Catharine Greene Biography | Women of the Revolution


    About the author

    Edward St. Germain.
    Edward St. Germain

    Edward A. St. Germain created in 1996. He was an avid historian with a keen interest in the Revolutionary War and American culture and society in the 18th century. On this website, he created and collated a huge collection of articles, images, and other media pertaining to the American Revolution. Edward was also a Vietnam veteran, and his investigative skills led to a career as a private detective in later life.


      Catharine Littlefield, the eldest daughter of John Littlefield and Phebe Ray, was born in New Shoreham, on Block Island, 1753. When very young, she came with her sister to reside in the family of Governor Greene, of Warwick, a lineal descendant of the founder of the family, whose wife was her aunt. The house in which they lived, twelve or fourteen miles south of Providence, is still standing. It is situated on a hill which commands a view of the whole of Narragansett Bay, with its islands. Mount Rope, associated with King Philip, and the Indian traditions, fills the background, rising slightly above the line of the horizon. It was here that Miss Littlefield’s happy girlhood was passed; and it was here also that she first knew Nathanael Greene. She often went on a visit to her family at Block Island. Nathanael would come there to see her; and the time was spent by the young people in amusements, particularly in riding and dancing, of which the future general was remarkably fond, notwithstanding his father’s efforts to whip out of him such idle propensities. He was not discouraged by the example of his fair companion from any of these outbreaks of youthful gaiety; for the tradition of the country around, and the recollections of all who knew her, testify that there never lived a more joyous, frolicsome creature than “Kate Littlefield.” In person, she was singularly lovely. Her figure was of the medium height, and light and graceful at this period, though in after years she was inclined to embonpoint. Her eyes were gray, and her complexion fair; her features regular and animated. The facilities for female education being very limited at that period, Miss Littlefield enjoyed few advantages of early cultivation. She was not particularly fond of study, though she read the books that came in her way, and profited by what she read. She possessed, moreover, a marvellous quickness of perception, and the faculty of comprehending a subject with surprising readiness. Thus in conversation, she seemed to appreciate every thing said on almost any topic; and frequently would astonish others by the ease with which her mind took hold of the ideas presented. She was at all times an intelligent listener. On one occasion, when the conversation turned on botany, she looked over the books and collection of a Swedish botanist, making remarks from time to time which much interested him, and showed her an observer of no common intelligence. This extraordinary activity of mind, and tact in seizing on points, so as to apprehend almost intuitively, distinguished her through life. It enabled her, without apparent mental effort, to apply the instruction conveyed in the books she read, to the practical affairs of life, and to enrich her varied conversation with the knowledge gained from them, and her observation of the world. This power of rendering available her intellectual stores, combined with a retentive memory, a lively imagination, and great fluency in speech, rendered her one of the most brilliant and entertaining of women. When to these gifts was added the charm of rare beauty, it cannot excite wonder that the possessor of such attractions should fascinate all who approached her.

      How, when, or by what course of wooing, the youthful lover won the bright, volatile, coquettish maiden, cannot be ascertained; but it is probable their attachment grew in the approving eyes of their relatives, and met with no obstacle till sealed by the matrimonial vow. The marriage took place July 20th, 1774, and the young couple removed to Coventry. Little, it is likely, did the fair Catharine dream of her future destiny as a soldier’s wife; or that the broad-brimmed hat of her young husband covered brows that should one day be wreathed with the living laurels won by genius and patriotism. We have no means of knowing with how much interest she watched the over-clouding of the political horizon, or the dire advance of the necessity that drove the Colonies to armed resistance. But when her husband’s decision was made, and he stood forth a determined patriot, separating himself from the community in which he had been born and reared, by embracing a military profession, his spirited wife did her part to aid and encourage him. The papers of the day frequently notice her presence, among other ladies, at head-quarters. Like Mrs. Washington, she passed the active season of the campaign at home. Hers was a new establishment at Coventry, a village in Rhode Island, where her husband had erected a forge, and built himself what then passed for a princely house on the banks of one of those small streams which form so beautiful a feature in Rhode Island scenery. When the army before Boston was inoculated for the smallpox, she gave up her house for a hospital. She was there during the attack on Rhode Island; and every cannon on the hard fought day which closed that memorable enterprise must have awakened the echoes of those quiet hills. When the army went into winter quarters, she always set out to rejoin her husband, sharing cheerfully the narrow quarters and hard fare of a camp. She partook of the privations of the dreary winter at Valley Forge, in that “darkest hour of the Revolution;” and it appears that, as at home, her gay spirit shed light around her even in such scenes, softening and enlivening the gloom which might have weighed many a bold heart into despondency. There are extant some interesting little notes of Kosciusko, in very imperfect English, which show her kindness to her husband’s friends, and the pleasure she took in alleviating their sufferings.

