Revolutionary War Historical Article
Recovering the Remains of General Nathanael Greene
By Gerald M. Carbone
Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the October 2006 Edition of the Liberty Tree Newsletter
SAVANNAH, GEORGIA --1901-- Rhythmically swinging their picks in an old graveyard, two men broke through the brick walls of a tomb; a stench soon tainted the springtime air. This red brick vault, like the other 10 vaults they had knocked open, was squat, not tall enough for a man to kneel in. Both workmen crawled in on their bellies, illuminating the cramped, foul crypt with a sputtering lantern. Even though 100 years had passed since 1801 when a body was last placed in that vault, the odor was strong enough to sicken the men who crawled into it.
In the lamplight they saw a coffin with a name engraved into a metal plate: Sarah S. Wood, died 1801. This was not the corpse of the famous man they were seeking; they had failed again.
The two workers crawled out into the fading light of a March day. They reported their finding to Col. Asa Bird Gardiner, a dignified Yankee in a high, black hat. Gardiner was president of an exclusive club: the Rhode Island State Society of the Cincinnati, an organization only for descendants of military officers of the Revolutionary War. In January 1901, Rhode Island's chapter of the Cincinnati had voted to spend $100 - - more than $2,000 today - - to send Gardiner to Georgia on a morbid mission: Find the forgotten bones of a great American, Major General Nathanael Greene.
Greene had died near Savannah, far from his Rhode Island roots, in 1786. Now, 115 years later, no one in that city could say for certain where his body rested.
The Society of the Cincinnati thought it shameful that the bones of "such a great patriot and soldier" should be interred in an unknown, unmarked grave. Gardiner had come to Savannah with a firm resolve to find Greene's tomb.
After 115 years of decay it would be hard to distinguish a particular pile of bones as Greene's without some sort of identifiers. Gardiner knew that Greene had been tall for his time, about 5 feet 10 inches, so the bones would be longer than most.
One of Greene's grandsons, George Washington Greene, had written of his grandfather: "His face was a well- filled oval, with all the features clearly defined, though none of them, except, perhaps, the forehead, large enough to arrest the attention at a first glance. . . . The eyes themselves were of a clear, liquid blue, which kindled under excitement to an intense and flashing light."
The "well-filled oval" of Greene's face had long ago decayed to dust, but Gardiner hoped that Greene's distinctive skull, with a large forehead prominent in every known portrait of him, might yet be intact.
Gardiner hoped too that Greene's sword might still be at his side and that fragments of his uniform - - metal buttons or the gold silk epaulets that decorated Greene's shoulders - - might be recognizable.
As the sun set on Saturday, March 2,1901, the workmen laid down their tools till Monday morning, when the search resumed. Again a crowd formed in the old cemetery, framed with a fence of black iron spears.
The first tomb they knocked through was empty. In the second vault they found a well-preserved coffin; a silver coffin plate screwed into the lid said it contained the bones of a man who had died 56 years before. Then one of the workmen saw, on the other side of the narrow vault, fragments of a coffin rotted into the sandy soil.
"Upon these [fragments] being removed," Gardiner wrote, "there appeared a man's skeleton quite intact, except some of the smaller ribs." The two workmen, Charles Gattman and Edward Keenan, worked without a lamp now, near midday, when sunlight pierced their entry hole and illuminated the vault. Even from outside the crypt, the bones within were visible. Edward Kelly, the supervisor of the two workmen, called out to Gardiner that the skull looked unusually big. Kelly dispatched Keenan to the city greenhouse for a sieve to sift the moldy sand from the bones. With Keenan gone, his partner, Gattman, poked through the skeleton's breast bones, searching for the coffin plate that should have sunk into the mold from the rotted lid. He found it.
The silver was badly corroded; Gattman wiped it against the cloth of his shirt and held it up to a shaft of sunlight. He called out that he could decipher the figures 1786.
The number must have sent Gardiner's heart pounding; he knew that as the year of Nathanael Greene's death. Keenan returned with the sifter and plunged into the sands of the tomb to see what he could find. He heard something clatter inside the sieve and plucked from it three metal buttons with a patina of green. He wiped one button clean and saw the faint outline of an eagle.
Gardiner recognized these as buttons worn by officers of the Revolution. Enlisted men wore buttons of wood covered with cloth; officers wore the eagle-inculcated metal. Keenan then found a French silk glove filled with finger bones. French silk had been a luxury during the Revolution; a glove like this was the kind of thing a high-ranking Frenchman such as the Marquis de Lafayette would have given to an American Army officer. Keenan found a second glove full of bones. He then found a third glove stiff with finger bones. Obviously more than one person had been entombed on this side of the vault.
For Gardiner, the intermingled sets of bones added more evidence that they'd found the missing bones of Nathanael Greene. After Greene died, his oldest son had swamped a homemade canoe and drowned in the Savannah River at age 18; it had long been rumored that the son had been buried alongside his famous father.
The workmen in the vault divided the skeletons and placed them into two empty soap boxes. The big skull crumbled beneath their touch, but the jaw bones stayed intact. The jaws still held 32 teeth, 2 of them filled with gold.
The soap boxes were taken to the police barracks, where they were held under guard. A police reporter for the Savannah Morning News saw the unmarked boxes in a sergeant's office. He gave one box a kick and asked a Sergeant Reilly what was in it. "Great heavens man," said the sergeant, "look out there, that's General Greene's body you are kicking."
From the Western Union office in the swank De Soto Hotel, Gardiner sent a telegram to Rhode Island Gov. William Gregory: "Have to announce to you and Rhode Island General Assembly that, after diligent search of several days, committee appointed by Rhode Island State Society of Cincinnati from among eminent citizens Savannah discovered today remains Major-General Nathanael Greene in Colonial Cemetery."
The city parks crew constructed two boxes built of hardwood and lined with zinc; the next day the remains were transferred from the soap crates into the more dignified boxes. The two zinc-lined boxes were taken by a horse-drawn hearse to the Southern Bank of Georgia, where they were placed in a vault. Gardiner sent the corroded coffin plate north to a New York City museum to have it "scientifically" cleaned. After the silver plate was treated, the engraved letters clearly read:
Obit. June 19, 1786
Aetat [Age] 44 years
Greene's bones remained in the bank vault while Rhode Island and Georgia haggled over where they should be buried for eternity. Members of the Greene family in both states had the final say: they decided that Savannah, where Greene lived the last days of his too short life, was the proper place. After all, it was in the South that he made his reputation as a general of genius compared, not unreasonably, to Scipio, Caesar and Napoleon.
The Nathanael Greene Memorial
In Downtown Savannah
EDITOR'S NOTE: Our Special thanks to Gerald M. Carbone and The Providence Journal for permission to reprint this article.