As a writer, I deplore the passing along of inaccurate undocumented information and I’m happy to see Ms. Loane debunk some of the Martha Washington myths that arose during the flowery Victorian era. A primary source is one written by someone who personally witnessed an event and wrote about it in a timely manner (before the memory dimmed and details blurred). Without primary source documentation, the information is doubtful at best.
Unfortunately, once published false information is quoted for generations and it never seems to die even after the myth is debunked.
Not only did Ms. Loane do an exorbitant amount of research in primary documents for what did happen, she addresses just when various myths were first penned, by whom, and why. In some cases, after an exhaustive search of available primary sources what Ms. Loane could not find speaks volumes.
Martha Washington has been described as circulating among the crude log huts at the Valley Forge encampment ministering to the troops, but this could not be documented in any primary source. None of the people who were at Valley Forge and wrote about their experiences spoke of Martha physically administering aid to the troops. Such comments were first written by George Washington Parke Custis, who wasn’t yet born at the time, some fifty-six years after the encampment.
Custis described his grandmother as a ministering angel at various camps when she is clearly documented by reliable sources as being elsewhere at the time and his accounts continued to grow more flamboyant as he grew older. Ms. Loane considers Custis a writer of poetry but not a historian, and other modern writers compared him to Mason Weems who created the story about George chopping down the cherry tree.
George Washington wrote a letter to the president of Princeton saying there was nothing particularly wrong with his step-grandson except for Custis’s, “aversion to study. . . mere indolence, & a dereliction to exercise the powers of the mind.” This isn’t a glowing recommendation for anyone attempting to write a historical account.
Martha was a cultured woman who knew exactly what was proper for a lady of her stature. Entertaining distinguished guests, arranging dinners or tea for the officers and their wives, outings for the ladies, and perhaps writing letters requesting donations from ladies of means is admirable for the time negating the need for creating stories to frame her in a good light.
Walking through the quarters of raggedly dressed and dirty men who came from all walks of life and may have carried on conversations unfit for a lady’s ears was unacceptable. Neither Martha or George Washington were documented as having made such a claim. No such account has been found in the writings of officers or their wives who were in the camps. As is Ms. Loane, I’m sure her “deeds of charity and piety”, were appreciated by those in her presence, but weren’t noted amongst the troops.
Ms. Loane gives an account of the officers’ wives who did spend time at the Potts home with Martha and various military and civilian visitors. Perhaps more importantly, she describes in great deal what the working women in the camps experienced – both the working class and the poor and wretched, and what they contributed to the aid of the troops. These latter were the laundresses, cooks, nurses, letter-writers, prostitutes, and wives who found themselves homeless when their husbands took up arms. A handful of women also took up arms.
Women born into poverty or who found themselves reduced to it through no fault of their own had few choices and slogging along in the mud behind the army hoping for meager rations or a coin for their labors was the best many of them could do for themselves and their children. Yes, there were children in camp and babies born in camp or on the way to camp, all of whom had to eat and most adding to Washington’s burden of obtaining enough supplies for all.
This book is well researched, well written, and deserves to be read. I highly recommend it.