Colonel Christopher Greene

Inducted: 1999
Born: 1737
Died: 1781

Christopher Greene (1737-1781) of Warwick, a direct descendant of Roger Williams and the second son of Judge Phillip and Elizabeth Wickes Greene, was one of Rhode Island’s most illustrious military figures of the American Revolution. Prior to the outbreak of war, Greene married Ann Lippitt, by whom he had nine children, and he engaged in economic activities in the Pawtuxet Valley that included a partnership in the operation of forges and sawmills. He also served as a deputy from Warwick in the state legislature. Christopher was a third cousin of Nathanael Greene, with whom he had a business relationship.

Tall and powerfully built, Greene was an inspiring leader who held positions of command from the outset of the conflict, commencing with the post of lieutenant in the Kentish Guards, a local militia group founded in 1774. In 1775, he led a battalion of troops in Benedict Arnold’s ill-fated expedition to seize Quebec, moving with the forces that went by boat up the Kennebec River and then marched through the woods to Quebec City. When the American assault failed in December 1775, Greene was captured and held until a prisoner exchange in August 1777. He then returned to active combat.

In October 1777, Greene made a stalwart defense of Fort Mercer at Red Bank, New Jersey, one of the forts constructed by the rebels along the Delaware River to guard the eastern approaches to Philadelphia. Greene held this installation with 400 men against an attacking force of 1,200 professional Hessian troops. When asked to surrender before battle, Greene allegedly replied to the Hessian commander Count Carl von Donop, “With these brave fellows, this fort will be my tomb.” When the Hessians attacked, Greene retreated to the inner walls, from which his troops subjected the attackers to withering fire. When the shooting stopped, 153 Hessians were dead, and over 200 were wounded, some mortally, including Donop. The American losses were 14 killed and 23 wounded.

In February 1778, the Rhode Island General Assembly chose Greene to enlist a battalion of slaves to serve as part of the First Rhode Island Regiment and bring that unit back to full strength, a proposal first advanced by Greene’s former commander, General James Mitchell Varnum. This now famous statute provided that “every able-bodied Negro, mulatto, or Indian man slave” having enlisted and “passing muster before Colonel Christopher Greene be immediately discharged from the service of his master or mistress, and be absolutely FREE, as though he had never been encumbered with any kind of servitude or slavery.” The act also provided for compensation to the master or mistress. The number of such men who enlisted to fight in return for their freedom is not certain; estimates vary from 130 to 181. But that they served with distinction under Greene at the Battle of Rhode Island on August 29, 1778, and in subsequent engagements is certain.

In early 1781, the First and Second Rhode Island Regiments (the entire state military force) were consolidated into one regiment because battle deaths and injuries had depleted each unit. Christopher Greene was the natural choice to command it. On May 14, 1781, at this regiment’s base on the Croton River above New York City, Colonel Greene was surprised and killed by a band of Tories. The attackers then carried his body into the woods and mutilated it, a tragic end for one of Rhode Island’s greatest Revolutionary warriors. A commonly advanced theory to explain such brutality was that it constituted retribution for leading black soldiers against the British crown.

Colonel Christopher Greene was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1999.

For additional reading:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.

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