Mount Vernon During the American Revolution

Drawings of changes to the mansion. Courtesy of George Washington's Mount Vernon.

On June 18, 1775, soon after learning that he had been chosen to lead the Continental Army, George Washington sat down to write a difficult letter to his wife, Martha, who was back home at Mount Vernon, to tell her about this unexpected change in circumstances and what it would mean for her:  “… I therefore beg, that you will summon your whole fortitude, and pass your time as agreeably as possible.  Nothing will give me so much sincere satisfaction as to hear this, and to hear it from your own pen.”[1] Five days later, as he left Philadelphia to take command of the army near Boston, he wrote a quick note to his wife, assuring her of his love and noting his “full confidence of a happy Meeting with you sometime in the Fall.”[2]  Neither of them knew at that point that it would be more than eight years before the war was over, that his wife would spend half her time in those years in camp with her husband, and the other half helping to manage Mount Vernon, their beloved Virginia plantation.  In the latter role, she and another relative, George Washington’s distant cousin Lund Washington, who was the estate manager, would try to complete a building program started by her husband, while facing a multitude of problems, including shortages of basic supplies, escapes by both indentured and enslaved servants, a looming smallpox epidemic, and threats from British forces.

Cast of Characters

Engraved portrait of Martha Washington courtesy of George Washington's Mount Vernon.
Engraved portrait of Martha Washington courtesy of George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

The years of the American Revolution changed Martha Washington’s life almost completely.  When the war began in 1775, Martha Dandridge Custis Washington was a forty-four year old wife and mother and the mistress of a large plantation.  She had been given the standard education for a woman of her class and time period, which emphasized the skills needed to make her a good mother, capable of caring for and educating her children; a prudent steward of the resources provided by her husband; a fair and efficient manager of her household staff; and a graceful and charming companion in society.  Unlike her husband, who, by his early twenties, was a figure of national importance and international reputation, however, she had never traveled outside of Virginia.  She had always been rather sheltered and had very little experience with people from other parts of the country or other cultures.  All that began to change with the coming of the war, an event which unknowingly prepared her for the role she would later play as first lady of the United States.  Mrs. Washington spent fifty-two to fifty-four of the roughly 103 months from April 1775 to December 1783, or almost half of the time, either with her husband in camp, or nearby, in the hope that they could spend more time together.

Assisting with management of the Mount Vernon estate in George Washington’s absence was his third-cousin, Lund Washington, who was five years younger than his employer.  Having gained experience working at two other large Virginia plantations, Lund was hired to work at Mount Vernon in 1765, where he would remain for the next twenty years.[3]  Many years after his death, a younger relative described Lund as “a stout man remarkable for his strength[,] activity and industry,” as well as “close attention to business, . . . excellent management of plantation and household affairs, . . . and great frugality,” but also noted that, while he was a “sensible well meaning man with a strong mind,” Lund “had not much experience in the artifices of the World.”[4]  Although he was single when he arrived at Mount Vernon, according to a surviving prayer journal kept by Lund’s wife, Elizabeth Foote Washington, it appears that she promised to marry him in the fall of 1779, and, following their wedding, she too moved to Mount Vernon, and remained there until they were able to finally acquire a home of their own, a nearby plantation called Hayfield, in 1785.[5]  The couple had at least three children, but none survived childhood.[6]

George Washington’s affection for Lund can be readily seen in their surviving correspondence.  For example, at one point during the Revolution, Lund’s salary (and that of other hired servants) was greatly devalued because of inflation.  His employer tried to address the issue in a letter written in December of 1778, in which he noted that “The depreciation of Money, and the sudden rise in the price of produce in the course of this year … renders your present wages especially under short Crops, totally inadequate to your trouble and Services.”  George Washington’s plan was that Lund “should receive a certain part of the last Crop, to be disposed of by you for your own benefit and so in future; this will give you the reward of your Industry without subjecting you to the peculiar hardship resulting from depreciation as it is presumable that the price of produce will rise in proportion to the fall of the other.  I do not at this time ascertain what the part shall be, because I wish you to say what you think is just and right … it is my first wish that you should be satisfied.”[7]

Other family members were frequently at Mount Vernon during the war years.  Foremost among them were Martha Washington’s only surviving child, John Parke Custis, and his wife, Eleanor Calvert Custis.  The young couple had been married in early 1774, when he was only nineteen and she was sixteen.  During the war, Jack and Nelly presented Mrs. Washington with seven grandchildren.  While one little girl and a set of female twins died shortly after birth, of the four babies who survived, their grandmother was away from home for the arrival of three.[8]  Sadly, John Parke Custis succumbed to camp fever during a stint as his step-father’s volunteer aide at the siege of Yorktown.  The young man died at the age of twenty-seven in the first week of November 1781, an event that turned what should have been a joyous period into utter heartbreak.

According to tax documents from Mount Vernon in 1774, there were also 134 workers on the plantation.  They included fifteen hired and indentured men and 119 working adult slaves (sixty-eight men and fifty-one women).  Of those who were enslaved, fifteen (six men and nine women) were domestics who worked in and around the mansion; thirteen men who were skilled craftsmen; and ninety-one people (forty-nine men and forty-two women), who did field work.[9]  No records have been found to indicate the number of non-working adults and children there might have been among the enslaved population at this period, but Washington estimated later in the war that there were between 200 and 300 slaves in total.  There are also records of about fifty-two births in the enslaved community during the war years.

Our knowledge about this period in Mount Vernon’s history has been hampered by several factors, foremost the loss of two important sets of papers which were destroyed in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, probably in the name of preserving the privacy of the correspondents involved.  In the first instance, many of the letters between George Washington and his cousin Lund were burned by the latter’s widow sometime after his death in 1796.  We know from the letters that do survive that Lund typically sent a long, chatty letter to his employer once a week to keep him apprized of conditions on the estate.  Secondly, sometime between George Washington’s death in 1799 and that of his wife Martha two-and-a-half years later, Mrs. Washington consigned forty years of correspondence between herself and her husband to the flames.[10]    While it was not uncommon for the remaining spouse to destroy the correspondence of a deceased partner (both Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, for example, did the same thing following the deaths of their wives), and the desire to maintain some degree of privacy is perfectly understandable, the loss to the historical record has been incalculable.

