The Grief of Martha Washington

Martha Washington is primarily remembered for her husband’s sake, a truth she would be accepting of as a devoted 18th century wife. She travelled through difficult terrain to join General George Washington during winter camps of the Revolutionary War and kept the family plantation, Mount Vernon, running throughout the other seasons. As America’s first First Lady (not that she was ever referred to by that title during her lifetime), Martha supported her husband while setting precedents and expectations for her own role. What is less known about Martha Washington is the amount of loss that she endured through it all.

Before her beloved George, Martha was married to Daniel Parke Custis, one of the wealthiest plantation owners in Virginia. The couple was married in 1750 and had four children before Daniel died in 1757. Martha had lost one of her children in 1754 and a second died within months of her husband. Therefore, Martha, at twenty-six, was a widow who had buried two of her four children. This was not unheard of for the era, but Martha could not know what she would later face. She, like most women of the time, turned to her faith for comfort.

She did not remain single for long, as was also typical of that time when it was difficult to manage a household and raise children alone. George Washington was young and ambitious when Martha met him. His wealth was no match for the Custis lands, but he had grand plans for the future. When Martha married him 6 January 1759, she surely expected more children to follow. In this the couple were disappointed, but George treated Martha’s children, John and Martha – known as Jacky and Patsy, as his own.

Martha was also the eldest of eight siblings. By the time of her marriage to George, two of them had died. Through the years, Martha buried her siblings one-by-one, outliving them all despite being the oldest. It caused her to constantly concern herself with the health of her loved ones, and most of her letters include updates on the health of those in her household and inquiries or prayers for those to whom she was writing. The hour each day that Martha spent in Scripture and at prayer included many requests for good health and recovery from illness.

When Martha realized that she would have no more children, the two that remained became even more precious to her. Patsy, who was always in delicate health, died during an epileptic seizure in 1773, sending Martha into a deep depression. She had frantically searched for a cure or treatment for her daughter’s ‘fits’ but epilepsy was not understood in the 18th century, and Martha’s daughter died at age 16. 

Only Jacky remained of Martha’s four children, but his fiancé, Nelly, became a substitute daughter to Martha. She also took in extended family members, like niece Fanny Dandridge, who grew up thinking of Martha as her mother. Martha loved to be surrounded by family and took in those who were in need of one.

Patsy Custis

After losing Patsy, Martha struggled to be comforted enough to join normal activities. George Washington wrote that Patsy’s death ‘reduced my poor wife to the lowest ebb of misery.’ She lobbied George to approve Jacky’s marriage despite his youth, but then she could not bring herself to attend the wedding. All this, before the Revolutionary War even started.

The war took friends and loved ones from most Americans, and Martha was no exception. She feared for George’s life through the long years of conflict, but it was Jacky who died of camp fever shortly after witnessing the surrender of the British at Yorktown. He left four small children, and Martha, crushed by the death of her last child, devoted herself heartily to her grandchildren.

Martha was worried for her ‘old man’ several times during his terms as President (he was actually 8 months younger than his wife). A painful tumor and bout of anthrax threatened the President’s life in 1789, followed by pneumonia in 1790. Both his wife and the young country would have suffered severely had George Washington died while in office. Although, George recovered from these illnesses, Martha did lose Fanny to tuberculosis, a blow that was like losing her own child.

While they never were able to return to their golden years at Mount Vernon, the Washingtons did enjoy several years of retirement at their home, even if they did have to endure a constant flow of visitors. When George died on 14 December 1799, a part of Martha died with him. She never returned to the bedroom they had shared and did not participate in his funeral. ‘Tis well. All is now over. I shall soon follow him. I have no more trials to pass through,’ she said as he breathed his last.

By the time Martha peacefully passed away on 22 May 1802, she was eager to join the many loved ones that she had grieved the loss of over her almost seventy-one years. She had buried seven siblings, two husbands, and four children, but held on to her faith and left America with the national memory of a strong and devoted first First Lady.

Martha Washington: An American Life by Patricia Brady

Washington by Ron Chernow

Women of the American Revolution by Samantha Wilcoxson, coming in July 2022