An Elegant Dinner with General Washington at Valley Forge Headquarters

Food & Lifestyle

June 10, 2014
by Nancy K. Loane Also by this Author


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On the afternoon of April 5, 1778, four feisty women, accompanied by an escort, Israel Morris, boarded their coach in British-occupied Philadelphia and set out for a visit with General George Washington. The journey took the four friends—Elizabeth Drinker, Susanna Jones, Phebe Pemberton, and Mary Pleasants—twenty miles or so from Philadelphia to the Continental Army, which was then camped at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. The women were on a personal mission, determined to convince General Washington to release their husbands from banishment in Virginia. The men, all members of the Religious Society of Friends (or Quakers), had been seized by the authorities about seven months earlier for refusing to pledge their support to the Patriot cause.[1]

Example of an 18th century coach. This is the Beekman family coach (c. 1770), one of only three such 18th century coaches to survive in original condition. Source: New York Historical Society, Gift of Gerard Beekman, 1911.
Example of an 18th century coach. This is the Beekman family coach (c. 1770), one of only three such 18th century coaches to survive in original condition. Source: New York Historical Society, Gift of Gerard Beekman, 1911.

After crossing the Schuylkill River by ferry, then spending the night at the home of John Roberts, Mrs. Drinker and her companions proceeded to the first American picket post on the outskirts of the Valley Forge encampment. From there, several guards escorted them to the next post, where they received a pass for Washington’s headquarters. The coach finally arrived at camp about 1:30 p.m. on April 6, 1778—almost exactly twenty-four hours after leaving Philadelphia. General Washington was not immediately available to meet with them, so the ladies passed the time by visiting with Mrs. Washington, who had arrived at Valley Forge in early February. In her diary entry for the day, Mrs. Drinker described the General’s wife as a “sociable pretty kind of woman.”

When General Washington did come in, he “discoursed with us freely,” as Mrs. Drinker observed, but “not so long as we could have wished, as dinner was served.” The General extended an invitation to the ladies to dine at headquarters, the ladies accepted, and soon the travelers were seated at a meal Mrs. Drinker described as “eligant,” but also “soon over.”[2]

Today “elegant” is defined as “tastefully fine” or “luxurious in dress, style, design, etc.”[3] Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1775), however,defines “elegant” as “nice; not coarse, not gross.”[4] Mrs. Drinker’s elegant eighteenth-century dinner would be described today as a “good” or “lovely” dinner — well-prepared, well-served, but nothing fine, luxurious, or fancy.

An elegant dinner in the eighteenth-century required good food and a well-appointed table, and it seems both were important to General Washington. According to Washington’s expense account, several months after being appointed commander in chief he purchased nine yards of “Damascus cloth” for use as table linen, several tablespoons, some tea, and a quantity of Madeira.[5] In 1776, the General bought more table linen, as well as a mahogany knife case. He also purchased additional cutlery, including table knives with ivory handles and black-handled table knives. From time to time during the war Washington added such items as cut-glass vinegar cruets and salt-cellars, miscellaneous pieces of crockery, and several knives and forks. Mrs. Drinker and her companions may well have used any of these items while dining at Valley Forge.

On April 6, General Washington and his guests ate dinner in mid-afternoon as was customary for the time. Besides General and Mrs. Washington and the four ladies from Philadelphia, those around the table included Tench Tilghman (one of Washington’s aides), General Nathanael Greene, and sixteen other officers, most not identified by Mrs. Drinker.[6] This was not an unusually large number of guests for Washington, as he often dined with twenty or more. Indeed, in 1783, General Washington searched around for a new cook who could proportion dishes properly “to any Company which shall be named to him to the amount of 30.”[7] Mrs. Drinker’s dinner took place in a separate, small log hut that had been built for dining behind the kitchen during the Valley Forge encampment, as headquarters was small and cramped for space. Martha Washington, who perhaps suggested the addition, wrote that the log hut made living conditions “much more tolarable than they were at first.”[8] (Several years ago archaeologists located the footprint of the dining hut.)

Captain Caleb Gibbs kept a Household Expense Book for General Washington during the Revolutionary War, so we know what Hannah and Isaac, General Washington’s cooks at the time, could have prepared.[9] Plenty of carrots, onions, cabbage, potatoes, and parsnips were on hand in the kitchen. The springhouse held at least nineteen dozen eggs and fifty pounds of butter. Gibbs had purchased thirty-eight pounds of veal on April 5; on April 6, he paid for an additional twenty pounds of veal and twenty-eight hens and roosters. Two barrels of beer came into headquarters at the end of March. On April 1, six bushels of apples reached the General’s kitchen. Occasionally, as Gibbs notes in the Household Expense Book, soldiers were “sent into the country to buy necessities,” so other foods were available, too.

As was usual at the time, two dining courses, each consisting of three main dishes and several side dishes, were probably served to Mrs. Drinker and her friends.[10] Clarissa F. Dillon, Ph. D., an expert on foodways of the Colonial and Revolutionary periods, has suggested a possible dinner menu, appropriate for the time and using the ingredients Hannah and Isaac had available, for that April 6th dinner at Washington’s headquarters.

The first course, Dr. Dillon suggests, may have been marinated roast chicken, savory veal pie, and planked shad surrounded by parsnips. Side dishes on the table could have included pickled cabbage, dressed carrots, and pickled cucumber. When everyone had dined on these foods, the dishes were cleared away and the second course brought in: perhaps baked apples in a crust, potato pie, and carrot pudding. It would have been appropriate for plates of nuts and a salad of watercress and wintercress to be offered, too. It is apparent that the food at General Washington’s table was far superior to the Continental soldiers’ standard fare at Valley Forge of a bit of meat and a chunk of bread.

