The story of Custer's Adjudant General during the Civil War, Jacob L. Greene
CUSTER'S BEST MAN
source: David Neville, "Custer's Best Man: Brevet Lt. Col. Jacob Lyman Greene". Military Images. May/Jun 2004.
He served faithfully beside his flamboyant General, until imprisonment cut short a distinguished career.
On February 9, 1864 in Monroe, Michigan, Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer and Elizabeth Bacon were united in marriage. The ceremony, held at Monroe's First Presbyterian Church, was said by Elizabeth's father, judge Daniel Bacon, "to be the most splendid wedding ever seen in the state." And indeed it was, this marriage of the famous cavalier and his "Darling Eibbie." Friend's and family members by the hundreds filled the church, including one of the general's closest associates, and on this day his best man, Captain Jacob Lyman Greene.
- Jacob L. Greene, a son of Jacob H. Greene and Sarah Frye, was born on August 9, 1837 in North Waterford, Maine. After spending his adolescent years in Maine, Jacob journeyed westward, where he enrolled in the University of Michigan and studied law. A successful graduate, Jacob became a member of the Michigan bar and opened his own practice in 1861. In 1859 the young lawyer had married Miss Malvina Wood and in 1860 she bore Jacob a daughter. The baby was named Katherine, but it appears the Malvina may have died at childbirth or shortly thereafter, for no mention is made of her after 1860. It also appears that Jacob made arrangements with family members, probably Malvina's, to help raise little "Kittie," thus lessening the burden on the young father.
At the same time Jacob's life was in turmoil, a cloud of uncertainly hung over the nation. Many southern states were clamoring to secede from the union, and when in December 1860, South Carolina did, it set in motion a chain of events that led to civil war in April 1861. A staunch unionist, Jacob enlisted as a private in Company G of the 7th Michigan Volunteer Infantry in june 1861. Two months later he was commissioned first lieutenant of Company G.
In joining the Army, Jacob carried on a family tradition of service that stretched back more than a century. Thomas Greene, his great-grandfather, fought in the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars, while his maternal great-grandfather, Joseph Frye, compiled an even more significant military record.
As a junior officer Frye participated in the Siege of Louisburg in 1745, and as a colonel commanding Massachusetts troops, was part of the garrison of Fort William Henry when the post was besieged and surrendered to the French general Montcalm in 1757. In the coming Revolution, Joseph Frye was commissioned a brigadier general in the Continental Army, but age and infirmities limited his service, causing him to resign his commission in April 1776.
After completing its organization, lieutenant Greene's regiment was assigned to the Army of the Potomac, arriving in Virginia in September 1861. Jacob's service with the 7th Michigan, however, would be brief. His health failed terribly in the Fall, and on January 30, 1862 he resigned his commission. Returning home to Monroe, Michigan, more than a year would pass before the ailing Greene could consider rejoining the war effort.
Some time in the latter part of 1862, while in Monroe, Greene struck up a friendship with a fellow townsman, a young cavalry captain home on leave named George Custer. This new friendship strengthened when Custer began pursuing a relationship with Elizabeth Bacon, and Greene one with her best friend Annette Humphrey. Before long, Jacob and Annette became engaged, while Custer and "Libbie" would make the commitment by the end of 1863.
In the meantime, Captain Custer was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers in june 1863, and after the Gettysburg campaign began assembling his own personal staff. Jacob Greene, with his prior military service, was a natural choice to join the new brigadier's military family. The important position of assistant adjutant general went to Greene, who on july 14, 1863 was commissioned a captain in the 6th Michigan Cavalry, one of the four Michigan regiments that formed General Custer's "Wolverine Brigade." Never mustered into the Sixth, a second commission was issued to Jacob in September naming him, Captain and Assistant Adjutant General U.S. Volunteers.
August 1863 saw Captain Greene return to active duty and almost immediately he proved himself a steady man under fire. One day, Custer, wishing to "try" his friend's mettle, rode with Greene to the picket line where Custer noted, "the bullets flew thick and fast." "I watched him closely," Custer reported to Jacob's fiancee Annette Humphrey, "He never faltered, was as calm and collected as if sitting at his dinner." Custer was more than satisfied with Captain Greene's coolness, proudly relating to Annette that, "I expected him to make a good AdjutantGeneral, but he succeeds beyond expectation."
On September 13, 1863, in a skirmish near Culpeper, Virginia, General Custer was slightly wounded, resulting in a separation from his command of about a month's duration. It was during this time period that Jacob Greene left the front on his own leave, visiting his brother, William, a physician in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, before going on to his home in Monroe, Michigan. There he remained until early November when he returned to the Michigan brigades' camp near Stevensburg, Virginia.
