Revolutionary War Historical Article
Mrs. Catharine "Caty" Littlefield Greene
Wife of Major General Nathanael Greene
By Donald N. Moran
Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the September 2006 Edition of the Liberty Tree Newsletter
Catharine Greene, affectionately known as "Caty" was the wife of Major General Nathanael Greene of Revolutionary War fame. She was the mother of five children and actively supported the cause of American independence.
Catharine Littlefield was born on February 17th, 1755, on Block Island, off the coast of Rhode Island. Her family was among the original settlers of the island in the early 1660s. John Littlefield, her father, served in the Rhode Island legislature. Phebe Ray, her mother, was a descendant of the earliest settlers of Block Island.
Catharine's mother died in 1765, when she was only ten years old. Her father realized that Catharine was of the age when a women's influence was absolutely necessary, so he sent her to live with his late wife's sister, for whom she was named, Catharine Ray and her husband, William Greene, in East Greenwich, Rhode Island.
Catharine learned to love reading while living with her aunt and uncle. William Greene was a leader of the Whig Party and Governor of Rhode Island. As a Colonial Governor many notables of the day visited their home, among them was Benjamin
Franklin, who had been a close friend of Greene's Aunt Catharine. Another frequent caller was a cousin of William's, Nathanael Greene, who was a successful merchant.
Nathanael, a Rhode Island Quaker, was fourteen years older than she. The two began a courting in 1772 when she was seventeen. They were married on July 20ili,1774.
Nine months after their marriage, the Revolutionary War started at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. Nathanael, already active in the Rhode Island Militia, immediately joined the cause.
Most army wives of the day were content to sit at home and wait. Not so Caty! From the numerous references written about her, all seemed to agree she was extremely feisty. Whenever possible she joined Nathanael, either staying with him, or in a nearby town that was deemed safe. This was always a concern for her friends and family. She often was close to the scene of action and actually witnessed several battles firsthand.
During the Southern Campaign, when her husband and Lord Cornwallis were at each other's throats, General Washington could not convince her not to go. He issued a General Order: "Headquarters, Phila. January 3, 1871, All Quarter Masters, and Officers in Continental Service are requested to give Mrs. Greene every aid and assistance in their power in her journey to the State of South Carolina."
During the harsh winter at Valley Forge, it appears that Lucy Knox, wife of General Henry Knox, Chief of Artillery, organized an informal social club for the ladies. These included Martha Washington, Catharine Greene and Sarah Alexander, wife of Major General Lord Sterling. This war time bonding was to last the rest of their lives.
The ladies appear to have insisted that the men provide some formal social activities, which they did. Dancing was the favorite form of entertainment in that era, hence several balls were held, usually at the quarters of the Knox's which was more spacious.
To celebrate the announced Franco-American Alliance, General Knox and the officers of his command hosted a very special social event on February 18th, 1779. General Knox wrote his brother William describing in great detail the evening event, and mentioned that General Washington and Mrs. Caty Greene danced for three hours without sitting down once. It is obvious that the ladies sharing the hardships of the winter encampments were wonderful for the morale of the men.
When the Greene's had their first child, a son, they named him George Washington Greene, then in 1777 they had their first daughter, and named her Martha Washington Greene - - it would seem that the Greene's were very fond of the Washington's. Their other three children were Cornelia, Nathanael Ray and Louisa Catharine. All five children were born during the war.
When General Greene took command of the Continental Army's Southern Department, he found the troops in need of everything. In order to continue resisting the British invasion of the South, he purchased, at his personal expense, the food, clothing and equipment so desperately needed. Not having the cash to pay for the supplies, the merchants agreed to accept his personal note, with his Rhode Island property as the guarantee of payment. The amount of this debt was 9,000 pounds Sterling. Greene was confident that the Continental Congress would promptly reimburse him.
After the war, the States of Georgia presented Nathanael and Caty a plantation, Mulberry Grove, as a reward for having "Saved the South". But Congress was wholly without funds and could not reimburse him. To make good his promise to pay the merchants that furnished the supplies to his Army, he borrowed money from his wealthy friends, including the Marquis de LaFayette, Robert Morris and Jeremiah Wadsworth, his former business partner. He told Caty "I tremble at my own situation when I think of the enormous sums I owe . . ."
It was not until his sudden death in 1786, from sunstroke, that Caty realized just how serious the situation was. She was a young widow of 32, with five children.
Her assets consisted of several thousands acres, but only the lands at Mulberry Grover were under cultivation, and had not generated enough money to cover operating expenses.
