The Girl and the Gin
And the rise of King Cotton
By Nan Graham
Some of us are blessed to be born Southerners, some choose to live in the South, and others may be called “Accidental Southerners.” They came South and were forever changed.
One of these, Rhode Islander Nathanael Greene, close personal friend and the most trusted officer of George Washington, led the Continental troops on a sweep to drive the British out of North and South Carolina. His young and beautiful wife, Catherine, known as Caty, gained something of a reputation herself during the War for Independence. Almost as frequent a visitor as the camp followers (as they were kindly called), Caty visited the general at pitched camps on numerous occasions during the six years of fighting. Caty proved to be quite prolific, but after each birthing hiatus, the conjugal meetings resumed. Among the officers, whispers of these scandalous reunions with her husband-general abounded. Five offspring later, the war was finally over.
After the victory, the grateful Carolinas rewarded Greene, who had risen from a private to a major general. South Carolina gave him 10,000 guineas; North Carolina, 5,000 guineas. But Georgia gave him what Southerners prize most: land. Greene was awarded 24,000 acres of choice land on the Savannah River, an estate named Mulberry Grove, confiscated from its former Tory owner, John Graham.
Greene, who returned to Georgia to start a new life with the reluctant young Caty — who had never been South — and their children, was determined to make their home and future on the land given him by the state. His love of the place is reflected in his letters to friends in Rhode Island. He wrote of his plantation Mulberry Grove: “The garden is delightful. The fruit trees and flowering shrubs form a pleasant variety. We have green peas almost fit to eat and as fine a lettuce as you ever saw. The mockingbirds surround us evening and morning. The weather is mild and the vegetable world progressing to perfection. We have in the same orchard apples, pears, peaches, apricots, nectarines, plums of various kinds, figs, pomegranate and oranges. And we have strawberries which measure three inches around.”
Less than a year after moving to Mulberry Grove, Greene stopped at a neighbor’s plantation to investigate his rice fields, a new interest of the general’s. A day in the broiling Georgia sun in mid-June proved too much for the survivor of dozens of Revolutionary battles. He returned home ill with sunstroke and died a week later at age 44.
Widowed at 31, Caty soldiered on, raising her five children (now ages 10 to 3) and running the unprofitable plantation without slave labor, in accordance with her Quaker husband’s beliefs. The energetic widow even managed to entertain President Washington on two of his visits South.
Mulberry Grove also welcomed a young tutor from a neighbor’s plantation. Caty Greene convinced the tutor to stay at Mulberry Grove to work on his inventions. The tutor stayed, fascinated by cotton production and the labor-intensive task of separating seed from the cotton by hand. What was needed was an innovative combing system, a machine with wooden teeth, which separated the cotton fiber from the seed. So he devised a mechanical contraption using Caty’s concept. But fibers in the comb tangled and caused the gin to malfunction. Wire teeth, Caty suggested.
Within a year the tutor, young Eli Whitney, or possibly Catherine Littlefield Greene, had invented the cotton gin with wire combs (gin being short for engine). Whitney applied for a patent under his name, since it was not customary for women to apply for patents. The invention of the cotton gin made the labor-intensive crop very profitable: King Cotton was born. The demand for slave labor skyrocketed. The gin arguably changed the South, as well as the course of American history, and the entire country . . . forever. b
Nan Graham is a regular Salt contributor and has been a local NPR commentator since 1995.