RI’s forgotten hero reincarnated

Posted 7/20/23

“When I wear the uniform, I’m Greene,” Paul Bourget said, dressed head to toe in a Union uniform to speak to the Warwick Rotary Club on Thursday July 13.

Bourget, born and …

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RI’s forgotten hero reincarnated


“When I wear the uniform, I’m Greene,” Paul Bourget said, dressed head to toe in a Union uniform to speak to the Warwick Rotary Club on Thursday July 13.

Bourget, born and raised in Woonsocket, said that he stumbled upon Warwick-native Brigadier General George Sears Greene by chance. He arrived early to a seminar at Washington Trust Bank and while waiting in the conference room, he saw a photograph of Greene with the epithet “forgotten hero of Gettysburg.”

“I said ‘what in the world is that,’” Bourget recalled. “I learned about him and studied him, and I became him.”

When Bourget joined the Federal General's Corps as a living historian thirteen years ago he had to adopt a historical persona. To him, it seemed like a no-brainer – it had to be Greene. To commit to the role, he even grew out his facial hair. His wife, Denise, said it took him a year to grow Greene’s trademark whiskers.

“I tried to do it the best I can, but I cannot replicate that,” Bourget laughed. “I don’t grow facial hair very well. You know how some people have beautiful lawns, I have crabgrass.”

Bourget began studying Greene in earnest in 2008, scouring the Civil War official records from the Library of Congress, reading letters from soldiers and visiting the Rhode Island Historical Society in Providence. Bourget said that he’s read everything Greene wrote including five massive volumes chronicling the Greene family history beginning in 1635. He also said he reads any Civil War books that could mention Greene.

“Very few folks know more than I do about him,” Bourget said. 

Greene, who lived to be 97 years old, was a renowned engineer before he became a general in the Civil War. He was 60 by the time the war began but was still adamant to fight on the front lines, and Bourget described him as a “no-nonsense general.” He fought in notable battles in the Northern Virginia Campaign, the Battle of Antietam and the Battle of Chancellorsville. To Bourget, his most remarkable accomplishment was the defense of the Union Army’s right flank on Culp’s Hill during the Battle of Gettysburg.

During his animated presentation to the Warwick Rotary Club, Bourget used a laser pointer on a projection of a battle map. He explained– in first person as Greene– that at one point, only Greene’s brigade of 5 regiments, totaling 12,000 men, remained to defend the hill, which he described as a “key position.” Outnumbered 4 to 1, and shrouded in darkness, Greene’s brigade, seeking protection in his breastworks, held off the Confederate forces during this four hour battle. It is due to Greene’s leadership, Bourget argues, that the Union kept Culp’s Hill and thus, won the battle of Gettysburg as a whole.

Despite this contribution, Bourget said that many historians fail to fully recognize Greene as a hero. He offered a series of theories for why Greene’s story was largely lost including the way the battle was misrepresented in both Union and Confederate reports. Bourget was determined to set the record straight, and over the years, has delivered “hundreds of presentations” about Greene.

“He was forgotten for so many years, so for 13 years, I’ve been portraying him to try to educate folks, to let you know who you had here and what kind of man General George Sears Greene was,” Bourget said.

According to Pegee Malcolm, Chair of Rhode Island Historical Cemeteries, Bourget spoke at the Greene Family Cemetery on May 3rd to raise awareness for the local cemeteries. She said that he was did a “marvelous job.” She was impressed by his ability to reach a wide audience, including people who “didn’t know the first thing about Gettysburg.”

“He was able to tell us everything so that we understood it,” Malcolm said. “I think that’s an art in and of itself, to be able to give information at a level that people go ‘oh I want to know more,’ and that’s the type of man I thought he was.”

Bourget has been “a Civil War nut” since he was a kid. He remembers cracking a joke in sixth grade about how a fence could attack when learning about Pickett’s charge.

“That day, I started going to the library and getting as many Civil War books that I could, and that’s how I learned it,” he said. “And I continue to.”

His passion took a new form as an adult. Starting in 2015, Bourget and his wife, Denise, have traveled to Civil War battlefields including Antietam, Chancellorsville, Appomattox, Manassas and Gettysburg to participate in reenactments. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, they were going to eight or nine sites a year, and after, they’ve slowed down to two or three a year.

Denise recalled sleeping out in tents and participating in living history.

“It all goes very well,” she said. “When you’re in first person, people approach you and ask you questions.” She added that the reenactment scene has dwindled since 2017 as protestors started showing up at the events. On all of the battlefields, Bourget is Greene.

Greene, originally from Apponaug, is buried in the Greene family cemetery under a two-ton piece of rock harvested from Culp’s Hill.

“Warwick, you have a hero here,” Bourget said. “He’s buried right down the street in the Greene family cemetery. I invite you to go visit.”

A bronze portion of Greene’s headstone can be found in City Hall along with his swords and pictures of him. There is also a plaque to honor him in the bell room at the state house.

“Rhode Island finally acknowledged Greene as probably the best general that came out of the state,” Bourget said.

hero, general, Gettysburg