Martha Washington Biography | Women of the Revolution


    About the author

    Edward St. Germain.
    Edward St. Germain

    Edward A. St. Germain created in 1996. He was an avid historian with a keen interest in the Revolutionary War and American culture and society in the 18th century. On this website, he created and collated a huge collection of articles, images, and other media pertaining to the American Revolution. Edward was also a Vietnam veteran, and his investigative skills led to a career as a private detective in later life.

    Martha Washington.


      None who take an interest in the history of Washington can fail to desire some knowledge of her who shared his thoughts and plans, and was associated with him in the great events of his life. Few women have been called to move, in the drama of existence, amid scenes so varied and imposing! and few have sustained their part with so much dignity and discretion. In the shades of retirement, or the splendor of eminent station, she was the same unostentatious, magnanimous woman; through the gloom of adverse fortune she walked by the side of the Chief, ascending with him the difficult path Heaven had opened before him; and when standing with him on the summit, in the full light of his power and renown, the eyes of her spirit looked still upward, seeking in the smile of the Supreme a reward which earthly honors could not bestow.

      Though the life of Mrs. Washington was a changeful one, and had its full measure of sorrow and joy, it affords little material for the biographer. She moved in woman’s domestic sphere, to which pertain not actions that strike the public eye, but uncomplaining endurance, and continual, unnoted self-sacrifice. The best account of her is the memoir prepared for the National Portrait Gallery, by her grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, of Arlington, D. C., According to this, Martha Dandridge was descended from an ancient family that migrated to the colony of Virginia and was born in the county of New Kent, in May, 1732. Her education was only a domestic one, such as was given to females in those days, when there were few seminaries of instruction, and private teachers were generally employed. Her beauty and fascinating manners, with her amiable qualities of character, gained her distinction among the ladies who were accustomed to resort to Williamsburg, at that time the seat of government.

      When but seventeen Miss Dandridge was married to Colonel Daniel Parke Custis, of the same county. Their residence-called the “White House,” was on the banks of the Pamunkey River, where Colonel Custis became a highly successful planter. None of the children of this marriage survived the mother; Martha, who arrived at womanhood, died at Mount Vernon, in 1770; and John perished eleven years later, at the age of twenty-seven.

      Mrs. Custis was early left a widow, in the full bloom of beauty and “splendidly endowed with worldly benefits.” As sole executrix, she managed with great ability the extensive landed and pecuniary business of the estate. Surrounded by the advantages of fortune and position, and possessing such charms of person, it may well be believed that suitors for her hand and heart were many and pressing.

      “It was in 1758,” says her biographer, “that an officer, attired in a military undress, and attended by a body servant, tall and militaire as his Chief, crossed the ferry called Williams’s, over the Pamunkey, a branch of the York River. On the boat touching the southern, or New Kent side, the soldier’s progress was arrested by one of those personages who give the beau ideal of the Virginia gentleman of the old regime – the very soul of kindness and hospitality.” He would hear of no excuse on the officer’s part for declining the invitation to stop at his house. In vain the Colonel pleaded important business at Williamsburg; Mr. Chamberlayne insisted that his friend must dine with him at the very least. He promised, as a temptation, to introduce him to a young and charming widow, who chanced then to be an inmate of his dwelling. At last the soldier surrendered at discretion, resolving, however, to pursue his journey the same evening. They proceeded to the mansion. Mr. Chamberlayne presented Colonel Washington to his various guests, among whom was the beautiful Mrs. Custis. Tradition says that the two were favorably impressed with each other at the first interview. It may be supposed that the conversation turned upon scenes in which the whole community had a deep interest – scenes which the young hero, fresh from his early fields, could eloquently describe; and we may fancy with what earnest and rapt interest the fair listener “to hear did seriously incline;” or how “the heavenly rhetoric of her eyes” beamed unconscious admiration upon the manly speaker. The morning passed; the sun sank low in the horizon. The hospitable host smiled as he saw the Colonel’s faithful attendant, Bishop, true to his orders, holding his master’s spirited steed at the gate. The veteran waited, and marvelled at the delay. “Ah, Bishop,” says a fair writer describing the occurrence, – “there was an urchin in the drawing-room more powerful than King George and all his governors! Subtle as a sphynx, he had hidden the important despatches from the soldier’s sight, shut up his ears from the summons of the tell-tale clock, and was playing such mad pranks with the bravest heart in Christendom, that it fluttered with the excess of a new-found happiness !”

