Catharine Littlefield Greene was a product of the feminine sphere of women during the colonial period. Marriage was considered a critical event in the life of the early American woman. It raised her status socially but it also moved her from dependency on her family to dependency on her husband. When she married Nathanael Greene, a former Quaker and iron forage owner with a limp, asthma, a smallpox scar on his right eye and who hailed from a fairly well-to-do family, she believed that she would be settling down to a life of domestic tranquility. But as we shall see, things were different for Caty. An American Revolution was on the horizon and her husband’s direct and important influence in that revolution changed her domestic circumstances.
Convivial and beautiful with few women friends, poorly trained in domestic skills, and without her own home to settle down in, Caty found her own path that often led to history’s criticisms of her that may have been based in jealousies, misunderstandings, and Caty’s own struggle to be a part of the social whirl that accompanied the officers’ corps during the Revolutionary War. Caty Greene, unlike many of her colonial sisters, was not freed by the American Revolution. Only a personal tragedy could free a woman who defied the narrow perception of acceptable behavior.
Note: Caty burned all her letters to Nathanael therefore their relationship was interpreted through Nathanael’s letters and responses to her.
May 1761, six-year-old Caty Littlefield watched her mother’s burial on Block Island off the coast of Rhode Island, an isolated place where her ancestors had lived since the 1660’s free from Massachusetts dogma, formal social rules, a hurried sense of time, and organized religion and schooling. Two years later, Caty was taken in by her namesake, her mother’s sister Catharine Ray Greene, a dark-haired violet-eyed beauty who Caty resembled. Aunt Catharine had once had a relationship with Benjamin Franklin who wanted more than the platonic handholding she was willing to offer. Now, she was married to William Greene, Jr. a Rhode Island politician who was distantly related to Nathanael Greene.
Nathanael was a frequent visitor to the house in East Greenwich. Lacking a formal education as she did, the Caty he met there was comfortable in the society of men and her “power of fascination was absolutely irresistible.” She was born on February 17, 1755, thirteen years younger than her future husband. Nathanael and Caty wed on July 20, 1774. They settled into Spell Hall his home in Coventry, Rhode Island, but those early days of tranquility were short lived.
The events in Massachusetts on April 19, 1775 when the British fired on civilians in Lexington and Concord changed all that. Nathanael, a private in the Kentish Guards a Rhode Island militia company, left to attend the siege of Boston. His militia company was sent home initially. Rhode Island then formed the Army of Observation. Nathanael had previously been denied officer status due to his limp that “was a blemish to the company.” Suddenly, the man the Kentish Guards considered to be a blemish incapable of cutting a physically shining figure was a brigadier general. He went home and showed Caty his commission. He and his men were sent to Roxbury, Massachusetts where they settled in with the Provincial Army.
General George Washington arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts on July 2, 1775. The Continental Congress had appointed him commander-in-chief of the newly formed Continental Army of which the Provincial Army became a part. Washington saw in Nathanael Greene a man who loved his country, cared about his troops, was a strict disciplinarian, and an active soldier. Within the year, Nathanael was a major general in the Continental Army. Caty was suddenly thrust into the role of a major general’s wife.
She was determined to spend time with her husband at camp no matter where that was. Pregnant with their first child a son they named George Washington Greene, she initially traveled to Nathanael’s headquarters west of Boston in 1775. When she returned to Coventry, her lack of domestic skills, fear for Nathanael’s safety and pregnancy led to personal anxieties. She squabbled with her female in-laws who lived in her household in Coventry and those living in Nathanael’s childhood home in Potowomut.
Caty visited her husband at his headquarters as often as possible, with or without her children. As a general’s wife, she was naturally made the center of attention. She became close friends with Martha Washington and Lucy Knox. Her vivacious behavior elicited a spontaneous response from admiring gentlemen. She listened with genuine interest to stories told by men like General Israel Putnam. Young aides became smitten with her looks and playfulness, and Nathanael was delighted by their admiration. Even General Washington asked that she come to camp for her convivial nature brightened the hardest of winters. During an officers’ party in February 1780 at the Morristown, New Jersey encampment, Caty danced with General Washington for three hours straight without sitting down. Nathanael commented that they had “a pretty little frisk.”
In late spring 1776, whispers about Caty’s behavior circulated among her family members. In the winter of 1777, although they were very much in love, jealousies and insecurities surfaced between Caty and Nathanael. His admiration for Lady Stirling and Kitty, General Lord Alexander Stirling’s wife and daughter, and his reminder to watch her spelling when writing to the scholarly Lucy Knox lured Caty’s doubts about how much Nathanael loved her. His subsequent letters were an oxymoron of adoration or designed to make her jealous especially after he heard about the many parties Caty attended in Rhode Island:
“In the neighborhood of my quarters there are several sweet pretty Quaker girls. If the spirit should move and love invite who can be accountable for the consequences?”
Yet many times he soothed her fears:
“Let me ask you soberly whether you estimate yourself below either of these ladies. You will answer me no, if you speak as you think. I declare upon my sacred honor I think they possess far less accomplishments than you, and as much as I respect them as friends, I should never be with them in a more intimate connection. I will venture to say there is no mortal more happy in a wife than myself.”
Leaving her children with in-laws, Caty arrived in Valley Forge in 1778 where she met men like the Marquis de Lafayette, Baron von Steuben, and Alexander Hamilton while her jealousy simmered over the Stirling ladies. It was here she met General Anthony Wayne. An incurable ladies man, his wife never came to camp. Caty was stimulated by the company of this charming man. The whispered gossip began yet Nathanael remained unconcerned.
