Saturday, May 7, 2016

People: Military Wife & Revolutionary Mother

I wrote last year at this time about he mother of the Father of Our Country, Mary Washington. This year I decided to take a look at the military wife of a man who was arguably the ablest of the American generals during the War for Independence. Nathanael Greene served at Washington's side for much of the war , barring a stint as the Quartermaster, a position he did not want but one Washington knew badly needed competency. Greene possessed intelligence, self-learning, and the ability to quietly get things done. A large, if not obese man, Greene also managed to marry for love, not property or status.

Early Life

Greene's wife, Catherine Littlefield - known to family and friends as Kitty or Caty - was born on Block Island, Rhode Island, on February 17, 1755. On her mother's death she moved in with her aunt Catherine, who took over the role of mother to ten-year-old Caty, and supervised the young girl's education as befit a young woman of the upper classes. Catherine was vivacious and very social, and these traits seemed have to rubbed off on her niece. Catherine 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.Young Caty attended many of her aunt's gatherings and as she grew into a teen, attracted many eligible young men. One of these was Nathanael, whom she met when she was 19 and he was a 33 year old bachelor. The couple married on 20 July 1774. America was already embroiled in a political struggle with Britain and many had begun to organize and prepare the local militia for eventual conflict. Greene was one of those.

Following their wedding, the couple moved to Nathanael Greene's home in Coventry, Rhode Island, where they spent less than a year together before her husband left for war. Charged with raising the Rhode Island Army of Observation, Nathanael Greene traveled to Massachusetts with his troops in May. On June 22 he was commissioned a brigadier general in the Continental Army. During the siege of Boston that followed Greene commanded troops on Prospect Hill. While Greene was away, Catherine remained in Coventry, giving birth to their first child in February of 1776. After the siege of Boston ended, Greene moved with Washington to Long Island where in August 1776 he was commissioned a major general of the Continental Army. However, he was stricken almost immediately with a serious illness and prevented from joining the Battle of Long Island. He returned home to recover, but returned to the army in time to play critical roles in the battles of Trenton and Princeton. The time recuperating proved fruitful. A daughter, which Catherine chose to name Martha Washington, was born to the Greenes in March of 1777. The pregnancy was not an easy one, and Catherine remained bedridden. She was instructed to partake of a common but potentially deadly cure by ingesting four grains of mercury a day. Most army wives of the day were content to sit at home and wait. The feisty Catherine attempted to join her husband whenever practicable for the duration of the Revolutionary War. Until Nathanael was sent south to command the Army of the South in October of 1780, his wife remained near him a great deal of the time. While away from her home in Coventry, she left her young children with family members, despite the criticism of several friends and relatives. Catherine became pregnant with four of the couple's six children during her husband's tour of duty.

In early June of 1777, after several months of illness, Catherine felt well enough to travel south to her husband's side, and was welcomed at the Beverwyck, New Jersey country house of Abraham Lott, located ten miles northeast of Morristown and close to the Continental Army encampment. Lott was a wealthy middle-aged merchant and patriot who, with his wife and daughters, had left New York City the year before. This is a pattern that continued throughout the war. After the less than successful Philadelphia campaign of 1777, the Continental Army went into winter quarters at Valley Forge. Catherine joined her husband during this dismal encampment and shared his small, cramped quarters and the meager military fare.

 The Social Swirl: A Glimpse 

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.

The Christmas Eve, 1778 invitation Greene to the Washingtons shows just how close and important the social bonds were:

"General and Mrs. Greene beg that General and Lady Washington honor their poor quarters with their presence this evening at eight."

Washington was no less effusive in response : "Deliver to Mrs. Greene the compliments of Mrs. Washington and myself with the assurance that we will do ourselves the pleasure of being present at Van Veghten House this evening."

