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Martha Dandridge Washington 1732 ~ 1802


Martha Dandridge Washington

She was born Martha Dandridge, in May, 1732, and was descended from an ancient family that migrated to the colony of Virginia. Her education was only a domestic one such as was given to women in those days when there were few "female seminaries" and private teachers were generally employed. Her beauty and fascinating manners, with her amiable qualities of character, gained her distinction among all those belles who were accustomed to gather at Williamsburg, at that time the seat of the government.

When but seventeen, Miss Dandridge was married to Colonel Daniel Parke Custis, of New Kent County, where she was born. Their residence, called "The White House," was on the banks of the Pamunkey River, where Colonel Custis became a highly successful planter. None of the children of this marriage survived the mother; Martha, who arrived at woman-hood, died at Mount Vernon in 1770, and John died of fever contracted during the siege of Yorktown eleven years later.

Mrs. Custis was early left a widow, in the full bloom of beauty and "splendidly endowed with worldly benefits." As sole executrix she managed with great ability the extensive landed and pecuniary business of the estate. Surrounded by the advantages of fortune and position, and possessing such charms of person, it may well be believed that suitors for her hand were many and pressing.

"It was in 1758," says her biographer, "that an officer, attired in military undress, and attended by a body servant, tall and militaire as his chief, crossed the ferry called William's over the Pamunkey, a branch of the York River. On the boat touching the southern or New Kent side, the soldier's progress was arrested by one of those personages who give the beauideal of the Virginia gentleman of the old regime, the very soul of kindness and hospitality." He would hear of no excuse on the part of this soldier, who was Colonel Washington, for declining the invitation to stop at his house. In vain the Colonel pleaded important business in Williamsburg; his friend, Mr. Chamberlayne, insisted that he must dine with him at the very least, and he promised, as a temptation, to introduce him to a young and charming widow who chanced then to be his guest. At last the soldier surrendered, resolving, however, to pursue his journey the same evening. They proceeded to the mansion. Mr. Chamberlayne presented Colonel Washington to his various guests, among whom stood the beautiful Mrs. Custis. It is not a violent presumption to suppose that the conversation at that dinner turned upon scenes in which the whole community had a deep interest, scenes which the young hero, fresh from his early battlefields, could eloquently describe; and one can fancy with what earnest and rapt attention the fair widow listened, and how, "the heavenly rhetoric of her eyes," beamed unconscious admiration upon the manly speaker. The morning passed; the sun sank low in the horizon and the hospitable host smiled as he saw the Colonel's faithful attendant, true to his orders, holding his master's spirited steed at the gate. The veteran waited and marveled at the delay. But Mr. Chamberlayne insisted that no guest ever left his house after sunset, and his visitor was persuaded, without much difficulty, to remain. The next day was far advanced when Colonel Washington was on the road to Williamsburg. His business there being dispatched, he hastened again to the companionship of the captivating widow.

A short time after his marriage, which took place about 1769, Colonel and Mrs. Washington fixed their residence at Mount Vernon. The mansion at that period was a very small building compared with its present extent. It did not receive many additions before Washington left it to attend the first Congress and thence to the command-in-chief of the armies of his country; He was accompanied to Cambridge by Mrs. Washington, who remained some time with him and witnessed the siege and evacuation of Boston, after which she returned to Virginia.

It was not often that the interest taken by Mrs. Washington in political affairs was evinced by any public expression, though an address which was read in the churches of Virginia and published in the Philadelphia paper in June, 1780, as "The Sentiments of an American Woman," was attributed, it cannot be ascertained with what truth, to her pen.

She passed the winters with her husband during his campaigns and it was the custom of the commander-in-chief to dispatch an aide-de-camp to escort Mrs. Washington to head-quarters. Her arrival in camp was an event much anticipated; the plain chariot, with its neat postilions in their scarlet and white liveries was always welcomed with great joy by the army and brought a cheering influence, which relieved the general gloom in seasons of disaster and despair. Her example was followed by the wives of other general officers.

It happened at one time while the ladies remained later than usual in the camp on the Hudson, that an alarm was given of the approach of the enemy from New York. The aid-de-camp proposed that the ladies should be sent away under an escort, but to this Washington would not consent. "The presence of our wives," said he, "will the better encourage us to brave defense."