It was the winter season, and with the fighting about over for 1863, General Custer, Captain Greene and the rest of the staff settled into a large frame house, home to them for the next few months. The winter boredom in Stevensburg was broken in late January 1864, when General Custer announced he was returning to Michigan to marry Libbie Bacon. Choosing Jacob Greene and three other staff members to accompany him, a throng of officers assembled to wish the general well, a jocular Custer addressing them: "Thank you gentlemen. I'm going out to the Department of the West to get a command, or a new commander, and 1 don't know which."
- After Custer's February 1864 wedding, the business of war once again descended on the Wolverine Brigade's sleepy camp at Stevensburg. That month Union general H. judson Kilpatrick proposed and won approval of a plan to raid Richmond with a strike force of cavalry; the raids aim to free thousands of Northern prisoners of war confined in the city.
Part of Kilpatrick's plan called for a second column of cavalry to ride in the opposite direction, on a diversionary maneuver toward Charlottesville, where units of General J.E.B. Stuart's Confederate cavalry were wintering. Selected to lead the Charlottesville column was Brigadier General George Guster, whose command was to consist of four Regular Army and volunteer cavalry regiments, plus artillery. It was hoped that Guster could occupy Stuart's attention while Kilpatrick swooped down on Richmond unopposed.
On February 28, 1864, as Kilpatrick rode toward Richmond, Custer's force of 1500 seasoned cavalrymen, galloped out of Stevensburg bound for Charlottesville. At the head of the column rode the young general and beside him his trusty adjutant general Jacob Greene.
The column moved along at a rapid pace, crossing the Rapidan and then Rivanna Rivers on February 29. A surprise, however, awaited the Yankee cavalry after crossing the Rivanna, when its advance unit ran into the winter camp of Stuart's horse artillery. A melee ensued, the Confederate gunners losing much of their gear and six caissons, but not their valuable cannon, which were spirited away.
Closing in now on Charlottesville, Custer received word of strong Confederate forces concentrating to meet him. Sizing up the ominous situation, Custer concluded that his force lacked the size to contend with the growing threat (real or imagined), and accordingly ordered his riders to about face and retrace their steps back toward the Rapidan River. On the return ride, Confederate cavalry attempted to block Custer's way, but by skillful maneuver, he steered his column clear of the Southern horsemen and reached the safety if the Union lines at Madison Courthouse on March 1, 1864.
While Custer's diversionary maneuver met with some success, KJlpatrick's foray ended in complete failure in front of Richmond. With a top subordinate killed and his nerve unraveling, the brash Kilpatrick called off the raid and made his escape to the Union lines.
Like practically all of General Custer's Charlottesville column, Jacob Greene escaped harm and returned to the Stevensburg camp to await the coming of Spring. That season was not long in coming, and in May 1864, the Army of the Potomac, with General U.S. Grant in supervisory control, sallied forth from its winter camps intent on marching around General Lee's right flank below the Rapidan River, and interposing itself between Lee's army and Richmond. This was not to be, for on May 5 the whole plan was upset when elements of Lee's and Grant's armies met in battle in a tangled growth of forest west of Fredericksburg known as the Wilderness. Into this less than ideal topography, Captain Jacob Greene and Custer's Michigan cavalry brigade rode, fighting in a series of actions on May 6th and 7th.
This fighting was followed by more than a month of non-stop action, during which Jacob Greene and Custer's brigade fought in some of the largest cavalry engagements of the Civil War. The fighting on May 11 at Yellow Tavern, a few miles north of Richmond was particularly severe, resulted in the mortal wounding of Confederate cavalry chieftain J.E.B. Stuart, probably at the hands of a Michigan trooper in Custer's brigade.
The battle of Haw's Shop on May 28 was another test of mettle for the Union horse soldiers as they fought for hours against General Wade Hampton's gray riders. Custer's brigade fought the battle dismounted, charging Hampton's men, their seven-shot Spencer repeating carbines laying down a withering fire.
Throughout the fighting General Custer and his staff, Jacob Greene included, remained mounted and dangerously exposed. Custer himself soon found out how dangerous it was, when his horse was shot beneath him, sending the jaunty general sprawling to the ground. The Confederates, fighting hard, were laying down a heavy volume of fire, a ball striking Captain Greene in the head. Fortunately, the ball had spent its strength, only stunning the captain, who was able to retain his saddle as the attack continued.
Pressed now all along his lines, General Hampton decided to withdraw his weary troopers, thus ending the Battle of Haw's Shop. The battle had cost the Michigan brigade 115 men killed and wounded, but it had performed valuable service, helping to turn the tide in favor of the Union forces.
There would be no rest for the hard-fighting blueclad troopers of General Philip Sheridan's cavalry corps, as once again they were in combat on May 31st at Cold Harbor, a few miles northeast of Richmond. After seizing the important crossroads village that day, the Union horse soldiers were relieved on june 1 by Federal infantry and ordered to the rear.
Ten days later on june 11, 15,000 Union and Confederate cavalrymen clashed in battle at Trevilian Station. For Jacob Greene and Custer's Michigan troopers the day would see them in the thick of the action. At one point during the battle Custer's regiments were nearly surrounded by two Confederate brigades and began suffering significant casualties. When some of General Custer's wagon train, including his headquarters wagon, turned up missing in the confusion of battle, Jacob Greene went in search of the missing vehicles.