After word had reached George Washington of the death of his dear friend and comrade in arms, Nathanael Greene, Washington wrote Jeremiah Wadsworth, Nathanael's business partner and executor of his estate: " . . . . and upon a final settlement of his affairs there will be a handsome competency for Mrs. Greene and the Children. But should the case be otherwise, and Mrs. Greene, yourself and Mr. Rutledge would think proper to entrust my namesake, G. Washington Greene, to my care, I will give him a good education as this Country (I mean the United States) will afford and will bring him up either of the genteel professions that his frds may chuse, or his own inclination shall lead him to pursue, at my own cost and expense."
Obviously from this letter, General Washington was well aware of Caty's financial situation.
Caty asked Jeremiah Wadsworth, then a Representative from Connecticut to Congress, to file a formal claim against the government. Wadsworth had served as Commissary General during the Revolution and was frequently at General Greene's headquarters. He apparently was also in love with Caty, as were many: of the men who served with Nathanael. She was known as the "perennial pet" at his headquarters. Most members of the General's staff said that you could not be around her for long before becoming smittened. During lulls in military activities, the Greene's entertained often. At these evening gatherings she danced, flirted, played card and parlor games. These officers were permitted affectionate liberties with Caty, in full view of the general, who was amused and indulgent. It should be noted that not one of these officers pressed these liberties beyond what was deemed proper.
Caty was forced to borrow money for living expenses from Wadsworth. Her household furniture was given to creditors, she sold her carriage to fund a trip to Hartford to meet with Wadsworth - - again he loaned her money.
There are unconfirmed reports that they had an affair even though he was married. He became very possessive and reportedly had several jealous outbursts. He accused her of having an affair with her plantation manager, Phineas Miller, Caty denied the relationship, but since she later married Phineas she was not entirely truthful. Nevertheless, he continued to loan her the monies she desperately required.
When George Washington was inaugurated as President of the United States in 1789 Caty decided to take her case directly to him. He advised her to press her case with Congress "to the last extremity". But being mindful of his position as President, and knowing that everything he did would set a precedent, he appears to have not personally gotten involved.
Caty renewed her wartime acquaintances. She met with many of the former officers and their wives, one of whom commented that they were amazed to find her as charming and beautiful as ever.
Alexander Hamilton, then Secretary of the Treasury and General Henry Knox, Secretary of War, took on her case. Hamilton became her chief advisor. Knox personally prepared the claim and suggested what documents she required to support her case.
Caty loved a good time and took full advantage of being in New York City. She divided her time between the Knox's and the Washington's. She quickly became part of the President's inner circle. She attended balls, dinners and the theatre, but her financial situation dampened her pleasure. She wrote a friend " . . . I find an invincible reluctance to Society and amusements of every species. Balls concerts, assemblies and even plays cease to please me . "
After returning to her Georgia home she spent two years gathering affidavits, documents and eye witness testimonies. She was a woman on a mission. She wrote a friend "It shall never be told of me that I sat myself down quietly and waited for my ruin".
As Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton had access to all the financial records from the War. He warned Caty that he could not find a single document wherein Nathanael notified Congress of his expenditures, and that could be a serious drawback in her case. He wrote her: "I love you too well not to be very candid with you. When will we have the pleasure of seeing you this way? I need not tell you the pleasure I should take in it."
Edward Rutledge, co-executor of Nathanael's estate, and the youngest man to sign the Declaration of Independence was also a faithful friend of Caty's. He was very disappointed in Wadsworth's inaction on her behalf and advised Caty to take advantage of her knowing so many in Government, to personally go before Congress. He wrote her saying: "The effect of a personal application, with justice, humanity , and gratitude on your side are wonderful and they ought to be irresistible . . I know the charm of your eloquence." She decided to take his advice.
While her case was still being processed, she had the opportunity to repay General Washington's hospitality. During his presidential tour of the South he twice stopped off at Mulberry Grove. On the first occasion he and his entire entourage were guests for dinner. On the second visit, three days later it was private, and certainly he counseled her regarding her pending case before Congress although no written record of his advice exists.
In December of that year she sailed from Savannah to Philadelphia, the new National Capitol, to present her case. She had a trunk load of supporting documents. She appeared before Alexander Hamilton and the officials of the Treasury Department to make her appeal. She presented the petition, explained in detail the complexities of General Greene's financial dealing in support of the men in his command. She then read the affidavits given her by "who's who of the American Revolution" - - among them were: Henry Knox, Anthony Wayne, Benjamin Lincoln, William Washington. Hamilton then added his endorsement, stating that although General Greene had erred in signing the promissory notes without the authority of the Congress his family must never be allowed to suffer poverty In consequence. Thusly endorsed and approved by the Department of the Treasury, the petition was forwarded to the House of Representatives for Congressional action.
