Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Christopher Greene Papers Finding Aid

The Swain Report, Number 7

Christopher Greene was an important figure in the American Revolution. Raised in Rhode Island and a member of a prominent New England family, Greene served in various capacities throughout the Revolutionary War, but is most noted for serving as a Colonel in the Rhode Island militia, where he organized a regiment of former slaves to support the Revolution. Greene was killed in battle leading this regiment in 1781. In 2009, the DLAR acquired his papers from the Rhode Island Historical Society. Below, David Swain gives a detailed account of Greene’s life and of the collection’s content, most of which relates to Greene’s military service.

Patrick Spero

Christopher Greene Papers

by David Swain

Biographical Information

Christopher Greene (1737-1781) was a member of the large and prominent Greene family of Rhode Island, a third cousin to General Nathanael Greene. Christopher’s father died when he was 24, leaving him the family mill estate and business, which he ran until he joined the Rhode Island contingent of the Revolutionary Army in 1775 at the age of 38. Before the Revolution, he also served several terms in the Rhode Island colonial legislature.

Greene entered the army as a lieutenant. In 1775, he commanded a regiment in the army that attacked Quebec under Benedict Arnold. He was captured and spent eight months in captivity before being exchanged. After his release, he was promoted, in June 1776, to major and assigned to the First Rhode Island Regiment, which he commanded (as a lieutenant colonel?) beginning in February 1777. Later that year, he was promoted in early October to colonel and placed in command of Fort Mercer, NJ (just downstream from Philadelphia, across the Delaware River from Fort Mifflin, PA; the two forts were designed as a pair to isolate British-held Philadelphia from the rest of the British forces). Fort Mercer was more commonly known as Red Bank (the site of a monument and park today). On October 22, 1777, the fort was attacked by Hessians, who were repulsed with heavy losses.

By 1778, Greene was back in Rhode Island, in time for the Battle of Rhode Island in August. Earlier that year, responding to the difficulty in recruiting sufficient men for the Continental Army, the Rhode Island General Assembly voted to allow African American and Indian slaves to enlist, granting them their freedom after service. Colonel Christopher Greene was put in charge of training these recruits. They were organized, along with white recruits (segregated into separate companies) into the First Rhode Island Regiment of Infantry. Apparently Rhode Island’s segregated approach was unique among the states; others allowed nonwhites to serve within regular (mostly white) companies. Greene’s “Black Regiment,” now commanded by his close friend Major Samuel Ward Jr., distinguished itself during the Battle of Rhode Island.

Samuel Ward Jr. was the fifth son of Governor Samuel Ward of Rhode Island. He had served under Greene during the ill-fated campaign to capture Quebec in 1775. In 1777 and 1778, he was serving as a major, again with Greene, in the First Rhode Island. Ward and Greene saw action together at Red Bank in 1777 and at the Battle of Rhode Island in 1778. In April 1779, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel, replacing Adam Comstock, who had resigned, as commander of the First Rhode Island. NOTE: Some of this information does not seem to square with the documents in this collection. Despite the Continental Army’s considerable efforts to maintain written records during the Revolutionary War, a degree of confusion still seems to reign.

By 1781, some of Greene’s “black” troops were still with him, when they made their headquarters on the Croton River in Westchester County, NY (the Croton River flows into the Hudson River from the NE just north of Ossining, NY). On May 13 or 14, loyalists attacked the headquarters, killing several black soldiers and Greene. Since his body was reportedly considerably mutilated, conjecture has suggested that his death was perpetrated as retribution for his having led black soldiers against the British Crown. At his death, Greene was 43 years old. In 1829, New Jersey and Pennsylvania Revolutionary War veterans erected a monument in Greene’s memory at Red Bank.

Microfilmed Documents

The David Library owns a microfilm copy of Christopher Greene papers, which are housed at the Rhode Island Historical Society Library (MSS 455). This small collection contains the following:

-- Orderly Book October 5, 1776 to June 11, 1777
-- Orderly Book July 12, 1777 to July 22, 1779
-- Book of Returns July 24, 1777 to July 29, 1780
-- Miscellaneous papers 1777 to 1781

Orderly Books

Orderly books (and written records in general) appear to have been a relatively new thing during the Revolutionary War. On January 1, 1776, General Washington issued a general order requiring the use of orderly books throughout the Continental Army. For most of prior military history, most of the combatants had been illiterate, and detailed written records were not kept. The Americans learned about this “modern invention” while cooperating with the British military during the French and Indian War—thus providing to present-day researchers of the Revolutionary period a valuable new source of detailed, written information on military routines, activities, practices, and life. Orderly books were kept at various levels of military command, including at least general headquarters, division, brigade, regiment, and garrison. The orderly books in the Greene papers include orders at all of these levels except for division. (A useful web source on this subject is A Brief Profile of Orderly Books by John K. Robertson and Bob McDonald, © 1999-2005, at www.revwar75.com/ob/nature.htm.)

