Unsung hero of our independence
Celebrating Rhode Island Independence Day
As far as national holidays go, Rhode Island Independence Day has never made much of an impression. Even in Rhode Island, the Bristol Fourth of July Parade and Gaspee Days have vastly overshadowed May 4.
But for dedicated local historians, it would be a shame to let the day go unnoticed, which was why David Procaccini managed to get some of those dedicated few to gather on the lawn of the Nathanael Greene Homestead in Coventry on May 5 to honor the day and to mark the first public event at the homestead orchestrated by Procaccini, who was anointed president of the Homestead Association last month.
“Rhode Island declared its Independence on May 4, 1776, two months before the Declaration in Philadelphia,” Procaccini said on May 5. “I don’t think there is a better place to mark that anniversary than here. Nathanael Greene was a vital contributor to the war for independence, second in command to Washington.”
The Rhode Island Assembly’s defiant act gave Rhode Island a unique place in American history. The handwritten document is housed at the State Archives.
What has always been a disappointment to Procaccini and other Rhode Island historians is that, other than among select southeastern states, who adopted him, Nathanael Greene remains one of the least celebrated national heroes of the American Revolution. Procaccini would like to see that change, but for the moment, he’s going to focus on polishing Greene’s reputation here.
“The truth is, he’s not even as well known in Rhode Island as he should be,” said Procaccini. “I would like to see Greene no longer be the forgotten general of Rhode Island.”
That’s a big task, but Procaccini is anxious to take it on. The homestead itself is not as widely visited as other historic sites in Rhode Island. Procaccini estimates it is about 500 people a year. He wants to at least double that this year for personal as well as historical reasons.
“My roots go back to the forming of Rhode Island and America, and I believe that I have always had a sense of this,” he said. “My family has kept records going back to the 17th century and would periodically take them out and share the stories so as not to be forgotten, and genealogy has always been important. They held on to little items from the families’ past, like a jar of water containing little flecks of gold mined during the gold rush, or a letter with a 150-year-old lock of hair, each item having a unique story and a lineage that could be traced right to me.”
He said trips to local and regional cemeteries were not uncommon, “to visit the graves of relatives with names like Hiram Bennett, Thomas Stanton, Judge John Allen, Benjamin Hoxsie, or Deputy Governor William Robinson or Pilgrim Elizabeth Tilley Howland.”
He claims a love for history as far back as he can remember; particularly military and local history.
“I believe that I inherited a sense of patriotism from my grandfather, Louis Procaccini, a first generation Italian American, who enlisted during World War II underage, and who went on to fight for his father’s newly adopted country against the country the family he had left.”
As an asthmatic child, Procaccini substituted reading for sports. “As a teenager, I couldn’t get enough of documentaries and the history channel, he said. “I was profoundly affected by Ken Burns’ ‘The Civil War’ and the film, ‘Gettysburg.’ I couldn’t get enough historical movies, still can’t; I’m pretty sure that I was the only kid in my fifth grade class who knew who Erwin Rommel or George Patton were.”
Procaccini credits his teachers at La Salle Academy with encouraging him.
“Bill Fortin introduced me to Eastern History and Philosophy and Gandhi,” he recalled. “Joe Fioravanti made American history come alive for me and introduced me to politics, and John Carpenter took everything I had previously learned and turned it into a hands-on role-playing environment in his War and Politics class.”
Procaccini attended URI but had to leave school for family reasons. He resumed studies at CCRI and then moved on to Providence College where he graduated with high honors with plans to become a high school history teacher. He volunteered at the Quonset Air Museum and researched his grandfather’s experiences in World War II, which eventually led to a posthumous presentation of battle decorations by Senator Jack Reed. He joined the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and became a member of the Rhode Island Sons of the American Revolution, where he is on the Board of Managers and became a trustee of the Gen. Nathanael Greene Homestead Association for three years before becoming president on April 28.
He is a member of Battery C, 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery and the Governor’s Own Historic Militia.
He never did become a high school teacher, but he now educates everyone who will listen about the rich history of the Ocean State.
“I have worked for Ancestry.com as a document preservation contractor and genealogical researcher,” he said, and still does it part-time.
He has also worked at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester and briefly at the JFK Presidential Library in Boston. Currently he is the records analyst for RIDOT, heading the Records Management Unit, handling historical and non-current official records.
So, why is Procaccini so impressed with Greene? A brief look at Greene’s history gives you a clue:
Nathanael Greene was born Aug. 7, 1742 in Potowomut and died June 19, 1786 at Mulberry Grove in Georgia.
After managing his father’s iron foundry, Greene served several terms in the colonial legislature and was elected commander of the Rhode Island troops in 1775. He was made a major general in 1776 and served with George Washington in Boston, New York and New Jersey and led troops at Trenton and at Brandywine and Germantown the next year. Greene succeeded General Horatio Gates as commander of the Southern Army in 1778 and developed a strategy to lure Cornwallis away from his coastal bases and eventually so weakened the British that Cornwallis abandoned his plan to conquer the south and instead marched north into Virginia. Greene forced the British back to the South Carolina coast and so weakened them that they stayed in Charleston for the remainder of the war.
As quartermaster general, Greene was accused of profiteering, which remains unproven. But Greene did settle in the south to manage his properties until his early death in 1786 from a heart attack. Nathanael Greene, however, is not remembered for his business skills but as Washington’s designated successor and a “strategist without peer on the American side of the Revolution,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.
“My challenge is to try to maintain the Homestead Association and stay respectful of its traditions while I try to get visits up,” said Procaccini. “This is one of Rhode Island’s hidden gems. It’s 12 acres of history, and we can use the rest of the property for educational events about the Revolution and other appropriate uses … I’d like to see Nathanael Greene no longer be the forgotten general of the Revolution.”