Catharine Littlefield was born on February 17, 1755 on Block Island, a settlement off the coast of the Rhode Island colony. She was born into the upper ranks of colonial society. Her father, John Littlefield, was a member of the Rhode Island legislature, and her mother, Phoebe Ray Littlefield, was a descendant of the first settlers of Block Island. Her family called her Caty.
Catharine was only 10 years old when her mother died. Her father worried that his growing daughter needed the guidance of a woman to help her through her adolescence, so he sent her to live with her aunt and uncle, Catharine and William Greene. William was a leader of the Rhode Island Whig Party, and served as a Supreme Court justice for the colony. He would become governor of Rhode Island during the American Revolution.
In the Greene home, Catharine received a formal education, learning to read, write, and manage the household of a prosperous gentleman. She was also introduced to all of the leading politicians of Rhode Island, and became very familiar with the inner workings of government. One frequent visitor was William’s cousin, Nathanael Greene. Nathanael was fourteen years older than Catharine, and a very successful merchant. In spite of their age difference, Catharine and Nathanael adored one another. In 1772, when Catharine was 17 years old, Nathanael began to court her with the approval of both her uncle and her father. They married on July 20, 1774, and began building a new life together in Coventry, Rhode Island.
Catharine expected to settle into the comfortable, fashionable life of a prosperous merchant’s wife, but within a year of her marriage, the Battles of Lexington and Concord kicked off the Revolutionary War. Nathanael was put in command of the Rhode Island militia, and shortly thereafter made a general in the newly formed Continental Army. He immediately joined his troops, leaving his wife to manage their home and business.
Catharine threw herself wholeheartedly into her husband’s military life. She disliked being apart from him, so she traveled to be with him whenever he was camped for an extended period of time. Nathanael tried to convince her to stay safe in Rhode Island, especially after the birth of their first child in 1776, but Catharine would not be deterred.
Catharine traveled all over the thirteen colonies during the course of the Revolution. She visited New York City during the American occupation, wintered at Valley Forge, and made her way to the Carolinas when her husband was made commander of the Southern army. She never experienced the level of hardship that other camp followers did. Her husband always made sure she had genteel housing close to camp. Catharine and Nathanael became very close with George and Martha Washington, who both did everything they could to make them happy and comfortable. She also formed lifelong friendships with Lucy Knox, Alexander Hamilton, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Lord Sterling and his daughter, Mary Alexander, among dozens of others. Caty was instrumental in planning and throwing social events for the officers of the Continental Army, who appreciated getting a break from the discomforts of camp. Her beauty, elegance, and enthusiasm earned her a glowing reputation with the troops, who admired her determination and spirit. She gave birth to five children before the war ended, and every time she travelled to be with Nathanael, she had to leave her children behind.
When the war officially ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1783, Catharine expected that her life would resume the course she had always imagined. But Nathanael was in financial trouble. When he became commander in the south, Nathanael took out huge loans to buy food for his troops because the Continental Congress was not sending enough money or supplies. At the end of the war the loans came due, but when Nathanael appealed to the government for help, Congress denied his petition. They claimed he had not requested proper permission to take out the loans, and refused to help him pay.
Nathanael decided the only course of action was to sell everything he owned in Rhode Island and start over in Georgia. The new Southern state had gifted him a large piece of land that could be made into a prosperous plantation, and Nathanael believed this was his best chance of repaying his debts. So, Catharine was forced to leave everything and everyone she knew, and relocate her family to a frontier area. Instead of being a prosperous merchant’s wife, she became the wife of a struggling plantation owner.
Like when she became an Army wife, Catharine threw herself into the task of learning to be a plantation mistress. Her role was to oversee their home and the enslaved people who worked to run it. She also established friendships in their new community. Just as their plantation, Mulberry Grove, was beginning to prosper, Nathanael died of sunstroke while working the fields in 1786. Catharine was now a widow in charge of five young children, a fledgling plantation, and paying off her husband’s enormous war debt.
Catharine rose spectacularly to the occasion. She appointed her children’s tutor, Phineas Miller, as plantation manager. Together they worked hard to make Mulberry Grove prosperous. By 1788, the plantation was turning a profit, and Catharine could focus on the problem of her husband’s debts.
Catharine appealed the government’s decision regarding her husband’s loans. Using the connections and knowledge she had gathered in the years at her uncle’s home and the Army camps, Catharine waged a steady campaign to get Nathanael’s debts forgiven. She contacted every friend she and her husband had ever made, and slowly worked her way through the U.S. government. Alexander Hamilton personally oversaw her case, and although George Washington felt he couldn’t intervene due to his position as president, there is no doubt that he privately supported and counselled her.
Her actions drew criticism. Many felt she was overstepping the bounds of proper female behavior. But Catharine continued undaunted, and her hard work paid off. In 1792, Congress passed a bill awarding her full compensation for all of her husband’s debts. Catharine celebrated by writing a friend: “I can tell you my dear friend, that I feel as saucy as you please – – not only because I am independent, but because I have gained a complete triumph over some of my friends who did not wish me success — and others who doubted my judgement in managing the business – – and constantly tormented me to death to give up my obstinacy as it was called. They are now as mute as mice – not a word dare they utter. a how sweet is revenge.”
Catharine appealed the government’s decision regarding her husband’s loans. Using the connections and knowledge she had gathered in the years at her uncle’s home and the Army camps, Catharine waged a steady campaign to get Nathanael’s debts forgiven.
Catharine’s victory freed her from the crushing debt that had haunted her since the end of the American Revolution, but it did not prevent her from experiencing further hardship in her life. Her eldest son drowned in 1793, and she never quite recovered from her grief. Catharine married her plantation manager, Phineas, in 1796, and they invested heavily in the invention of their new tutor, Eli Whitney. Catharine and Phineas got caught up in a land scam trying to raise money for the production and marketing of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, and they were forced to sell Mulberry Grove in 1798 and moved to another tract of undeveloped land given to Nathanael at the end of the Revolution. For the third time in her life, Catharine was starting over, this time on Cumberland Island in Georgia.
Catharine lived on Cumberland Island for the rest of her life. Phineas passed away in 1803, and Catharine died on September 2, 1814. Her life story demonstrates how the American Revolution disrupted the lives of women in the colonies, and how the after effects of the war could follow them for the rest of their days.
- camp follower: American name for the women and children who traveled with the Continental Army during the American Revolution.
- Continental Army: The army formed by the Second Continental Congress and led by General George Washington.
- court: To formally pay visits to someone with the intent of marrying them.
- merchant: A person whose business is buying and selling goods.
- militia: A volunteer military force.
- How did Catharine and her friends support the war effort during the American Revolution? Why did their contribution matter?
- Why was Catharine ridiculed for petitioning the government about her husband’s loans?
- What does Catharine’s life story reveal about the agency of married women in revolutionary America? How much control did she have over the major events of her life?