Colonel Colton Greene

"A Gallant and Conspicuous Figure"

By: Bruce Allardice

          When the war is over,
            You will be a great hero...
          For your name is not unhonored or unknown.
            I shall be so proud of 'our most noble stranger' 1

     Into the bustling, growing city of St. Louis, around 1853, came a 21 year old South Carolinian named Colton Greene. 2 Little definite is known about his ancestry and early life. Greene himself, despite his prominence, never revealed details of his early life other than his being born in South Carolina in 1832. A devoted ladyfriend, the novelist Katherine McDowell ("Sherwood Bonner"), wrote a short story in which the central character, a hot-blooded young South Carolina aristocrat named "Colton Grandeis", knifes a black servant in a fit of anger, and then becomes a social outcast. That is as good an explanation as any for the mystery. 3 What is certain is that even at this young age Greene's letters quoted the classics freely and displayed familiarity with several foreign languages. Wealth and advanced education (perhaps in Europe, where he frequently took trips) seem to have been his birthright.

     Greene took a clerk's position in Stephen Hoyt's booming St. Louis merchandise business. Within a few years Greene rose to partner in the business, now renamed "Hoyt & Greene". The wealthy Greene actively campaigned for local Democratics, professing a states-rights credo that foreshadowed his future Confederate career. An 1858 letter to a personal friend, Virginia's Congressman Albert Jenkins, sets forth his views on the "hot" issue of the day:

     "What in God's name has become of Southern political sagacity that they manage this Kansas imbroglio so badly? We are clearly beaten on the balance-of-power issue. The time has come when we must rule by tact. Yield Kansas (for if slavery is established there now it will be abolished in two years)--make her a democratic state--conciliate & bribe the north ... This is not the time to fight the Negro questions; and what is worse to choose our battle field in Kansas." 4

     The 1860 election and the realignment of the traditional political parties put Greene in the forefront of Missouri state politics. The Democratic Party nominee for Governor, Claiborne F. Jackson, bowed to the wishes of the majority of state Democrats and endorsed the presidential candidacy of Unionist Democrat Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. Greene, who thought Douglas' views "deplorable", joined the more secessionist-minded minority in backing John C. Breckinridge. The split extended to state politics. The Breckinridge supporters presented an alternative ticket headed by ex-Governor Hancock Jackson and future Confederate general Mosby M. Parsons. Although he thought the party split "an overwelming disaster", Greene became the de facto campaign manager for Breckinridge and the state ticket. 5

     Greene's efforts proved fruitless. Douglass and "Claib" Jackson carried the state, with Hancock Jackson receiving only 7% of the vote. Worse still, the split between Governor Jackson (a secessionist, despite his public endorsements) and his (potentially) most ardent supporters damaged the Southern cause in Missouri. Greene later recalled what happened next:

     "Though the election of Lincoln was not unexpected, and a large majority of the people of St. Louis, not of the Republican party, were willing to acquiesce in it, yet when the fact was fully realized, that a sectional president was elected, the community was strongly agitated and the minds of men were filled with gloom, distrust and fear. A vague apprehension of impending evil was general. But in this busy mart of trade, people soon pushed their fears aside and even the most pronounced secessionist had begun to accommodate himself to the state of things, when in December 1860, the secession of the state of South Carolina, followed quickly by the gulf states, took place. The whole situation was at once changed. The great body of the people condemned the action of the seceding states, whilst a small, but determined band of young men, who had been conspicuous leaders in both sections of the democratic party, resolutely supported them." 6

     With future Confederate General Basil Duke as a co-leader, Greene organized the young secessionists of St. Louis into an organization called the "Minute Men", after their colonial counterparts. The Minute Men planned to seize the federal arsenal in St. Louis, with its vast stores of rifles and equipment, and use the arms to equip a Southern-aligned state army. But to attack the arsenal required cannon to batter down its walls. At the direction of the governor, Greene and Duke visited President Davis in Montgomery, Alabama, obtained the cannon, and smuggled them into St. Louis. With the cannon safely in the hands of the militia encamped at Camp Jackson (a camp which included Greene's own company of the "Minute Men"), the two young agents proceeded to Jefferson City to report their success to the governor. While they were away, Union forces captured Camp Jackson, and the cannon. Civil War had come to Missouri.

