The Letters of George and Martha Washington
Let’s imagine a text conversation between the Washingtons.
Go with me on this one… We are all reimagining how to relate our subject matter to our guests and keep history relevant. So, after spending way too much time on Facebook, I stumbled across a “text conversation” between Disney princesses, after a little Googling, I found an app that would allow me to do the same, and thus this imagined conversation between the General and Mrs. Washington was born. But in all seriousness, this conversation is based on one of the few surviving letters between General and Mrs. Washington. It is widely thought that Mrs. Washington burned all the correspondence between she and the General upon his death. While this seems to us in the modern age as an absolute tragedy, after studying the two of them as in depth as I have, I can completely understand why she might have done this.
First of all, burning the letters of a surviving spouse was not an uncommon thing in the 18th century. Jefferson does it, Monroe does it, and I am certain if General Washington had survived Mrs. Washington, he would have done it too. We even have an account from Washington in his youth, telling his friends that he was not in the habit of keeping letters unless they were of political or military importance. The Washingtons were married for over forty years, and from all accounts, had an extremely happy and loving marriage. So, you can only imagine what might be in the letters between a husband and a wife of four decades: jokes, frustrations, laughter, tears, the mundane, the extremely important…exactly the same things we still write to our spouses. However, now we typically send them via text message. Would you want your entire text message history between you and your spouse preserved only for future generations to pick them apart and analyze them? I know I wouldn’t, and I think Mrs. Washington felt the same.
I believe Mrs. Washington destroyed those letters to try and preserve some part of the privacy between the two of them. The Washingtons fully understood that both of them had given the better part of their lives to the service of the country, and in destroying their private letters, she was taking one final step to not only protect their privacy, but also to cement George Washington’s reputation in stone. Because of this unchangeable act, history would never see the side of him that he would only show to his beloved wife. We are left with the man made of marble. It’s my job as a Nation Builder in researching and portraying Mrs. Washington to find those golden pieces left seemingly on accident, and with a thorough knowledge of these individuals, read between the lines and find the private side of these two national icons.
There are only between three to four letters that survive between the Washingtons and all of them begin with terms of endearment. One of my favorites is a recently discovered postscript written on a letter to General Washington from Mrs. Washington’s son, John Parke Custis, on September 11, 1777, the day of the Battle of Brandywine. It’s a simple message where she tells her husband about a silver cup she ordered, but it’s addressed to, “My Love.” The letter that I based this supposed conversation on was written on June 18, 1775 just days after General Washington had been elected Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. In reading it, you can hear Washington’s worry and concern for his wife’s safety and happiness. Even the way he addresses her, “My Dearest,” and then references her by her nickname, “Patcy”, tells us an entire story about how they relate to each other. Another letter between them, written on June 23, 1775 ends with, “I retain an unalterable affection for you, which neither time or distance can change…Your entire, George Washington”. These are letters from a husband to his wife, not the General to Lady Washington.
We don’t have Mrs. Washington’s responses to these letters but knowing her, I can assume that upon reading them she was filled with conflicting emotions of fear, anger, anxiety and pride in her husband. This would not stop the two of them from finding as many opportunities as possible to see each other. Even though the General would not see his home for many years to come, starting in the Fall of 1775, Mrs. Washington began traveling to attend her husband at every winter encampment of the American Revolution. She spent five and a half years of the eight-year long war by his side. If that doesn’t scream love and devotion, I’m not sure what else could.
Family history tells us that the two surviving letters from June 1775 were found by Mrs. Washington’s granddaughter after her death, shoved into the back of her writing desk. Was it a mistake that Mrs. Washington left them there, or did she feel that these letters were important enough for history to see a small glimpse into their private life? Whatever the reason, I’m glad that they have survived, if for nothing else to show us the love and devotion that the Washingtons had for each other in a time of great uncertainty.
Katharine Pittman is a Nation Builder for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation researching and portraying Martha Washington. Her love of history started young as her parents brought her and her brother to CW with frequency as children, grew while getting her degree from Wake Forest University in history and theatre and cemented in her almost 9 years with the Foundation. Outside of the 18th century, Katharine enjoys spending time with her family, watching Outlander with her girlfriends and drinking massive quantities of coffee.
“To George Washington from John Parke Custis, 11 September 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed September 29, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-11-02-0191.
“From George Washington to Martha Washington, 18 June 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed September 29, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-01-02-0003. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 1, 16 June 1775 – 15 September 1775, ed. Philander D. Chase. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1985, pp. 3–6.]
“From George Washington to Martha Washington, 23 June 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed September 29, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/