“Your Entire George Washington”: The Affection Between George and Martha

After George Washington died on December 14, 1799, his wife, Martha, burned all of their correspondence. From the perspective of a historian, her decision devastates. However, it was a common 18th century practice for married couples to burn personal correspondence after the death of one spouse. Perhaps it was a way for the surviving spouse to keep a portion of their loved one to themselves, especially in couples where the public might have a keen interest. Nonetheless, the loss of letters that display affection can often lead to speculation. For example, George Washington never seems to escape rumors about his teenage-crush, Sally Fairfax, as well as the fallacy that he only married Martha for her money. These two claims have been debated by historians practically since George’s death.

Despite Martha’s efforts to conceal the private life of her and her husband, whether on purpose or on accident, she missed two letters. These letters, both from George to Martha, were found caught behind a drawer in her desk by her granddaughter, Martha Parke Custis Peter, who received the desk as part of her inheritance. The letters were written within five days of each other.

The Wedding of Washington and Martha Custis (1854) by Junius Brutus Stearns

Painting in the 1850s, artist Junius Brutus Stearns imagined how the wedding of George Washington and Martha Custis on January  might have looked. Credit: Library of Congress

In June of 1775, the marriage between George and Martha Washington entered the biggest challenge it ever faced. A month earlier, George had arrived in Philadelphia, after being persuaded to attend the meeting of the Second Continental Congress. While he contributed to several committees, by June the other members of Congress realized Washington’s true value lay in his previous military service during the French and Indian War. George’s fate to serve as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army was sealed even though the official announcement wouldn’t come until June 19.

The day before, on June 18, 1775, George Washington penned a letter to Martha and informed her that, instead of returning to Mount Vernon, he would leave for Boston to take command of the army very soon. In the letter, he expressed his reservations about taking the position of Commander-in-Chief, but also pointed out that it was his duty. He assured Martha “that I should enjoy more real happiness and felicity in one month with you, at home, than I have the most distant prospect of reaping abroad, if my stay was to be Seven times Seven years.” The notion of desiring one month of marital bliss over 49 years anywhere else is certainly a window into George’s true feelings regarding his “dear Patsy”.

Over the next few days, as he prepared for his departure, George must have thought about his wife and pondered how long it would be until he saw her again. For that reason, he wrote her again on June 23, 1775, only five days later.  A shorter letter, but one that also expressed his true feelings, George wrote “I retain an unalterable affection for you, which neither time or distance can change.” It might seem like poetry or a line from the latest RomCom but, as he penned these words, his country, marriage, and life were each in a precarious position. Perhaps all of this was weighing on his shoulders and he felt the need to express his adoration for his wife. He closed the letter “Yr entire Go:Washington”.

Throughout history, George and Martha’s marriage has often been questioned. The lack of letters (due to the burning) left little evidence of any affection. Martha was a very wealthy widow when she agreed to marry the young upstart George. Many believe the marriage was strictly strategic. It was true that many marriages and many aspects of marriages in the 18th century were strategic. It was also true that, as a young man, George had eyes for Sally Fairfax. However, the two letters between George and Martha that survive demonstrate the real warmth and adoration George felt for his wife.

If there is a lack of evidence in letters showing Martha reciprocating George’s affection, there is evidence in other places. Martha is said to have called him “my dearest” or sometimes “old man.” I imagine that during his more stressful moments, like many husbands, George turned to his wife for comfort, advice, and perhaps to just vent. There is evidence that Martha, who was publicly disinterested in politics, made a comment on the final presidential election of her life. Thomas Jefferson, who had been a thorn in George’s side throughout his presidency, stopped at Mount Vernon for the first and only visit he would ever make there. Martha referred to the visit as the “most painful occurrence of her life.” Furthermore, when Jefferson was elected president in 1800, she stated it was the “greatest misfortune our nation has ever experienced.” She despised Jefferson for his years of his opposition to her husband. A wife supposedly indifferent to her husband probably would not feel so strongly about one of his rivals.

The Washington Family (late 1790s) by Edward Savage

The Washington Family (late 1790s) by Edward Savage showing George and Martha, of course. There is also George Washington “Washy” Parke Custis and Eleanor “Nelly” Parke Custis, Martha’s grandchildren and George’s adopted children, as well as an enslaved man, perhaps Billy Lee, George’s manservant or valet. Credit: National Gallery of Art

The couple would be a little less than a month shy of their 41st wedding anniversary when George died on December 14, 1799.  When he died, he famously uttered the words “’Tis well.” After years of being asked to make sacrifices, years of being separated from her husband for long stretches of time, Martha echoed her husband saying “’Tis well, all is now over. I shall soon follow him. I have no other trials to pass through.”