Fears for Safety

Early in the war, there were concerns that both Martha Washington and Mount Vernon might be targeted by the British.  Throughout the late summer and early fall of 1775, Mrs. Washington’s safety was the subject of much of the surviving family correspondence.  General Washington wrote in late August that he could “hardly think that Lord Dunmore [John Murray, fourth Earl of Dunmore and royal governor of Virginia] can act so low, so unmanly a part, as to think of seizing Mrs. Washington by way of revenge upon me.”  He was comforted by the thought that for the next couple of months she would be visiting away from home and so would “be out of his [Dunmore’s] reach for 2 or 3 months to come,” after which he hoped events would play out in such a way “as to render her removal either absolutely necessary, or quite useless.”  He asked that, should Lund believe there was “any sort of reason to suspect” that she was in imminent danger, to “provide a Kitchen for her in Alexandria, or some other place of safety elsewhere for her and my Papers.”[11]

Martha Washington does not appear to have been worried for herself until she received several letters from her husband mentioning that Dunmore might try to capture and imprison her.[12]  It probably added to the couple’s anxiety that about this same time, George Washington’s younger brother, John Augustine, tried to persuade his sister-in-law to leave Mount Vernon for her own safety.[13]  Early in October, Lund sought to calm Washington’s fears about the safety of his wife:

Tis true many people have made a Stir about Mrs Washingtons Continuing at Mt Vernon but I cannot think her in any Sort of danger—the thought I believe first originated in Alexandria—from thence it got to Loudon [Loudoun County, Virginia], I am told the people of Loudon talkd of sendg a Guard to Conduct her up into Berkeley with some of their principle men to persuade her to leave this & accept their offer—Mr John Agst. Washington wrote to her pressg her to leave Mt Vernon—she does not believe herself in danger, nor do I. without they attempt to take her in the dead of Night they woud fail, for 10 minutes notice woud be Sufficient for her to get out of the way … I have never Advise’d her to stay nor Indeed to go … you may depend I will be watchfull, & upon the least Alarm persuade her to move.[14]

Before going south to visit her family, Martha Washington put many valuables, especially her husband’s papers, into trunks that could be easily moved if that became necessary, and Lund made plans to send the trunk containing papers to a neighbor for safekeeping.[15]  Lund had asked, presumably upon the General’s orders, that Mrs. Washington carefully tie the papers in bundles, so that “they might not be in any great confusion hereafter when they come to be open’d.”  She insisted on packing the trunk herself, although when she set off to visit her relatives in New Kent County she left the key to Washington’s study with Lund, who assured his cousin that he would not “look into any part of [the desk], or in any other part of the Studdy, without her being present.”  He also stated quite strongly that the General had nothing to worry about while the estate was in Lund’s hands, because “I will do every thing in my powr to, not only secure your papers, but every other Valuable thing that can be save’d even at the risque of my Life, if necessary.”[16]

Construction and Destruction

Two years before the American Revolution began, George Washington started making plans to enlarge the mansion house and re-do the nearby outbuildings.   Major additions would be made to both ends of the house, with a wing containing a study and master bedroom suite on the south end and a second wing featuring a grand, two-story room for entertaining on the north.  The overall plan included the “replacement of existing outbuildings with larger structures, creation of service lanes, development of the bowling green, and enlargement of the formal gardens.”[17]  Washington left for the Second Continental Congress in May of 1775, when all these plans had barely been started.  It would be six years before he was able to see his home again and the project was left primarily in the hands of Lund and Martha Washington.[18]

When George Washington next saw the estate, he was on the way to Yorktown, in 1781.  On the way to that fateful encounter, Washington, his generals, and several of his French allies were able to spend a few days at Mount Vernon.  He arrived on the evening of September 9 along with one of his aides, Lt. Col. David Humphreys, making the sixty-mile journey from Baltimore in a single day, while, in the words of another aide, “The rest of the family jogg on easily.”[19]  Although there is no record of the reunion, the two men probably received an enthusiastic welcome from Martha Washington, her son and daughter-in-law, and Lund Washington.  This was also George Washington’s first opportunity to meet several new additions to the family:  Lund Washington’s bride of two years, Elizabeth Foote Washington and, more importantly, the four young Custis grandchildren, Eliza (age five), Patty (four), Nelly (two), and George Washington Parke Custis (four months), all born after George Washington left for the war.  Mrs. Washington and the household staff would have spent much of the next day getting ready for their guests:  the rest of Washington’s military aides, who reached Mount Vernon on the afternoon of the tenth, just as the family was sitting down to dinner; and the two French generals—Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, who arrived that same evening, and François Jean de Beauvoir, Chevalier de Chastellux, who arrived on the eleventh.  The Frenchmen were each accompanied by four to six aides.[20] The French generals’ later arrival may have been because they “wanted to spare their horses, or perhaps Rochambeau with his usual tact may have guessed that Washington might well enjoy a day alone at Mount Vernon before his guests arrived.  It was over six years since Washington had set foot in his own home, and Rochambeau, a happily married man himself, knew what it would mean to the Washington family to have a day to themselves.”[21]

Unfortunately, neither George Washington nor the other generals wrote anything substantive about their brief time at Mount Vernon.  Chastellux had met Martha Washington in Philadelphia at the end of November 1780, when he described her as “about forty or forty-five [she was then 49], rather plump, but fresh and with an agreeable face.”  He also expressed the opinion that she “looks like a German princess.”[22]  They would have seen that the wing on the south end of the mansion was completed and the one on the north end, although not finished, was framed out and enclosed but still needed a lot of work.  Graceful colonnades at each end linked the mansion to two new outbuildings, including a new kitchen building on the south (or right).  They would also have noticed a new decorative plaster ceiling and graceful plasterwork surrounding the mantel in the dining room, completed in the fall of 1775.[23]

