Martha Washington Remembers

This first lady devoted herself to her husband and his troops. May 28, 2007


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on I'm with Lee Holfelder, who interprets Martha Washington at Colonial Williamsburg, but now we're going back in time. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and I'm talking to Martha Washington, wife of George Washington, and eventually, the first first lady of the United States. It's been written that you heard the opening and closing gun of every military campaign of the Revolution. If that's true, it is meaningful on this Memorial Day. So, is that true?

Martha Washington: Well, at least I heard the first guns. I was at Cambridge, Massachusetts with my husband, he so wanted me to be at the first winter with him, and I must say that the first time hearing cannons fire, I found myself quite disturbed. Of course, I had to keep that all to myself, for there are many women with their eyes upon me, seeing how the Lady Washington will handle the guns. But I looked down from Bunker Hill at one time, and saw Charleston, and did not see anything but a few chimneys left. And I must say, when they took up the wharfs to put to war, I just found how terrible war was. But again, I had to keep that all to myself.

Lloyd: And you kept going back.

Martha: Yes, I spent every winter with my dear "old man," I mean, my husband, George. My "old man" is what I call him, much to a lot of the soldiers' delight. But Morristown I saw twice, and both times, for me, was quite horrible.

The first time, when I saw Morristown, New Jersey, my husband was gravely ill. That was in the year of 1777. Matter of fact, I arrived in Philadelphia first, and was trapped with the snowstorm there, and thought I would linger. But, one night, several soldiers came to me. They took me away from the party that I was involved in, and took me to a side room. They told me that my dear husband was gravely ill, and they did not think he would make the night. So, the next morning, even before dawn did arrive, I was whisked into a sleigh, of all things, wrapped up into a blanket, and taken to my husband in Morristown. He was plagued deeply, but to God's blessing, he had made it through the night, and was actually doing much better when I arrived. I went right to making a home remedy of molasses and onions for him, and with my nursing, he became quite well. But Morristown was horrible, as the men were plagued by smallpox, and of course, they had not enough food, and not enough clothing.

But Moorsetown was worse in 17 of 79, for then, they had great snowstorms – ice, even ice over the Delaware. They say there was even ice over New York harbor that you could walk from one side to the other. Well, the ice, very little clothing at that time, food was short, the Army was barely naked. I sent right away to Esther Reed in Philadelphia for her to start a campaign to get money to get shirts for the soldiers.

Lloyd: You cared a lot for the soldiers, you did a lot for them.

Martha: Yes. Well, first seeing the conditions of the soldiers, of course, when I first came to Cambridge, Massachusetts, they were very cheerful. But every year, especially in Valley Forge, the soldiers had little to eat, less in clothing, and their morale was greatly diminished. I at first went right away doing sewing circles – getting the ladies that were about in the society, to gather with me to sew shirts, to mend their breeches, to mend their coats. To knit stockings, we women did get together.

And then, I visited those soldiers that were wounded in the hospital, found that their morale greatly was raised by "The Lady," they called me, coming in and spending time with them, nursing to their wounds. Of course, I'm no doctor, nor am I a male nurse, but I could tend to wiping brows, changing bandages.

Lloyd: Smiling, which always makes people feel better.

Martha: Yes, and then also, I did find that morale was helped if I arranged certain things. I made sure the generals' ladies would come to winter camps, as well, so that the generals that were about had their ladies beside them, and their families. Tried to keep things as normal as possible, putting dinner parties together, and I know many spoke ill of me of putting some dances together, but I know my dear husband. When we were in Morristown one year, his morale was greatly diminished. I had never seen him so sorrowful, so I arranged a dance. Well, it was not only me, but Kitty Greene assured me that she had to have it.

Well, Kitty Greene decided that she was going to have a competition for the young men, to see who could out-dance her in the dance that night. Well, it was not the young men that out-danced Kitty Greene that evening, but it was my dear husband, George. They went for three hours, they did. Kitty finally gave up the ghost, but my husband danced on all through the night.

Lloyd: I cannot imagine dancing for three hours. How do you do that?

Martha: Oh, sir, I tell you, I do not. But my husband, he could dance from the evening hours, away to the dawn of the next morning. I think it was what he needed, and that is why I was there.

Lloyd: You say the other ladies were there, anybody else you remember?

Martha: There was Kitty Greene, there was Lucy Knox, there was Esther Reed at some times. Mrs. Singleton, of course, and then, of course, we took, while we were in Middlebrook, no, it was not Middlebrook, it was, yes, it was Middlebrook, Mrs. Ford we took. Of course, her husband had died. No, it was Morristown we took Mrs. Ford. Her husband had died in Morristown earlier, the first time we were there.

Lloyd: So it wasn't an individual effort, it was an individual effort to make it a cooperative effort. You wanted to get all the ladies in that you could to go around, visit and tend to things, and sew things.

Martha: Yes, sir. If it was just me, sir, it would not have been as successful as if I got all the ladies. To give you an example, when I was trapped in Philadelphia for a while with the snow before I could get to Morristown, I did not sit idle. I knew that my husband was in dire straits in Morristown, so I talked with Esther Reed, Joseph Reed's wife. He was the governor, and of course, one of the aides to my husband at one time.

Well, both of us talked, and we decided that, collectively, we ladies could do a lot. And we decided to raise money, raise money to buy shirts for the soldiers, and to mend them, and make some of them ourselves. Well, Esther Reed and I raised so much money that we have bought many shirts. Matter of fact, the most fun we had was, we annoyed those that were loyalists enough that they even gave us money, just to get rid of us. But, Esther Reed and I were not the only ones. We got all the ladies in the community that felt dire to the cause to come to our aid.

Lloyd: So it wasn’t that you were just cheering up your husband, which is a worthy thing to do, you actually were sort of being the quartermaster for the troops.

Martha: Yes, matter of fact, one of the men said to me I was like a Spartan woman sending my sons off to war.

Lloyd: Actually, the Spartan women went to war, themselves.

Martha: Well, sir, maybe in a way I did, as well.

Lloyd: Could be, could very well be. Which is the place that you remember as the grimmest of the places you visited during the war?

Martha: Sir, I cannot tell whether is was Valley Forge or that last year we were in Morristown. Valley Forge was terrible. The fact that we had no hospital, the only hospital in the area was in Philadelphia, and that, of course, was occupied by the British. There were many illnesses that year. Men did not have enough food, and did not have enough lodging. So there was typhus, there was a smallpox epidemic, and one doctor wrote that many more men died in the hospital than in the campaign of that war that year. I watched so many young men die.

But of course, that second year in Morristown with the snows – the snows came so greatly upon us that we were not able to build shelters for our troops as needed. So, when I first arrived, I saw troops that had moved the snow away, and slept one with another, wrapped up in the blankets that they could find, nearly naked and laying upon the ground. With those snows, many men got ill, as well. So I say, both Valley Forge and that second year in Morristown, those years of 1778 to almost 1780, were the grimmest for my husband and myself.

Lloyd:  You could, if you had wanted to, not have gone. Your presence was not militarily required, legally required, congressionally required. After Valley Forge, why didn't you say, "That's enough?"

Martha: If you had seen my husband's face, when I would arrive at camp, and the faces of not only my husband, but the soldiers. Upon my arrival, it was like the sun coming up after a long time of rain. So, I could not have not gone. To be with my husband and those men, I knew it was as important for them to see my husband as it was for them to see me.

Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time with Lee Holfelder portraying Martha Washington. Check often, we’ll post more for you to download and hear.

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