Catherine's friend Jane Stickle Crosier, an eyewitness to these events, penned a fair description of Catherine Greene: "Not far from the two generals stands the fair hostess, surrounded by a bevy of bright young faces. How beautiful that face and form and how graceful her every movement! The 25 summers have left no mark of care upon that joyous mature. The expressive grey eyes respond to every mood, and the sweetest smile hovers ever upon the regular and animated features. Her quick perception and unusually retentive memory combine in making her conversation brilliant and her society a delight to all who come within the magic of her presence. The mass of reddish brown hair is coiled high upon the well-poised head, with dainty puffings to the front. The brilliancy of that beautiful, clear complexion is set off to wondrous advantage by the tiny bit of black court plaster placed near the dimpled chin. She wears a superb gown of heaviest old rose brocade. The square cut neck is filled in with rare old lace and the elbow sleeves have flounces of the same cob-web like texture." Sadly, I found no portraits of her as a young woman.

Marriage and Family

When the Greene's had their first child, a son, they named him George Washington Greene, when in 1777 they had their first daughter, they named her Martha Washington Greene. Their other three children were Cornelia, Nathanael Ray and Louisa Catharine. All five children were born during the war. There was sixth child, whom they lost. In some accountants, the vivacious "Kitty" was romantically linked to Washington. This was based on their obvious fondness for each other and their like of dancing. In certain 18th century social circles, courtliness was very common and could be interpreted as something stronger. She was likewise linked to several other military and political figures throughout the war. Greene's frequent absence in the conduct of appointed duties did little to help squelch such thoughts. Yet by all measures their marriage was untainted and happy. The vivacious Mrs. Greene bore him four children during the course of a war that had her move from state to state to be near him.

The War's End

Major General Nathanael Grene
In the fall of 1780, Greene was sent to the Carolinas to assume command of American forces facing a determined British effort to win the war in the South. The escalating and vicious military campaigns in the south made her appearing at to his side impractical. One would think having a brood to raise only complicated things.  In early December 1780, Greene arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina, and took command of the remnants of the army, which had suffered several defeats. Greene rebuilt the army and fought what some say was the best campaign of the war. He wore down the British and slowly made their grip untenable to the point that in 1781 General Cornwallis made a desperate march to a place in Virginia called Yorktown. When the war ended in 1783 Green turned down the offer of a post as Secretary of War. preferring and returned to  Rhode Island, where their third daughter, Louisa, was born. Catherine had another child, who died as an infant in 1785.

Young Wife to Young Widow

In the fall of 1785 the Greenes moved south to Savannah, Georgia, to take possession of Mulberry Grove, a plantation given in gratitude to General Greene by the states of Georgia and South Carolina. Mulberry Grove proved unprofitable because Greene's Quaker upbringing prevented him from utilizing slave labor. But family life at there proved  happy. But tragedy struck suddenly. The 44-year-old Greene died at from a sever case of sunstroke in June 1786. It was then that Caty realized just how serious the family's financial 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. She appealed to George Washington and to the government for support. Washington offered to take in and educate the Green son that was his namesake. Caty asked Jeremiah Wadsworth, a Representative from Connecticut to Congress, to file a formal claim against the government. Wadsworth once 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. Caty o borrowed money  from Wadsworth. There were rumors of an affair. He became very possessive and reportedly had several jealous outbursts. He accused her of having an affair with her plantation manager, Phineas Miller.  The widow Greene denied it. Between her husbands death and 1792, Caty waged a relentless campaign for a pension to compensation for her husbands service. she engaged many famous men who had served with her husband, "Mad" Anthony Wayne, Alexander Hamilton and more. Finally, Congress authorized her a sum of $23,000 and the same amount to be paid within three years. This enabled her to settle comfortably into the mansion and raise her children. With the pension in hand, Caty was free to marry the aforementioned Miller. who had started as tutor to her children and later managed the estate.

Interesting Post Script

Eli Whitney
In an interesting side bar, while operating Mulberry Grove, Caty hired another tutor, Eli Whitney in 1792. Tradition holds that Greene suggested Whitney build a machine to clean seed cotton. Whether true or not, Whitney invented the Cotton Gin which revolutionized the cotton industry (and perhaps the course of the nation). Miller 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. Of her four children, the young George Washington Greene died tragically in a canoe accident in 1793. His mother's grief would endure. Caty 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 lived more than a decade on September 2nd, 1814.

Kitty Green's role is unclear,
but the gin made slavery profitable just as it was beginning to die out

1 comment:

  1. This is a very interesting account that provides insight into the war's parallel social circle interactions of the military leadership, while also tempting one to generate many soap opera-like questions about their relationships, financial dynamics and struggles.