Another of Washington’s aides, Connecticut native Lt. Col. Jonathan Trumbull, was quite impressed by his reception at the Washingtons’ home, writing that, even though there was “A numerous family now present,” they were “All accommodated.”  Trumbull found at Mount Vernon an “elegant seat and situation, great appearance of oppulence and real exhibitions of hospitality and princely entertainment,” a testimony to Mrs. Washington’s skills at household organization and entertaining.[24]  Given the size of the group, the dinner may well have taken place either in the central passage, on the piazza, or on the east lawn overlooking the Potomac.[25]

Washington and Rochambeau left Mount Vernon at five o’clock on the morning of September 12, 1781, leaving Mrs. Washington safely at home on the estate.[26]  George Washington’s risky plan to trap the British proved successful, effectively ending the active military phase of this very long war.[27]  The new construction and improvements at Mount Vernon would not be completed until about the time of the Constitutional Convention.

In addition to new projects, some construction had to be undertaken during the war because of damage, although whether it was caused by accident or was deliberate is unknown.  The first inkling that something had happened came in a letter to George Washington from the Comte de Rochambeau in Williamsburg, two days before Christmas in 1781:  “I have learnt . . . that your Excellency’s seat has suffered by the fire ….”[28]  Although Washington downplayed the losses, the fire had been tremendous.  He responded to Rochambeau a few weeks later from Philadelphia, where he had taken Martha Washington to help take her mind off the death of her son and only remaining child:  “My loss at Mount Vernon [of the stable] was not very considerable, but I was in the greatest danger of having my House and all the adjacent Buildings consumed,” which would have meant the destruction of all the improvements made during his absence.[29]  More details emerged about a year-and-a-half later, as a new stable was under construction to replace the original.  On a visit to Mount Vernon, Ludwig, Baron von Closen, noted that, “While I was there, a stable that had burned down some time previously was being rebuilt; the general lost 10 of his best horses in this unfortunate occurrence.”[30]


Very early in the war, the Royal Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, issued a “much dreaded proclamation,” offering “Freedom to All Indented Servts & Slaves (the Property of Rebels) that will repair to his majestys Standard—-being able to bear Arms.”  As Lund Washington discussed this hated policy in a letter to his employer, he reassured George Washington that “if there were no white Servts in this family I shoud be under no apprehensition about the Slaves,” indicating that he suspected that the indentured servants would try to leave, but trusted the slaves.  He went on to relate that one of the hired men, “[William Bernard] Sears who is at [work] here says there is not a man of them [the indentured servants], but [would] leave us, if they [believed] they [could] make [their] Escape . . . .& yet they have no fault to find[.]  Liberty is sweet.”[31]

In the spring of 1781, the largest slave escape in Mount Vernon’s history took place while George and Martha Washington were at his military headquarters at New Windsor, New York.  A British frigate had landed men on the Maryland side of the Potomac, where they burned a number of “gentlemen’s houses . . . in sight of Mount Vernon.”  Capt. Thomas Graves of the Savage then sent a message to Mount Vernon, threatening the same treatment unless he and his crew were given “a large supply of provisions.”  According to Lund, several years after the fact, his initial response to the British demand was that General Washington “had given him orders by no means to comply with any such demands, for that he would make no unworthy compromise with the enemy, and was ready to meet the fate of his neighbors.”

Furious at this reply, Captain Graves brought the ship closer to the shore in readiness to burn the estate, but offered Lund the chance to come aboard to talk.  Lund did so, taking “a small present of poultry” for the ship’s commanding officer.  During their pleasant chat, Graves “expressed his personal respect for the character of the General,” commended Lund’s conduct, and “assured him nothing but his having misconceived the terms of the first answer could have induced him . . . to entertain the idea of taking the smallest measure offensive to so illustrious a character as the General.”  He also explained that some “real or supposed provocations . . . had compelled his severity on the other side of the river.”  Lund went back to shore and “instantly despatched sheep, hogs, and an abundant supply of other articles as a present to the English frigate.”[32]  At some point before Lund went on board the Savage a group of slaves, fourteen men and three women, made their way to the ship, hoping to be emancipated on the basis of Lord Dunmore’s proclamation.[33]

George Washington was extremely disturbed by Lund’s actions, writing to his cousin on April 30 that he was “very sorry to hear of your loss; I am a little sorry to hear of my own; but that which gives me most concern, is, that you should go on board the enemys Vessels, and furnish them with refreshments.”  He went on to say that,

 It would have been a less painful circumstance to me, to have heard, that in consequence of your non-compliance with their request, they had burnt my House, and laid the Plantation in ruins.  You ought to have considered yourself as my representative, and should have reflected on the bad example of communicating with the enemy, and making a voluntary offer of refreshments to them with a view to prevent a conflagration . . . . I am thoroughly perswaded that you acted from your best judgment . . . But to go on board their Vessels; carry them refreshments; commune with a parcel of plundering Scoundrels, and request a favor by asking the surrender of my Negroes, was exceedingly ill-judged.[34]

Of the people who left with the British at that time, seven were eventually returned to Mount Vernon sometime after the siege at Yorktown.  One of them, Thomas, had managed to get as far as Philadelphia and Washington had to pay an unspecified amount for his “salvage.”  His travel expenses back to Virginia cost another twelve dollars.[35]

About six months after the incident with the Savage, Martha Washington’s son, John Parke Custis, wrote to his mother from the camp outside Yorktown with news about some slaves who had run away, which suggests that many more enslaved people left than can be confirmed through surviving documentation.  Although he had been making inquiries to learn if any of these slaves were nearby, Custis had not actually seen any of them, but he had heard rumors about the whereabouts of two or three.  He offered that he was afraid “most who left Us are not existing,” meaning that they were dead:  “the mortality that has taken place among the Wretches is really incredible.  I have seen numbers lying dead in the Woods, and many so exhausted that they cannot walk.”[36]

Loss of Markets and Wartime Shortages

Civilians faced many shortages during the American Revolution, as in all wars. Supplies were requisitioned for military use; manpower and draft animals used by the military were not producing agricultural or industrial products; and trade and transportation were disrupted.  Some of these issues touched the people living at Mount Vernon.

