d The very first square and the largest of the squares laid out by Oglethorpe in 1733 is Johnson Square, whose focal point is the striking monument dedicated to General Nathanael Greene, second in command to General Washington during the Revolutionary War and credited with driving the British from its stronghold in the South. He and his son, George Washington Greene, are buried beneath the monument.
However, it is the General’s wife, Catharine Littlefield Greene, also known as Caty or Kitty, who piques our interest, for she is a captivating figure, a woman who lived anything but the serene, obedient life expected of an 18th century wife.
A petite beauty with dark curly hair and deep blue eyes, she is often depicted as a vain, frivolous individual who enjoyed the attention of men. But in truth Caty showed enormous courage in many of the stages of her life. She remained faithful to Nathanael and displayed great loyalty to those who befriended her.
Catharine Littlefield was born in 1753 on Block Island, off the coast of Rhode Island, an insular community that cared very little about events happening elsewhere. Caty’s mother died when she was ten years old and her father, realizing that his daughter was very smart and needed additional tutoring, sent her to live with her Aunt Catherine in East Greenwich, Rhode Island to be educated.
This is where she meets her first historic person, Benjamin Franklin, who purportedly was having an affair with Caty’s aunt. Even after her aunt married William Greene, a local politician who would become governor of RI, Franklin continued to visit the household. But another man who came often to see William Greene was a distant relative, Nathanael Greene. His parents were Quakers and he thought them dull and visited William to talk politics and discuss the escalating problems between the colonists and England.
Tall, well built and attractive, he was engaged to be married, so if he noticed Caty at all, it was a mere acknowledgement of her existence. But on a later visit he revealed the engagement had been broken and also realized that Caty has now grown into an exceptionally lovely young lady…intelligent, fun and she loves to dance, something his Quaker parents had forbidden him to do. Nathanael is captivated, and they are married in 1774.
But it is almost immediately that Nathanael is caught up in the colonists’ rebellion and is named second in command to General Washington. Caty realizes all too soon that if she wants any kind of life with her husband, she will have to go to him, and she would do so, taking dangerous, uncomfortable lonely carriage trips to wherever his encampment might be.
This, though, is also how she meets some of American history’s most famous people. In 1776 she journeys from Rhode Island to New York City to be with her husband, and at an officer’s ball she notices a handsome artillery lieutenant surrounded by young women. The lieutenant is Alexander Hamilton, and he will ultimately become a close friend until his death in a duel with Aaron Burr.
In 1778 she journeys to Valley Forge in freezing winter weather to be with her husband and meets Martha and George Washington for the first time. They become stalwart friends throughout her life. Again Caty sees Alexander Hamilton surrounded by admiring young women, and the story is told that Martha Washington confides to her that the women always find him so attractive that Martha has named her new tomcat, Hamilton.
Caty captivates General Washington so much so that it’s said that at one officer’s ball, he dances with her for three straight hours. She is also fluent in French to the delight of the Marquis de Lafayette and his staff who enjoy conversations with her. The incurable ladies man, General “Mad” Anthony Wayne, falls madly in love with Caty, but does not betray his feelings because of the admiration he holds for her husband.
The Greene’s promised the Washington’s that they would name their first son, George and their first daughter, Martha. And that would be so.
Every time Caty visited her husband at his headquarters, she would return home to Rhode Island and soon realize she was pregnant and would have the babies without the support of Nathanael. When she gave birth to their third child, Nathanael had never seen their second child.
Because of her sheer bravery and tenacity she, at one point, traveled over dangerous roads with four children in a bumpy uncomfortable carriage to keep her family together, but in 1788, Nathanael learned he was in line to become Commandant of West Point. At last they would share a house. The family would be together.
Those hopes are quickly dashed when General Washington announced that General Greene and General Anthony Wayne would be sent to drive the English out of the South.
