Editor’s Note: At George Washington’s Ferry Farm, we are always interested in reexaminations of accepted history. Archaeology is creating new and more complete understandings of George’s Washington’s youth as well as of Mary Washington as a person. Mary has been both revered and reviled by history but archaeological discoveries at Ferry Farm are painting a more complex picture of her as an independent and intelligent woman facing the world on her own after her husband’s death. Inspired by Mary, Lives & Legacies asked Carin Bloom, Museums Program Associate at Middleton Place Foundation in Charleston, South Carolina and a friend of the blog, to re-examine another independent, intelligent woman in the Washington family’s orbit: Catharine “Caty” Greene.
George Washington is considered the Father of the United States of America, but long before he and his wife Martha became the parents of the nation, they were parents, both real and surrogate, to several prominent patriots and revolutionaries. For example, much is known of the relationship between General Washington and his Aide de Camp, the Marquis de Lafayette – the affection of a father and son are clear in their communications, both during and after the American War for Independence.
The Marquis was not the only one to enjoy the mentorship, tutelage, and friendly affection of the great General Washington. So too did the only other man to hold the rank of General for the duration of the American Revolution: Nathanael Greene. Promoted from the rank of Private in the Kentish Guards, a militia unit raised in his home county in Rhode Island Colony, Greene became the Brigadier General of all three Rhode Island regiments of the Continental Army in the spring of 1775. He quickly became (in turns) a close friend, advisor, and student of General Washington. The two commanders’ relationship is perhaps less well-known outside of academic circles, but it is still well-documented.
Those relationships aren’t what this blog post is about.
This blog post began in very much the way that stories from the past often begin – with the great men of the Age and what they did, or how they interacted. Their wives are secondary (if mentioned at all) and are supporting characters in a drama of great ideals and noble causes. In reality, these women were so much more, and their stories are important. While Women’s History and Women’s Studies programs in academia became prominent around the time of the nation’s Bicentennial, there has been relatively little advance or innovation in the study of feminine experiences of historic eras. Now, however, modern social and political climates are bringing women’s stories into focus again, allowing the women of the past to be re-examined once more. Conspicuous among the women of the Revolutionary era being re-examined are the same names we’ve all heard since elementary school – Abigail Adams, Peggy Shippen, the fictional Molly Pitcher, and of course, Martha Washington.
Martha and George Washington are revered for many reasons, but little is spoken about their personal nurturing and encouragement of young patriots, the men and women with whom they were surrounded. In fact, they occupied the parental pedestals for both Nathanael and his wife Catharine Greene – but perhaps especially for “Caty”. Orphaned at a young age and raised by a somewhat eccentric aunt, Caty was 19 and newly married when the Revolution broke out. She was tutored and educated in the 18th century society that befit her station, but it seems she wasn’t ready to be a General’s wife. For tutelage she looked to Lady Washington.
Their mother-daughter relationship blossomed quickly, and Catharine seemed to flourish under Martha’s indulgence. Caty is most often described in terms of her appearance and temperament, “She was a small brunette with high color, a vivacious expression, and a snapping pair of dark eyes.” Her biographer adds, “To men her appeal, like that of her Aunt Catharine, was not simply a matter of flirtation that fed their masculine vanities; deep emotions were touched as well.”
With a description like that, I started to wonder, why don’t we know more about the young Catharine Greene? She was called Kitty as a girl, was known to her husband’s equals and subordinates as Lady Greene, and to her devoted husband as Caty – and no matter what she was called, she became a force to be reckoned with. Her biographers make careful note that she would have grown up in the cradle of the Revolution, listening to the great minds gathering in her uncle’s library discussing politics, self-governance, and eventually open rebellion. An enigma equal to her fighting Quaker husband for her indifference to religious leanings, she is described as a balm of good morale for dour officers and aides: “she laughed, danced, sipped Madeira wine and played cards and parlor games. She engaged in repartee…with perhaps a burst of unladylike glee at a slip of the tongue or double entendre that would have horrified her female counterparts but delighted their husbands.”
Many of these attributes came naturally to Caty or were self-taught, but her refinement as a true lady of the 18th century came from her time spent with her equals and betters. Specifically, she was looked after by Lady Washington; when other young officers’ wives felt threatened by Caty’s beauty, and exuberance, “Martha was secure in her place in her husband’s heart. Although she knew that the general looked at the beautiful Caty with deep male appreciation, she found no cause for disapproval. Caty was like a daughter to them both. She was accepted for what she was…”
From the his occasional service as a personal courier for Caty and Nathanael’s letters to one another, to his own assurance of her safe arrival in camp during the Siege of Charleston early in 1782, General Washington’s own words and actions belied his affections not just for his best General, but for Caty as well. Likewise, Martha Washington opened her home at Mount Vernon to Caty, as well as to both Ladies Stirling, Lucy Knox, and a few other officers’ wives, when they could not be with their husbands. It was at these gatherings, presumably around a copious amount of tea, that Caty would have come to understand feminine refinement that would have served her well into old age, and long after Lady Washington was gone.
Though only one nonfiction biography of the remarkable Catharine Greene has been written, she comes to life with alarming effervescence in its pages. Her abilities to both navigate her world as a cog in the wheel of 18th century society, as well as to stand apart from it and maintain utterly her own identity, were enough to cause me to delve into her world for over a year. As a young woman she was the subject of much gossip; everything from accusations of turning her husband from his Quaker faith in disgrace, to extramarital affairs with his subordinates – none of it managed to stick to her. In her later life Caty was a financier (and now suspected to have been a partner in design) of Eli Whitney and his Cotton Gin, as well as a property-holding single woman until she chose of her own accord to remarry.
All in all, this was a woman whose life could be the stuff of Hollywood legend, and yet, in every living history scenario that manages to feature a woman, she is always a Martha Washington, or an Abigail Adams, or a Molly Pitcher – and always in a vacuum. Surely Martha did not spend her days with only her husband and his men, or alone by herself? The past is populated with scores of women, and yet, we rarely see the majority of them come to life. That is my aim in portraying Catharine Greene – to use her life as a vehicle for an immersive experience of a multifaceted past, so much more complex than what we currently understand. George and Martha Washington, Nathanael and Catharine Greene, they weren’t so different from us; as we understand their stories, both individually and as participants in a community, a nation, and a world, we may find new enrichment in our own lives.
Museums Program Associate
Middleton Place Foundation
Trained as an archaeologist specializing in the American Revolution, Carin plans and executes programs at Middleton Place National Historic Landmark in Charleston, South Carolina. She holds a BA (University of Delaware) and two MAs (University of Pennsylvania and Temple University), all in Anthropology with a concentration in Historical Archaeology, and has been working at non-profit historic sites for over a decade. She has studied Catharine Littlefield Greene extensively and enjoys bringing Caty to life at living history events up and down the east coast, as well as working in classroom settings with school programs and summer camps.
 1871 – Greene, George Washington. The Life of Nathanael Greene, 3 vols, Cambridge. Vol 1, pg. 72.
 1977 – Stegeman, John F. and Janet A. Stegeman. Caty: A Biography of Catharine Littlefield Greene, pg. 8, University of Georgia Press.
 1977 – Stegeman, John F. and Janet A. Stegeman. Caty: A Biography of Catharine Littlefield Greene, pg. 26, University of Georgia Press.
 1977 – Stegeman, John F. and Janet A. Stegeman. Caty: A Biography of Catharine Littlefield Greene, pg. 58, University of Georgia Press.