Martha Washington spent the critical days of the winter of 1777-78 with her husband, Gen. George Washington, in the camp at Valley Forge. While this story is presented as fiction, its principal events are all taken from historic records.
A Man's Wife
By Howard Fast
EARLY in the afternoon, when she went outside for a little clean snow to dress the stewed fruit with, she found him standing there; and he was without his hat and without his overshoes. As if he didn't know that it was the coldest day of the winter, so cold that a pail of water would skin with ice in a minute or two.
The two sentries, one on either side the door, were hunched over their muskets, their faces blue with cold. A wind from the river raised the snow like dry dust.
She forgot the snow, and called to her husband. She said to herself, "That man will be the end of me." She said to the sentries: "Go into the kitchen and have some hot tea."
Her husband turned around, protesting mildly. She had only to look at his face, notice that there was no color in his lips, tiny beads of frost on his lashes.
"I know they're on duty," she said stubbornly. "I know that they'll freeze, and they can be on duty well enough after they've had something to drink."
The sentries looked at him, waiting.
"We're an army, Martha," he said.
"Go into the kitchen," she told them; and to him: "It's more than I can stand, Mr. Washington. You'll have a death of cold tonight. Your feet are wet already. I tell you it's more than a body can stand!"
He nodded at the sentries. She turned back into the house and he followed after her, walking very slowly. They went into his office, and she threw a few sticks of wood on the fire.
"Warm yourself please," she begged him.
"I'm not cold, Martha."
"You are cold your lips are white with cold."
He smiled, drew a chair close to the fire and sat down. He was a big man, and while he was standing, he gave an impression of youth and strength; but when he sat down, he became old suddenly and very tired.
There was one window in the room; it gave over the snow-pounded road, the fields and the river. It was open a few inches at the bottom, letting in a draft of cold air.
She paused to wind a scarf around her husband's neck, and then she went over and closed the window, sharply. She was a small, pretty, plump woman, and her husband was a very large man. Conscious of the difference in their size, she had the feeling of a mother whose son has grown entirely out of hand. Her only way of indicating displeasure was to call him "Mr. Washington" or "General Washington."
"But Martha," he said, "I wanted the window open. I'm expecting a messenger I wanted to listen."
"If he comes, he'll come. Please take off your shoes and dry your feet." With that, she left the room.
UPSTAIRS in her workroom, she sighed and picked up a woolen shirt she had been knitting for him. Without thought, her fingers wrapped around the needles and took up the play of the wool.
Where she sat, near the window, she could see the sweep of the snow-covered fields to the Schuylkill River. The place was called Valley Forge, and by now it seemed to her that she had been there almost forever.
She thought to herself, Someday, it will be over unless the man's the death of me first. Then she knitted very rapidly. It was late afternoon, and in a little while it was too dark for her to follow the needles. Then she sat quietly, the shirt in her lap. It was quite cool in the room. but she never felt herself to be as susceptible to cold as was her husband. Men were fools. She accepted that with a sigh, and measured the shirt. It would not be too small for him if he wore it close to his skin, as she would prefer. Yet he had an aversion to wearing wool against his skin.
Night came, and the fields blotted themselves out. She put her knitting away, and thought of the dinner. It would be a very meager dinner potatoes and a pot of boiled lamb. There would be stewed dried fruit and then she remembered that she had not gotten the snow in to dress it with. Col. Alexander Hamilton was coming to dinner, and if the messenger arrived before they ate, the general would ask him to stay. There was little enough for four people, even with the fruit.
She hurried downstairs and met Colonel Hamilton, just entering the house. In the dusk, she could barely make out his face; and after he had bowed to her, he stood there, pulling nervously at his gloves.
"The general? " she said. "He's in his office at least I left him there. I found him walking in the snow with house shoes and without a hat, and I don't know what he'll do next. Mr. Hamilton, will this war ever end?"
"I think it will, madam very soon."
"What do you mean?"
"I MEAN we've reached the end. We're starving and naked half the army is sick. Congress doesn't care they leave it up to him. And it's too much for one man."
"That's not true," she said. Yet in her heart she was exulting, thinking all at once of how it had been before the war; of her home at Mount Vernon, of many colored servants doing things quietly and expertly, of the smooth glide of each day into the next sunny days.
He said, "I'm afraid it is. What's a man to do?" He was only a boy of twenty, and for a moment she could not comprehend what a boy was doing in this frozen valley, thinking himself a man.
She turned, and the general was coming down the hall. He was smiling, holding out his hand to Hamilton. She wondered how it was that each time she saw him she felt the same quickening lift in her heart, as if she were a girl of nineteen and not old enough to have a boy like this Colonel Hamilton.
"What is it, colonel?" he asked eagerly.
Her husband's face fell, and she saw him shiver as with cold. He had thrown off his greatcoat and scarf, and his bare feet were in slippers. The house could never be heated properly; she should have brought him dry socks immediately not trusted that he would wait by the fire.
"Mr. Hamilton," she said, "take him into his room and see that he remains by the fire."
Hamilton was saying, "Wayne swears he'll not have his men starve. If it's Congress he's fighting for, he'll not sacrifice the lives of a thousand men to keep their fat bellies full. And he's right, sir the men won't stand for it."
