Generals' Wives: Martha Washington, Catharine Greene, Lucy Knox
GENERALS' WIVES: MARTHA WASHINGTON, CATHARINE GREENE, LUCY KNOX
During the War for Independence, many women moved between their homes and military encampments as they joined their husbands in the Continental Army for varying lengths of time. Although they may all be called camp followers, at that time people distinguished between the women who followed the soldiers and those who were the consorts of officers. The consorts, in turn, were further divided by social and military rank. Martha Washington, Catharine Greene, and Lucy Knox, as generals' wives, represent the elite women within early America's civil and military societies. That shared status, however, should not obscure the differences in their cultural origins, economic situations, and postwar circumstances.
Over the course of the Revolution, Martha Dandridge Custis Washington (1731–1802) became the new nation's First Lady. Such a position was not even to be imagined in 1759, when the wealthy young widow and mother accepted George Washington (1732–1799) as her second husband. Like many other southern gentlewomen faced with administering an estate, Martha Custis had simply thought of finding an amiable spouse who could ably handle their public interests while she managed the domestic ones. The Washingtons created an affectionate, productive partnership that strengthened in the face of the Revolution's challenges.
When George Washington left Virginia to assume command of the Continental Army in 1775, Martha Washington initially remained at their home, Mount Vernon. That winter, however, she traveled up to the encampment around Boston. Catharine Greene and other officers' wives did the same, starting what would be a pattern throughout the war. Although there were exceptions, these women generally—unless home, health, or other issues intervened—joined their husbands after the active campaigning had ended in one year and left when the army readied for action in the next. The necessity of leaving the encampments was made clear early in the war. Martha Washington, Catharine Greene, and Lucy Knox had followed their husbands into New York City in the spring of 1776 only to have their spouses hurry them out in July when news came that the British might be coming. When the British did not immediately show up, Catharine Greene returned and Lucy Knox clamored to do the same. Greene's husband, however, regretted allowing his wife to return, and Knox's simply refused. General Washington did not have that worry, for Martha Washington understood the difference between providing comfort when the army was in garrison and creating a distraction when it was readying for a fight.
That understanding reflected the differences between these generals' wives in temperament, experience, and domestic arrangements. Martha Washington was longer married and a generation older than Catharine Littlefield Greene (1753–1814), who married Nathanael Greene (1742–1786) in July 1774, and Lucy Flucker Knox (1756–1824), who had married Henry Knox (1750–1806) just a month earlier in June 1774. Lady Washington (as she was often called) also had an established, extensive household to run. Her young compatriots were just starting their families and had not yet laid the foundations for their permanent homes.
Catharine Greene married into a Rhode Island Quaker family with farming, mercantile, and manufacturing interests. Because of the war, the young wife often found herself more with the family than the man—and that was not something she liked. Neither a Quaker (nor was Nathanael any longer because of his military activities), nor of strong domestic interests and skills, Catharine Greene often felt at odds with her brothers-and sistersin-law. She was always eager to join her husband (often leaving her children with the family) and engage in the social activities that were part of life at headquarters.
Lucy Flucker Knox's loyalist family (her father was the Royal Secretary of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, and her brother served in the British army) rejected her when she chose Knox, a bookseller and Whig. They disapproved of the match as socially, economically, and politically imprudent. When the British forces abandoned Boston in March 1776, the Fluckers fled, turning estrangement from Lucy into permanent separation. This may explain why Lucy cleaved all the more strongly to Henry: she had no other close family besides him and his brother. Lucy Knox attempted to help her brother-in-law run the bookseller business for a while during the war, but the business failed. She also stayed with friends or in rented lodgings at times during the war, but she always preferred to be with her husband. As a result of both need and determination, she managed numerous, lengthy visits to camp, where she started to raise her family and served as a prominent social hostess.
after the revolution
All three generals' wives faced various private and public pressures after the war. Martha Washington's duties as mistress of Mount Vernon increased as visitors consulting with her husband multiplied. Her social graces and experience at handling a large household stood her in good stead then and when her husband became president.
Although the Washingtons did have financial concerns, they were nothing like the problems facing the Greenes and Knoxes. Economic necessity drove the Greenes south. Unable to pick up where he left off in Rhode Island, and with debts from the war, Nathanael Greene gratefully accepted lands offered by South Carolina and Georgia. Still, when he died in 1785 he left his wife and children in a financial bind. Catharine Greene had to go to friends for help and practice the stringent housewifery she so despised. She learned to manage her affairs with the help of Phineas Miller, whom she married in 1796. She and Miller also served as patrons for Eli Whitney, who invented the cotton gin. Lucy Knox continued as a society hostess after the war, when her husband served as Secretary at War in the Confederation government and then as Secretary of War under Washington. He accepted those positions both out of a sense of public service and out of the need to support his family. The Knoxes continued to live beyond their means and without a permanent home through those years. Knox resigned in December 1794 and the following spring settled his family in Maine. After Henry died in 1806, Lucy became reclusive and sold much of her property to pay off debts and support herself.
These generals' wives served the Revolution through their domestic endeavors, but their private efforts contributed to public results by sustaining the Continental Army's leaders. In doing so, their lives reflected the dynamics of American society during the Revolutionary and federal periods. Like many others, these members of the provincial elite became part of the new American elite. Yet that was not an easy process or guaranteed result, for they had to cope with social and economic instability and the mobility of the time.
Freeman, Douglas Southall. Washington. Abridgment in one volume by Richard Harwell of the seven-volume Washington (1968). New York: Collier Books; Maxwell Macmillan International, 1992.
Greene, Nathanael. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, edited by Robert E. McCarthy. Microform edition. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1989.
Stegeman, John F., and Stegeman, Janet A. Caty: A Biography of Catharine Littlefield Greene. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.
Washington, George. The Papers of George Washington. Revolutionary War Series, edited by Philander D. Chase. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1985–2002.
"Martha Washington Collection." Mount Vernon Library and Special Collections. Available from <http://www.mountvernon.org/learn/collections>.
Holly A. Mayer