In his search for new products and markets to replace others lost by the war, Lund Washington learned that people in Massachusetts were making rum, sugar, and molasses—important commodities from the West Indies which were in short supply—out of cornstalks.  Just before Christmas in 1777, he told General Washington that, “If they make it, surely we may, and if I was sure it could be done to as great advantage as we are told it may, it would be much better for us to attempt it than toendeavor to make tobacco, under the disadvantages that we shall have . . . . In short, I am really uneasy that we should have no crops that will bring money, and for the year to come am anxious to fix upon something that will be profitable . . . . ”[37]  We don’t know if Lund ever tried making rum or molasses from cornstalks, but it appears from other sources that this experiment was not as successful as early reports suggested.  A New Jersey man had “constructed a mill for grinding the common Indian corn stalks,” because he knew they contained “a considerable quantity of saccharine matter.”  Unfortunately, when the juice from the stalks was “converted into molasses, was found to possess an acrid and unpleasant taste, which he was not chemist enough to correct, and the experiment, after one year’s trial, was abandoned.”[38]

The most common methods of preserving meat and fish at Mount Vernon were salting and smoking, the most widely used methods at the time.  Prior to the war, George Washington freely used Potomac fish as a source of both food and income, most frequently selling the catch in salted form.  Some idea of the size of his fishing operation can be gained from his account books:  in May of 1774, Washington sold 905 barrels of herrings averaging 800 per barrel to a Mrs. William Milnor of Philadelphia; that works out to 724,000 fish for £108.12.0.[39]  Later that same year he sent 650 barrels of herrings to a gentleman in Jamaica.[40]  This was in addition to local sales and fish kept for use on his own estate.

The salt needed to preserve foodstuffs was typically “made” by evaporating sea water, but could vary widely in quality.  Very little salt was produced in America, primarily because of the low salinity in the bays where people tried making it.  Salt was generally imported from Europe, with Lisbon in Portugal being the source of the most prized table salt, while cheaper salt from Liverpool in England served for preserving meat.[41]  Shortages of this vital commodity caused Lund Washington considerable worry about whether there would be enough salt to preserve fish for the support of the Mount Vernon slaves (for whom it was the primary source of protein), much less to sell.  British control of the seas meant that salt from Portugal and England was particularly hard to come by.  In 1776 Lund noted that he had on hand, in several locations, about 350 or 400 barrels of salt, which he refused to sell, “knowg we cou’d not get more & our people must have Fish – therefore told the [prospective buyers] I had none.”[42]  Two years later he informed George Washington of the tenuous situation:  “I have but very little salt, of which we must make the most.  I mean to make a brine and after cutting off the head and bellys dipping them in the brine for but a short time, then hang them up and cure them by smoke, or dry them in the sun; for our people being so long accustomed to have fish whenever they wanted, would think it very hard to have none at all.”[43] Lund Washington also made money for the estate by selling both brined beef and pork:[44]

It wasn’t just salt that became hard to obtain.  Beer and hard liquor were also in short supply, again due to the loss of access to European markets.  Surviving Washington papers indicate that throughout the eighteenth century, beer was both made at Mount Vernon and purchased for use at the family’s table.  On the last page of a manuscript notebook kept by Washington in the late 1750s is a recipe for small beer, which, according to one source, was the type of weak beer usually consumed by servants and children.  With an alcohol content between two and three percent and about 150-200 calories per pint, small beer provided calcium and a few vitamins.  The most interesting aspect of Washington’s recipe is that it used molasses, which helped the brewing process but, being a product of the West Indies, was hard to get during the war.[45]  George Washington also purchased large quantities of beer and porter from good quality breweries in both England and America prior to the Revolution for use at his own table.  Not surprisingly, both making and purchasing beer proved to be problematic during the war.[46]

While to modern ears a beer shortage might not seem like a major issue, it is important to remember that few people drank water during this period because of concerns that it could cause illness.  Virtually everybody, of all ages and social classes, drank beer as a matter of course.  George Washington once noted that his white servants customarily received a quart bottle of beer a day.[47]  These workers were very likely not happy about losing access to one of the favorite perks provided for them.  Beer was also considered a very healthful beverage.[48]  In fact, alcoholic beverages, in general, were thought to be particularly beneficial to people doing hard physical labor.  For example, George Washington wrote about his fears concerning the dangerous consequences of a shortage of rum in the army:  “Not a drop of Rum has yet come on, and the Physicians report that the Artificers (who labour exceedingly hard) are falling sick for want of it.”[49]  Two months later, the army had received very little rum and Washington wrote another reminder:  “This Article is so necessary for the Health as well as comfort of the Soldiery at this Season, that I wish it might be particularly attended to.”[50]

Faced with a lack of beer and other spirits, Lund Washington had to get creative.  He wrote in March 1778, “I find from experience there is a fine spirit to be made from persimmons, but neglected to gather them for that purpose, only got some for the purpose of makeg Beer.”[51]  Persimmon seeds were the largest category of botanical materials found during excavations of the cellar of a Mount Vernon slave quarter in the 1980s and 1990s, interesting because slaves in North America used persimmons and honey locust pods for making a type of beer which came to be associated with Christmas (probably because persimmons ripen after the first frost, so they were in season at that time of year).[52]


Throughout history, armies have tended to spread disease as they move from one front to another during a war.  The same was true during the Revolution, especially with smallpox.  This dreaded disease, which had been relatively rare in the American colonies, suddenly became a problem when large numbers of soldiers arrived from England and Germany where it was endemic, and introduced the disease to an American public which was largely unexposed to it.  George Washington is credited with preventing an out-of-control epidemic by setting up an incremental plan to inoculate the soldiers in his army.  The inoculation procedure involved taking infectious matter from the postules of someone suffering from smallpox and placing it within a cut in the skin of the person being inoculated, resulting in their contracting a much milder case of the disease than if it had been caught naturally.  It generally took about a month to recover from inoculation, during which they had to be quarantined to prevent the disease from spreading.[53]  This does not mean, however, that the civilian population was out of danger.

