Nancy K. Loane, author of Following the Drum: Women at the Valley Forge Encampment, writes that Martha Washington was a spiffy dresser, assertive, and definitely a woman of independent means. And she was a woman who followed her man.
This miniature portrait, painted in 1772 by Charles Willson Peale, is the earliest depiction of Martha after her marriage to George Washington.
(After Washington left Mount Vernon in 1775, to lead the military fighting the American Revolution, he would not return again for over 6 years. Every year, during the long winter months when the fighting was at a standstill, the General asked Martha to join him at his winter encampment. She stayed with him for months at a time. During the period from April 1775, until December 1783, Martha was able to be with her husband for almost half the time he was away.)
Each year, once the Continental Army settled in for the winter, Gen. George Washington wrote for his wife to join him at military camp. Each year after receiving the request Martha Washington—although she delighted in being at Mount Vernon with her large, extended family, and was lonely and anxious when away from Virginia—dutifully packed up her bags, got into the carriage, and started north. Martha Washington, determined and diminutive at five feet tall, had kept close to home before the Revolution began; once the hostilities started, she traveled thousands of miles to be with her husband. (Martha Washington journeyed to the General because she supported the cause of freedom and also because, as General Lafayette once observed, she loved “her husband madly”).
After George Washington accepted the position of commander in chief, the woman who loved hearth and home left both to join her husband at military encampments in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. The Continental Army marched into Valley Forge, the third of the eight winter encampments of the Revolution, on December 19, 1777. Martha Washington traveled ten days and hundreds of miles to join her husband in Pennsylvania. Her carriage and entourage left Mount Vernon on January 26 and, according to Gen. Nathanael Greene, Martha arrived at headquarters the evening of February 5, 1778. Primary documents of the Revolutionary period give us some idea of what Lady Washington did when she got there.
Martha’s main role, of course, was to care for General Washington. “Poor man,” Gen. Nathanael Greene wrote of his commander, “he appears oppressed with cares and wants some gentle hand free from deceit to soothe his cares.” That soothing “gentle hand” belonged to Martha Washington. She also assumed her familiar role of hostess at camp. On April 6, Mrs. Elizabeth Drinker and three friends arrived at Valley Forge to plead with General Washington to release their husbands from jail; the men, all Quakers, had refused to swear a loyalty oath to the United States. Because the commander was not available when the ladies arrived from Philadelphia, they visited with Mrs. Washington who Mrs. Drinker thought to be a “a sociable pretty kind of Woman.” General Washington was unable to assist Mrs. Drinker and her friends, but he did invite them to dine at headquarters that day. Elizabeth Drinker found the 3:00 p.m. dinner with General and Mrs. Washington and about fifteen of the officers to be “elegant” but also “soon over,” and afterwards the four ladies then “went with ye General’s Wife up to her Chamber, and saw no more of him.”
Mrs. Washington also socialized with the wives of the senior officers at Valley Forge. Years later, Pierre DuPonceau, an aide to Baron von Steuben, recalled that in the evenings the ladies and officers at camp would meet at each other’s quarters for conversation. During these social evenings each lady and gentleman present was “called upon in turn for a song” as they sipped tea or coffee. The officers and their ladies could do little during these social evenings but talk and sing, for Washington, with the enemy camped nearby in Philadelphia, prohibited both dancing and card-playing at Valley Forge.
On February 16, 1778, Charles Willson Peale painted a miniature of Washington—for which he charged his usual “56 Dollars”—and presented it to Martha. Peale made several other miniatures of Washington at camp; John Laurens, one of Washington’s aides, thought them “successful attempts to produce the General’s likeness.” Peale’s brush was busy at Valley Forge, as he captured some fifty officers and their wives on canvas that winter.
Lady Washington happily participated in the camp’s joyous May 6 celebration of the formal announcement of the French-American alliance. The day began early for General and Mrs. Washington and they, along with several officers and their wives, first attended services with the New Jersey brigade. Revered Mr. Hunter preached the sermon, said to be a “suitable discourse.” Soon after the thunderous feu de joie (thousands of soldiers fired off the muskets consecutively in a “fire of joy”), His Excellency and Lady Washington received in the center of a large marquee fashioned from dozens of officers’ tents. Although there is no record of Mrs. Washington’s attire on that august day, General Washington, usually so staid and proper, was said to have worn “a countenance of uncommon delight and complacence.”
Five days later, on May 11, Martha Washington and the commander attended the camp production of Cato, a theatrical favorite of the General’s. The Joseph Addison tragedy was performed by the staff officers for a “very numerous and splendid audience,” including many officers and several of their wives. The play was received with enthusiasm, and one officer wrote that he found the performance “admirable” and the scenery “in Taste.” There is, however, no record of what either General or Mrs. Washington thought of the production.
But then on June 8, six days after celebrating her forty-seventh birthday at Valley Forge, Lady Washington got into her carriage and started out for Mount Vernon. She left camp with a hopeful heart, for the French had officially joined with America in the battle against the British. Surely, she thought, the war would soon be over and she would not be asked to endure any more army encampments. But five more times during the Revolution Martha Washington packed up her belongings, climbed into her carriage, and headed north from Mount Vernon to join with her husband in America’s fight for freedom.
1 Loane, Nancy K. Following the Drum: Women at the Valley Forge Encampment. Potomac Books, Inc., Washington, D.C., 2009.
2 Lafayette to Adrienne de Noailles de Lafayette, January 6, 1778, in Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution, ed. Stanley J. Idzerda (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), 1: 225.
3 Nathanael Greene to Gen. Alexander McDougall, February 5, 1778, in The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, ed. Richard K. Showman (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980), 2:276.
4 Nathanael Greene to Catharine Greene. July 8, 1779, in Greene Papers, 4:212.
5 Elizabeth Sandwith Drinker, The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker, ed. Elaine Foreman Crane (Boston: Northeastern University press, 1991), 1:297.
6 “Autobiographical Letters of Peter S. DuPonceau,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography XL (1916): 181.
7 Charles Willson Peale, The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family, ed. Lillian B. Miller (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983), 1: 266.
8 John Laurens to Henry Laurens, March 9, 1778, in The Army Correspondence of Colonel John Laurens in the Years 1777-1778. (New York: The New York Times and the Arno Press, 1969), 139.
9 Mark E. Lender and James Kirby Martin, Citizen Soldier: The Revolutionary War Journal of Joseph Bloomfield. (Newark: New Jersey Historical Society, 1982), 134.
10 John F. Reed, Valley Forge: Crucible of Victory (Monmouth Beach: Peter Freneau Press, 1969), 56.
11 William Bradford, Jr. to Rachel Bradford, May 14, 1778, in Joseph Lee Boyle, Writings from the Valley Forge Encampment (Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 2001), 2:125.
Read the original article here.
Nancy K. Loane, Ed.D., a former seasonal ranger at Valley Forge National Historical Park, has studied more than five hundred Revolutionary War–era diaries, journals, letters, returns, orderly books, and records. She is the author of Following the Drum: Women at the Valley Forge Encampment (Potomac, 2009). A Pennsylvania Commonwealth Speaker (2006–2007), she has presented nearly 200 American Revolution-related lectures throughout the country, including at the Library of Congress, and was featured in C-SPAN's recent series on the first ladies (in the program on Martha Washington). Dr. Loane is a founding member of the American Revolution Round Table of Philadelphia and an honorary lifetime member of the Society of the Descendants of Washington’s Army at Valley Forge.