Although orderly books were expected to contain certain contents in each daily entry, writers of the two orderly books in the Greene papers differ on whether they recorded each expected item each day and on the order in which they recorded the items. The daily content, if completely entered, included:

-- Location and date of the entry.
-- Listing of the officer(s) of the day.
- Designation of a “parole” and a “countersign” for the day. These were passwords known only to certain officers and changed daily. Each password each day could be any recognizable word.
-- Table of guard details for the day, usually including at least the last names of the guards.
-- Written-out orders, most from the brigade, regiment, or garrison level but occasionally from the general headquarters level. Commanders at various levels included among their “orders” announcements of important events (especially victories in battle), pep talks to their troops, and occasionally summaries of Congressional action of special interest. Orders at various levels also included often detailed descriptions of courts martial, of which a number are recorded in these two orderly books.

Since orderly books were official military records, one might expect them to be written with careful and clear penmanship. Although such was often not the case (see Robertson and McDonald, cited above), these two orderly books are, indeed, quite clearly written. Even though orderly books often were written by relatively low-ranking sergeants, not all of whom would be expected to have achieved a high level of education and literacy, these two orderly books seem to have been penned by men with some degree of capacity with the language. The orders are all written with a high degree of formality and impersonality, in the third person, making the resulting writing seem stilted to modern readers. Despite the formality, punctuation is often absent, depending on the writer, and spelling is, as usual in this era, flexible and creative.

These two orderly books cover periods of time between October 1776 and July 1779. Nowhere within the books themselves is written evidence found identifying the brigade, regiment, or garrison for which the books are kept. Nor do the books clearly identify the ranks and duties of Christopher Greene himself at various times during this period. Only in the second book do we actually find a reference by name and rank to Colonel Christopher Greene, then the commander of the garrison at Red Bank. While the orderly-book entries identify locations, these often are geographically obscure, especially when the only location reference is “headquarters.” Only through other sources can the micro-level, daily details contained in these orderly books be placed in the larger context of the Revolutionary War conflict. Conversely, only through other sources can the details of the movements and activities of the First Rhode Island Regiment of Infantry and of the military service of Christopher Greene be fully understood in relation to the contents of the two orderly books.

The first orderly book in the Greene papers details activities of a military unit under the command of General Charles Lee. Daily entries from October 5 through November 28, 1776, identify locations including “Head Quarters,” “Mile Square,” and “North Castle.” A reference is also made to “Harlem” (see below). Lee’s troops are known to have been operating during this time on both sides of the Hudson River, just north of the city of New York. In October 1776, Lee was one of several American commanders involved in a successful battle against the British at White Plains, NY (in Westchester County). Although the headquarters location in the orderly book cannot be identified geographically, clues exist concerning the other three locations mentioned. A Google search yielded a modern-day “Mile Square Restaurant” on Washington Street in Hoboken, NJ. Whether this is the Mile Square of the orderly book cannot be discerned, but it is in the right vicinity. North Castle is identifiable as a modern-day town in Westchester County, NY. Harlem, then a separate town, is now a well-known New York City neighborhood in the northern part of Manhattan Island.

Shortly after the last consecutive daily entry in the orderly book on November 28, General Lee got publicly drunk in a Basking Ridge, NJ tavern on the evening of December 13 and was ignominiously captured by the British early the following morning. What happened to the First Rhode Island and to Greene after Lee’s indiscretion and during the winter of 1776 is not recorded in the first orderly book.

This orderly book contains some interesting entries during this period that tell of a military effort yet young and not yet fully organized. Although many of the orders reflect the “normal” routine of military life, some appear elementary or even whimsical. Others provide information from higher levels of authority. For instance:

-- On October 5, “If any Brigadier Major is Sick Or other wise unable to Attend, the Brigadier Comanding is to Signify to the Adjutant General & Recommend some suitable Person in his Stead.”

