The Greaton Women and the War Department

October 19th, 2011

Here and there between the lists of supplies and records of accounts paid, you find the story of a family or a woman whose life was tied to the Department. Two such women were members of the Greaton family of Massachusetts, both of whom wrote to the War Department in the 1790s.

The first lady to write was Sarah Greaton, wife of General John  Greaton. She wrote to Secretary of War Henry Knoxin in July 1791 ( this letter does not survive) and again in March 1792, trying to secure money due her husband for his service in the Revolutionary War. From the March letter it seems that previous attempts to receive the funds had fallen afoul of one problem after another. According to the Daughters of the American Revolution and other genealogical records, General Greaton died in December 1783. Between his death and writing to Knox, Sarah Greaton worked to support herself and her children. It is not clear what finally moved her to write to Knox over seven years after being widowed, but she did.

It is also unclear whether Sarah Greaton’s appeal to Knox was succesful, but if it was, that success may have been the motivation for her relative Sally Greaton to write Timothy Pickering in 1795. Sally Greaton was the wife of Captain Richard H. Greaton, who was probably the son of General and Mrs. Greaton, making Sally Greaton Sarah’s daughter-in-law. Apparently, Captain Greaton established regular payments of a portion of his pay to his wife before he departed for an assignment in the West, but the disbursement was stopped by the War Office in April 1795 when the power of attorney apparently expired. In order for anyone to receive money on behalf of a soldier, they had to obtain a power of attorney signed by the solider. Sally Greaton had no access to her husband’s pay without valid legal documentation, hence her letters to the War Department.

Between October 1795 and May 1796 Sally Greaton engaged in correspondence with Secretary of War Timothy Pickering, Accountant William Simmons, and Accountant Peter Hagner. Sally Greaton seems to have renewed her request for access to her husband’s pay every three months. The language she used in the letters was apologetic and appealing, trying to reinforce her need for the $30 per month she received from her husband. In a letter to Caleb Swan in March 1796, William Simmons wrote he believed Mrs. Greaton depended on the money in order to sustain her family, and this is the impression Sally Greaton gave in all of her letters: that of a person desperately trying to make ends meet. Like her mother-in-law, Sally Greaton appealed to the sensibilities of the men in the War Department, asking them to “oblige a distressed female,” as Sarah Greaton had asked Knox to “pity the unfortunate family of a brother officer.”

The letters Simmons wrote to War Department agents and Sally Greaton state that she received her money while her husband was away. By late November 1796,  Captain Richard Greaton was in Boston, writing his own letters to William Simmons. Before he left that summer, he was careful to make specific arrangements with William Simmons to establish $20 per month to be received in Boston for his children. The person named in the power of attorney which facilitated the disbursement was Samuel Heath, who may have been Captain Greaton’s brother-in-law.

There are no further letters mentioning Mrs. Sally Greaton following Captain Greaton’s stay in Boston. It is possible that, with a legal agent and the power of attorney established, she no longer needed to write the War Department. It is also possible that she died some time between her last letter to William Simmons in May 1796 and Captain Greaton’s departure from Boston a year later. He did not mention her in his letter requesting instructions for a power of attorney, and in September 1797 he wrote Simmons and mentioned his sisters and mother but not his wife. Genealogical records, which provided hints for the relationships between the Mrs. Greatons and Mr. Heath, do not list a death date for Mrs. Richard H. Greaton.

The language they used in their letters conveys the stress and frustration Sally and Sarah Greaton must have felt. However, had they not been in financial trouble, they would not have left behind the written record which tells this small part of their life story. What other glimpses into the lives of civilians and military families are hiding in the papers of the War Department, waiting to be discovered?