Whether you find the few letters and stories of their affection convincing or not, I think it can be agreed that George and Martha’s marriage was one of strength and balance. They completed each other in several ways even though their personalities were quite different. The 6 foot, 3 inch George was the yin to Martha’s 4 foot, 11 inch yang.

Elizabeth Hosier
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services

Introducing Caty: More Than “Merry Laugh…and Lively Wit”

Editor’s Note: At George Washington’s Ferry Farm, we are always interested in reexaminations of accepted history.  Archaeology is creating new and more complete understandings of George’s Washington’s youth as well as of Mary Washington as a person.  Mary has been both revered and reviled by history but archaeological discoveries at Ferry Farm are painting a more complex picture of her as an independent and intelligent woman facing the world on her own after her husband’s death. Inspired by Mary, Lives & Legacies asked Carin Bloom, Museums Program Associate at Middleton Place Foundation in Charleston, South Carolina and a friend of the blog, to re-examine another independent, intelligent woman in the Washington family’s orbit: Catharine “Caty” Greene.

George Washington is considered the Father of the United States of America, but long before he and his wife Martha became the parents of the nation, they were parents, both real and surrogate, to several prominent patriots and revolutionaries. For example, much is known of the relationship between General Washington and his Aide de Camp, the Marquis de Lafayette – the affection of a father and son are clear in their communications, both during and after the American War for Independence.

Nathanael Greene

Nathanael Greene (1783) by Charles Willson Peale

The Marquis was not the only one to enjoy the mentorship, tutelage, and friendly affection of the great General Washington. So too did the only other man to hold the rank of General for the duration of the American Revolution: Nathanael Greene. Promoted from the rank of Private in the Kentish Guards, a militia unit raised in his home county in Rhode Island Colony, Greene became the Brigadier General of all three Rhode Island regiments of the Continental Army in the spring of 1775. He quickly became (in turns) a close friend, advisor, and student of General Washington. The two commanders’ relationship is perhaps less well-known outside of academic circles, but it is still well-documented.

Those relationships aren’t what this blog post is about.

This blog post began in very much the way that stories from the past often begin – with the great men of the Age and what they did, or how they interacted. Their wives are secondary (if mentioned at all) and are supporting characters in a drama of great ideals and noble causes. In reality, these women were so much more, and their stories are important. While Women’s History and Women’s Studies programs in academia became prominent around the time of the nation’s Bicentennial, there has been relatively little advance or innovation in the study of feminine experiences of historic eras. Now, however, modern social and political climates are bringing women’s stories into focus again, allowing the women of the past to be re-examined once more. Conspicuous among the women of the Revolutionary era being re-examined are the same names we’ve all heard since elementary school – Abigail Adams, Peggy Shippen, the fictional Molly Pitcher, and of course, Martha Washington.

Incomplete Portrait of Martha Washington (1796) by Gilbert Stuart

An unfinished portrait of Martha Washington begun in 1796 by Gilbert Stuart.

Martha and George Washington are revered for many reasons, but little is spoken about their personal nurturing and encouragement of young patriots, the men and women with whom they were surrounded. In fact, they occupied the parental pedestals for both Nathanael and his wife Catharine Greene – but perhaps especially for “Caty”. Orphaned at a young age and raised by a somewhat eccentric aunt, Caty was 19 and newly married when the Revolution broke out. She was tutored and educated in the 18th century society that befit her station, but it seems she wasn’t ready to be a General’s wife. For tutelage she looked to Lady Washington.

Their mother-daughter relationship blossomed quickly, and Catharine seemed to flourish under Martha’s indulgence. Caty is most often described in terms of her appearance and temperament, “She was a small brunette with high color, a vivacious expression, and a snapping pair of dark eyes.”[1] Her biographer adds, “To men her appeal, like that of her Aunt Catharine, was not simply a matter of flirtation that fed their masculine vanities; deep emotions were touched as well.”[2]

Carin Bloom as Caty Greene (3)

The blog post’s author Carin Bloom portraying Caty Green reading from Joe Miller’s Jests, or the Wit’s Vade-Mecum (1739) in the Washington house at Ferry Farm.