-- On October 7, concerning the procurement of wood “…intended for the Purpose of Providing Wood & [ ? ] hutts for guard which at least Ought not to be Delay’d A moment.” Furthermore, “Brigadier & officer Comanding Regiments Are to Present the Homigeneous & Irregular Placing of Hutts & to see that they are Built in Such a Manner as to Stand the Weather and Weight of Snow wch may Lodge on them that no accident may befall the men…”

-- On October 8, discipline was the issue: “The Comanding officer of the Rangers Representing that soldiers are Continually Stragling down to Harlem and other Places frequently without Arms & that when he has apprehended them & sent to their Regimts No farther Notice hath been taken of them---….As this is a Plain Breach of Order the Gen’l [apparently General Charles Lee] hopes there is some mistake in the matter, however to Prevent it in future he now orders that no officer nor soldier /Rangers Excepted/ go on any Distance Beyond the lines without Leave from himself.”

-- On October 9, “The Gen’l Positively forbids Covering the Bottom of the tents with Earth as a few days in this Situation must Render them Totally Unfit for Service—the Comanding Officer of each Corps will take Care to See that this Order is Strictly Complied with in his own Encampment.”

-- On October 22, “Gen’l Lee’s Orders the Present Situation of Affairs will Render it Probable that the Army will be in almost Perpetual Motion Gen’l Lee recommends…officers to Curtail the baggage as much as Possible It is with great surprise that he has seen chairs & tables & even Desks heaped in the Waggons.”

-- On October 26, “…thinks it necessary to Inform the officers & Soldiers that in such a Broken Country full of stone walls” the enemy can best be subdued by not letting them “leave the roads so that any Party attacking them may be sure of Doing it to advantage by taking posts in the woods along the Roads or Along the stone walls…”
-- Here is an official reference to and recommendation of what the British insisted were “unfair” American fighting tactics.

-- On November 10, a reference to recruiting incentives being offered ($20 bounty plus a promise of 100 acres of land after service plus existing levels of pay and rations) “to continue during the Present Contest with Great Britain Such ample Encouragement it is not Doubted will Induce Every true Lover of his Country to engage in its Defense to preserve it from the Horrors of Slavery & the Divastation of a Cruel & Barbarous Enemy—no boys under the Idia [?] of Waters or old.”

-- On November 11, “The Gen’l congratulates the army on the total Defeat of the Cherokees by Col. Christian by which the Tranquility of the Southern States is insured he must also wish them Joy with the retreat of the Enemy from Ticonderoga which gives Safety to the Northern states…”
These congratulations were perhaps received happily by the troops but neither tranquility nor safety lasted long.

After November 28, the orderly book is silent until entries begin again on June 7, 1777, at a camp near Morristown (NJ). This segment lasts only until June 11, where the first orderly book ends.

The second orderly book begins about a month later, on July 12, 1777, now at a headquarters at Middlebrook, near Peekskill, NY. By August 9, the location was Fort Clinton, NY (north of Peekskill on the west side of the Hudson River, just south of the present-day town of Fort Montgomery). Routines continued from day to day, with clearer and more organized daily entries than in the first book, and in a different hand (or hands?). Through much of this time, the daily entries were signed by (or attributed to?) Lieutenant Colonel Adam Comstock, who did serve in (and probably command) the First Rhode Island Regiment. These entries are the most clearly penned, best organized, and most complete among those in the two orderly books. Two interesting examples of “newsy” entries during the period of entries between July 12 and September 20, 1777 are as follows:

-- On August 24, the announcement of an American victory at Bennington. Besides listing the numbers of wounded and killed on each side, the announcement included the following interesting list of enemy “taken” or captured by the American forces: 1 lieutenant colonel, 1 major, 5 captains, 4 ensigns, 2 constitutional judge advocates, 1 baron, 1 Cannadian officer, 3 surgeons, 37 British soldiers, 398 Hessians, 38 Cannadians, and 151 Tories. How the judges got mixed up in the battle is not clear. This announcement concludes patriotically, “…May Confusion and Defeat attend all the Enemies to American Freedom.”

-- On September 19, a statement from General Washington dated September 5 reported on the British advance toward Philadelphia. Despite this unhappy information (soon to be confirmed when Philadelphia was occupied on September 26), Washington waxed optimistic in his message to the troops with hope for an early end to the conflict “in the next campaign.”

A break in the entries occurs between September 21 and October 10, 1777. When the entries resume on October 11, the location is Red Bank, NJ (Fort Mercer). Now, orders are “garrison orders,” and the orderly book identifies Colonel Greene as the commander. It didn’t take long for the war to come to Greene, at his new location in his new command, when Hessian soldiers attacked the fort on October 22. Philadelphia had been occupied by the British just weeks before on September 26. Forts Mercer and Mifflin, astride the Delaware River just south of Philadelphia, were supposed to cut off communications, supplies, and support to Philadelphia from the rest of the British forces. Clearly, the British command decided early to test one of these forts, using Hessian mercenaries. During a bloody struggle, the Americans under Greene successfully repulsed the Hessians. The orderly book contains no mention of this “action” until three days later, and then only indirectly (see below).

