“Ninteenth Century Fantasy vs Eighteenth Century Reality”

Nancy K. Loane, the author of the book Following the Drum: Women at the Valley Forge Encampment (see previous post) has an essay in the appendix called “Making the Myth of Martha Washington.” It deals with the untruths and inaccuracies which over time have grown up around Martha Washington and the role she played as the wife of George Washington, particularly in the winter encampments of the Continental Army, both at Valley Forge and elsewhere. At issue is whether Mrs. Washington personally met with and gave solace and assistance to ordinary soldiers. Part of the problem is due to the fact that Martha destroyed almost all of her correspondence with her husband and there is little in her correspondence with others that confirms such contact. Those who have attributed such a role to her have depended on the writings of others, on oral histories which are suspect, or, indeed, have made up stories out of whole cloth. Examining various sources that make reference to such a role for Martha, Ms. Loane can find not one that is credible. The clincher for the author is that “the concept of the benevolent lady out among the poor and suffering soldiers belongs to the Romantic nineteenth century not the tradition-bound eighteenth century.”

As for Martha Washington’s appearance, I did like the impression Elizabeth Schuyler (she became the wife of Alexander Hamilton) had of her at Morristown, where Martha’s main contacts were the wives of other generals and her husband’s aides.

She received [my aunt and me] so kindly, kissing us both, for the general and papa were very warm friends. She was then nearly fifty years old, but was still handsome. She was quite short; a plump little woman with dark brown eyes, her hair a little frosty, and very plainly dressed for such a grand lady as I considered her. She wore a plain, brown gown of homespun stuff, a large white handkerchief, a neat cap,and her plain gold wedding ring, which she had worn for more than twenty years. She was always my ideal of a true woman.

Schuyler’s description is in Following the Drum: Women at the Valley Forge Encampment, page 190, taken from Hugh Howard, Houses of the Founding Fathers (New York: Artisan, 2007), page 147. The portrait of Martha Washington is by Gilbert Stuart, 1796.

posted May 1st, 2014 by Janet, CATEGORIES: Patriots, Primary sources, Valley Forge, Washington, Martha

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