     For Greene, the war was a personal disaster. "(A)ll my business capital, many investments, and a valuable body of city property were 'gobbled' by Hoyt, my partner and others," and never returned. The leading city Unionists seemed to take special delight in dispossessing the property of the man Judge Edward Bates spitefully termed "the little Carolinan." Greene was not to return to St. Louis until 14 years after the war. 7

     Other clandestine missions for the governor followed. Greene first snuck through the north to reach Richmond and confer with authorities there. On returning to Missouri, the governor sent him to Arkansas to obtain that state's aid in the fight to save Missouri for the South. On Greene's return to Missouri, the governor commissioned him captain and chief of ordnance of the 7th division, Missouri State Guard, a unit raised amongst the hills of the Ozarks. Greene's words best describe this colorful unit:

Col. Colton Greene     "In a few days after I reported to Gen'l. Price, I was assigned to duty ... on the staff of Gen'l. McBride, whose command was certainly the most unique military body it has ever been my experience to meet. There were only two officers (lieutenants) in the division who had a knowledge of the most rudimentary military principles and practices, and their stock was limited to a superficial experience in company tactics. The officers of the staff, who were small county lawyers, conducted their several departments somewhat after the fashion of a loosely kept county court. Colonels could not drill their regiments; captains their companies, and many officers could neither read nor write. There was a drum and fife in the corps, which sounded all the calls in one discordant tune; companies were paraded in the manner of convening a court of justice, the sergeants rushing out, exclaiming, 'O yes! O yes! all you who belong to Captain Brown's company, parade heer!' The officers and men messed together; they approached the general commanding, without salute, squatted on their haunches listlessly around his quarters and not infrequently addressed him as 'Jedge.' These men were armed with the squirrel rifle, and their accoutrements consisted of a powder horn, a cap pouch, a string of 'patcher' and a hunter's knife. I don't believe there was a man among them who had ever seen a field gun. But it is not to be supposed that they lacked intelligence or spirit. Like all primitive people their ignorance was compensated by a shrewd, quick mind, a rapid instinct, caution and cunning, and like all backwoodsmen their courage was serene and steady--almost unconscious. Whilst there was no such thing as military discipline in this singular army, yet perfect order was preserved in it, through the force of character of the general, his great firmness, and the patriarchal authority he exercised. He knew each man personally in his command, and was acquainted with his family and affairs at home. Indeed he never was amiss in addressing every one by name. In fact, Gen'l. McBride appeared to me to be the head of a large family, who looked to him as a leader and friend, and respected and feared him as a judge. For myself, I became soon warmly attached to this clearheaded, silent, courageous man, who seconded me in my work of discipline and enforced it against the opposition of officers and men, who soon however sheepfully accepted the information." 8

     In early 1862, McBride resigned, and Greene took command of the division with his staff rank of colonel. At the battle of Elkhorn Tavern, he led the reorganized 7th division. Greene wrote of that battle: 9

     "Early of the morning which opened the engagement of Elk Horn, I found myself posted, with Price's wing of the army, on the left of the main road within a half mile or so of Elk Horn tavern, McDonald's battery in my front, and in near support of which I had taken position. The battery went into action about 9 o'clock, I think, and was briskly answered by the enemy's guns, which caused us some slight loss, and particularly a slight flesh wound to Lt. Col. Johnson. At about noon, I was ordered forward and in executing the movement saw General Frost, for the first and last time during the two days' engagement. In a short time I was engaged with the enemy, who fell back; and advancing, found myself without support until Col. Rives of Little's brigade appeared on my right, with whom I connected and wanting orders from my superior agreed to cooperate with him. About this time a young officer of Gen'l. Van Dorn's staff rode up (whom I knew, but whose name I cannot recall) and by the Gen's order directed me to press the enemy. In that charge which followed two guns were captured, or rather run over by Rives' men and mine, and we were soon engaged in an open field, which was hotly contested and where, though the enemy gave way, I suffered heavily in killed and wounded. It was now approaching evening; the enemy had fled and we were in possession of his camp, or to speak more accurately had passed beyond it, halting in the edge of woods in front of which was the great field over which he cannonaded and advanced on us the next morning. Here our men were bivouaced and details were sent out to remove the wounded to the hospital in the rear and to obtain cooked rations."

