Martha and George Washington spent considerable time with each other during the American Revolution. Every year, during the long winter months when the fighting was at a standstill, Martha joined George at his winter encampment and stayed with him for months at a time. In fact, there were some years when the Washingtons were together more than they were apart. In total, Martha and George Washington spent between 52 to 54 of the roughly 103 months of the war either together or with each other nearby.
When traveling to meet her husband for each of the eight years of the war, Martha Washington had to overcome a number of obstacles, including fears for her own safety. Particularly during the summer and fall of 1775, there was concern that the wife of the commanding general of the Continental Army could be targeted for capture by the British. These misgivings continued throughout the war and Martha was often protected by an assigned guard.
During the Revolution, Martha Washington's social circle expanded dramatically, as she met influential members of society in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Not all of her time at camp was spent with prominent figures; she also came to know many of her husband's rank-and-file soldiers. It was Martha Washington's concern for the plight of the common soldier that led to active involvement. In June of 1780, following a harsh and dispiriting winter for the Continental Army, Washington along with several other prominent women began a campaign to enlist the help of America's women to provide direct aid to soldiers in the Continental Army. The project was spearheaded by Esther DeBerdt Reed, the wife of Joseph Reed, a former military secretary to George Washington.1
Localized county boards of women chose a representative to act as a local treasurer, gather in funds, and keep a record of each donation. When the money was collected each county treasurer would send both the contributions and the registers to the first lady of her state who would then send the donations to Martha Washington. At that point, funds would be distributed to soldiers at General Washington's discretion.2 Evidence from one of the Mount Vernon account books indicates that Mrs. Washington herself donated $20,000, which was the equivalent to 6,000 Pounds to the campaign in October of 1780. Ultimately, "the offering of the Ladies" was utilized primarily to supply soldiers with clothing.3
Beyond such material contributions, Martha Washington's role inspired many people during the Revolutionary Era. In fact, she was even enshrined in popular song: the first, known variously as "Lady Washington’s Reel" or "Lady Washington's Quick Step," was written in 1777 and the second, "Saw You My Hero, George," or "Lady Washington," was composed two years later.4
Mary V. Thompson
George Washington's Mount Vernon
1. For the campaign being headed by Mrs. Reed, see The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 3, edited by Julian P. Boyd (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1951), 532n-533n. For the identification of Joseph Reed, see Fields, "Worthy Partner," 173n-174n. For the fact that the Reeds asked Mrs. Washington to stay with them, see Martha Washington to Joseph Reed, Ju[ne] , "Worthy Partner," 173. For the participation of Mrs. Bache, who was Franklin's daughter, see John Frederick Schroeder, Life and Times of Washington: Containing a Particular Account of National Principles and Events, And of the Illustrious Men of the Revolution (New York: Johnson, Fry, and Company, 1857), 107n.
2. "The SENTIMENTS of an AMERICAN WOMAN,” The Pennsylvania Gazette, 21 June 1780.
3. "Lund Washington…Contra," October 1780, in Ledger B (manuscript, Washington Papers, Library of Congress; photostat, Mount Vernon Ladies' Association), 160b; see also, Helen Bryan, Martha Washington: First Lady of Liberty (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002), 242.
4. Kate Van Winkle Keller and Charles Cyril Hendrickson, George Washington: A Biography in Social Dance (Sandy Hook, Connecticut: Hendrickson Group, 1998), 41, 58.