Martha Washington had not traveled much if at all before she married George Washington. Her move from southern Virginia to northern Virginia, to Mount Vernon, was the farthest she’d journeyed. Until the American Revolution started and George was appointed as Commander of the Continental Army. The next location for the Continental Army’s winter camp and George Washington’s headquarters was in New Windsor, New York, in 1780-1781.
In case you’ve missed the earlier posts, so far I’ve covered these camps:
The first winter headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1775.
The second winter headquarters in Morristown, NJ, in 1776.
Then Valley Forge in 1777-78.
Next at Middlebrook from 1778-79.
Next at Morristown, NJ from 1779-1780.
I don’t know much about this winter camp in New Windsor, to be honest. In fact, although I strive to be as accurate as I possibly can, when I wrote Becoming Lady Washington I made an error as to its location, confusing it with a later encampment in the same area in 1782-83. I’ll get to that in a minute.
What I have found in doing the research for this post is that while George Washington wrote many letters from “New Windsor” in December 1780, he didn’t specify where his headquarters was actually situated. Could he have used tents instead of residing in a house? It’s possible but wouldn’t be ideal to winter in New York in tents. I would think he would be in a house. I don’t know that for certain. I did find one mention related to his headquarters in a December 14, 1780 letter to the Marquis de Lafayette:
“I am in very confined Quarters—little better than those at Valley Forge—but such as they are I shall welcome into them your friends on their return to Rhode Island.”
This implies he may have been in a house since he was in a stone house at Valley Forge. I suspect he didn’t specify the location of the headquarters to protect everyone from the British surprising them. However, I also know that during this encampment the British intercepted letters from George and Martha and as a result a gift was sent under a flag of truce to Martha, who had been ill, so they (the British?) already knew the location.
Martha arrived at the camp by December 15, 1780. George was fretting about the mail route because his letters kept being “taken” by the enemy and the army didn’t have the money to replace the horses for Express riders to carry the mail. As I mentioned above, a lady, Mrs. Martha Mortier, the widow of a British army paymaster, sent quite an extensive amount of foods to Martha because she learned Martha suffered from an illness, which was a gall-bladder attack.
I can’t help but be amazed at the array and quantities of these items! According to the editors of “Worthy Partner”: The Papers of Martha Washington, the gift consisted of “a box of lemons, a box of oranges, four boxes of sweetmeats, one keg of tarmarinds (medicinal seed from tamarindus indica), 200 limes, two dozen capillaire (to prepare a syrup from maiden hair fern), two dozen orgeat (used to prepare a syrup made from barley, almonds, or orange flower water), two dozen pineapples, and two pounds of Hyson tea.” George ordered for nothing to be landed but the detachment offering the gift under a flag of truce be sent away immediately. The editors go on to say that if George had permitted the gift to even have landed on shore he would have been subjected to “criticism in the tory and patriot press for having accepted favors from the enemy.”
These were tense times in the winter headquarters. Not only was the enemy trying to trick him into missteps, the supplies and clothing for the troops were nearly nonexistent.
As to my gaffe, which I apologize for again, this headquarters was not located in the William Ellison House as noted in the following excerpt. I have not identified the actual house or place where the camp was located. Please forgive me for confusing these two winter camps. I obviously made an assumption that, since the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and the National Park Service only referred to the Ellison and Hasbrouck houses, both winter camps occurred in the same locations. Lesson learned! However, my description of the house being “tiny” apparently was accurate.
The following takes place in June 1781. From Becoming Lady Washington:
I laid in my bed, a light cover keeping me warm enough, wondering whether the bilious fever and jaundice I suffered would end me. The tiny William Ellison House where headquarters had been established provided little comfort in its cramped interior. Not a place where I’d ever thought I’d die. Yet, at that moment, it seemed a distinct possibility. I didn’t want to die, of course. Not really. But I’d been ill for weeks and didn’t know how much longer I could tolerate the illness. I had intended to leave camp for home in May, but I fell ill around the twenty-first while George was away in Connecticut.
