Catherine Littlefield Greene (1755-1814) is credited with aiding Eli Whitney in his invention of the cotton gin—an invention that revolutionized the plantation economy of the American south. Her husband, Nathanael Greene, was a decorated army officer who served with distinction during the Revolutionary War.
A question that has appeared on history tests in public schools around the United States for over a century is "Who invented the Cotton Gin?" While most would answer "Eli Whitney," this answer may not be correct. In an 1883 pamphlet titled "Woman as Inventor," author and proto-feminist, Matilda Joslyn Gage, first put forth the contention that it was not, in fact, Whitney who invented the machine. The person who should receive credit for the cotton gin, explained Gage, was a woman: Catherine Littlefield Greene.
Wife of a Revolutionary Hero
Catherine Littlefield—known to family and friends as Kitty or Caty—was born on Block Island, Rhode Island, on February 17, 1755. She was the daughter of Phebe Ray and John Littlefield. After her mother's death, Catherine went to live with her maternal aunt, Catherine Ray Greene, who was the wife of the future governor of the state of Rhode Island. Aunt Catherine, an attractive, energetic woman who was known as a charming hostess, 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.
Present during her aunt's many social gatherings, Catherine caught the interest of several of the Littlefield's bachelor acquaintances when she came of age. After a quick courtship, 19-year-old Catherine married Nathanael Greene on July 20, 1774, in Greenwich, Rhode Island. Fourteen years her senior, Nathanael was the son of Nathanael Greene Sr. and Mary Mott, born July 27, 1742 at Potowamut, Rhode Island. As a military man who keenly felt the looming threat of war in the American colonies, Nathanael realized that time spend with his young wife would be limited. His wedding invitation to Samuel Ward dated July 10, 1774 contained concerns shared by many in the colonies: "On the 20th this Instant I expect to be married to Miss Kitty Littlefield at your Uncle Greene's. … As she is not married at her fathers house she declined giving any an invitation but a few of her nearest relations and most intimate friends. … Your Daddy is appointed one to attend the Congress, for which I rejoice, as the mean motives of Interest … will have no influence upon his Virtuous Soul. … The [British] soldiers in Boston are insolent above measure. Soon, very soon, expect to hear the thirsty Earth drinking in the warm blood of American sons."
Following their wedding, the couple moved to Nathanael Greene's home in Coventry, Rhode Island, where they spent less than a year together before he was called into service. Greene—a pacifist Quaker with a limited education who suffered from recurring bouts of asthma and a limp—seemed an unlikely person to become known as the savior of the south. In 1775 his historic military career began when he was commissioned a brigadier general. Charged with raising the Rhode Island Army of Observation, he traveled to Massachusetts with his troops in May. In a letter dated June 2, 1775, he wrote to his young wife: "I have recommended you to the care of my brethren;… . It had been happy for me if I could have lived a private life in peace and plenty. … But the injury done my Country, and the Chains of Slavery foregoing for posterity, calls me fourth to defend our common rights, and repel the bold invaders of the Sons of freedom." On June 22 he was commissioned a brigadier general in the Continental Army. During the siege of Boston a month later Greene commanded troops on Boston's Prospect Hill.
With her husband now in Massachusetts, Catherine remained in Coventry, where she gave birth to their first child in February of 1776, naming him after General George Washington. Nathanael remained in Boston until the evacuation of British troops a few months later and then moved his army south to Long Island. 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. Returning to his troops, General Greene commanded forces at the battles of Trenton (December 26, 1776) and Princeton (January 2-3, 1777).