Lady Washington, as she was always called in the army, usually remained at headquarters till the opening of the succeeding campaign, when she returned to Mount Vernon. She was accustomed afterwards to say that it had been her fortune to hear the first cannon at the opening, and the last at the "closing of all the campaigns of the Revolutionary War. How admirably her equanimity and cheerfulness were preserved, through the sternest periods of the struggle, and how inspiring was the influence she diffused, is testified in many of the military journals of that time. She was at Valley Forge in the dreadful winter of 1777-78, her presence and submission to privation strengthening the fortitude of those who might have complained and giving hope and confidence to the desponding. She soothed the distresses of many suffering, seeking out the poor and afflicted with benevolent kindness, extending relief wherever it was in her power, and with remarkable grace presiding in the Chiefs humble dwelling. In a letter to Mrs. Warren she says: "The General's apartment is very small, but he had a log cabin built to dine in, which has made our quarters much more tolerable than they were at first."

The Marquis de Chastellux says of Mrs. Washington, whom he met at the house of General Reed, in Philadelphia, "she had just arrived from Virginia and was going to stay with her husband as she does at the end of every campaign. She is about forty, or forty-five, rather plump, but fresh, and of an agreeable countenance." One little incident when she came to spend the cold season with her husband in winter quarters illustrated how those in the humblest sphere regarded her presence. In the quarters there was only a frame house without a finished upper story, and the general desiring to prepare for his wife a more retired apartment, sent for a young mechanic and asked him and one of his fellow-apprentices to fit up a room in the attic for the accommodation of Lady Washington. On the fourth day Mrs. Washington came up to see how they were getting on. As she stood looking round, the young mechanic ventured diffidently: "Madam, we have endeavored to do the best we could; I hope we have suited you." She replied smiling: "I am astonished! Your work would do honor to an old master and you are mere lads. I am not only satisfied, but highly gratified with what you have done for my comfort." And seventy years later the mechanic, then an old soldier, would repeat these words with tears running down his cheeks, the thrill of delight that penetrated his heart at the approving words of his General's lady, again animating his worn frame and sending back his thoughts to the very moment and scene.

At the close of the Revolutionary War when the victorious General was merged in "the illustrious farmer of Mount Vernon," Mrs. Washington performed the duties of a Virginia housewife, which in those days were not merely nominal. She gave directions, it is said, in every department, so that without bustle or confusion the most splendid dinner appeared as if there had been no effort in the preparation. She presided at her abundant table with ease and elegance and was indeed most truly great in her appropriate sphere of home. Much of her time was occupied in the care of the children of her lost son.

A few years of rest and tranquil happiness in the Society of Friends having rewarded the Chief's military toils, he was called by the voice of the nation to assume the duties of its chief magistrate. The call was obeyed. The establishment of the President and Mrs. Washington was formed at the seat of government. The levees of Washington's administration had more of courtly ceremonial than has been known since, for it was necessary to maintain the dignity of office by forms that should inspire respect for the new government. In this elevated station Mrs. Washington, unspoiled by distinction, still leaned on the kindness of her friends, and cultivated cheerfulness as a study. She was beloved as are few who occupy exalted positions.

On the retirement of Washington from public life, he prepared to spend the remnant of his days in the retreat his taste had adorned. It was a spectacle of wonder to Europeans to see this great man calmly resigning the power which had been committed to his hands and returning with delight to his agricultural pursuits. His wife could justly claim her share in the admiration, for she quitted without regret the elevated scenes in which she had shone so conspicuously to enter with the same active interest as before upon her domestic employments. Her advanced age did not impair her ability nor her inclination to discharge housewifely duties. But she was not long permitted to enjoy the happiness she had anticipated. It was hers too soon to join in the grief of a mourning nation for the death of Washington, its great Chief and President, her husband. From all quarters came tributes of sympathy and sorrow, and many visits of condolence were paid by the President and others to her in her bereavement, but in less than two years she was attacked by a fever that proved fatal.

When aware that her hour was approaching, she called her grandchildren to her bedside, discoursed to them on their respective duties; spoke of the happy influence of religion, and then, surrounded by her weeping family, died as she had lived, bravely and without regret. Her death took place on the 22nd of May, 1802. Her remains rest in the same vault with' those of Washington in the family tomb at Mount Vernon.

Women of America

Source: The Part Taken by Women in American History, By Mrs. John A. Logan, Published by The Perry-Nalle Publishing Company, Wilmington, Delaware, 1912.


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