By the summer of 1780, she was back in Coventry. Nathanael’s new post was uncertain. Then, he was sent off to command the Southern Army to replace the disgraced General Horatio Gates. The Greene’s had no cash; only land in Rhode Island. While Nathanael bore the horrors of the Southern Campaign, forbidding Caty to join him, she was enjoying the social life in Newport among French soldiers.
After the British surrender in Yorktown, Virginia in October 1781, she traveled to South Carolina to join Nathanael at his headquarters near Charleston. She witnessed the devastation Nathanael had warned her of. After a twenty-three month separation, she found her husband much changed and worn down from the war and debt. Only land grants for his service in the Southern campaign stood between their family and utter financial ruin—Mulberry Grove plantation and holdings on Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia. Anthony Wayne was granted the plantation adjacent to Mulberry Grove.
In 1785, Caty gave birth to their sixth child, Catharine. The infant died of whooping cough. Caty lay despondent for weeks. Nathanael hired a tutor for the children, a twenty-one year old graduate of Yale, Phineas Miller. The family moved to Mulberry Grove in November. Caty was pregnant again. Tragically in April 1786, she fell and gave birth to a premature daughter who died soon after.
By then, the Mulberry Grove plantation was thriving. The Greenes had a promising new start which came to an abrupt end on June 19, 1786, when Nathanael died of sunstroke at age 43. Caty soon learned the worst. Her husband died before he had made the barest beginning toward paying off the huge debts he owed to his creditors after borrowing money to equip his Southern Army. She would have to make a claim of indemnity to the government for reimbursement.
She poured her heart out to Jeremiah Wadsworth, one of Nathanael’s business partners and a man she had been attracted to for years. Wadsworth was married and had past indiscretions. Jealousy ignited between Miller and Wadsworth for Caty’s affections and Wadsworth’s support in settling her estate in Congress began to wane.
In 1791, she stood before Congress with her indemnity claim that Alexander Hamilton had helped her prepare. Anthony Wayne held a seat in Congress and fought furiously for her settlement. On April 27, she was awarded $47,000 and for the first time since the war, her family was solvent. Soon after, Wayne disappeared from her life. He went west to join the military there. He died of complications from gout on December 15, 1796 during a return trip to Pennsylvania from a military post in Detroit.
By this time, Caty and Phineas Miller had drawn up a legal agreement concerning their relationship and prospective marriage. All five of her children were living at Mulberry Grove, but her oldest child, George, drowned in 1793 soon after coming home from France where he was attending school. In his late teens, George’s body was found on the banks of the Savannah River near Mulberry Grove. His body was taken down the river to the colonial cemetery in Savannah and was placed in the vault beside that of his father’s.
Enter Eli Whitney, a graduate of Yale who came south to accept a teaching position. Caty invited Eli to live in her home so he could read law and work on his new cotton gin invention. Phineas and Eli formed a business partnership with Caty as a silent backer to finance Whitney’s cotton gin invention. However, the venture needed more capital than Caty could provide. Caty and Phineas invested in a land scheme—the Yazoo Company. The company collapsed and Caty once again faced poverty. She married Phineas later that year much to Eli’s chagrin for he was in love with her.
In 1800, Mulberry Grove was sold and the family moved to Cumberland Island at Dungeness where Nathanael, fourteen years before, had begun construction of his family’s future home. The island yielded everything the family needed to survive. Three years later at age thirty-nine, the gentle and faithful Phineas died of blood poisoning after pricking his finger on a thorn.
Caty was faced with selling Phineas’ part of the Miller estate which was tied up in his company with Whitney. There were also the settlements against her estate for legal fees, loans, etc. For a time, she sold live oaks to a lumber company in an effort to salvage the cotton gin company.
Eli Whitney returned to his home in New Haven, Connecticut yet he was tormented by his love for Caty. She was now past childbearing age and he wanted a family. She wrote him letters, cajoling him to come to her side, offering her sentiments on his health and his aloofness. She made a failed attempt at matching him with her youngest daughter, Louisa. On a trip to New York to endeavor to settle her final legal affairs with Nathanael’s and Phineas’ estates, she begged him to visit her. When he came at last, she recognized the final hopelessness of her dream of marriage with this man she badgered, pitied, worried over, and loved with all her heart. She often asked him to come back to Georgia to visit her, but he never returned.
On July 5, 1814, Caty wrote her last letter to Eli Whitney:
“We have a party of eighteen to eat Turtle with us tomorrow. I wish you were the nineteenth. Our fruit begins to flow in upon us—to partake of which I long for you… ”
She had grown and found as Nathanael once suggested, that self-pity made a sad companion. In the last week of August, Caty was struck with a fever. The same week the capital city of Washington lay in ruins, burned by the British. Caty never knew. She died on September 2, 1814.
Despite history’s proverbial finger pointing about what she may have done during her marriage to Nathanael, Caty was a women whose strengths and weaknesses allowed her to face the consequences of war and meet them head on the rest of her life.
This blog is part of the Historical Writers Forum Women’s History Month blog hop. (https://www.facebook.com/Historical-Writers-Forum-Blog-Hop-Page-313883642875335)
Stegeman, John F. and Janet A. Caty A Biography of Catharine Littlefield Greene Athens, Georgia University of Georgia Press, 1977. Print.
Carbone, Gerald M. Nathanael Greene A Biography of the American Revolution, 2008. Print.
Thayer, Theodore. Nathanael Greene Strategist Of The American Revolution New York: Twayne Publishers, 1960. Print.