Dedicated Wife Battles Childbirth
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. In a letter dated May 20th 1777, Nathanael chastised his young wife for not being a more attentive letter-writer. "I return'd last Night from Peeks Kill after a long, tedious and hard journey. To crown all I fell from my Horse upon the Top of an exceeding high Mountain, cut my lip through and otherwise bruised myself exceedingly. Never did I undergo more fatigue in less time. … My dear, it is now a month and upwards since I receiv'd a line from one of the family. I think it exceeding unkind; if you are unwell and incapable of writing surely some of the brothers might do me that friendly office. … Think how you would feel if I had been in an engagement and left your mind under the torture of Suspense for upwards of a month. O how cruel!" As an older man of some ambition, General Greene was careful that both he and his wife be approved of by polite society. "If you are in want of anything from Boston, write to Mrs. Knox. …," he added. "But remember when you write to Mrs. Knox you write to a good scholar; therefore mind and spell well. You are defective in this matter, my love, a little attention will soon correct it. … It is said it is ungenteel for Gentlemen to make observations upon Ladies writeing [sic]. I hope you won't think it unkind in me. Nothing but the affection and regard I feel for you makes me wish to have you appear an accomplished Lady in every point of view."
Despite her lack of attention to writing like other military wives 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 site where Greene's army was billeted. Lott was a wealthy middle-aged merchant and patriot who, with his wife and daughters, had left New York City the year before. The Greenes and Lotts soon became close friends, and Catherine returned to Beverwyck on several occasions. Her second daughter would be named after Lott's daughter, Cornelia.
On September 11, 1777 Greene again engaged with British troops, this time under the command of General Howe, at the Battle of Brandywine. In November he returned to New Jersey in a vain attempt to protect the fort at Red Bank. A month later Washington and his troops set up winter headquarters at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Catherine joined her husband during this dismal encampment and shared his small, cramped quarters and the meager military fare. The following spring Greene was appointed quartermaster general. General Washington ordered him to Rhode Island, to aid General Lafayette in preparing for an attack on Newport. The attack came on August 29, 1778, forcing an American retreat.
In December of 1778 Catherine and her two-year-old son George returned to the Lotts' home in Beverwyck. On Christmas Eve, 1778, the Greenes sent an invitation: "General and Mrs. Greene beg that General and Lady Washington honor their poor quarters with their presence this evening at eight." The general responded: "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." Recalling that evening in her memoirs, Greene's friend Jane Stickle Crosier of Indianapolis provides a glimpse 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.
Leaving New Jersey once again, Catherine traveled with her husband to Philadelphia, staying with patriot John Cox and his family in Trenton along the way. While Greene went on ahead due to the need to address Congress, his wife remained with the Cox family before continuing on to Philadelphia in mid-January of 1779. By February the family had returned to Camp Middlebrook, New Jersey. At the end of May Catherine was once again pregnant, and returned home to Rhode Island, where the Greene's third child, Cornelia Lott, was born in September. A month later Greene was ordered to rejoin Washington's army at Fredericksburg, New York. Catherine joined her husband at his new encampment at West Point, New York, in mid-November 1779, but returned to Morristown to give birth to her second son, Nathanael Ray, in mid-January 1780.
Moved South at Close of War
On June 7, 1780 Greene commandeered the front line against a British advance at Connecticut Farms, New Jersey. Three days later, as the conflict again showed signs of escalating, Catharine returned with her children to her home in Rhode Island. For 11 days in September 1780, Washington placed Greene in temporary command of the Continental Army after he found himself delayed after returning from a meeting with French officers, due to Benedict Arnold's treachery at West Point. Greene presided over the military tribunal that convicted Major John Andre to death for aiding Arnold in his attempt to surrender West Point to British forces.
Although Nathanael missed his wife terribly during the fall of 1780, escalating military campaigns in the south prevented her from traveling to his side. In early December Greene arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina, and received command of the Southern Army, which had suffered several defeats under the recent leadership of General Gates. Greene rebuilt the army and fought the British at Guilford Courthouse, near Greensboro, North Carolina, on March 15, 1781. There he and fellow general, Daniel Morgan, distinguished themselves against General Charles Cornwallis, by inflicting heavy losses on the enemy and forcing a British retreat.
After the war for independence was won in 1783 Greene was offered the post of secretary of war in the new government. He twice declined it, preferring to return to his home in Rhode Island. That same year a third daughter, Louisa, was born to the Greenes. Catherine went on to have another child, also named Catherine, who died as an infant c. 1785.
