When Martha married George Washington, she was a wealthy widow with 2 children.
At the age of 18, she married Daniel Custis who was wealthy, handsome and 20 years older than the pretty, 5 ft. Martha. When he died suddenly a few years later, she inherited a 17,000 acre plantation. She was 26.
Two years later she married the dashing young colonel in the Virginia militia by the name of George Washington.
George soon became Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, and consequently was gone from home for months at a time.
Theirs was a close, happy relationship and Martha accompanied him to army camps whenever she could. When she couldn’t get away from the plantation, they wrote to each other almost daily.
Few know this, but Martha was with George and the troops that bitter cold winter at Valley Forge.
On her way to Valley Forge, she instructed the driver of her carriage to leave the curtains open in the freezing morning air – she wanted to see the passing country and the soldiers. As they neared their destination, she was shocked at the sight of all the hollow-eyed, scarecrow, ill-clothed soldiers.
Frozen, half-decayed horse carcasses littered the campgrounds. When a wagon rolled past her with arms and legs hanging out, Martha turned to see the back of the wagon. Bodies of 14 men who had frozen to death during the previous night were stacked like cordwood in the back of the wagon, fingers and toes black, frozen solid.
When she arrived at the home Washington was staying in and they finally got some undisturbed time, Martha said, “I’ve never seen men in such terrible living conditions.”
George agreed and said “we lack everything on which an army depends: food, blankets, clothing, shoes, money, wagons, guns – everything.”
Martha said, “What can I do?” George thought for a while and said, “Go out among the troops as you always do. You can do tremendous good just by being seen.”
She asked “May I visit the hospital this afternoon?” George replied, “I will have Col. Alexander Hamilton escort you.”
First Col. Hamilton took her to an old barn being used as a make-shift hospital because the general hospital was already filled to capacity. The barn was filled with makeshift cots placed in every conceivable place on the bare dirt floor. Underneath the cots were blankets where emaciated, delirious men lay, some with missing hands or feet or fingers and toes. Many had open sores on their bodies. The whole barn echoed with the sounds of human beings in agony. The stench of filthy bodies and decaying human flesh was overpowering.
The only source of heat in the barn was a wood stove at one end of the building, so the room was cold and rather dark.
Six nurses, harried and exhausted, moved among the cots, doing whatever they could to relieve the pain and suffering of the soldiers, offering whatever comfort they were able to.
A weary doctor came forward to greet Martha and Hamilton.
“Have these men enough food?” asked Martha. “Scarcely enough to keep them alive. Half would recover within days if we could feed them properly,” replied the doctor.
Hamilton and Martha took leave and traveled to the main hospital.
Upon arrival, they saw dead bodies being thrown into the back of a wagon. Martha’s eyes filled with tears as the wagon rumbled away.
Inside the main room, the odors of putrified flesh, vomit and sounds of agony assaulted them. A nurse rushed up and said “You must leave! We have typhus and diphtheria in this room. Perhaps smallpox. You cannot stay!”
“I’m sorry,” said Martha, “I didn’t mean to interfere. I’m Martha Washington.” “What can I do to help?”
“Could you pray for us?”
“I already do, every day. Perhaps I could bring back some food?”
“OH!” said the nurse, “You don’t know what that would do for these men!”
Back in the coach, Hamilton sat in silence while Martha was deep in thought.
When she got back to the house, she said to her husband’ “Could I have your authority to request some food items be brought to the house?” “Certainly,” said George.
At noon the next day, soldiers carried six huge black kettles, lids tightly fastened, out of Martha’s kitchen and into a waiting wagon.
A short while later, they stopped at the makeshift barn/hospital and unloaded two of the kettles. The men wept when the lids were lifted and they smelled the rich steaming stew of venison, potatoes, carrots and turnips as it was ladled into bowls.
The wagon moved on to the main hospital, where the remaining 4 kettles were brought in. Tears streamed down cheeks and into beards as the injured, sick and starving men ate in grateful silence, raising their eyes to Martha in worshipful reverence as she walked among them, refilling bowls and helping trembling hands work with a spoon.
Martha Washington was revered almost as much as George by the Continental Army and a grateful young nation.
When the war was won and George retired to Mt. Vernon, he and Martha shared many days together in their quiet devotion to each other.
Being private people, once George died and Martha felt her death was nearing, she burned all the letters they had written to each other over the years, save two.
~ from Unlikely Heroes by Ron Carter, The American Revolution: Hands on History Book , www.ushistory.org, various internet research sites