-- On October 16, the daily entry reports the news of Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga, received by “express” from General Washington. The orders go on to reflect Colonel Greene’s own message to his troops, “…on which history [announcement of the victory] the Colonel heartily congratulates the Garrison and hopes the same Heroick Valour with Victory will attend the Troops under his command when ever they may have an opportunity to distinguish themselves in Battle---” The Colonel then proceeded to order “that Fatigue Rum be for the whole Garrison---”.

-- On October 25, three days after the unsuccessful and bloody Hessian attack on the fort at Red Bank, an order required the troops to turn in any and all articles taken from the bodies of wounded or dead Hessians.

By December, Greene’s troops were on the march, staying briefly at places identified as “White Marsh” and then “at the Guelph,” and arriving at Valley Forge on December 20. Once in camp, the orders immediately reflect the hardships of life during the 1777-78 winter at Valley Forge. White Marsh is now a part of Middlesex, NJ, up the Raritan River from Perth Amboy. “The Guelph” may be in modern day Port Monmouth, NJ, on the southern shore of Raritan Bay. However, these two locations do not line up with a plausible land route to Valley Forge. Perhaps the troops went by boat for a part of this journey.

-- On December 22, this entry appeared: “The Suffering of the Soldiers gives the Greatest pain to the major….he is however pleased to see that they Preserve their accustomed Courage and bear up with fortitude and Patitence against Continual hard ships…”
The major is probably Samuel Ward Jr. (see above).

No entries exist for December 24 and 25, 1777. Christmas probably wasn’t much fun for the troops at Valley Forge, despite the recent pep talk from their leader. After entries for January 1 and 2, 1778, another break occurs in the orderly book, a lengthy one this time.

The lengthy break in entries between January 2, 1778 and May 29, 1779, occurs during (and thus excludes information on) some of the more interesting events in Greene’s military career—his training of a newly formed, segregated First Rhode Island Regiment in Providence and his/its involvement in the August 1778 Battle of Rhode Island.

When entries begin again on May 29, 1779, nearly a year after the Battle of Rhode Island, the location is headquarters at Providence, RI. An early entry here shows that discipline remained a problem, especially since these Rhode Island solders were essentially at camp adjacent to their home town. One order in June warns officers against going into the town. Another addresses the problem of “women following the soldiers in camp.” The second orderly book ends abruptly after the entry for July 22, 1779 without any sense of closure or ending.

However, two pages at the end of this orderly book present a curious anomaly. They contain a ship-log record of a sea voyage (something not at all unfamiliar to Rhode Islanders). The first and last entries are as follows (numbers rounded off):

Date N. Latitude W. Longitude
Saturday, July 14 60 degrees 4 degrees
Monday, August 6 29 degrees 17 degrees

These coordinates indicate a voyage from Bergen, Norway to the Canary Islands. The year of the voyage is not identified. It may or may not have been made in the Revolutionary era. Given the days of the week identified, possibilities for the year in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries include: 1770, 1781, 1792, 1798, 1804, 1810, 1821, 1827, 1832, etc. This addition to a Revolutionary War orderly book remains an intriguing mystery.

Book of Returns

In Revolutionary War military jargon, a “return” is a weekly tabular tally of troops. For Colonel Christopher Greene’s First Rhode Island Regiment, this included tallies by company, totaled for the regiment. Each weekly tally includes details by rank, separately for commissioned, staff, and non-commissioned officers and for rank and file soldiers. “Alterations” in returns are also noted, including those dead, deserted, enlisted, discharged, or on furlough. “Ready for duty” soldiers are distinguished from those sick and present, sick absent, or “on command” in other places. Notes often explain situations such as “on command.”

The book of returns in the Greene papers covers the period from July 24, 1777 to July 29, 1780 with consecutive weekly reports for lengthy periods of time but also two lengthy winter breaks (from December 7, 1777 through June 9, 1778 and from December 25, 1779 through June 20, 1780).

On July 24, 1777, Lieutenant Colonel Comstock was in command of the First Rhode Island. However, by September 19, Colonel Greene was in command and remained so through the end of the book. Greene clearly had his own ideas about how to write a proper return. Below the September 19 return, he penned in “The Clerk will for the future enter the Returns the other way of the Paper.” His order was promptly implemented the following week, the table being laid out in “landscape” rather than the previous “portrait” format. Returns during this period also added the location of the troops and expanded the table of ranks. After June 1778, all the locations identified are in Rhode Island.