      Mr. Chamberlayne insisted that no guest ever left his house after sunset; and his visitor was persuaded, without much difficulty, to remain. The next day was far advanced when the enamored soldier was on the road to Williamsburg. His business there being despatched, he hastened to the presence of the captivating widow.

      A short time after the marriage, which took place about 1759, Colonel and Mrs. Washington fixed their residence at Mount Vernon. The mansion was at that period a very small building compared with its present extent. It did not receive many additions before Washington left it to repair to the first Congress, and thence to the command-in-chief of the armies of his country. He was accompanied to Cambridge by Mrs. Washington, who remained some time with him, and witnessed the siege and evacuation of Boston. She then returned to Virginia.

      So prevalent at one time was the disaffection, as Mrs. Washington herself remarked, that on a visit to Philadelphia, upon her way to camp one season, few of the ladies of the city called upon her. A passage from Christopher Marshall’s, manuscript diary for the year 1775 curiously illustrates the state of popular feeling at the breaking out of the war. Mrs. Washington arrived in the city on the twenty-first of November, on her journey to Cambridge. A ball was in preparation, to be given on the twenty-fourth; and it was expected that both she and the wife of Colonel Hancock would grace the entertainment with their presence. But from some threats thrown out, it was feared that a commotion would be made, which might result in disturbance of the peace of the city. A large and respectable committee was held at the Philosophical Hall, called together for the purpose of considering the propriety of allowing the ball to be given that evening; and after mature consideration, it was concluded that no such entertainment should take place, either then, or during the continuance of those melancholy times. A committee was appointed to inform the managers that they must proceed no further in the preparations; and also to wait upon “Lady Washington,” and request her not to attend at the assembly to which she had been invited. The committee acted agreeably to directions; and reported that Lady Washington had received them with great politeness, thanked the committee for their kind care and regard in giving her timely notice, and assured them that their sentiments on this occasion were perfectly agreeable to her own.

      It was not often that the interest taken by Mrs. Washington in political affairs was evinced by any public expression. The address already mentioned, which was read in the churches of Virginia, and published in the Philadelphia papers, June, 1780, as “The Sentiments of an American Woman” – was attributed – it cannot be ascertained with what truth – to her pen. She passed the winters with her husband. Mr. Custis states that it was the habit of the Commander-in-chief to despatch an aid-de-camp, at the close of each campaign, to escort Mrs. Washington to head-quarters. Her arrival at camp was an event much anticipated; the plain chariot, with the neat postillions in their scarlet and white liveries, was always welcomed with great joy by the army, and brought a cheering influence, which relieved the general gloom in seasons of disaster and despair. Her example was followed by the wives of other general officers.

      It happened at one time, while the ladies remained later than usual in the camp on the Hudson, that an alarm was given of the approach of the enemy from New York. The aids-de-camp proposed that the ladies should be sent away under an escort. To this Washington would not consent. “The presence of our wives,” said he, “will the better encourage us to a brave defence.” The night was dark; and the words of command from the officers, the marching of the troops, the dragging of artillery into the yard, and the noise of removing the windows of the house – the house itself being filled with soldiers – all gave “dreadful note of preparation.” The enemy, however, finding themselves mistaken in their hopes of a surprise, withdrew without coming to blows.

      Lady Washington, as she was always called in the army, usually remained at head-quarters till the opening of the succeeding campaign, when she returned to Mount Vernon. She was accustomed afterwards to say that it had been her fortune to hear the first cannon at the opening, and the last at the closing, of all the campaigns of the Revolutionary war. How admirably her equanimity and cheerfulness were preserved, through the sternest periods of the struggle-and how inspiriting was the influence she diffused, is testified in many of the military journals. She was at Valley Forge in that dreadful winter of 1777-8; her presence and submission to privation strengthening the fortitude of those who might have complained, and giving hope and confidence to the desponding. She soothed the distresses of many sufferers, seeking out the poor and afflicted with benevolent kindness, extending relief wherever it was in her power, and with graceful deportment presiding in the Chief’s humble dwelling. In a letter to Mrs. Warren she says, “The General’s apartment is very small; he has had a log cabin built to dine in, which has made our quarters much more tolerable than they were at first.”

      Their table was but scantily furnished; but the soldiers fared still worse, sitting down at a board of rough planks, set with horn spoons and a few tumblers; the food being often salt herrings and potatoes, without other vegetables, or tea, coffee, or sugar. Their continental money was no temptation to the farmers to sell them produce. The stone jug passed round was filled with water from the nearest spring; and rare was the privilege of toddy in which to drink the health of the nation. Yet here, forgetful of herself, the patriot wife anxiously watched the aspect of affairs, and was happy when the political horizon brightened. She writes to Mrs. Warren – “It has given me unspeakable pleasure to hear that General Burgoyne and his army are in safe quarters in your State, Would bountiful Providence aim a like stroke at General Howe, the measure of my happiness would be complete.” (MS. letter, March 7th, 1778)

      The Marquis de Chastellux says of Mrs. Washington, whom he met at the house of General Reed in Philadelphia,- “She had just arrived from Virginia, and was going to stay with her husband, as she does at the end of every campaign. She is about forty, or five-and-forty, rather plump, but fresh, and of an agreeable countenance.” In another passage, he notices the camp life shared by her: “The head-quarters at Newburgh consist of a single house, built in the Dutch fashion, and neither large nor commodious. The largest room in it, which General Washington has converted into his dining room, is tolerably spacious, but it has seven doors and only one window. The chimney is against the wall; so that there is, in fact, but one vent for the smoke, and the fire is in the room itself. I found the company assembled in a small room which served as a parlor. At nine, supper was served, and when bedtime came, I found that the chamber to which the General conducted me was the very parlor spoken of, wherein he had made them place a camp-bed. We assembled at breakfast the next morning at ten, during which interval my bed was folded up; and my chamber became the sitting room for the whole afternoon; for American manners do not admit of a bed in the room in which company is received, especially where there are women. The smallness of the house, and the inconvenience to which I saw that General and Mrs. Washington had put themselves to receive me, made me apprehensive lest M. Rochambeau might arrive on the same day. The day I remained at head-quarters was passed either at table or in conversation.”

      The recollections of a veteran still living at Manchester, Massachusetts, at the age of ninety-two, bear testimony to the kindness of Mrs. Washington towards those in the humblest sphere. One little incident occurred when she came to spend the cold season with her husband in winter-quarters. There were but two frame-houses in the settlement, and neither had a finished upper story. The General was contented with his rough dwelling, but wished to prepare for his wife a more retired and comfortable apartment. He sent for the young mechanic, and desired him and one of his fellow-apprentices to fit up a room in the upper story for the accommodation of Lady Washington through the winter.

      She herself arrived before the work was commenced. “She came,” says the narrator, “into the place – a portly-looking, agreeable woman of forty-five, and said to us: ‘Now, young men, I care for nothing but comfort here; and should like you to fit me up a beauffet on one side of the room, and some shelves and places for hanging clothes on the other.’ We went to work with all our might. Every morning about eleven Mrs. Washington came up stairs with a glass of spirits for each of us; and after she and the General had dined, we were called down to eat at their table. We worked very hard, nailing smooth boards over the rough and worm-eaten planks, and stopping the crevices in the walls made by time and hard usage. Then we consulted together how we could smooth the uneven floor, and take out, or cover over some of the huge black knots. We studied to do every thing to please so pleasant a, lady, and to make some return in our humble way for the kindness of the General. On the fourth day, when Mrs. Washington came up to see how we were getting along, we had finished the work, made the shelves, put up the pegs on the wall, built the beauffet, and converted the. rough garret into a comfortable apartment. As she stood looking round, I said, ‘Madam, we have endeavored to do the best we could; I hope we have suited you.’ She replied, smiling, ‘I am astonished ! your work would do honor to an old master, and you are mere lads. I am not only satisfied, but highly gratified with what you have done for my comfort.”‘ As the old soldier repeated these words, the tears ran down his furrowed cheeks. The thrill of delight which had seventy years before penetrated his heart at the approving words of his General’s lady, again animated his worn frame, sending back his thoughts to the very moment and scene.

      At one time the head-quarters of the Commander-in-chief were at the house of Mrs. Berry, in New Jersey. While he remained here Mrs. Washington arrived. When the carriage stopped, and a female in a plain russet gown, with white handkerchief neatly folded over her neck, was seen, Mrs. Berry imagined her to be a domestic. But she was undeceived when the General went forward to receive her, assisted her from the carriage, and after the first greeting, began to inquire after his pet horses. A ball was given in honor of the arrival of “Lady Washington,” at which her brave husband himself condescended to lead a minuet; it being the first occasion in a long time on which he had been known to dance.

      An anecdote illustrative of the heroic spirit of the lady whose house was the Chief’s abode on this occasion, will not be here misplaced. Her husband was at Saratoga attending to some private business when General Washington, with his officers and troops, went forth to battle. Mrs. Berry and the wives of the officers who were with her, were busily occupied in preparing bandages And wrappings for the use of the army; every sheet and article of linen in the house having been torn up for that purpose. She was harassed with anxiety lest her husband should not return to assume his post before the departure of the troops. He did not arrive in time; and she had the mortification of seeing another appointed to the command of his men. Sometime after they were gone, she heard the welcome sound of his horse’s feet. He rode up hastily, and stopped only long enough to change his wearied horse for another. As he galloped down the lane leading from the house, he heard his wife’s voice calling, “Sidney, Sidney !” She was leaning from a window, her hand stretched towards him, as if eagerly soliciting his attention. He turned and rode within hearing; she wished but to give him her parting words. These were, “Remember, Sidney, to do your duty ! I would rather hear that you were left a corpse on the field, than that you had played the part of a coward !”

      Mrs. Wilson, a lady whose name is mentioned elsewhere in this book, has favored me with an account of Mrs. Washington’s visit to her father’s house at Union Farm, the last time she came to that part of New Jersey. She was escorted by Major Washington and ten dragoons. She remained a day and night at the house of Colonel Stewart, and spoke much with his daughter concerning housekeeping and her domestic affairs. Her conversation is described as agreeable, and her manners simple, easy, and dignified. Among other particulars, Mrs. Washington mentioned that she had a great deal of domestic cloth made in her house, and kept sixteen spinning wheels in constant operation. She showed Mrs. Wilson two dresses of cotton striped with silk, manufactured by her own domestics, and worn by herself; one weighing a pound and a half, the other rather less. The silk stripes in the fabric were made from the ravellings of brown silk stockings, and old crimson damask chair-covers. Her coachman, footman, and waiting-maid, were all habited in domestic cloth; though the coachman’s cuffs and collars, being scarlet, must have been imported. In the practice of this economy and moderation, as in the simplicity of her dress, Mrs. Washington appeared desirous of affording an example to others in inferior station. As late as 1796, Mrs. Wilson, inquiring for pocket handkerchiefs at a celebrated fancy store in Philadelphia, was shown some pieces of lawn, of which Mrs. Washington had just purchased. The information was added that she paid six shillings for handkerchiefs for her own use, but went as high as seven shillings for the General’s.

      The anniversary of the alliance with France was celebrated by an entertainment given in the camp near Middlebrook. On this festive occasion Mrs. Washington, Mrs. Greene and Mrs. Knox, and the wives of several officers were present; and a circle of brilliants, the least of which, says the gallant journalist, was more valuable than the stone which the king of Portugal received for his Brazilian possessions. The ladies and gentlemen from a large circuit around the camp attended the celebration. It was opened by a discharge of cannon; and dinner was prepared in a building used for an academy. There was dancing in the evening, and a grand display of fire-works. The ball was opened by General Washington. As this was a festival given by men who had not enriched themselves by the war, the illuminations were on a cheap scale, being entirely of their own manufacture; the seats were adorned with no armorial blazonry, but were the work of native, and rather unskillful artisans. “Instead of knights of different orders, such as pageants like the Mischianza could boast, there were but hardy soldiers; happy, however, in the consciousness that they had contributed to bring about the auspicious event they had met to celebrate.”

      Among the lively sallies of the belles of this entertainment, one is recorded that caused no inconsiderable amusement. A young lady, when asked if the roaring of the British lion in his late speech had not somewhat depressed the spirit of the dance – replied: “No, it should rather enliven it; for I have heard that such animals always increase their howlings when frightened.”

      For Mrs. Washington a heavy cloud of sorrow hung over the conclusion of the glorious campaign of 1781. Her only child was seized with a fever while attending to his duties during the siege of Yorktown. He lived to behold the surrender of the British army, and expired in the arms of his mother, mourned for by Washington as a son. The Marquis de Chastellux, visiting Mount Vernon not long after this sad event, says: “I had the pleasure of passing a day or two with Mrs. Washington, at the General’s house in Virginia, where she appeared to me one of the best women in the world, and beloved by all about her. She has no family by the General, but was surrounded by her grandchildren and Mrs. Custis, her son’s widow. The family were then in mourning for Mr. Custis, whose premature death was a subject of public and private regret.”

      After the close of 1783, General Washington had leisure for the superintendence of improvements in the building and grounds at Mount Vernon. This old mansion was always crowded with visitors. Social and rural pleasures winged the hours, and past dangers were pleasantly talked over. A letter never before published, of Mr. N. Webster, affords a passing glimpse of this period.

