“danced upwards of three hours”

George Washington was fond of music and dancing. There were instruments—a harpsichord, flute, and guitar—at Mount Vernon, as well as books of instruction and pieces for the piano belonging to Eleanor Parke (“Nelly”) Custis, his adopted granddaughter.

Washington attended and hosted many dancing parties. His favorite partner was Catharine Littlefield Greene, the wife of General Nathanael Greene. In 1778, the wives of several officers had joined their husbands at the Continental Army’s winter quarters in Middlebrook, New Jersey, Caty among them. At a party given by the Greenes, Nathanael wrote to a friend that General Washington and Caty “danced upwards of three hours without once sitting down.”

Lucy Knox, the wife of another of Washington’s generals, was also a frequent partner. Washington’s execution of a minuet with her on one occasion inspired the following tribute in a Pennsylvania newspaper.

The ball was opened by his Excellency the General. When this man unbends from his station, and its weighty functions, he is even then like a philosopher, who mixes with the amusements of the world, that he may teach it what is right, or turn trifles into instruction.

Washington’s step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, described a victory ball in Fredericksburg, held less than a month after the British surrender at Yorktown.

It was on this festive occasion that General Washington danced a minuet with Mrs. Willis. . . . The minuet was much in vogue at that period, and was peculiarly calculated for the display of the splendid figure of the chief, and his natural grace and elegance of air and manner. The gallant French men who were present, of which fine people it may be said that dancing forms one of the elements of their existence, so much admired the American performance, as to admit that a Parisian education could not have improved it. As the evening advanced, the commander-in- chief yielding to the general gayety of the scene, went down some dozen couple in the contre dance with great spirit and satisfaction.

General Greene’s comment appears in Caty, A Biography of Catharine Littlefield Greene by John A. Stegeman and Janet F. Stegeman (Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 1977), page 69. The newspaper tribute is from the Pennsylvania Packet, March 6, 1779. The painting by E. P. Morran depicts Washington dancing with Nelly Parke Custis in 1777 at Mount Vernon. The excerpt by George Washington Parke Custis is from his Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, with A Memoir by his Daughter (Phila: J. W. Bradley, 1861), pages 143-44.

posted November 25th, 2013 by Janet, CATEGORIES: Amusements, George Washington


one comment so far »
  1. Loved this post; I think we need to learn the minuet this December and dance it together!xoxoxo

    Comment by Elspieta — November 26, 2013 @ 5:02 pm

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