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Camp Before York October 12th 1781

My Dear & Hond Madam,

I have the Pleasure to inform you that I find Myself much better since I left Mount Vernon, notwithstanding the change in my Lodging &c. and that the General tho in constant Fatigue looks very well; I staid a Night with my Uncle in my way down, and had the pleasure to find him and Family in good Health. Likewise of seeing my Grandmother, I think She looks very well, but discovers her grate Age more than when I last saw Her. She now lives with my Uncle. My Aunt Henley lives where she formerly lived. They are all very desirous of seeing You, My Grandmother wishes You to bring down both Bet and Pat, but I told Her it would be too inconvenient for You to bring down both. My Uncle has suffered very much by the Enemy; They are very desirous of seeing You, and if the General has no Objections, I think You might come down; as he is writeing to You, I shall refer You to him for advise on this Matter as well as for News. 

I am my dear Madam with the sincerest Affection Your very dutiful Son

J.P. Custis

P.S. please to inform Mr. Washington [Lund Washington] that I have made every possible Enquiry after his Negroes, but have not seen any belonging to him, the General or myself, I have heard that Ned is in York, a pioneer, old Joe Rachier is in the Neighborhood tho I have not been able to see him, his Wife is dead, and I fear that most who left Us are not existing, the mortality that has taken place among the Wretches is really incredible. I have seen numbers lying dead in the Woods, and many so exhausted they cannot walk. I should be glad to hear from Mr. W---n whether he has sold any of my horses, they are not high priced in comparison to what they sell for.


Transcript courtesy of The Papers of Martha Washington. Charlottesville, VA; University of Virginia Press, 2022.

When reading this letter, consider the following:

  • What is the purpose of the letter, and what is Jacky writing about?
  • How does Jacky describe the encampment? Why might the environment be so dangerous and draining, and how does this letter encompass a lot of other Revolutionary War experiences?
  • Compare this letter to Henry Knox's letter, which describes Jacky's death. What is Knox's perspective on Jacky's life?
  • Why are letters important while studying history?

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This letter was written by John Parke (Jacky) Custis to his mother Martha Washington from the camp of the Continental Army in front of Yorktown. Very late in the war, Jacky joined the army as a civilian aide to General Washington. In the postscript, Jacky mentions his efforts to locate escaped slaves who had run away from Mount Vernon. He also depicts the terrible mortality that had taken place among the large numbers of African-Americans present at the siege, presumably in large part a result of smallpox. 


Jacky will pass away from Camp Fever a month after writing this letter.