In early May of 1777, shortly before his wife’s annual return to Mount Vernon, George Washington wrote that the latest news from home was that “the Small Pox . . . has got into my Family.”  He asked Doctor William Shippen to ensure that medical supplies he had promised for Mount Vernon would be sent.  Those items were imperative because Washington was taking steps to have all the slaves on the plantation inoculated and these drugs were considered necessary during the patients’ recovery.  The two medicines specifically mentioned were calomel (mercurous chloride) and jalop (the dried and powdered roots of the plants Exogonium purge or Ipomoea purge); both served as purgatives.[54]

Martha Washington’s summer at Mount Vernon that year would hardly have been a respite.  Having seen the favorable results of the innoculation on his stepson, his wife, and his army’s soldiers, Washington was pretty confident of its efficacy and wrote to his younger brother, John Augustine:  “the Small Pox by Inoculation appears to me to be nothing; my whole Family [the term he often used for his slaves], I understand, are likely to get well through the disorder with no other assistance than that of Doctr Lund [a humorous reference to Lund Washington] . . . in general neither Physicians nor Physic is necessary except a few purgatives . . . that this is truely the case, I firmly believe, and my own People (not less I suppose than between two & three hundred) getting happily through it by following these directions is no inconsiderable proof of it.”[55]

Given the length of the recovery period, it is probable that the inoculations at Mount Vernon were spaced out through the summer, with one group being done, quarantined, and allowed to recover before doing the next, in order to keep a viable workforce in the fields.  It is entirely possible that much of Mrs. Washington’s time at home that year was taken up with helping to look after the slaves as they recuperated.

Martha Washington was also helping relatives recover from the same procedure.  While smallpox inoculation was much less dangerous than contracting the disease naturally, it could still result in death.  Before Martha had returned to Mount Vernon that year, George Washington’s younger brother Samuel’s family was inoculated; unfortunately, his wife, Anne Steptoe Allerton Washingon, died from the procedure.[56]  George Washington wrote of his sister-in-law’s death that he was sure it was a terrible blow to Samuel and believed that “some mismanagement must surely” have occurred while she was recovering.  Brother John Augustine’s entire family came through the inoculation process well, as did Martha’s nine-month old granddaughter, Eliza Parke Custis, and many other residents in the neighborhood around Mount Vernon.[57]  Two of her nephews, Burwell and John Bassett (ages fourteen and eleven, respectively) came to Mount Vernon to go through inoculation and recovery.  When she sent them back to their mother in mid-November, Martha Washington assured her sister that they were “as well as they were” when she brought them from home, that they “have had the small pox exceeding light and have been perfectly well this fortnight past.”  Before packing them off for home, Martha “had all thare clothes washed and rinsed several days – and do veryly believe that they can bring no infection home with them.”  If her sister was still afraid of contracting smallpox from their clothes, however, Martha recommended that she “let some one who has had the small pox put out thare cloths to air for a day or two in the sun.”[58]

Efforts to protect family members from smallpox continued throughout the war.  While Martha was at Valley Forge, she would probably have been alarmed to learn that her son had made several unsuccessful attempts to inoculate her newest granddaughter.  While the procedure had taken place three times, the baby, a little over three months old, had not contracted the disease.  As John Parke Custis noted, “This leaves Us in a very disagreable Suspence, as We shall be very uneasy lest She get the Disorder in the natural Way, the Doctor is much at a loss how to account for her not taking the Infection, unless Nelly [the child’s mother, Eleanor Calver Custis] was with child when she was innoculated, and this can hardly be the Case.  I shall wait some Time before I try a fourth time.  I sincerely hope no Accident will happen to the dear Child.  She has grown the finest Girl I ever saw and the most Good natured Quiet little Creature in the World.”[59]


As George Washington prepared to return home after the Revolution—at the end of an eight-year period during which he had received no salary—he was surprised to find that he was deeply in debt.  From correspondence with several relatives he learned, for example, that his cousin Lund, to whom he had entrusted the care of the estate, had not followed up on hiring British prisoners of war, a cheap form of labor, to supply a lack of skilled artisans during the conflict. This meant that there were many repairs that needed to be made at Mount Vernon. Washington complained further that Lund’s “aversion to going from home” meant rents had not been collected from tenants, resulting in “many years arrears of rent” being due. And there was more:  “But if your own [Lund’s] wages, since the charge of them in the Acct. rendered at Valley Forge, has not been received by you in the specific articles of the Crop; which does not appear by the Accots. you have lately rendered to me; I shall be more hurt, than at any thing else, to think that an Estate, which I have drawn nothing from, for eight years, and which always enabled me to make any purchase I had in view, should not have been able for the last five years, to pay the manager:  And that, worse than going home to empty coffers, and expensive living, I shall be encumbered with debt.”[60]  The fact that Washington began to require incredibly detailed weekly reports from his farm managers after the Revolution is likely a direct result of his shock at the condition of his farms upon his return from the war, and his consequent lack of trust in anyone but himself to stay on top of the situation at Mount Vernon.  It would take years to repair the damage to the estate.

In many ways, the Washingtons were also starting over in their private lives.  The death of Martha’s son in late 1781 and the consequent remarriage of his widow two years later, resulted in the youngest two Custis grandchildren being raised at Mount Vernon by the older couple.  Once again there were little people who needed to be cared for, fussed over, educated, and raised to be productive members of society.  Home at last, it was an exciting time, but, even as they tried to settle into civilian life once again, the country was already trying to draw the Washingtons back into the public arena—and away from Mount Vernon.


