotional experience.  But our trip to Gettysburg was particularly inspiring to me, for it was during this trip that I learned about a little known, but great Union leader who played an instrumental role in winning this historic battle by implementing his civil engineering know-how to successfully defend his position.  For those Civil War history buffs, you’ve probably figured out that I’m referring to Major General George Sears Greene. But I suspect many of you have never heard of this man. I know I had not, until I stumbled upon his history as part of our audio tour as we passed through Culp’s Hill.  So please indulge me as I tell you a little about this remarkable civil engineer hero.

At the age of 62, Major General Greene was one of the oldest generals in the Union Army during the Civil War. He had spent his early career as a military man, having graduated from West Point in 1823 and afterward spent 13 years in uniform, primarily teaching at the academy.  The next 25 years of his career, he worked as a civil engineer, rising to the top ranks of his profession.  He built railroads in six states and designed municipal sewage and water systems for Washington D.C., Detroit, and several other cities.  In New York City, he was part of the engineering team responsible for designing the Croton Aqueduct system. The picture below shows the Croton Reservoir, which George Sears Greene helped design.


On November 5, 1852, George Sears Greene was one of twelve civil engineers who attended a meeting at the Croton Aqueduct Department.  At the meeting, this group of civil engineers founded the American Society of Civil Engineers and Architects. Yes, George Sears Greene is one of ASCE’s founding fathers!

The Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run inspired Greene to return to Army service.  Because of his age, his troops took to calling him “Old Man” or “Pop” Greene. However, his age did not preclude him from being one of the most aggressive commanders in the army.  He commanded the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Division, XII Corps at the Battle of Cedar Mountain, and was temporarily elevated to command of his entire division at the Battle of Antietam.   But the Battle of Gettysburg was the highlight of General Greene’s military career.  On July 2, 1863, the Union commander, General George G. Meade shifted almost the entire XII Corps from the Union right to strengthen the left flank, which was under heavy attack.  Greene’s lone brigade was left to defend Culp’s Hill, which was located at the Union’s extreme right flank.  When Greene first arrived at Culp’s Hill early in the morning of July 2nd, he immediately realized his position demanded fortification.  Disregarding the objections of his division commander, Brigadier General John Geary, and corps commander, Henry W. Slocum, Greene ordered construction of breastworks to begin.  In Greene’s finest moment of the war, his civil engineering preparations proved decisive and his brigade held off multiple attacks for hours.  Late at night, the rest of the XII Corps returned to Culp’s Hill.  Greene’s contributions to this critical battle have never been widely heralded, principally because of a dispute between General Meade and Slocum over the filing of their official reports.  But a member of Greene’s brigade wrote, “Had the breastworks not been built, and had there only been the thin line of our unprotected brigade, that line must have been swept away like leaves before the wind, by the oncoming of so heavy a mass of troops, and the Baltimore Pike would have been reached by the enemy.”

After the war, George Greene returned to civil engineering in New York and Washington D.C.  At the age of 86, he inspected the entire 30-mile Croton Aqueduct structure on foot. He served as president of ASCE from 1875 to 1877. 
George Sears Greene died at the age of 98 in Morristown, New Jersey, and was buried in the Greene family cemetery in Warwick, Rhode Island, with a 2-ton boulder from Culp’s Hill placed above his grave.

I hope you enjoyed learning a little about George Sears Greene, as I have this past year!

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