Rutledge had warned her that there were those in Congress that would not support her. One was Colonel Thomas Sumner, who still bore a command grudge against her husband. He and some of his colleagues resented General Greene's severe criticism of the Militia. However, another General Officer, Major General "Mad" Anthony Wayne, who knew the Greene's from the very beginning of the war, had been granted a plantation adjoining Mulberry Grove, hence had become very close. He had recently been elected to the House of Representatives. He championed her petition and secured a number of supporting votes. But, just as it appeared the petition would be approved, Mad Anthony became embroiled in a political scandal and accused of rigging his election. His fellow Congressmen unanimously voted to expel him. He left Congress in disgrace. It was short lived, however, as Washington appointed him Commander-in-Chief of the Army and he was off to fight the Indians. When he left Philadelphia to take up his command, he and Caty were destined to never meet again.
The loss of her strong ally, Anthony Wayne, from the House had to have been a severe blow to Caty. Again, her hopes were dashed. However, the House approved the petition by a nine vote margin, and forwarded it to the Senate. On April 27th, 1792, President George Washington signed the act, undoubtedly one of the more enjoyable events of his Presidency. Alexander Hamilton, as Secretary of the Treasury, signed a government check for $23,500 and a promissory note for another $23,500 payable by Congress within three years. We do not know who brought her the good news, but we know she had to have been elated. She wrote her Georgia lawyer, Nathaneal Pendleton, "I can tell you my dear friend, that I feel as saucy as you please - - not only because I am independent,but because I have gained a complete triumph over some of my friends who did not wish me success -- and others who doubted my judgement in managing the business - - and constantly tormented me to death to give up my obstinacy as it was called. They are now as mute as mice - not a word dare they utter. a how sweet is revenge."
Now, financially secure, her husband's and her debts paid, Caty settled down to run her plantation and make it profitable. Her eldest son, George Washington Greene had received his education in Paris, all expenses paid by the Marquis de LaFayette. He returned to Georgia and was enjoying the life of a Southern gentleman, when he drowned in the Savannah River on March 28th, 1793. It is said that Caty never recovered from that loss.
She married Phineas Miller in 1796. He had been with her for a number of years, first as tutor to her children then as manager of the plantation.
Phineas was born in Middlefield, Connecticut and was educated at Yale. They probably would have married sooner, but in the 19th century, a widow would lose her widow's benefits if she remarried. Had she done so prior to winning her petition to Congress, she would have lost all that was owed to General Greene.
While operating Mulberry Grove, she hired another tutor, Eli Whitney. While in her employ he invented the Cotton Gin which was to revolutionize the cotton industry. Phineas and Eli went into business manufacturing the machines. However, it appears they over invested in the venture and shortly thereafter, Caty was forced to sell Mulberry Grove.
She moved her family to Cumberland Island, Georgia where she built a manor house, calling it Dungeness. It was there in 1803 that Phineas died. She followed him on September 2nd, 1814.
Her plantation at Mulberry Grove was burned down during the Civil War by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman. Dungeness was destroyed in the mid 1800's also by a fire.
All but George Washington Greene lived and married. Martha Washington Greene married first to John Nightingale, then Dr. Henry E. Turner. Cornelia Lott Greene married first to Peyton Skipwith and then Edward B. Littlefield. Nathanael Ray Greene married Anna Maria Clarke, and her youngest Louisa Catharine Greene married a James Shaw.
In 1818, four years after Caty's death, General "Lighthorse Harry Lee", in failing health, was enroute to his Virginia home from the West Indies, when he asked to be taken to his old friend's estate, Dungeness. After only a month he died on March 25th. He was buried on the Island and his son, Confederate General Robert E. Lee had a suitable tombstone placed over the grave. Later, Lighthorse Harry's remains were removed and re-buried in Lexington, Virginia, next to those of his famous son. The tombstone on Cumberland Island was left standing.
The Association of Quartermasters, at Fort Lee, Virginia has a special award for the spouses of members of the Quartermaster Corps, entitled the Catharine Greene Award in honor of Caty. The United States Army obviously believes that Catharine Greene exemplifies what the spouse of a Quartermaster should be. A fitting tribute to a fascinating lady.