     "Early the next morning the enemy opened a heavy cannonade on our lines, which was answered by our guns for perhaps an hour or longer when I remarked that our fire had slackened and noticed that we were serving only two batteries (McDonald's and Churchill's). I consulted with Col. Rives, who was on my right, but we could not explain the sudden slacking of the fire on our side. The enemy's fire continued and under its cover he began to deploy large masses of foot, which advanced on our front and left. The fire of small arms now became so heavy we were forced to fall back (Col. Rives was killed near me about this time) and were thrown into temporary confusion by an enfilade fire on the left. My men fought with great spirit and fortitude but it was plain to see that we were overwelmingly outnumbered. The enemy was almost upon us, had forced back my left, my line was broken, when in the midst of the confusion, engaged (Shaler and I) in rallying the troops, Col. Little rode up and whispered to me the appalling intelligence that our whole army had withdrawn and that we were without support. I had barely time to draw offto the main road, on the top of a well wooded hill, where I made a stand long enough to allow McDonald's battery to retire to my rear, where from an elevation he delivered several well directed rounds which checked the advancing column. We now retired slowly, compactly and in good order, and it was to me a cause of great secret rejoicing that the enemy did not pursue, for our whole army was at the time several miles away on its retreat. I reached camp about sunset, and, finally by continuous marches, found myself at Van Buren, where my connection with the brigade, formed temporarily of McBride's division, ceased."

     After Elkhorn Greene received authority to raise a regiment of partisan rangers for the regular Confederate army. He raised this regiment, which was to become the 3d Missouri Cavalry, in the Summer and Fall of 1862. Greene led the 3rd for the remainder of the war.10 A part of John S. Marmaduke's Missouri Cavalry brigade, the 3rd fought in every campaign in Missouri and Arkansas the last 3 years of the war.

     Greene proved an able and adroit commander, "distinguished for coolness, skill, and courage," 11 a good disciplinarian who nonetheless was liked by his men. As senior colonel of Marmaduke's brigade, it often fell upon him to lead the brigade in Marmaduke's absence or when Marmaduke was commanding a division. Greene's finest hour, perhaps, occurred in 1864 as his brigade harassed Union shipping of the Mississippi River. A five-thousand man Union force attacked him, but the 1,000 man brigade held off the attack for six hours and then slipped away unmolested. Major John Newman Edwards, Jo Shelby's biographer, wrote in his book of the "bloody (repulse) of A.J. Smith's corps ... by a handful of Missourians under Colonel Colton Greene.... The Confederates ... opened upon them a steady and destructive fire .... The enemy reeled heavily backward, then broke and fled across the open field, cut down by Confederate fire as they retired." 12

     After this success Greene expected to be promoted to brigadier general and permanent command of the brigade. However, on August 4, 1864, an infantry officer, Brigadier General John Clark, was placed in command instead, and Greene was charged with "mutinous conduct" which rendered him "unfit for command." 13 This imbroglio stemmed from a department headquarters' order that all mules used by his brigade be turned over to the government. Some of the men disobeyed and somehow word got out that Greene had authorized this disobedience. Greene was arrested and tried before a military court. At the trial he produced affidavits proving that he had not only obeyed the order but punished those who hid the mules. The court acquitted him. However, because of the charges, the Department commander, General Edmund Kirby Smith, and Missouri's Confederate Governor Thomas Reynolds, had put a hold on Greene's promotion.

     Greene's gallant conduct during Price's 1864 Missouri Raid again prompted his fellow officers to petition for his promotion. This effort had the full approval of General Clark, who reported that Greene was the most "distinguished" and "pre-eminent" officer in the brigade, and that the promotion was "just deserts." General Jo Shelby described Greene as a man of "science & skill, and ... devotion of unswerving patriotism." Even Governor Reynolds, once his enemy, praised "Green's well known firmness and success as a disciplinarian" and demanded his promotion. 14 But the promotion did not become official before the surrender, and Greene surrendered in Houston, Texas as Colonel. After four years, three wounds, innumerable adventures, and loss of his personal fortune, Colton Greene had to begin life again.