      How much her society was prized by General Greene, and how impatiently he bore separation from her, may be seen in his letters. When about to start for the South, in October, 1780, he waits for her arrival to join him, expecting she will overtake him at camp, or in Philadelphia; and expresses the greatest anxiety that she should avoid the dangerous route by Peekskill. His fears for her safety at last impel him to request her not to encounter the risk. Mr. Hughes, who knows the feelings of the anxious wife, detains the letters; and afterwards, confessing the unwarrantable liberty for which he “deserved to appear before a courtmartial ” says: “But if I do, I will plead Mrs. General Greene.” Again he writes: “Give me leave to say that your lady, if possible, without injury to herself, must see you. My God she will suffer a thousand times as much by a disappointment, as she can by going ten times the distance.”

      The letters quoted or referred to in this sketch are from the MS. correspondence of General Greene, in the possession of his grandson, Prof. George W. Greene, of Providence, R. I., late Consul at Rome.

      Notwithstanding her ardent wish to accompany the General, it seems that Mrs. Greene was prevented from doing so. Mrs. Washington writes to her from Mount Vernon, to say that General Greene was well, and had spent the evening at Mount Vernon, on his way to Richmond. General Weedon, in a letter to her, announces that the General had stopped for the night at his house in Richmond; and invites Mrs. Greene, if she should come as far as Virginia, to quarter under his roof. A letter from the Commander-in-chief, written from New Windsor on the 15th of December, encloses Mrs. Greene a letter from her husband, and offers to forward hers.

      “Mrs. Washington,” he says, “who is just arrived at these my quarters, joins me in most cordial wishes for your every felicity, and regrets the want of your company. Remember me to my namesake. Nat, I suppose, can handle a musket.”

      The “namesake” alluded to, was the eldest son, who was afterwards drowned in the Savannah River. His mother never recovered her spirits after this shock.

      Mrs. Greene joined her husband in the South after the close of the active campaign of 1781, and remained with him till the end of the war, residing on the islands during the heats of summer, and the rest of the time at head- quarters. In the spring of 1783, she returned to the North where she remained till the General had completed his arrangements for removing to the South. They then established themselves at Mulberry Grove, on a plantation which had been presented to Greene by the State of Georgia.

      Mrs. Greene’s first impressions of southern life and manners are painted in lively colors in her letters to northern friends. The following passage is from one to Miss Flagg: “If you expect to be an inhabitant of this country, you must not think to sit down with your netting pins; but on the contrary, employ half your time at the toilet, one quarter to paying and receiving visits; the other quarter to scolding servants, with a hard thump every now and then over the head; or singing, dancing, reading, writing, or saying your prayers. The latter is here quite a phenomenon; but you need not tell how you employ your time.”

      The letters of General Greene to his wife breathe the most entire confidence and affection. His respect for her judgment and good sense is shown in the freedom with which he expresses his thoughts and unfolds his hopes and plans. He evidently looked to her for support and sympathy in all his cares and troubles. His lighter hours, even in absence, were shared with her. Sometimes his youthful gaiety breaks forth in his descriptions of adventures and persons encountered in his travels. And regard for his interests was plainly above every other thought in the mind of his wife. After his death, she writes to Mr. Wadsworth, his executor, September 19th, 1788, “I consider debts of honor, and would starve, rather than they should not be paid.” – “I am a woman unaccustomed to anything but the trifling business of a family; yet my exertions may effect something. If they do not, and if I [sacrifice] my life in the cause of my children, I shall but do my duty, and follow the example of my illustrious husband.”

      It was while on a visit to Savannah with his wife that General Greene was seized with the disease which in a few days closed his brilliant career. They were then preparing to return and pass the summer at the North. The weight of care that fell on Mrs. Greene in consequence of this event, would have crushed an ordinary mind; but she struggled nobly through it all. Some years afterwards, thinking that some lands she owned on Cumberland Island offered greater advantages than Mulberry Grove, she removed there with her family; dividing her time between her household duties and the cares of an extensive hospitality; occasionally visiting the North in the summer, but continuing to look upon the south as her home. It was while she lived at Mulberry Grove, that she became instrumental in introducing to the world an invention which has covered with wealth the fields of the South.

