"I will not be so impolite as to charge you with telling fals[e]hoods" wrote Caty Greene to her one-time friend Deborah Olney, "but your memory must be very perfidious." The incident referred to in this delicious 18th-century putdown took place at a dinner in which George Washington was guest of honor and was at the center of an imbroglio that began with a bit of larking about after too much drink and ended in a spoiled evening and the whiff of scandal.
Early biographies of George Washington tend toward hagiography, and the general's "family" or inner circle of staff officers zealously guarded his reputation against critics and conspirators during the darkest days of the Revolution. And scandals there were, though as far as can be determined from the historic record these contretemps were mild by modern standards and his conduct was by no means ungentlemanly.
Washington was exceedingly fond of dancing, and there were numerous balls hosted during winter encampments for his officers, their wives and even a number of young ladies from further afield. Nothing worse can be said of these affairs then they went on at great length, and at one in particular the General danced for three straight hours with a single partner: the vivacious Caty Greene, wife of General Greene.
Catherine "Caty" Littleton Greene was one of the most intriguing women of the Revolutionary era. It was she who, later in life, hosted Eli Whitney at her Georgia plantation, during which he came up with his design for the Cotton Gin. General and Mrs. Greene, though, were Rhode Islanders, and Caty Greene accompanied her husband on many of his campaigns and was known for her lively mind and temperament.
During the winter encampment at Morristown in 1779-1780 - the most extreme winter of the century and one of greater hardship for the Continental Army than even Valley Forge - the Greenes and a number of other officers including their commander in chief were dinner guests of Colonel Clement Biddle, a deputy quartermaster general serving under Greene. Also in attendance were George and Deborah Olney: fellow, well-connected Rhode Islanders and related to Nathaniel Greene. George Olney, a civilian auditor hired by Greene's quartermaster department, is described rather uncharitably in one history as a "frail, susceptible youngster who could not hold his liquor well." Whether or not he was a teetotaler, he apparently was not willing to drink the many droughts that customarily were downed in the officers mess, and when the ladies excused themselves after dinner and the men we preparing to drink in earnest, Olney joined his wife and the others.
Accounts of the incident differ at this point. At the very least, the remaining men were in high spirits and considered his desertion of their revels something that must be rectified by a sortie which Washington himself agreed to lead. According to a letter written at the request of Mr. Olney in defense of his wife's subsequent conduct, Washington's aide Tench Tilghman described the affair as nothing more than a light-hearted joke, in which it was "resolved that a party should be sent to demand him, and if the ladies refused to give him up, he should be brought by force." Tilghman's letter, excerpted in Irving's life of Washington, went on to describe how an "attempt was made to rescue him. The ladies came to the rescue. There was a melee; in the course of which his Excellency seems to have had a passage of arms with Mrs. Olney. The ladies were victorious, as they always ought to be..." He assured Mr. Olney that his wife had made use of no expressions unbecoming of a lady of her breeding, nor had she given the slightest offense to the General.
The reason this letter needed to be written at all is that something altogether less amusing seems to have developed as this grand joke devolved into an unseemly altercation featuring first Deborah Olney and then Caty Greene. Caty Greene's version of the events was rather injudiciously committed to paper in a letter to a mutual acquaintance of hers and Deborah Olneys. Mrs. Greene stated that the General placed his hand on Deborah Olney's hand during the attempt to return her husband to the bosom of masculine company, and she responded in a rage, screaming that if he did not unhand her she would tear every hair from his head, and "though he was a general, he was but a man."
This is hardly conduct becoming a lady and rather marred the evening. Caty Greene by her own admission rose to Washington's defense with an unbecoming temper, while her husband escorted the Olney's from the room and gave some pointed advice to his kinsman and subordinate regarding a situation that appeared needlessly to have gotten out of hand because he did not employ a more diplomatic means of refusing to drink with the General.
This might have been the end of it, but word got out that something scandalous had happened and that Mrs. Olney had been the cause of it. Whether or not she had intended her letter recounting Deborah Olney's outburst at the General to be kept in confidence, she must have known that their common friend would relay her words to Mrs. Olney, as indeed they were. The Olneys found themselves snubbed by Providence society, and in March of 1781 each responded to repair their damaged reputations. George Greene solicited the letter in their defense from Washington's aide Tench Tilghman, and right on its heels Deborah wrote a letter to Mrs. Greene that the latter characterized in her reply "as unbecoming as my temper was at Col. Biddle's." She continued;
"I thought for some time the letter had been forged as I could have no idea of such a one from a lady of such good breeding. Surely it is not the same Mrs. Olney that I used to know and love...As to your tearing out the Genls Eyes I heard nor said nothing...but you did say you would tear our his [hair] -and I can bring sworn evidence to the truth of it."
It is a classic example of the Hell that hath no fury like an 18th century gentlewoman with her back up, and closes with the conventional yet oddly out of place wishes for the felicity of the recipient of this scathing rebuke from her self professed "sincear (sp) friend and very Humble servant." There follows, however, this coda, which caused no little alarm among the Olneys:
"I understand that Mr. Olney has said something of me which I am sure he would not have said had Genl Greene been at home and which I shall not mention to him until I hear again from Providence." Deborah Olney's reply included her assertion on behalf of her husband that as Mrs. Greene "must have heard something he never did say he wishes to know what you have been told, and pawns his honor, if true, to own it." Caty Greene never did give her adversaries the satisfaction of further details.
George Washington remained a friend and ally of Caty Greene for the rest of his life, while the George and Deborah Olney were never again in his orbit. It seemed that whatever the cause of their affronts, they were out of their depth and outclassed by Washington's partizans, be they suble in the niceties of downplaying scandal like Tilghman, or a spitfire of sharp worded indigation like the fiesty wife of General Greene. In any even, the official version made its way into the history books, but another take on the evenings misadventures resides in the correspondence between Deborah Olney and Caty Greene.