[1] George Washington to Martha Washington, June 18, 1775, “Worthy Partner”:  The Papers of Martha Washington, compiled by Joseph E. Fields (Westport, CT:  Greenwood Press, 1994), 160.

[2] George Washington to Martha Washington, June 23, 1775, Ibid., 161.

[3] The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, 10 volumes, edited by W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville:  University of Virginia Press, 1983-1995), 7:376, 442, 515; 8:104, 220, 356, 479; 9:54, 238; 10:137; Lund Washington (1767-1853), “Lund Washington’s History of His Family,” circa 1849, and Bishop Frank M. Bristol, Copy of Lund Washington’s Manuscript, circa 1900 (bound photostat, Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, Mount Vernon, Virginia, hereafter referenced as The Washington Library), 12-13 [14-15].

[4] Washington and Bristol, “Lund Washington’s History of His Family” and Copy of Lund Washington’s Manuscript, 12-14 [14-16].

[5] Elizabeth’s prayer journal is an amazing document, well worth reading, for anyone interested in Anglican household religion in eighteenth-century Virginia, or the relationships between women, free and enslaved, in those same homes (see Journal of Elizabeth Foote Washington, November 1779 to December 1796, (typescript, The Washington Library), 1).  For more on this remarkable document, see Mary V. Thompson, In the Hands of a Good Providence:  Religion in the Life of George Washington (Charlottesville:  University of Virginia Press, 2008), 98-99, 103-106; and Lauren F. Winner, A Cheerful & Comfortable Faith:  Anglican Religious Practice in the Elite Households of Eighteenth-Century Virginia (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 2010), 111-118.

[6] For the birth of s stillborn baby girl in December 1782, and the deaths of two daughters as toddlers, in October 1785 and October 1788, see Journal of Elizabeth Foote Washington, 12, 13, 14, and 25, and Lund Washington to George Washington, December 11, 1782 (typescript, The Washington Library).

[7] George Washington to Lund Washington, December 18, 1778, The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, 39 volumes (Washington, DC:  United States Government Printing Office, 1931-1944), 13:428-429.

[8] Mrs. Washington appears to have been present for the birth of Martha Parke Custis (1777-1854) on December 31, 1777; see Martha Washington to Burwell Bassett, December 22, 1777, “Worthy Partner,” 175, 176n.  For the date of Nelly’s birth, see David L. Ribblett, Nelly Custis:  Child of Mount Vernon (Mount Vernon, VA:  Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, 1993), 2.  For the date of Washy’s birth, see Arthur H. Quinn, “Custis, George Washington Parke,” in Dictionary of American Biography, 20 volumes, edited by Allen Johnson & Dumas Malone (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1928-1936), 5:9-10.  For Mrs. Washington’s whereabouts at the time Nelly and Washy were born, see Fields, “Worthy Partner,” 181-182 & 185-186.  For the three other baby girls, who were born to John Parke Custis and Eleanor Calvert during these years, but died shortly after their births, see Christian Scott Blackburn to Martha Washington, September 26, 1775, and John Parke Custis to Martha Washington, Aaugust 21, 1776, in Fields, “Worthy Partner,” 162 & 162n, 170 & 171n; and Eliza Parke Custis [Law], “Self-Portrait:  Eliza Custis, 1808,” edited by William D. Hoyt, Jr., Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 53:89-100, 93.

[9] The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, 10:135.

[10]Worthy Partner,” 464-465.

[11] George Washington to Lund Washington, August 20, 1775, The Writings of George Washington, 3:432-433.

[12] Lund Washington to George Washington, October 15, 1775, The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 23 volumes to date, edited by W. W. Abbot, Dorothy Twohig, Philander D. Chase, Theodore J. Crackel, and Edward O. Lengel (Charlottesville:  University of Virginia Press, 1985-present), 2:174-175.

[13] George Washington to John Augustine Washington, October 13, 1775, The Writings of George Washington, 4:28.

[14] Lund Washington to George Washington, October 5, 1775, The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 2:116.

[15] Lund Washington to George Washington, October 15, 1775, Ibid., 2:172-175.

[16] Lund Washington to George Washington, October 29, 1775, Ibid., 2:257.

[17] Mount Vernon Commemorative Guidebook 1999:  George Washington Bicentennial Edition (Mount Vernon, VA:  Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, 1998), 28.

[18] Ibid., 29.

[19] For the quote from aide Jonathan Trumbull, see page 333 of “Minutes of Occurrences Respecting the Siege and Capture of Yorktown,” in Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society (1875-1876), 331-338 (downloaded from Google Books, September 13, 2011).

[20] See The Diaries of George Washington, 6 volumes, edited by Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville:  University Press of Virginia, 1976-1979), 3:419n1.  For the fact that the French generals were accompanied by 4-6 aides, see George Washington to Brigadier General George Weedon or Alexander Spotswood, September 9, 1781, The Writings of George Washington, 23:111.  For the arrival of the rest of Washington’s aides at dinner time, see Trumbull, “Minutes of Occurrences Respecting the Siege and Capture of Yorktown,” 333.  For the arrival times of the French generals, see George Washington to the Marquis de Lafayette, September 10, 1781, and George Washington to Brigadier General George Weedon or Alexander Spotswood, September 10, 1781, The Writings of George Washington, 23:110 & 111; and Trumbull, “Minutes of Occurrences Respecting the Siege and Capture of Yorktown,” 333.  For the fact that an important element of Rochambeau’s army was traveling more slowly and would not pass the road to Mount Vernon until September 26, 1781, see “Itinerary of the Wagon Train of the Army From the Camp at Annapolis to Williamsburg, 1781,” in The American Campaigns of Rochambeau’s Army, 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783, 2 volumes, translated and edited by Howard C. Rice, Jr., and Anne S. K. Brown (Princeton, NJ, and Providence, RI:  Jointly published by Princeton University Press and Brown University Press, 1972), 2: 89.

