J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, January 29, 2018

A Greene Family Crisis over Playing Cards

On 29 January 1776, Gen. Nathanael Greene wrote to his brother Christopher from the Continental camp on Prospect Hill about a family crisis—his wife’s friends had played cards in front of their stepmother.

The general wrote:
I am extream sorry that Mr [John] Gooch and Nancy Varnum affronted Mother at my House with Cards. Surely Mrs [Catherine] Greene could not be present. She must have known better. It was insult that I would not have sufferd the best friend I had in the World to have offerd to her.

Altho I think Cards in themselves as innocent as any other pieces of Paper yet its criminal to play before her because they knew how Conscious the friends are in these matters. In the choice of all our pleasures regard should be had to time and place, private and publick Prejudices. Since the Resolution of Congress I have never had a Card in my hand to play, not sufferd one in my House that I remember.

I Love and Esteem the old Lady and should be very sorry that this disagreeable circumstance should be constered into an intentiononal [sic] affront, for I dare presume it proceeded intirely from Ignorance and not out of any disrespect to her. People that have been Accustomed to these things all their Days dont feel upon the Occasion like you and me who have stole the pleasures in secret Corners.
There are layers of disapprobation here. Mary (Collins Rodman) Greene disliked card-playing because of her Quaker values—but obviously her stepsons had snuck in more than a few games.

Then the Continental Congress in its Association of 20 Oct 1774 had urged Americans to avoid “all kinds of gaming,” including cards, and Nathanael Greene said he had complied.

But Nathanael’s wife Catherine came from a higher social class, and she was independent in many ways. It looks like her social circle didn’t adhere to either the Congress’s or traditional Quakers’ strictures against cards. Indeed, despite the general’s expression of certainty, it strikes me that Catherine Greene probably knew exactly what was going on in their house.

John Gooch was probably the same man of that name who became a captain in James Varnum’s Continental Army regiment and saw action at Harlem Heights and Fort Washington in 1776. However, that man’s service at least nominally started in January, so he should have been in the camp when Greene wrote this letter. Maybe he was on recruiting duty while playing cards.

On 9 Feb 1776, Nathanael and Catherine’s first child was born. They named that son after Nathanael’s boss: George Washington Greene. Giving birth apparently freed Catherine to travel, and she reportedly visited the camp at Cambridge before the end of the siege. She certainly spent many months later in the war traveling with the army and socializing with other commanders’ wives rather than staying at home in Rhode Island with her mother-in-law.

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