"That's for me to say, Mr. Hamilton."
HARDLY listening to their words, Martha was thinking that she would serve dinner immediately. Warm food would drive the chill out of their bones. There was a little wine left, perhaps a quart, and she would warm most of it. and spice it heavily.
She walked toward the kitchen, and as she neared it she smelled something burning. It smelled suspiciously like lamb, and the smell increased as she approached the kitchen. When she opened the door, she was greeted with a cloud of smoke. The lamb had burned, had been ruined; there was no doubt about that. The pot stood in front of the fireplace, dry, smoking.
Next to the oven, crouched on a bench and with her face in her hands, the kitchenmaid was crying softly; she didn't look up when Martha entered the room. At her feet there was a bundle, tied together in an old quilt. One of the two sentries stood against the opposite wall of the room. Martha went over to the pot; she was moving mechanically, she felt dull and empty inside. She took a wooden spoon and turned over the contents of the pot. They weren't fit to eat.
The smoke made her eyes smart. She opened the outside door, let the cold air into the room. A moment like that, and then she closed the door. She turned back to the maid.
The sentry's eyes were upon her. He was a big man, but lean. His thin face seemed to be all eyes deep brown eyes, like the eyes of a deer. Martha remembered a deer that had once wandered into their garden at Mount Vernon; trapped, it had seemed all eyes.
SHE was afraid of what she would say; there was no other meat but the lamb. She asked the maid, quietly, "Why did it happen?"
"I let it burn." She looked up then, staring at Martha. The girl was dressed in overshoes and a cloak, a heavy woolen scarf about her neck. She had light hair and blue eyes a round honest face. A good Pennsylvania face. She was a Quaker girl from Philadelphia.
"You're dressed to go out," Martha said. "Did you go out and leave it burn?"
The girl nodded; the sentry took a few steps and peered into the pot. The girl was shivering; it seemed that she could not warm herself. Martha was thinking of how it would be to serve a dinner of potatoes and nothing else. She could scold the girl
The sentry muttered, "It's more food than we eat and there's a lot out there glad to eat it, the way it is."
The girl rose, said to him, "Get out of here. Don't be a fool; get out of here. I burned the food; he didn't have nothing to do with it. I burned it, that's all."
The sentry stood there, legs spread, staring at Martha. "She burned it because I took her away," he said slowly. "I was deserting, an' I took her with me. We was fair sick of all this."
"He's lying!" the girl cried.
"I ain't lying. She came back because of the meat you understand, the meat. Go in and tell him that that I'm a deserter an' I burned his dinner. Leave her alone."
MARTHA walked over to the kitchen table and sat down behind it, staring at the two of them. The girl sat on the bench again, her face in her hands, crying. The sentry swayed back and forth.
"You're cold," Martha said simply, as if that were the whole of it, "you're cold both of you."
The sentry seemed to realize it then, and he nodded his agreement with each of her words. There was an air of youth about him. He was twenty-three, possibly a few years on either side. He moved closer to the fire.
The girl went over to him and held on to his arm.
Martha snorted. She pointed to the pot of lamb. "Take that outside and give him something hot to drink. Then send him back to his post. You're a fine girl without enough sense to take care of your man, or take care of a pot of lamb! You'd be a wife you can't take care of a kitchen!"
"But dinner" the girl pleaded.
"Serve the potatoes!"
Martha took a taper, left the kitchen and went from room to room, lighting the candles. In the living room she paused, realizing that her husband and Colonel Hamilton would be sitting down to a dinner of potatoes and stewed fruit. She sat in front of the fireplace and stared at the flames. The fire was between them and the cold; outside, men were dying of hunger and frost.
She shook her head. It was like a dream, a man's dream; a woman would know better. She went to call her husband. She was ashamed of the dinner, but there would be at least hot bread and hot wine. Perhaps if she seemed very gay and laughed a great deal
The door of his office was half open. She heard him speaking, and she paused a moment before she entered:
"There's a way, colonel. I've spoken of it to Mr. Wayne, and he agrees that in the end it's the only way. It seems that we've come to that end. There's a man in the South his name is Boone who has opened up a road to the West over the mountains. Into a land they call Kaintuck. It's a ripe, open land, with game enough to feed ten thousand men."
"You'd give up now?"
"Declare our republic in the West, and strike at the British from there. There's no more hope from Congress no money. If we stay here, we starve."
She heard Hamilton say, "It would mean prolonging it ten years, fifteen, perhaps. If Captain Murry comes tonight, with money word that they're sending food?"
She pushed into the room, the words ringing in her ears: "Ten, fifteen years."
HER husband was staring at a paper that lay on his desk, his eyes wrinkled into small slits. A single candle gave a flickering, uncertain light.
She said, "Mr. Hamilton, you at least could see to it. His spectacles are there beside him, and you at least could see that he wears them. His doctor warned him about wearing his spectacles." She said desperately: "Mr. Washington how many times have I pleaded with you to wear your spectacles when you are reading?"
He looked at her helplessly, thrusting forward his long legs; and then she remembered that she had forgotten dry stockings, and here was the man, without sense enough to dry his stockings at the fire, walking barelegged.
She was in a state to cry. