Revolutionary Lady: Martha Washington

Martha Washington painted by Charles Wilson Peale in 1776. Mount Vernon Ladies Association

Likenesses painted by Charles Wilson Peale in 1772 and 1776 portray a handsome woman of substance who in the latter work foregoes her earlier solemn composure for the wisp of an appealing smile. (1) Lace framing her bodice in the 1776 painting softens Martha and her eyes stare out as if to converse with us. By this time George would be heavily involved with the Revolution, but Martha is the picture of calm composure. Maybe this is the device of Peale or the result of her pleasure with her life decisions and confidence in her spouse.

After the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the Continental Congress selected her spouse as “General of the American Army” to wrangle the ragtag group of Colonists to stand up to the British’s well-honed fighting machine. While patriot George Washington would have gone to war in any event, the fact that he had access to his wife’s resources made it much easier for him to leave and know he had a wife experienced in overseeing a plantation with the wherewithal to hire an overseer should one be needed. Many other generals and soldiers did not have this financial support and found their homes and acreage useless upon their return. Others had their homes burned by the British.

At first Martha stayed bravely at home despite British governor Lord Dunmore’s threat to kidnp her as he traveled down the Potomac River on a Britishman-of-war not far from Mount Vernon. An expert horsewoman, Martha let it be known she was unafraid of British marines, who she said she could easily out-ride. Besides, she knew the Virginia woods much better than any foreign sailor. For his part George sent out his own response: “Lord Dunmore can’t act so low and so unmanly as to think of seizing Mrs. Washington by way of revenge on me.” (2)

Washington at Valley Forge (1854) artist: Thompkiss Harrison Matteson depicted Martha Washington offering devoted care to soldiers. .

But after the New York press implied she stayed away from George because she was “warm to the Tories” and living a separate life in New York, (3) Martha quickly packed and quelled the rumors after George’s letter of invite in 1775, traveling to winter camp in Cambridge.

The well-trained, well-outfitted, experienced British military seemed to have the upper hand in the beginning and Colonial troops swiftly took the opportunity to leave when their short, initial commissions were over. When the outcome looked bleakest for the Americans in 1778, during the frigid days and nights at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, Martha proved herself. She didn’t hold back at their warm Mount Vernon plantation, but joined George and worked to improve life for the troops.

Mount Vernon researchers have determiend that Martha spent 52-54 of the 103 months of the eight-year war (April 1775-December 1783) with George and his soldiers. She went north again for spring camp in New York in 1776, then attended spring camp at Morristown, New Jersey in 1777 before going to Valley Forge in 1778. (4)

While at Valley Forge Martha Washington organized wealthy Philadelphia women into committees to raise money for troop supplies and to sew needed blankets and garmets for them. (Library of Congress)

Martha and Esther Gather Women to Aid Revolution

But Martha didn’t just “stay” in camp. In June 1780 after noting bloody, bootless feet and seeing shivering men without winter coats, she joined Esther DeBerdt Reed of Philadelphia, wife of Washington’s military secretary, in creating the Ladies Association of Philadelphia.

In 1775 her husband Dennis went to escort Washington from Philadelphia and stayed for the war without bidding her goodbye or organizing his law practice– Washington must have been very persuasive!

Esther, just a month after delivering her last child, George Washington Reed, penned”The Sentiments of a Woman,” encouraging women to sacrifice some luxeries for the “armies which defend our lives, our possessions, our liberty.” Specifically she asked women “to wear more simiple hair dressed less elegant” without expensive combs and and give the money saved to the troops. (5) The idea meshed with Martha’s concerns for the troops’ morale and need for proper clothing.

