The First “Lady” of Liberty

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With the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, Americans made it clear they no longer wished to be part of an aristocratic society. After all, it was Britain’s King George III and his titled advisors who had rejected the colonists’ requests to be treated like other British subjects. Americans now wanted a society where it was recognized that “all men are created equal.” There would end up being one exception, however. This individual was a Virginian who enjoyed a privileged lifestyle. Yet, during the Revolution, this person willingly participated in, and helped alleviate, the hardships that accompanied service in the Continental Army. The line soldiers applauded this willingness and came to love her. They rewarded her with a title not conferred because of high station in life but because of her actions. Her name was Martha Washington. This is the story of how she became “Lady Washington” through her actions at Valley Forge.

Much like her husband, Martha Washington’s support for American liberty increased as tensions mounted between the colonies and Great Britain. Born Martha Dandridge in June 1731 near Williamsburg, Virginia, she married George Washington in January 1759. She delighted in wearing British-imported gowns and tried to decorate the plantation at Mount Vernon like a great British estate. She was appalled, therefore, in 1765 when Parliament passed the Stamp Act in an attempt to directly tax the colonies. With George’s encouragement, Martha supervised as Mount Vernon’s weavers produced homespun wool so the family and servants could make their own clothes. Her relief at Parliament’s repeal of the act was short lived. Like other colonials, she was shocked when Britain continued its aggressive approach by not only passing the Townsend Acts in 1767 but also dispatching British soldiers to Boston, Massachusetts to quell the protests there. Her anger only intensified in March 1770 when she heard how the soldiers had killed citizens in the Boston Massacre. Like her husband and other prominent Virginians, she now regarded Britain as an oppressor. The perception seemed even more accurate when Parliament passed the Intolerable Acts in 1774 in response to the Boston Tea Party. The acts closed Boston harbor and imposed military rule on Massachusetts. Martha realized if Britain could so easily deny rights to Massachusetts, it could do the same to Virginia. There was only one option — open resistance. With determination, she waved George on to the First Continental Congress in September 1774 and to the Second in May 1775 where he served until his appointment as commander-in-chief a month later.

When she received word of the appointment, Martha knew she now had a responsibility to help George overcome the immense challenges facing him. The best way to accomplish that was by enduring military life with him. In November she set out for Cambridge, Massachusetts, across the Charles River from British-held Boston, to spend the winter with him. Arriving a month later, she found him at the point of desperation as he watched thousands of soldiers depart for home. In an effort to keep spirits high, she organized dinner parties for the army’s officers. Virginia hospitality reigned supreme as the charming Martha treated each officer with warmth and courtesy. It was not long before officers began to covet an invitation to Mrs. Washington’s parties. With morale on the rise, Martha focused her energies on the soldiers’ personal needs. She formed a sewing circle to mend officers’ uniforms and to roll bandages for the army’s hospitals. She even joined the general’s secretaries in transcribing orders for the army. Her presence proved a balm to the army, as well as to Washington, and she decided she would return to camp as often as possible. It was a promise she fulfilled in March 1777 following George’s victories at Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey. She spent the spring and early summer with him at his headquarters in Morristown, New Jersey where she accompanied him on camp inspections. Little did she know though that her greatest test, and most crucial service, was yet to come.

Throughout the fall of 1777 Martha watched from afar as George and the army tried to protect the American capital at Philadelphia. Even after the city fell, he fought to reclaim it at the Battle of Germantown. The British ultimately forced him to withdraw, but Washington was not ready to relinquish control of the region just yet. He halted the army a mere twenty miles outside Philadelphia at Valley Forge along the Schuylkill River. As before, Martha prepared to join him for the winter, but this time George told her the camp was no place for her. The soldiers were forced to live in canvas tents until they could build log huts. The general himself lived in a tent. He refused to move into a farmhouse until all the huts were completed. Even then, however, the tiny headquarters was barely big enough for him and his staff. Martha understood his reasoning, but she was undaunted by this bleak state of affairs. She boarded her carriage for the journey north and arrived in February 1778. She found conditions just as deplorable as George described and made up her mind to alleviate the suffering any way she could.

