Martha DANDRIDGE

F, b. 2 June 1731, d. 22 May 1802
Martha Washington in 1796 by James Peale
     Martha DANDRIDGE was born on 2 June 1731 at Chesnut Grove Plantation in New Kent County, Virginia, daughter of Col. John DANDRIDGE and Frances JONES.
     Martha married George WASHINGTON, son of Augustine WASHINGTON and Mary BALL, on 6 January 1759 in New Kent County, Virginia. She was the widow of Daniel Parke Custis, who she married at age 18. He was a rich planter two decades her senior. George and Martha's wedding was a grand affair. The groom appeared in a suit of blue and silver with red trimming and gold knee buckles; the bride wore purple silk shoes with spangled buckles. After the Reverend Peter Mossum pronounced them man and wife, the couple honeymooned at her home, White House Plantation on the south shore of the Pamunkey River, for several weeks before setting up housekeeping at Washington's Mount Vernon. Their marriage appears to have been a solid one, untroubled by infidelity or clash of temperament.1
     Martha and George Washington had no children together, but they raised Martha's two surviving children. Her teenaged daughter, also named Martha, died during an epileptic seizure, which led John to return home from college to comfort his mother. John later served as an aide to Washington during the siege of Yorktown in 1781. John died during this military service, probably of typhus. After his death, the Washingtons raised two of John's children, Eleanor Parke Custis (March 31, 1779 - July 15, 1852), and George Washington Parke Custis (April 30, 1781 - October 10, 1857). They also provided personal and financial support to nieces, nephews and other family members in both the Dandridge and Washington families.
     Content to live a private life at Mount Vernon and her homes from the Custis estate, Martha Washington nevertheless followed Washington into the battlefield when he served as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. She spent the infamous winter at Valley Forge with the General, and was instrumental in maintaining some level of morale among officers and enlisted troops. She opposed his election as President of the newly formed United States of America, and refused to attend his inauguration (April 30, 1789). As the First Lady, Mrs. Washington hosted many affairs of state at New York and Philadelphia (the capital was moved to Washington D. C. in 1800 under the Adams administration).
     Martha Washington and her husband both died at Mount Vernon, with Martha dying of high fever on May 22, 1802, slightly over two years after her husband. In 1831, her remains were moved from their original burial site a few hundred feet to a brick tomb that overlooks the Potomac River.
     Some think of Martha Washington as a rather frumpy woman who spent her days at the Revolutionary War winter encampments visiting with the common soldiers in their huts. But Nancy K. Loane, author of Following the Drum: Women at the Valley Forge Encampment, writes that the truth about Lady Washington is far more interesting. Martha Washington was a spiffy dresser, assertive, and definitely a woman of independent means. And she was a woman who followed her man. Each year of the Revolution, 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.
     Martha DANDRIDGE died on 22 May 1802 at Mount Vernon in Fairfax County, Virginia, at age 70.1
Last Edited=31 Aug 2010

Citations

  1. [S157] John Baer Stoudt, Nicholas Martiau.

Information on this site has been gathered over many years from many sources. Although great care has been taken, inaccuracies may exist.