Letter Washington wrote regarding Mrs. Drinker and her friends. Click to enlarge. George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 4. General Correspondence. 1697-1799. George Washington to Thomas Wharton, April 6, 1778.   Image 514/1082.
Letter Washington wrote regarding Mrs. Drinker and her friends. Click to enlarge. George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 4. General Correspondence. 1697-1799. George Washington to Thomas Wharton, April 6, 1778. Image 514/1082.

Although we cannot know what was discussed during dinner, probably conversation focused on conditions in British-occupied Philadelphia. General Washington would have been very interested in this topic, and Mrs. Drinker and her friends had just come from the city. When the meal ended, the Philadelphia ladies left the dining hut to visit further with Mrs. Washington. On their way to her chamber on the second floor of headquarters, they met two of their friends, Isaac Pennington and Charles Logan, who had been brought from the city, under guard, to General Washington. The men, both Quakers, had been arrested outside Philadelphia, spent a night in jail, and then were sent on to headquarters at Valley Forge. Both men were “soon acquitted” as Mrs. Drinker noted in her diary, also observing that “we have reason to belivethat they fared the better by meeting us there.”[11]

The husbands of Elizabeth Drinker, Susanna Jones, Phebe Pemberton, and Mary Pleasants did not fare as well. Mrs. Drinker wrote that General Washington “told us, he could do nothing in our busyness further than granting us a pass to Lancaster, which he did.”[12] The Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council had relocated from Philadelphia to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, when the British took over Philadelphia in September, 1777; the women went on to meet with them there.

After spending the night in the nearby home of James Vaux, the four travelers, accompanied by their male escort, began the difficult, bumpy journey in their four-horse coach from Valley Forge to Lancaster, some fifty miles away. Two days into their travels the ladies received the unexpected— and joyous— news that their husbands had been released from imprisonment in Virginia and were in route to Pennsylvania. The men met their wives in Lancaster and were back home in Philadelphia by the end of the month.[13]

Over twenty years later, after reading about the passing of Martha Washington in a Philadelphia paper (Martha Washington died May 22, 1802, at Mount Vernon), Mrs. Drinker recalled that she had dined with the General’s wife at Valley Forge while on her way to Lancaster and that she “appeared to be an agreeable fine woman.”[14] After writing these words, Mrs. Drinker may well have raised her quill pen, paused, and then spent a minute or two reminiscing about that long-ago visit, and elegant the dinner she and her friends had shared with General and Mrs. Washington at Valley Forge headquarters.

[FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: Washington’s Headquarters at Valley Forge. Source: via Wikimedia Commons]


[1] Elizabeth Sandwith Drinker, The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker, ed. Elaine Forman Crane (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1991), 1:228-229.

[2] Drinker, The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker, 1:296-297.

[3] The Random House College Dictionary, Revised Edition. 1982. 427.

[4] A Dictionary of the English Language, ed. Samuel Johnson.(London: W. Strahan, 1755), 1:682.

[5] George Washington, Revolutionary War Expense Account. George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 5 Financial Papers. Image 3/92 (see annotation); 5/92 (see annotation); 11/92 (see annotation); 13/92 (see annotation);

[6] Drinker, The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker, 1:297.

[7] George Washington to Daniel Parker, September 18, 1783. George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 3h Varick Transcripts. Letterbook 3, Image 190/218.

[8] Martha Washington to Mercy Otis Warren, March 7, 1778 in Worthy Partner, The Papers of Martha Washington, comp. Joseph E. Fields (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994), 178.

[9] Caleb Gibbs and Mary Smith, 1776-1780 Revolutionary War Household Expenses. George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 5 Financial Papers.Images 75/135, 76/135.

[10] E. Smith, The Compleat Housewife, or Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion. 16th edition.(London: 1758), pages after index, 2-3.

[11] Drinker, The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker, 1:297.

[12] Drinker, The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker, 1:297. Below is the text of Washington’s April 6, 1778, letter about Mrs. Elizabeth Drinker and her friends to the President of Pennsylvania, Thomas Wharton, Jr. from Valley Forge headquarters.

“Sir: Mrs. Jones, Mrs. Pleasants and two other Ladies, connected with the Quakers confined at Winchester in Virginia, waited upon me this day for permission to pass to York Town, to endeavour to obtain the release of their Friends. As they were admitted by the Officer at the advanced picket to come within the Camp, I thought it safer to suffer them to proceed, than to oblige them to return immediately to the City. You will judge of the propriety of permitting them to proceed further than Lancaster; but from appearances, I imagine their request may be safely granted. As they seem much distressed, humanity pleads strongly in their behalf. I have the honour to be, Sir, your most obedient servant.” George Washington to Thomas Wharton, April 6, 1778. George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 4. General Correspondence. 1697-1799. Image 514/1082.

[13] Drinker, The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker, 1:302.

[14] Drinker, The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker, 2:1519.


  • Thank you for the fascinating article about non-military life at Valley Forge. Washington must have particularly enjoyed that dinner as he admired and enjoyed the company of the ladies.

  • Thank you for the interesting article on dining at Valley Forge. As in Morristown, NJ and other headquarters addresses during the War, Washington and his senior staff dined very well. I still can`t help thinking about the stark differences between that experience and those of the common soldier and lower tier officers residing nearby. I certainly believe this was an expected and accepted norm in 18th c. military life all around – the British included. I suppose I can`t begrudge the Commander-in-Chief his exceptionally good victuals in view of everything he truly suffered through over such a long period of time, in finally delivering liberty to a brand new republic! And notwithstanding the defeats, difficulties and adversity Washington faced, he shows true human compassion in attempting to help his dinner guests out with their mission.
    Thanks again for the most delightful article.
    John Pearson

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