With a description like that, I started to wonder, why don’t we know more about the young Catharine Greene? She was called Kitty as a girl, was known to her husband’s equals and subordinates as Lady Greene, and to her devoted husband as Caty – and no matter what she was called, she became a force to be reckoned with. Her biographers make careful note that she would have grown up in the cradle of the Revolution, listening to the great minds gathering in her uncle’s library discussing politics, self-governance, and eventually open rebellion. An enigma equal to her fighting Quaker husband for her indifference to religious leanings, she is described as a balm of good morale for dour officers and aides: “she laughed, danced, sipped Madeira wine and played cards and parlor games. She engaged in repartee…with perhaps a burst of unladylike glee at a slip of the tongue or double entendre that would have horrified her female counterparts but delighted their husbands.”[3]

Many of these attributes came naturally to Caty or were self-taught, but her refinement as a true lady of the 18th century came from her time spent with her equals and betters. Specifically, she was looked after by Lady Washington; when other young officers’ wives felt threatened by Caty’s beauty, and exuberance, “Martha was secure in her place in her husband’s heart. Although she knew that the general looked at the beautiful Caty with deep male appreciation, she found no cause for disapproval. Caty was like a daughter to them both. She was accepted for what she was…”[4]

Carin Bloom as Caty Greene (2)

Caty Greene (Carin Bloom) pens a letter to husband Nathanael on the escritoire desk in the Hall of the Washington house.

From the his occasional service as a personal courier for Caty and Nathanael’s letters to one another, to his own assurance of her safe arrival in camp during the Siege of Charleston early in 1782, General Washington’s own words and actions belied his affections not just for his best General, but for Caty as well. Likewise, Martha Washington opened her home at Mount Vernon to Caty, as well as to both Ladies Stirling, Lucy Knox, and a few other officers’ wives, when they could not be with their husbands. It was at these gatherings, presumably around a copious amount of tea, that Caty would have come to understand feminine refinement that would have served her well into old age, and long after Lady Washington was gone.

Though only one nonfiction biography of the remarkable Catharine Greene has been written, she comes to life with alarming effervescence in its pages. Her abilities to both navigate her world as a cog in the wheel of 18th century society, as well as to stand apart from it and maintain utterly her own identity, were enough to cause me to delve into her world for over a year. As a young woman she was the subject of much gossip; everything from accusations of turning her husband from his Quaker faith in disgrace, to extramarital affairs with his subordinates – none of it managed to stick to her. In her later life Caty was a financier (and now suspected to have been a partner in design) of Eli Whitney and his Cotton Gin, as well as a property-holding single woman until she chose of her own accord to remarry.

Catharine Littlefield Greene

Catharine Greene (1809) attributed to James Frothingham

All in all, this was a woman whose life could be the stuff of Hollywood legend, and yet, in every living history scenario that manages to feature a woman, she is always a Martha Washington, or an Abigail Adams, or a Molly Pitcher – and always in a vacuum. Surely Martha did not spend her days with only her husband and his men, or alone by herself? The past is populated with scores of women, and yet, we rarely see the majority of them come to life. That is my aim in portraying Catharine Greene – to use her life as a vehicle for an immersive experience of a multifaceted past, so much more complex than what we currently understand. George and Martha Washington, Nathanael and Catharine Greene, they weren’t so different from us; as we understand their stories, both individually and as participants in a community, a nation, and a world, we may find new enrichment in our own lives.

Carin Bloom
Museums Program Associate
Middleton Place Foundation

Trained as an archaeologist specializing in the American Revolution, Carin plans and executes programs at Middleton Place National Historic Landmark in Charleston, South Carolina. She holds a BA (University of Delaware) and two MAs (University of Pennsylvania and Temple University), all in Anthropology with a concentration in Historical Archaeology, and has been working at non-profit historic sites for over a decade.  She has studied Catharine Littlefield Greene extensively and enjoys bringing Caty to life at living history events up and down the east coast, as well as working in classroom settings with school programs and summer camps.

Carin Bloom as Caty Greene (4)

[1] 1871 – Greene, George Washington. The Life of Nathanael Greene, 3 vols, Cambridge. Vol 1, pg. 72.

[2] 1977 – Stegeman, John F. and Janet A. Stegeman. Caty: A Biography of Catharine Littlefield Greene, pg. 8, University of Georgia Press.

[3] 1977 – Stegeman, John F. and Janet A. Stegeman. Caty: A Biography of Catharine Littlefield Greene, pg. 26, University of Georgia Press.

[4] 1977 – Stegeman, John F. and Janet A. Stegeman. Caty: A Biography of Catharine Littlefield Greene, pg. 58, University of Georgia Press.