[21] Arnold Whitridge, Rochambeau:  America’s Neglected Founding Father (New York:  Collier Books, 1965), 196.

[22] Marquis de Chastellux, Travels in North America in the Years 1780, 1781 and 1782, 2 volumes, translated and edited by Howard C. Rice, Jr. (Chapel Hill, NC:  Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture at Williamsburg, Virginia, by The University of North Carolina Press, 1963), 1:134, 298n18.

[23] Mount Vernon Commemorative Guidebook 1999, 56.

[24] See the entry for September 11, 1781, in Trumbull, “Minutes of Occurrences Respecting the Siege and Capture of Yorktown,” 333.

[25] For many years, it was thought that a planning meeting was held in the New Room (variously referred to by later generations as the Banquet Hall or the Large Dining Room), but research for the restoration of the New Room in 2013 & 2014 showed that the floor in the room had not been installed until after the end of the Revolution, so neither that meeting nor the dinner could have been held there (presentation by architectural conservator Tom Reinhart, Mount Vernon, VA, March 11, 2013).

[26] For the time of the departure on September 12, 1781, see Whitridge, Rochambeau, 200.

[27] Not everyone left with Washington and Rochambeau on the morning of the twelfth:  according to Jonathan Trumbull, he—and presumably others—rested at Mount Vernon on that day and resumed their journey south on the following day (see Trumbull, “Minutes of Occurrences Respecting the Siege and Capture of Yorktown,” 333).

[28] Comte de Rochambeau to George Washington, December 23, 1781, translated by John C. Fitzpatrick, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., June 19, 1936, William and Mary Quarterly, 2nd ser., 17, no. 2 (April, 1937):  235.

[29] George Washington to Comte de Rochambeau, January 8, 1782, The Writings of George Washington, 23:435-436.

[30] Baron von Closen, July 18, 1782, “The Journal of Baron von Closen,” edited by Evelyn M. Acomb, William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 10, no. 2 (April 1953):  229.

[31] Lund Washington to George Washington, December 3, 1775, The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 2:479-480.

[32] George Grieve, Notes on Conversation with Lund Washington, in Chastellux, Travels in North America, 2:597.

[33] Lund Washington, List of Runaways, April 1781, The Writings of George Washington, 22:14n; for another published version of this list, which differs a bit from that in the The Writings of George Washington, see [Ellen McCallister Clark], “A Wartime Incident,” Annual Report 1986 (Mount Vernon, VA:  Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, 1987), 25.  According to historian Fritz Hirschfeld, John C. Fitzpatrick, the editor of The Writings of George Washington, was mistaken when he identified the commander of the Savage as Richard Graves, a prominent British naval officer, rather than his brother, Capt. Thomas Graves (see Fritz Hirschfeld, George Washington and Slavery:  A Documentary Portrayal (Columbia:  University of Missouri Press, 1997), 23n8).

[34] George Washington to Lund Washington, April 30, 1781, The Writings of George Washington, 22:14.

[35] See Ibid., 22:14n; [Clark], “A Wartime Incident,” 25.  These two published sources conflicted in regard to whether all the men were captured in Philadelphia and the women were picked up after Yorktown, or if only Tom was found in Philadelphia.  Examination of the original manuscript, which is in the Mount Vernon collections, suggests that all of the returned slaves were taken up after the siege at Yorktown, but that Tom is the only one who got as far as Philadelphia.  Many thanks to Michele Lee, the Special Collections Librarian, and my delightful colleague, for helping to work out that conundrum.  A second, as yet unsolved, problem concerns the identities of three Mount Vernon slaves who appear in the British records, at the end of the Revolution, when they were transported to Nova Scotia:  Henry Washington, 43 years old, who is said to have escaped in 1776; Daniel Payne, age 22; and Deborah Squash, 20 years old, who ran away in 1779.  The given names of these people match three of those from Lund’s 1781 list.  Are they the same people?  Was Lund providing a comprehensive list of everyone who left in the war, or just those who ecaped in 1781?  For the work of other historians on the Mount Vernon slaves who escaped during the war, see Cassandra Pybus, Epic Journeys of Freedom:  Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and Their Global Quest for Liberty (Boston, MA:  Beacon Press, 2006), 218; Simon Schama, Rough Crossings:  Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution (London:  BBC Books, 2005), 16-17, 81, 232, 281, 381, 383; and Ruth Holmes Whitehead, Black Loyalists:  Southern Settlers of Nova Scotia’s First Free Black Communities (Nimbus, CA:  Nimbus Publishing, 2013), 74, 139-140, 149.

[36] John Parke Custis to Martha Washington, October 12, 1781, “Worthy Partner,” 187.

[37] Lund Washington to George Washington, December 24, 1777 (typescript, The Washington Library).

[38] Ashbel Green and Joseph N. Jones, The Life of Ashbel Green, V. D. M. (New York:  Robet Carter and Brothers, 1849), 52-53.

[39] “Mrs. Willm. Milnor…Philada…,” May 1774, in Ledger B (bound photostat, The Washington Library), 123.

[40] “Robt. McMickan Esqr….Jamaica,” August 3, 1774, in Ledger B, 127.

[41] Nelly Custis Lewis’s Housekeeping Book, edited with and introduction by Patricia Brady Schmit (New Orleans, LA:  The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1982), 23-24.

[42] Lund Washington to George Washington, February 8, 1776, The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 3:271.

[43] Lund Washington to George Washington, April 1, 1778 (typescript, The Washington Library).

[44] Lund Washington to George Washington, March 11, 1778  (typescript, The Washington Library).

[45] For George Washington’s recipe for small beer, see George Washington, “To make Small Beer,” [1757-1760] (typescript, The Washington Library).  For the properties of small beer, see Sara Paston-Williams, The Art of Dining:  A History of Cooking and Eating (London:  National Trust Enterprises Limited, 1993), 156, 219-220.