As she toured the camps, she talked with the soldiers about their needs. Many told her they only had a blanket or a shirt patched together from a variety of materials for warmth. They showed her their threadbare uniforms, and the officers described how theirs were ragged as well. Other officers had only a semblance of a buckskin or broadcloth outfit. For officers and enlisted soldiers alike, the breeches and stockings were little better. They were in serious need of repair, and shoes were non-existent. At times the best that could be done was to tie rags or an old hat around bloody feet. Martha’s heart broke for each suffering soldier, and she requested the men give her their uniforms. She spent hours in her parlor with her sewing kit in hand stitching them up. When she was done, she took the additional step of washing each uniform to ensure lice and other disease-ridden insects were killed and could not infect the soldiers. Remembering the lack of footwear, she then sewed socks for those who needed them. As she did so, she hosted local women who came to pay their respects. Amazed at her dedication, they joined her in sewing outer garments to protect the soldiers from the frigid wind and snow. Martha knew, however, that the army needed more than just proper clothing to survive the winter; it needed nourishment.

The lack of food in camp had reached the critical stage. Most locals were Tories loyal to the Crown and preferred to sell their produce to the markets in Philadelphia. There was little money from the Continental Congress, and the Continental Army’s Quartermaster Department supplied only a limited amount of food to the camp at Valley Forge. As a result, most soldiers were in the grips of starvation and weakly pleaded for meat. When Martha heard these cries, she immediately volunteered the food she had brought with her from Mount Vernon. She had packed large amounts of ham, cheese, dried fruit and nuts to share with George and his aides. Now she distributed the remaining food among the grateful soldiers. They accepted the offering and looked on her as a ministering angel, and indeed, she was. She served them food from her own table and looked after them as if they were her own family. As the weeks passed, she was pleased to see more food arrive from nearby farms and the health of the army improve. Now that she had aided the army’s physical state, Martha determined to restore the army’s mental state.

Even though Washington’s men thought the country had forgotten them, Martha was determined they know she would not abandon them. She often talked with them about their lives before the war and provided a sympathetic ear for their problems. She also braved the horrors of the camp hospitals to tend to the sick and dying. She knelt next to those lying on the piles of hay and told them she was proud of them. She did the same for those men whose feet had turned black due to frostbite and had to be amputated. She even tried to reward them for their service. During a birthday celebration for Washington, she invited members of Henry Knox’s artillery band inside headquarters and gave each man money for entertaining the general. It seemed to many soldiers like she was their own mother. They knew she was as devoted to their welfare as her husband was. After all, she had left the comfort and safety of Mount Vernon to kneel in the mud and filth of Valley Forge to nurse and feed them. As the army prepared to leave Valley Forge in May 1778, the soldiers cheered her when they spotted her near the commanding general and called out “Long Live Lady Washington!” It brought tears to her eyes.

For the rest of her life, Martha Washington’s actions continued to result in the adoration of the American public. She refused to let anything keep her from George’s side in the years to come. During the brutal winter of 1779-80 at Morristown, New Jersey she remained in camp when a blizzard struck the camp. She tenderly cared for the soldiers suffering in the bitter cold and fought to keep spirits up among those at headquarters. She stood side-by-side with George and his staff officers even late in in the war when things looked bleak, such as when the British captured Charleston, South Carolina in May 1780 and then defeated the rest of the Southern Army at the Battle of Camden in August. She was there too when things finally turned around for the Americans. During the Yorktown campaign in October 1781, Martha followed the army south to Virginia and then returned with George in victory to Philadelphia following the British surrender. Six years after the war ended in 1783 George became the first President of the United States, and like always, she followed him to the new nation’s capital, first at New York and then at Philadelphia. She hosted parties at the President’s home where she entertained American officials as well as foreign dignitaries. When she appeared in public, she was often referred to by the name first given her by the Continental Army at Valley Forge — “Lady” Washington.   She died in May 1802 and was mourned across the country for her dedication to the cause of liberty.

Throughout her life, Martha Washington proved that one did not have to be born with a title to have a noble spirit. Her actions during the American Revolution proved she was part of a new order of aristocracy — an aristocracy of character. It was based on serving others rather than being served. While she and George never had their own children, she looked after those who truly suffered for the cause as though they were her own. She would not allow her beloved husband and those under him to endure hardship alone. The soldiers loved her for her sacrifice and treated her to an honor that no other American woman ever received. On Martha Washington alone they bestowed the title of “Lady.” And she remains America’s Lady to this day.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The First “Lady” of Liberty

  1. NH Lad

    Thanks Jake! Great great summary of a fantastic lady. Still amazing what impact one person can have… Thank you for that inspiring story.

    🙂

  2. Well done Jake — yet another interesting and thoughtful story about service before self. She was indeed a remarkable Lady. Thanks for bringing her story to life!

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