Book Review: Caty A Biography of Catharine Littlefield Greene

The introduction begins with a scholarly look at the feminine sphere of women during the colonial period and society’s disapproval of women who were perceived to have stepped outside of it pre- and post- American Revolution. Caty Greene often defied this narrow perception of acceptable behavior. She also shouldered heavy financial burdens who her husband, General Nathanael Greene, one of George Washington’s most trusted and capable generals, shouldered as a direct result of the war until his early death in 1786.

Caty burned all her letters to Nathanael therefore their relationship is interpreted through Nathanael’s letters and responses to her.

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Caty Greene later in life, 1809

Review:

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. Two years later, Caty was taken in by her namesake, her mother’s sister Catharine Greene, a dark-haired violet-eyed beauty who Caty resembled. Aunt Catharine 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.

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General Nathanael Greene

The Caty Nathanael met there was comfortable in the society of men and her “power of fascination was absolutely irresistible.” Nathanael and Caty wed on July 20, 1774. They settled in his home in Coventry, Rhode Island, but those early days of tranquility were short lived. The events in Massachusetts on April 19, 1775 changed all that and Nathanael left with Rhode Island militia to attend the siege of Boston.

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Greene Homestead in Coventry, Rhode Island today.

Caty was determined to spend time with her husband at camp no matter where that was. Pregnant, she traveled to Nathanael’s headquarters west of Boston. 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.

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.

In late spring 1776, whispers about Caty’s behavior circulated among her family members. In the winter of 1777, jealousies and insecurities surfaced between Caty and Nathanael—his admiration for Lady Stirling and Kitty, General Alexander Stirling’s wife and daughter, his reminder to watch her spelling when writing to the scholarly Lucy Knox, and his subsequent letter after he heard about Caty’s many parties:

“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?” 

Leaving her children with in-laws, Caty arrived in Valley Forge in 1778 where she met men like Lafayette, Steuben, and 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.

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General Anthony Wayne

By the summer of 1780, she was back in Coventry. Nathanael’s new post was uncertain. Then, he was sent off to the deep South. 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 for weeks despondent. 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. 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 creditors 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 Wadworth’s support in settling her estate in Congress began to wane.

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Jeremiah Wadsworth

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 soon after coming home from France.

 

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Eli Whitney

Enter Eli Whitney, who came south to accept a teaching position. Miller and Whitney 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 Whitney’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, but 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 was tormented by his love for Caty, but she was now past childbearing age and he wanted a family. She made a failed attempt at matching him with her youngest daughter, Louisa. On July 5, 1814, Caty wrote her last letter to Whitney who was in New Haven, Connecticut:

“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. Caty never knew. She died on September 2, 1814.

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Greene-Miller Cemetery on Cumberland Island at Dungeness

Despite history’s proverbial finger pointing about what she may have done during her marriage to Nathanael, I highly recommend this book that highlights the strengths and weaknesses of a woman who faced the consequences of war and met them head on the rest of her life.

 

Women Camp Followers of the American Revolution

Most of their names are forgotten or were never recorded. They were wives, daughters, and girlfriends of British, American, and German soldiers and officers. Some followed the army looking for food and protection and work because they were no longer able to support themselves after the men left for war. Others were determined to be with their husbands no matter the cost. These women played a vital role in the American Revolution, sewing, nursing, cooking, guarding baggage, and offering support only they could provide their husbands. They suffered giving birth while enduring the hardships of war and moving armies.

Today, women who followed the army are referred to as “camp followers,” even though that term was not used in the eighteenth century. While General George Washington and many officers did not like to admit it, the army needed them even though the army could barely provision its own troops.  But, if women were not permitted in military camps, the army stood to lose a number of good soldiers. Men with families in need asked for furloughs or deserted in order to provide for their destitute loved ones.

On August 4, 1777, Washington wrote:

“the multitude of women in particular, especially those who are pregnant, or have children, are a clog upon every movement. The Commander in Chief earnestly recommends it to the officers to use every reasonable method in their power to get rid of all such as are not absolutely necessary.”

In fact Washington’s disdain for the camp followers was demonstrated three weeks later on August 24, 1777, when he marched his army through Philadelphia. Washington ordered that “not a woman belonging to the army is to be seen,” so the considerable number of camp followers were spirited off into alley ways and side streets. As the women tramped along parallel to the army’s line of march, they seethed with resentment and “poured after their soldiers.”