[46] For George Washington’s purchases of beer prior to the Revolution, see Ledger A (bound photostat, The Washington Library), May 12, 1757, September 1760, April 5, 1768, January 10, 1769, on pages 34a, 105a, 269a, 287a; Orders and Invoices (bound photostats, The Washington Library), September 1757, August 1758, March 1759, March 1760, March 1761, October 1761, April 1762, November 15, 1762, April 1763, February 1764, February 1765, and June 1766; Ledger B, December 22, 1772 & April 16, 1777, 148a.

[47] George Washington to William Pearce, December 22, 1793, The Writings of George Washington, 33:201.

[48] Louise Conway Belden, The Festive Tradition:  Table Decoration and Desserts in America, 1650-1690 (New York:  W.W. Norton, 1983), 232.

[49] George Washington to Major General William Heath, June 8, 1781, The Writings of George Washington, 22:182.

[50] George Washington to President Meshech Weare, August 5, 1781, Ibid., 22:467.

[51] Lund Washington to George Washington, March 4, 1778, The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 14:60.

[52] For the fact that persimmon remains were so common, see Laura A. Shick, “An Analysis of Archaeobotanical Evidence from the House for Families Slave Quarter, Mount Vernon Plantation, Virginia” (unpublished master’s thesis prepared for American University, 2004), 56; and  email communication, Esther White to Christine Messing and others, April 17, 2007 (The Washington Library).  For references to slaves and persimmon beer, as well as to recipes for making this beverage, see Catherine Ann Devereux Edmonston, “Journal of a Secesh Lady”:   The Diary of Catherine Ann Devereux Edmonston, 1860-1866, edited by Beth G. Crabtree and James W. Patton (Raleigh, NC:  Division of Archives and History, Department of Cultural Resources, 1979), 22; Mrs. A. P. Hill, Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book:  A Practical System for Private Families, in Town and Country (New York:  Carleton, 1872), 342; Linda Garland Page and Eliot Wigginton, editors, Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 55; Charles L. Perdue, Jr., editor, “Pigsfoot Jelly & Persimmon Beer:Foodways from the Virginia Writers’ Project (Santa Fe, NM:  Ancient City Press, 1992), 33-34; “Persimmon Beer,” (accessed December 16, 2002), http://cogs.dsustan/~gcrawford/beerfiles/history.html; “Persimmon Recipes,” (accessed December 16, 2002),  According to African-American foodways specialist, Michael Twitty, persimmons that slaves found growing in America would have reminded them of the fruit of the ebony or jackalberry tree in West and Central Africa, known as the “alom” to the Wolof and “kuku” to the Fula peoples, who are known to have used it as a medicine, a dried fruit, an ingredient in bread, and a source for making beer (see Michael Twitty, Fighting Old Nep:  The Foodways of Enslaved Afro-Marylanders, 1634-1864 [(No publication location given]:  Michael Twitty, 2008), 19; and “Sample Recipes,” (accessed January 12, 2010),

[53] For more on George Washington’s role in preventing a full-blown epidemic, see Mary V. Thompson, “More to dread…than from the Sword of the Enemy”:  Smallpox, the Unseen Killer,” in The Annual Report of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union 2000 (Mount Vernon, VA:  The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, 2001), 22-27.

[54] George Washington to Doctor William Shippen, May 3, 1777, The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 9:340.  For information on the use of jalop and calomel, see“jalap . . . or jalop,” “The Free Dictionary,” (accessed May 12, 2016), and “Evidence Based Science,”(accessed May 12, 2016),

[55] George Washington to John Augustine Washington, June [1], 1777, The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 9:587.

[56] George Washington to Samuel Washington, April 5, 1777, Ibid., 9:71 & 72, 73n1.

[57] Doctor James Craik to George Washington, May 13, 1777, and George Washington to John Augustine Washington, June [1], 1777, Ibid., 9:400, 410n2 & 410n3; and 9:587 & 588n4.

[58] Martha Washington to Anna Maria Dandridge Bassett, November 18, 1777, “Worthy Partner,” 174.

[59] John Parke Custis to Martha Washington, April 3, 1778, Ibid., 178-179.

[60] George Washington to Lund Washington, June 11, 1783, The Writings of George Washington, 27:2-3.

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  • Mary, many thanks for a fact filled, interestingly written and insightful article on Washington as a business manager.
    His attention to detail, perhaps sometimes at a micro level, is equally obvious in his management of intelligence activities starting in early 1777.

    • I’ve primarily been working on Washington’s life at Mount Vernon and his experience with the enslaved people here, but have often been amazed by the similarities between his management of the army during the war and the plantation.

  • Great article…beautifully researched and written with lots of juicy little details about the Washington family and Mount Vernon. Thank you!

  • Thanks for the thorough article. I also liked the image at the top, showing how much of the Mount Vernon main house we know today was built in Gen. Washington’s absence. But often that’s the best time to have contractors in.

    • In many ways, George Washington’s absences have been fortunate for later historians. If he’d been home, we’d have far less documentation for what was happening at Mount Vernon. Thank you for your wonderful posts, as well.

  • A very enlightening and interesting article, Mary. Thank you! You especially captured Martha Washington’s personal experiences at Mount Vernon, with slaves and relatives and the terror of the day – small pox. I can’t imagine the horrible unknowing that John and Nelly had about little Eliza Parke Custis and her inability to be inoculated. Was she already somehow immune? Or will she catch a deadly dose of small pox in the future? So many unknowns from questions and feelings of helplessness back then.

    • Thank you, John! Your comment made me realize that I should have been more clear in the article. It was Martha Washington’s second granddaughter, Martha (Patty) Parke Custis (later Mrs. Thomas Peter), who was causing all the worry about whether or not the inoculation would “take.” I know, it must have been a really scary time for the family.

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