      Late in 1792, her sympathies were enlisted in behalf of a young man, a native of Massachusetts, who having come to Georgia to take the place of private teacher in a gentleman’s family, had been disappointed in obtaining the situation, and found himself without friends or resources in a strange land. Mrs. Greene and her family treated him with great kindness. He was invited to make his home in her house while he pursued the study of the law, to which he had determined to devote himself.

      According to the account of some, his attention was attracted to the cotton plant growing in the garden, and to Mr. Miller’s observation that cotton of that sort could be cultivated as a staple, provided some method could be found of cleaning it from the seed. According to others, a party of gentlemen on a visit to the family, spoke of the want of an effective machine for separating the cotton from the seed, without which, it was allowed, there could be no profitable cultivation of this more productive species. Mrs. Greene spoke of the mechanical genius of her young protégé; introduced him to the company, and showed little specimens of his skill, in tambour frames and articles for the children. Eli Whitney, for that was the name of the young student, was strongly impressed with the conversation. He examined the cotton, and communicated his plans to Mrs. Greene and Mr. Miller, who gave him warm encouragement. A basement room, into which no one else was admitted, was appropriated for his work. He labored day after day, making the necessary tools; and persevering with unwearied industry. By spring the COTTON GIN was completed, and exhibited to the wonder and delight of planters invited from different parts of Georgia to witness its successful operation.

      Mr. Phineas Miller entered into an agreement with Whitney, to bear the expense of maturing the invention, and to divide the future profits. He was a man of remarkably active and cultivated mind. Mrs. Greene married him some time after the death of General Greene. She survived him several years – dying just before the close of the late war with England. Her remains rest in the family burial ground at Cumberland Island, where but a few years afterwards, the body of one of her husband’s best officers and warmest friends – the gallant Lee – was brought to moulder by her side. She left four children by her first marriage – three daughters and one son – of whom the son and second daughter are still living.

      Mrs. Miller related to a lady residing in New York, the incident of Colonel Aaron Burr’s requesting permission to stop at her house, when he came South, after his fatal duel with General Hamilton. She would not refuse the demand upon her hospitality, but his victim had been her friend; and she could not receive as a guest, one whose hands were crimsoned with his blood. She gave Burr permission to remain; but at the same time ordered her carriage, and quitted her house; returning as soon as he had taken his departure. This little anecdote is strongly illustrative of her impulsive and generous character. The lady who mentioned it to me had herself experienced, in time of the illness of one dear to her, Mrs. Miller’s sympathy and active kindness; and described her manners as gentle, frank and winning. Her praise, were I at liberty to mention her name, would do the highest honor to its object.

      The descendants of Mrs. Greene regard her with affectionate reverence. She was a loved and honored wife, and a tender yet judicious mother. Her discipline was remarkably strict, and none of her children ever thought of disobeying her. Yet she would sometimes join with child-like merriment in their sports. A lady now living in Providence states that one day, after the close of the war, passing General Greene’s house in Newport, she saw both him and his wife playing “puss in the corner,” with the children.

      She loved a jest, and sometimes too, a hearty laugh upon her friends. On one occasion, while living at Newport after the close of the war, she disguised herself like an old beggar-woman, so effectually that she was not recognized even by her brother-in-law. In this dress she went round to the houses of her friends to ask charity – telling a piteous tale of losses and sufferings. At one house they were at the card-table; and one of her most intimate friends, as she ordered her off, desired the servant to look well as she went out and see that she did not steal something from the entry. At another, the master of the house was just sitting down to supper; and though an old acquaintance and a shrewd man, was not only deceived, but so moved by her story, that he gave her the loaf he was on the point of cutting for himself. When she had sufficiently amused herself with this practical test of her friends’ charity, she took off her disguise, and indulged her merriment at their expense; reminding them that with the exception of the loaf, she had been turned away without any experience of their liberality.

      Mrs. Greene’s power of fascination, described as absolutely irresistible, may be illustrated by a little anecdote. A lady, who is still living, had heard much of her, and resolved, as young ladies sometimes will when they hear too much about a person, that she would not like her. One day she chanced to be on a visit at the late Colonel Ward’s in New York, where she saw a lady – dressed completely in black, even to the head dress, which was drawn close under the throat – who from her seat on the sofa was holding the whole company in breathless attention to the lively anecdotes of the war, and the brilliant sketches of character, which she was drawing so skillfully and in a tone so winning, that it was impossible not to listen to her. Still the young girl’s resolution was not shaken. She might be compelled to admire, but the liking depended on herself; and she took a seat at the opposite side of the room. How long she remained there she was never able to tell; but her first consciousness was of being seated on a stool at the old lady’s feet, leaning upon her knee, and looking up in her face as confidingly as if she had been her own mother.

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