Catherine Greene was the devoted wife of Revolutionary War general Nathanael Greene, the mother of five children and – possibly – the inventor of the cotton gin.
She hadn’t planned any of it. Catherine Greene wanted a life of domestic comfort and security, but she got little of either.
She was born Catherine Littlefield Feb. 17, 1755 on Block Island, in Rhode Island, where her family had lived since the 1660s.
In a case of bad timing for someone looking for domestic bliss, she married her distant relative Nathanael Greene in 1774 .
Nathanael, a prosperous 32-year-old from an old Rhode Island Quaker family, ran the family foundry in Coventry, R.I.
But Catherine probably had a clue that her husband might not be staying around Coventry for long. He ardently supported the looming American Revolution, and he bought expensive books about military tactics. Days before their marriage, he joined the Rhode Island militia as a private, though people questioned his fitness for military duty because he limped.
In the spring of 1775, Nathanael Greene was promoted from private to major general of the Rhode Island Army of Observation. He became a favorite of George Washington, eventually taking command of Continental Army troops on Long Island.
Catherine followed her husband to camp whenever she could. Some of the officers criticized her for it, but not Nathanael.
During the war and shortly thereafter, she somehow managed to have five children who lived past infancy.
She joined Nathanael at Valley Forge during the terrible winter of 1778. It was then that Gen. George Washington appointed him quartermaster, an impossible task. The army never had enough money to feed and clothe the troops, and it almost ruined him financially.
By 1780, three generals had failed in the South and Washington appointed Greene to replace them. Greene took control of the South from the British, but not before he personally guaranteed thousands of dollars to Charleston, S.C., merchants to provision his army. A middleman with whom he dealt swindled him, and he found himself heavily in debt when the war ended.
The War Ends
The Georgia Legislature, grateful for his service, did grant him a plantation on the Savannah River called Mulberry Grove. Catherine joined him there, but saw him as a ‘tired, haggard ex-soldier who had given himself to a belief, had signed away his future life, in fact, for that cause.’ She wasn’t happy about leaving Rhode Island, but she resolved to help him as best she could.
Finally, she and her husband could enjoy married life together – or so she thought. On June 19, 1786, 43-year-old Nathanael Greene died of sunstroke. He left Catherine Greene a 30-year-old widow with five small children.
She entrusted the children’s tutor, a Yale graduate named Phineas Miller, with management of Mulberry Grove. By 1788, the plantation turned a profit.
Catherine Greene also petitioned Congress to repay her for the money her late husband paid to feed and clothe his troops. In 1792, President George Washington granted her request.
That year she met Eli Whitney, who had come to Savannah to tutor a neighbor’s children. The job fell through, and she invited him to live at Mulberry Grove until he could find a job. He proved useful around the plantation, making repairs and inventing toys. He noticed most of the plantation owners in the area grew greenseed cotton, but it didn’t make money because of the difficulty removing the seeds. So in less than a year he invented the cotton gin.
In 1796, Catherine Greene married Phineas Miller, with George and Martha Washington as witnesses. Whitney was struggling to obtain a patent for his cotton gin even as others imitated it. Catherine and Phineas financed Whitney’s legal battle, but lost Mulberry Grove in the process.
Some people credit Catherine Greene Miller with inventing the cotton gin.
Matilda Gage in 1890 argued that Catherine Greene had the idea for the invention. Others claim she made an important technical contribution – to substitute wire teeth for the wooden teeth Whitney proposed. Whatever the story, Catherine Greene’s support of Eli Whitney in one way or another was crucial to the invention of the cotton gin.
After losing Mulberry Grove, Catherine and Phineas Miller moved to Cumberland Island, another gift of land to Nathanael. They established a successful plantation, where Catherine lived until she died on Sept. 2, 1814.
This story about Catherine Greene was updated in 2021.