Researchers can glean interesting information from these returns. The tallies themselves help to determine troop strength and military organization. Where the location is listed, it can help to determine the movements and actions of military units. Although the names of most of the troops are not identified, the commander is, along with the captain in charge of each company. During the period of these returns, the First Rhode Island Regiment of Foot (as it was formally called) contained between 2 and 8 companies. A company generally contained between 30 and 50 rank and file soldiers. The regiment generally had approximately between 18 and 35 officers leading between 100 and 250 soldiers.

Patterns exist in the troop levels in the regiment, but their significance is not revealed in the returns themselves. In late 1777 and early 1778, the regiment contained 8 companies. In July it was reduced to 6, and by September it had only 5 companies. The Battle of Rhode Island, fought on August 29, 1778, seems to have decimated the regiment. (In African Americans in the Revolutionary War (New York, Citadel Press, 2005), Michael Lee Lanning reports 3 killed, 9 wounded, and 11 missing). In December, for reasons not clear, the First Rhode Island was redesignated the Second Rhode Island, still with the same commander and five companies with the same captains. In October 1779, it was redesignated the First Rhode Island once again. By late June 1780, the regiment was down to only 4 companies, and by July 29 it had only 2 companies with 98 rank and file soldiers led by 17 officers. In February 1781 the First and Second Rhode Island Regiments were combined into a single Rhode Island Regiment.

Following the last completed return on July 29, 1780 is found a single, blank form, ready for the next entries to be made.

Following that is a two-page, undated list, by name and rank, of 66 rank and file soldiers. Eleven of these are identified as having deserted. Perhaps these were the last soldiers of the First Rhode Island before it was disbanded as a separate regiment.

Finally, another two-page list contains the names, ranks, and dates of “casualties” since December 24, 1779. These are not, however, wounded soldiers. The causes of becoming a “casualty” include being dead, deserted, or discharged.

We know from other sources that many of the soldiers in the First Rhode Island were African Americans. One would never know it from the Book of Returns, or from the Orderly Books, even though the soldiers were reportedly organized into segregated companies.

Miscellaneous Papers

Seven items are included in this brief last part of the reel. Among them are the following:

-- A letter from Colonel Greene to John Foster, dated East Greenwich, RI, May 22, 1779, notifying Foster that the sloop George had been captured by Americans and that the ship’s papers were enclosed.

-- A debit account book, which contains, among other items, documentation of “An Amount of Sugar Delivered to Col Greene’s & Angel’s Officers in May, June, & July 1778.” (Colonel Israel Angell was commander of the Second Rhode Island Regiment.)

-- A three-page letter to Colonel Greene at Portsmouth, RI, dated Newport, RI, July 26, 1780 from Lafayette. The letter was evidently handwritten by the Marquis himself. Unfortunately, it has been subjected to water damage and is not completely legible. The last paragraph reads as follows: “Governor Greene having Been Requested immediately to take out [ ? ] the Militia of the State, we desire you will use your influence to make them turn out as soon as possible—the enemy are expected in June [?] and we must hurry our preparations…” This Greene who was governor was William Greene, second governor of the State of Rhode Island, from 1778 to 1786. Christopher Greene must have been related somehow to this governor. The father of this William Greene, also William Greene, had served as colonial governor of Rhode Island before the Revolution.

-- An unsigned letter dated May 1781 on the “death of Col. Greene.” This document identifies Greene’s mission in the Croton River area as being a part of the “advanced guards” of the American Army. According to this account, a certain Col. DeLancy was commanding “a regiment of freebooters, who subsisted on plunder gained without pay.” They are said to have surprised Greene’s camp, killing several, including Greene and one of his long-time company captains named Flagg. The document reports that Flagg was interred locally along with “the inhumanly mangled corps of his Colonel.”

Have something you want to share, such as a question, research find, or a personal story about the Library? Email Will Tatum at tatum@dlar.org


  1. In regard to the last entry on this page. My ancestors were involved. My ancestors' pension application states that "May 178_?? he (Jacob Cypher) and his Father and Brother were part of an action whereby his brother was killed an his father was wounded. It is very hard to read. This action would have taken place around Tarrytown NY. I'd like to research the happening further as the father is my 5th great grandfather, Johannis Cypher (Siffer, Syffer, et al). It mentions Flagg and Greene. Is there any way that I could find out more?? Thank you.

  2. here is the page of the pension affidavit mentioning the above https://www.fold3.com/image/15225982?xid=1945&_ga=2.235041222.635363092.1558113405-468039189.1495812654