      “When I was travelling to the south in the year 1785, I called on General Washington at Mount Vernon. At dinner the last course of dishes was a species of pancakes, which were handed round to each guest, accompanied with a bowl of sugar, and another of molasses for seasoning them, that each one might suit himself. When the dish came to me, I pushed by me the bowl of molasses, observing to the gentlemen present that I had enough of that in my own country. The General burst out with a loud laugh, a thing very unusual with him; ‘Ah,’ said he, ‘there is nothing in that story about your eating molasses in New England !’ There was a gentleman from Maryland at the table, and the General immediately told a story, stating that during the Revolution, a hogshead of molasses was stove in at Westchester by the oversetting of a wagon; a body of Maryland troops being near, the soldiers ran hastily and saved all they could by filling their hats or caps with molasses.

      “Near the close of the Revolutionary war, I think in 1782, I was at West Point, when the birth of a Dauphin in France was celebrated by the American troops at that place. The troops were arranged in a line along the hills on the west of the camp, on the point, and on the mountains on the east side of the Hudson. When the order was given to fire, there was a stream of firing all around the camp, rapidly passing from one end of the line to the other; while the roar of cannon reverberated from the hills, resounded among the mountains, and thousands of human voices made the atmosphere ring with a song prepared for the occasion. ‘A Dauphin is born !’ This was a splendid exhibition, closed with a handsome repast under a long arcade or bower formed with branches of trees. I have never seen any account of this celebration in print.”

      While the victorious general was thus merged in “the illustrious farmer of Mount Vernon,” Mrs. Washington performed the duties of a Virginia housewife, which in those days were not merely nominal. She gave directions, it is said, in every department, so that, without bustle or confusion, the most splendid dinner appeared as if there had been no effort in the preparation. She presided at her abundant table with ease and elegance, and was indeed most truly great in her appropriate sphere of home. Much of her time was occupied in the care of the children of her lost son.

      The period came when this rural Eden, which had bloomed and flourished under their care, was to be exchanged for new scenes. A few years of rest and tranquil happiness in the society of friends having rewarded the Chief’s military toils, he was called by the voice of the nation to assume the duties of its Chief Magistrate. The call was obeyed. The establishment of the President and Mrs. Washington was formed at the seat of government. The levees had more of courtly ceremonial than has been known since; but it was necessary to maintain the dignity of office by forms that should inspire respect. Special regard was paid to the wives of men who had deserved much of their country. Mrs. Robert Morris was accustomed to sit at the right of the lady of the President, at the drawing-rooms; and the widows of Greene and Montgomery were always handed to and from their carriages by the President himself; the secretaries and gentlemen of his household performing those services for the other ladies. In this elevated station, Mrs. Washington, unspoiled by distinction, still leaned on the kindness of her friends, and cultivated cheerfulness as a duty. She was beloved as few are in a superior condition. Mrs. Warren says, in reply to one of her letters, “Your observation may be true, that many younger and gayer ladies consider your situation as enviable; yet I know not one who by general consent would be more likely to obtain the suffrages of the sex, even were they to canvass at elections for the elevated station, than the lady who now holds the first rank in the United States.”

      On the retirement of Washington from public life, he prepared to spend the remnant of his days in the retreat his taste had adorned. It was a spectacle of wonder to Europeans, to see this great man calmly resigning the power which had been committed to his hands, and returning with delight to his agricultural pursuits. His wife could justly claim her share in the admiration; for she quitted without regret the elevated scenes in which she had shone so conspicuous, to enter with the same active interest as before upon her domestic employments. Her advanced age did not impair her ability or her inclination to the discharge of housewifely duties. But she was not long permitted to enjoy the happiness she had anticipated. It was hers too soon to join in the grief of a mourning nation for the death of Washington.

      Visits of condolence were paid to the bereaved lady by the President and others; and from all quarters came tributes of sympathy and sorrow. She continued to receive the visitors who came to Mount Vernon, and gave the same attention to her domestic concerns. But in less than two years after her husband’s death, she was attacked by a fever that proved fatal. When aware that the hour of her dissolution was approaching, she called her grandchildren to her bedside; discoursed to them on their respective duties; spoke of the happy influences of religion; and then, surrounded by her weeping family, resigned her life into the hands of her Creator in the seventy-first year of her age. Her death took place on the 22d of May, 1802. Her remains rest in the same vault with those of Washington, in the family tomb at Mount Vernon.

      Those who read the record of her worth, dwell with interest on the loveliness of her character. To a superior mind she joined those amiable qualities and Christian virtues which best adorn the female sex, and a gentle dignity that inspired respect without creating enmity. Her features are familiar to all, from the portraits of her, taken at different ages, published in Sparks’ Life of Washington, and the National Portrait Gallery. These have been copied into different publications.

      Related posts