The doctor told me the abdominal pain searing through me was likely caused by a stone in my gall bladder. The biliousness and yellowing of my skin did nothing to make the strain and discomfort more bearable. Five long weeks dragged past with me fearing for my life.
George had agonized about acquiring the proper medications to ease my suffering, writing the last day of May to both Jacky and Lund to see what they could do to assist. Unfortunately, those letters along with a few others from George were intercepted. How did I know? Because a letter arrived on the twenty-first of June, dated the fifteenth, from Mrs. Martha Mortier.
She not only baldly stated that his letter had been intercepted. She had the audacity to send a gift of lemons, limes, oranges, pineapples, sweetmeats, tarmarind seeds, capillaire to make a medicinal syrup from maiden hair fern, orgeat to make another syrup, and two pounds of Hyson green tea from China. A bribe or war prize. Either way, we could not accept it. Fortunately, I had recovered my health by then so could with all honesty refuse it as no longer needed. Or wanted, but that was another matter.
“The vast amount of delicacies must have cost a small fortune, what with the outrageous inflation for even common articles.” I could see George’s concern in the set of his jaw and the anger in his eyes.
As the war had dragged on, his health had become more my concern. He brushed aside my worries, but I have eyes and could see the subtle changes. While we both wanted to be safely at home on our beloved plantation, his duty was to his role as commander of the army. Mine was to be by his side to support him and care for him through good and bad, sickness and health.
“I cannot tolerate this blatant attempt to trick me or any one on my staff to accept favors from the enemy.” George paced the office, rage pouring from him in waves. He stopped suddenly and glared at his staff member, standing rigidly at attention awaiting orders. “Major General Robert Howe, you will thwart any thing and any one from landing under such a flag of truce. I shall reject the items as politely as I can. I shall send a note thanking Mrs. Mortier but telling her you, my dear Patsy, have recovered and thus no longer need such assistance.”
“That is a wise plan.” In truth, while the whisper of temptation to enjoy the fruit existed for two heart beats, I’d never have succumbed.
The reason for George’s tirade stemmed from learning Lund, back home at Mount Vernon, had given refreshments to the enemy in April. Lund’s desperate measures proved misguided. The British had sailed up the Potomac, threatening to burn our beloved home to the ground. In order to save it, he’d offered food and drink on board the ship. He’d dared to ask for the surrender of some of our Negroes, asking a favor from the enemy! I had rarely seen my old man so livid and embarrassed in the twenty-two years we’d been married. He sent a reprimand to Lund, telling him of his displeasure with Lund’s ill-judged actions. We both feared that unhappy consequences and animadversion of the General would result. I hoped no one would criticize him, not after all our sacrifices in the cause, but we’d experienced naysayers already. Then to add to that outrage his concern for my welfare, and he proved troubled indeed.
I’ve checked my sources and they do not mention a site for the 1780-81 headquarters either. George only puts “New Windsor” or “Hd Qtr New Windsor” on his letters. I won’t make excuses for my error, only say that I will strive to avoid further errors in the future.
Until next time, when I’ll talk about Philadelphia, happy reading!
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Martha “Patsy” Custis manages an immense eighteenth-century plantation in the Virginia colony. But as a young widow she’s hard pressed to balance her business and to care for her two young children. They need a father and protector. She needs a husband and business partner…one she can trust, especially now as tensions rise between the motherland and the American colonies. Her experience and education have sustained her thus far but when her life veers in an unexpected direction, she realizes she has so much more to learn.
Colonel George Washington takes an interest in her and she’s surprised to find him so sociable and appealing. They form an instant bond and she is certain he’ll be a likeable and loving husband and father figure for her children. She envisions a quiet life at Mount Vernon, working together to provide for their extended family.
But when trouble in the form of British oppression, taxes, and royal arrogance leads to revolt and revolution, George must choose between duty to country and Martha. Compelled to take matters into her own hands, Martha must decide whether to remain where she belongs or go with her husband…no matter what the dangerous future may hold.
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