This would begin the financial problems that would plague the Greene’s throughout their lives. Greene found the army in rags when he arrived in the Carolinas and used his own money to outfit and feed them, thinking the new government would reimburse him. He soon learned there were no funds, and he was instead given Mulberry Plantation along the Savannah River. In addition, on his own, he purchased 7,000 acres on Cumberland Island, off the Georgia coast.
Their finances were such that they sold their property in Rhode Island and moved to the plantation. Also realizing the children would need a tutor, they hired and brought with them a Yale graduate, Phineas Miller, 11 years younger than Caty. He is thoughtful, intelligent, a fine teacher and will also help Nathanael with the plantation’s operations. “Mad” Anthony Wayne is given a nearby plantation in lieu of pay and is a frequent visitor.
This begins a succession of years where either Nathanael is traveling North to demand his reimbursement and pay, or the entire family travels to Philadelphia or New York to speak to the new leaders of the country. Caty, too, on her own, writes and visits her wartime acquaintances to plead Nathanael’s case.
In 1786 the Greene’s are on their way back to Mulberry when they stop at a nearby plantation and Nathanael walks bareheaded in the fields with the owner, William Gibbons. He later mentions a severe headache to Caty and on June 18, he dies from what the doctor claims is heat stroke. He is but 44.
The operation of the plantation, the continued trips to demand her dead husband’s repayment and the rearing of five children are solely on Caty’s shoulders.
The Marquis de Lafayette generously offers to take George to France to be educated with his own son. Realizing this is a one-time opportunity for her son, she agrees although finds it difficult to let him go.
Phineas Miller, besides being an excellent tutor for the younger children and now a successful planter, realizes he has fallen in love with Caty, who also has strong feelings for him. He is a kind and compassionate man to turn to with her problems. Marriage is not possible, because once married, she forfeits the opportunity to claim her husband’s pay as a widow.
During this period, a young man arrives by ship in Savannah to accept a tutoring position at a river plantation. Eli Whitney, a Yale graduate, learns too late the position has been filled and ends up living at Mulberry. Caty knows well that Eli wants to be a teacher, but she also knows he is from a successful New England manufacturing family and prevails upon him to use his talents while he is with them to invent a machine that will separate the seeds from the cotton bolls.
He does construct a prototype and indeed it pulls the cotton fibers away from the seeds, but to his consternation he cannot come up with an idea to rid the machine of the accumulated lint. Caty provides the solution by showing him how the stiff bristles of her hearth brush remove the lint. She had given him the clue he was searching for, and Whitney’s invention would forever change the South’s cotton industry.
It is on a trip to Washington that Caty learns that dear friend Alexander Hamilton, now treasury secretary of the new government, has written her a check for $47,000 as the first installment of Nathanael’s repayment and President Washington signs the check. Martha Washington, however, takes Caty aside and kindly tells her that she cannot continue to live unmarried at Mulberry with Phineas also in residence.
They do marry and it seems as though Caty will enjoy some peaceful, happy times at last. George has arrived home from France, happy and full of stories about his adventures in Europe. Within weeks, tragedy strikes once again when George’s canoe capsizes and he drowns in the rain-swollen, fast-moving Savannah River. Phineas is there to offer her the strength to face this loss.
The plantation continues to drain their finances, and they finally move to Cumberland Island and build a sturdy, large home, Dungeness, named after a retreat that Oglethorpe established there in the 1700’s. Finally both Caty and Phineas have found happiness and peace. They grew and shipped out some of the finest sea-island cotton, as well as live oak timber from their forests.
Phineas will die of blood poisoning from a prick he receives from a thorn, and Caty dies in 1814 from a fever. Phineas is buried on Cumberland in the garden he loved so well in an unmarked grave, and Caty is buried in a tabby cemetery with a simple tombstone that reads:
She possessed great talents and exalted virtue.
(Mulberry Plantation was destroyed by General Sherman in 1864. Dungeness burned to the ground in 1866, but in 1884 the Thomas Carnegie family built a second and even bigger Dungeness on Cumberland.)
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