In the fall of 1785 the Greenes left their family and friends in Rhode Island and moved south to Savannah, Georgia. They made their new home at Mulberry Grove, a plantation given in gratitude to General Greene by the states of Georgia and South Carolina. While the family's wealth had diminished during the course of the war and Mulberry Grove proved unprofitable because Greene's Quaker upbringing prevented him from utilizing slave labor, life at Mulberry Grove proved a happy one. After almost a year spent in the society of his beloved Catherine and their many friends, the 44-year-old general died at his home on June 19, 1786, a victim of severe sunstroke.
After her husband's death, 31-year-old Catherine continued to raise her five children, who now ranged in age from three to ten. She also showed herself to be a competent businesswoman in her management of the family plantation. President George Washington visited her during his trip through the south in 1791, calling at Mulberry Grove in mid-May to make sure the widow of one of his most trusted generals was well cared for.
Whitney and the Cotton Gin
In 1892 Catherine rented a room to a young Yale College graduate who had traveled south from Massachusetts in search of a teaching job. The young man's name was Eli Whitney, and his skills as a handyman were of use in maintaining the large plantation house. Although being a New England native and knowing little of cotton-farming, Whitney became intrigued when Greene explained how unprofitable it was to raise green-seed cotton, due to the time involved in cleaning it. Tradition holds that Greene suggested that Whitney build a machine that could clean seed cotton. Perhaps her prompting went only that far, or perhaps she provided a more detailed suggestion, may be even a rudimentary design. In any case, Whitney's mechanical skills transformed Greene's suggestion into a reality.
By some reports, Greene financed the patent and fabrication of Whitney's cotton gin ("gin" being short for "engine"), perhaps because women were not then allowed to hold patents. Others claim that the young man went into partnership with Connecticut native Phineas Miller, a fellow Yale graduate a year older than Whitney, who owned a cotton plantation on Cumberland Island, Georgia. Either way, during the winter of 1792 Whitney worked on the machine and by April of 1793 his design was complete, although some sources suggest that Greene recommended improving his prototype by replacing its wooden teeth with wire ones. On March 14, 1794, Whitney received a patent for the cotton gin. However, he was unable to profit from his device because Congress did not renew the patent in 1807 and his design was adapted for use by other manufacturers. Due to the widespread use of the cotton gin, the United States quickly grew to become the largest producer of cotton fiber in the world.
Initially dubbed a "saw engine," Whitney's machine separated the cotton seeds from the cotton fibers mechanically, through the use of a rotating cylinder containing rows of saw-like teeth. When the cylinder revolved through the use of a hand-crank, these teeth passed through closely spaced ribs on a fixed comb. When a clump of cotton was inserted into the gin and the crank turned, fibers were caught by the teeth and pulled through the comb, while the seeds, too large to pass between the rib, were filtered out. Whitney's first gin was able to produce 50 pounds of cleaned cotton a day.
Whatever role she played in the development of Whitney's cotton gin, Greene ceased to be interested in the matter after the spring of 1793, when her oldest son, George Washington Greene, drowned during a canoe trip up the Savannah River with a friend. Eighteen years old when he died, George was buried on the plantation. In 1901 the remains of both George and his father, General Nathanael Greene, would be reinterned next to the Greene Monument in Johnson Square, Savannah.
On May 31, 1796 the widowed Catherine Littlefield Greene married Whitney's partner, Miller. He had grown in Greene's esteem while serving as both her plantation manager and a tutor to her younger children. Eventually Miller was elected to the state Senate. The marriage would last until his death in 1802. After her marriage Catherine left Mulberry Grove and moved to Miller's home on Cumberland Island, where she died on July 20, 1814, at the age of fifty-nine. As her surviving children were known to remark, there was irony in the fact that Catherine Greene, who disliked sea voyages, ended her life as it had begun: on a sea island.
Greene, George Washington II, Life of Nathanael Greene, (3 vols., 1867-1871.
Ogilvie, Marilyn Bailey, Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century, MIT Press, 1986.
Stegman, John F., and Janet A. Stegman, Caty: A Biography of Catharine Littlefield Greene, University of Georgia Press, 1985.
Greene's of the World: Nineteenth Century, http://www.uftree.com/UFT/WebPages/plgreene/ (November 10, 2001).