Winding his way carefully through a maze of timber which reverberated with the sounds of gunfire, Greene, to his chagrin (horror) discovered himself confronted by numerous Confederate horsemen with no avenue of escape. With firearms leveled at him by the Gray riders, Greene knew he must surrender or face certain death. In desperate straights, Jacob Greene elected to surrender, the whole incident happening "so quick[ly]," in Jacob's words, "that my head swam."
Taken to General Wade Hampton's headquarters after the Battle of Trevilian Station ended, Captain Greene soon experienced the indignity of having his fine spurs appropriated by his southern hosts. His ire raised, Jacob spoke his mind, calmly informing his antagonists that "You have the spurs of General Custer's Adjutant- General." It is not recorded if the Rebels were favorably impressed with Jacob's statement, but word did get back to General Custer of his adjutant's bravado, amusing the young general greatly.
Jacob Greene's capture at Trevilian Station marked the end of his service in the field for six months. A succession of prisons in Richmond (Libby), Macon, Charleston, and Columbia, would be his home until December 9, 1865 when he received his parole. It is said that he refused earlier parole "over an issue regarding unequal treatment of black prisoners."
On December 19, Jacob received a thirty-day furlough courtesy of the War Department and set out for General Custer's winter headquarters in Winchester, Virginia. There the two friends were reunited for the first time in six months, before Jacob continued on to Michigan where his fiancee Annette Humphrey awaited his return.
On January 12, 1865 in Monroe, Michigan, Jacob Greene and Annette Humphrey were married. This was followed in February by his return to duty in a non-combatant role as a mustering officer at Camp Parole in Annapolis, Maryland. As a paroled prisoner, Jacob waited patiently for word of his exchange, which would free him to return to front-line duty with Custer's cavalry division. General Custer himself eagerly awaited Jacob's return, writing to Libbie, "I miss him greatly." On April 8, 1865, Captain Greene was notified of his exchange and rushed as quickly as possible to join Custer's division then in hot pursuit of Lee's army somewhere near Appomattox, Virginia.
On April 10, Jacob Greene caught up with Custer's command at Burksville junction, one day after Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to General Ulysses S. Grant. Dissapointingly, Jacob had just missed the grand finale of the War but was present on the field when Lee's gallant army formally surrendered in a moving ceremony on April 12, 1865.
On May 23, Jacob rode with General Custer at the head of the Cavalry Corps' third division in the great Victory Parade (Grand Review) held in Washington D.C. It was a great day, but trouble was brewing far to the south in Mexico, where France had installed a puppet government, thus threatening America's security in the region. As a show of force, troops were dispatched to Texas from Union armies in the field; General Custer being tapped to command a division of cavalry being organized there.
Ever faithful, Jacob Greene made the journey to Texas with Custer, where he would serve as his chief of staff until January 1866. In the meantime, Jacob had been justly rewarded with promotion to major in july 1865, and to brevet lieutenant colonel for "distinguished gallantry at the battle of Trevilian Station." On March 20, 1866, Jacob Greene's distinguished military career ended when he was mustered out of the volunteer service.
Jacob and Annette made their home in Pittsfield, Massachusetts after the war, where Jacob's brother, William, was a prominent physician. In search of a career, Jacob took a position with the Berkshire Life Insurance Company and rose quickly to become Assistant secretary of the firm. In 1868 Annette gave birth to a son, Jacob Humphrey Greene, but tragically died a short while later from what was deemed to be "Heart Disease."
Once again a widower, Jacob threw himself into his work and in raising his son Jacob. In 1870, Miss Caroline Barrow became his third wife and he took a senior post with the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Co. in Hartford. With Connecticut Life Jacob's rise was meteoric, becoming president of the firm in 1878. For the next three decades, Jacob Greene would be one of New England's leading business and civic figures.
Active in the GAR, and a member of the Loyal Legion (Mollus), Greene was also a published author and a trustee of Trinity College. In February 1905, he underwent an operation at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, and was making a fine recovery when on March 29th, 1905 he suffered a cerebral hemmorage and died.
- After services at Trinity Church in Hartford, his body was returned to Pittsfield, Massachusetts for burial beside his late wife Annette. Caroline, his devoted love of some thirty-five-years, joined her Jacob in death in 1912.
Jacob Greene's life had been one built on duty to country and his family. A devout Episcopalian, he had suffered the loss of two wives early in his life, and experienced the horrors of war firsthand. In America's great Civil War he had fought beside men of courage and conviction, and called one of the war's most famous personalities, George Armstrong Custer, friend.
A man of integrity and courage, it is little wonder then that on that February day in 1864 when George Custer and Elizabeth Bacon stood at the alter, Jacob Greene was truly "Custer's Best Man."