     After a brief stay in Mexico, Greene returned to the U.S. and settled in Memphis, Tennessee. In partnership with other Missouri exiles, he started an insurance agency and in a remarkably short time rebuilt his fortune. In time Greene became one of Memphis' civic leaders. When the city, scourged with epidemics, needed a new water system, Greene headed the commission that built one. When tourism flagged, Greene organized an annual Mardi Gras festival. The Memphis Public Library got a major boost from the collection of books he willed them. A Memphis historian called him: "the elegant Gen. Colton Greene, 'a gallant and conspicuous figure', who because of his extensive European travel and command of languages 15 had become the social arbitrer (of Memphis) .... Handsome and charming as he was, he never married, he never divulged anything about his origins except that he was born in S.C.--a mystery still talked about in Memphis." 16

     "General" Greene (as he came to be known) died of cancer, after a long illness, in Memphis on September 30, 1900.  A simple stone in Memphis' Elmwood Cemetery marks the final resting place of the man of whom General Basil Duke said, "I never knew a better man or a more thorough gentleman." 17


     1 Unknown to Colton Greene, July 6, 1862, Colton Greene collection, Memphis Public Library.
     2 Although always known as "Colton", a close study of early St. Louis directories suggests that his first name was George, and that Colton was in fact his middle name.
     3 Charles S. Palmer, "'Our Most Noble Stranger'; The Mystery, Gallantry and Civicism of Colton Greene," Masters Thesis, U. of Oklahoma, 1995.
     4 Greene to Albert G. Jenkins, July 4, 1858, Colton Greene collection, Memphis Public Library.
     5 For more on this election, see Colton Greene's reminiscences of 1860-62, in the Thomas Snead papers, Missouri Historical Society. These reminiscences have been edited and published. See Bruce Allardice, "The Plot to Seize St. Louis," Civil War Times Illustrated, May, 1996.
     6 For more on this tumultuous period in St. Louis history, see Greene's reminiscences and Basil Duke, "Reminiscences of General Basil W. Duke, C.S.A.".
     7 Greene reminiscences; Barton Bates to Edward Bates, June 3, 1861, Edward Bates papers, Missouri Historical Society. Stephen Hoyt, Greene's Vermont-born partner and St. Louis city comptroller, remained loyal to the Union and later served as mayor of occupied New Orleans.
     8 Greene reminiscences. He was appointed captain August 8, 1861. On October 28, 1861, he was promoted adjutant general of the 7th division, with the rank of colonel.
     9 Greene reminiscences. The unit he led is termed the 3rd Missouri Confederate brigade in many reports of the battle.
     10 Greene was appointed colonel to rank from November 4, 1862.
     11 Marmaduke's report of the Camden campaign, OR vol. 34, part I, p. 820.
     12 John N. Edwards, "Shelby and His Men", pp. 373, 478. Greene appears to have been the primary source for much of Edwards' book.
     13 OR vol. 41, part II, p. 1040.
     14 OR vol. 41, part I, p. 683; Clark to Greene, Feb. 25, 1865, Shelby to Magruder, March 8, 1865, Colton Greene collection; Reynolds to Kirby Smith, March 27, 1865, Reynolds papers, State Historical Society of Missouri.
     15 At Elkhorn Tavern he had awed a young soldier by cursing fluently in Spanish, Italian, and French as well as English.
     16 Shields McIlwaine, "Memphis Down in Dixie," p. 236. Greene was often called "General" after the war.
     17 Duke, "Reminiscences," p. 55.

Note: Background music, "The Continental March" (or "Sons of 76") written in 1861 by James Magruder. Midi file by Benjamin Robert Tubb. Copyright 1998. Used with permission.

Above article copyright 1999 by Bruce Allardice, All Rights Reserved. Permission granted to duplicate this document for educational purposes only.

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