Washington’s resentment seems somewhat hypocritical. Martha Washington spent every winter with her husband in the Continental Army camp. She performed a lot of the same tasks as the camp followers, but she also brought an air of gentility and insisted on some formal social activities, as did American general Nathanael Greene’s wife, Caty, General Henry Knox’s wife, Lucy, and Sarah Alexander, wife of Major General Lord Stirling, when they were in camp. Caty sometimes brought her children to camp. Other times, she left them with relatives.

A year before Washington’s march through Philadelphia, American General William Smallwood and his Maryland Battalion consisting of nearly 700 men, joined General Washington’s forces in New York. The battalion included wives, mothers, daughters, mistresses, and other assorted women looking for safety and work.  Captain Nathaniel Ramsey’s wife, Margaret Jane Peale “Jenny” traveled in a small carriage and endured many of the hardships of army life with her husband. Jenny didn’t perform manual labor. Instead, she acted as a hostess, and her quarters became the center of social life for the Maryland officers.

A month later, in August 1776, when British General William Howe’s army landed on Gravesend Beach on the southern tip of Long Island in preparation for their first battle for New York with the Continental Army, women and children were among the British troops.

There were some 250 women and 500 children among British General John Burgoyne’s army that marched south from Montreal, Canada in June 1777, with the ultimate intention of taking Albany, New York.  Burgoyne had his mistress with him. His German commander, General Fredrich von Riedesel Baron of Eisenbach, was accompanied by his wife, Baroness Frederika Charlotte Riedesel. Frederika spent a year traveling from Germany with their three small daughters to be with her husband.

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Frederika Charlotte Riedesel

Frederika and her children joined other officers’ wives who followed at some distance behind the first line of advance.  Frederika wrote about Burgoyne’s small tactical victory at the Battle of Freeman’s Farm in September and his retreat at the Battle of Bemis Heights on October 7, a turning point in the American Revolution.  She also documented her own harrowing experiences in her journal:

I saw the whole battle myself, and, knowing that my husband was taking part in it, I was filled with fear and anguish and shivered whenever a shot was fired….

It was a terrible bombardment, and I was more dead than alive … Little Frederika, was very much frightened, often starting to cry, and I had to hold my handkerchief over her mouth to prevent our being discovered.

The greatest misery and extreme disorder prevailed in the army.  The commissary had forgotten to distribute the food supplies among the troops … more than thirty officers came to me because they could stand the hunger no longer.

My children lay on the floor with their heads in my lap.  And thus we spent the whole night.  The horrible smell in the cellar, the weeping of the children, and, even worse, my own fear prevented me from closing my eyes.

An incident occurred a few months earlier on the morning of July 27, 1777, as a group of Native Americans, an advance party from Burgoyne’s army led by a Wyandot called Panther, descended on the village of Fort Edward. Two warriors, one of whom was Panther, were escorting twenty-five-year old Jane McCrea and her companion, Sara McNeil, to the British camp. McNeil was related to one of Burgoyne’s generals and McCrea was engaged to a loyalist. The women became separated and McCrea was killed and scalped.

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This depiction of The Death of Jane McCrea was painted in 1804 by John Vanderlyn

American Benedict Arnold claimed that both women “were shot, scalped, stripped, and butchered in the most shocking manner…” Arnold’s outrage served to help make the death of Jane McCrea a sensation.

Mary McCauley followed the Seventh Pennsylvania Regiment. Her husband, John, was an artillery man. During the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey, on June 28, 1778, Mary carried water from a nearby spring to the thirsty men on that hot and smoky battlefield. The water was also used to cool the blazing cannons. John collapsed during the battle, perhaps from the heat, and Mary immediately took his place at the cannon. She assisted in firing it with the rest of the crew for the remainder of the battle.

Women who offered their services to the army chose to give up the security of home (if they had one left) and embark on a journey that offered discomfort, hardship, and danger. They worked just as hard and suffered just as much as the men they worked beside. Many of the contributions of Revolutionary War era women have been forgotten. It is only appropriate to remember their courage and sacrifice, honoring them as well as the fighting men they supported.

Resources:

O’Donnell, Patrick K. Washington’s Immortals New York: Grove Press, 2016. Print.

Philbrick, Nathaniel. Valiant Ambition New York: Penguin Books, 2016. Print.

Pancake, John S. 1777 The University of Alabama Press, 1997. Print.

O’Shaughnessy, Andrew Jackson. The Men Who Lost America New Haven & London Yale University Press, 2013. Print.

https://www.history.org/history/teaching/enewsletter/volume7/nov08/women_revarmy.cfm

https://www.historyisfun.org/blog/witness-to-war/

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