Martha worked to expand the Ladies Associations throughout the Colonies. Women in each county served as captains collecting donations of money, sewen and knit goods, which were sent on to the state’s First Lady, who forwarded them to Martha Washington. She did more than spur the women into service, she personally gave $20,000 (equivalent to $357,839 in 2017 dollars) and made Mount Vernon a fabric production center for uniforms, coats and socks. In a relative short time the Colonial women donated $300,000, given the rate of inflar tion this would be equivalent to $5,498,689, according to the Consumer Price Index for Inflation. (6)

Financial Plight of Women During Revolution

Eliza Lucas Pinckney, Charleston, South Carolina, born in on the island of Antigua in the Caribbean in 1722. She studied botany in boarding school and managed plantations for her British solder father starting when she was 16 and later after her husband died.The Lucas plantations were destroyed in the Revolutionary War,but not before she changed the course of agriculture by developing a high-quality indigo dye imported in England. Her son Charles signed the Constitution and son Thomas became minister to Spain and later Great Britain.

Now it’s rare to think of the plight of women during the Revolutionary War. Not everyone could support themselves much less contribute cash to the cause. Eliza Pinckney explained to a doctor why she could not pay her bill. “It may seem strange that a single woman, accused of no crime, who had a fortune sufficiency (sp) to live genteelly in any part of the world. . . should in so short a time be so entirely deprived of it as not to be able to pay a debt under sixty pound sterling, but such is my singular case.” Her plantations, which were leaders in the production of high-quality indigo purchased in England, had been plundered, her house in Charleston appropriated by the British,and her wood all cut down to build a garrison, “for which I have not got a penny.” Eliza planned to sell the wood to American shippers (out of Charleston), but now she had nothing. (7)

The Battle of Saratoga in September and October 1777 capitalized on British mistakes, which had not been enough for Colonists to win, but enough to seriously frustrate the English leaders across the pond. These victories severed a dual purpose by showing the American’s determination to the French, who agreed to assist the Colonists with the resourcesthey sorely needed, including their powerful navy, enough to eventually bring a victory by wearing down the British, as the desire to continue a foreign war dwindled at home.

“She reminded me of the Roman matrons of whom I had read so much, and I thought that she well deserved to be the companion and friend of the greatest man of the age.”
Peter Stephen Du Ponceau, remarked after visiting Martha in November 1780

The General had a knawing worry at the back of his mind for Martha’s safety, though at heart he knew her to be a resourceful woman, able to withstand and overcome the challenges of the war. He began his letters to Martha: “My dearest.” While this could be the standard saluation for family members in the 1770s, we could note Abigail and John Adams, known for their strong affection while often separated during his political duties, always started their letters: “My dearest friend.” This could support the strength of the Washington’s devotion.

During the Revolution Martha traveled hundreds of miles, if not thousands, she’d never crossed before, but she left home each of the eight years of war, until George’s first trip home for Christmas in 1783. Just as Martha was dedicated to the country, she devoted herself to her husband and the many roles he played. Initially when George became America’s first President, she stayed at Mount Vernon. She hadn’t bargained for this second job would take him away from her and Mount Vernon once more.

Martha Washington’s biographer, Patricia Brady, did Martha justice on the cover of her book with an artist’s the 20-something woman in a purple and lace bodice and a yellow and blue dress–a simple pearl comb in her wavy brown hair. This the way to remember the spunky Martha–in her prime.

(1) Copies of Charles Wilson Peale’s paintings of Martha Washington appear between pages 184 and 185 of Patricia Brady’s biography, Martha Washington. (New York: Putnam Group, 2005).

(2) Cokie Roberts. Founding Mothers, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2004) p. 86.

(3) Roberts, p. 87


(5) Roberts, p. 124

(6) l

(7) John and Abigail Adams. My Dearest Friend. (Jersey City, NJ: Start Publishing Inc.)Actually the Adams’s letters offer more variety than that. Sometimes John starts off with “Miss Adorable” and “Diana,” indicating that his wife-to-be is exactly what he’s looking for and resembles a goddess, which is rather amazing for a 18th century beau.

Copywright 2019 Marmie Tuerff Edwards

Stay Tuned next Friday for Reluctant First, First Lady Washington

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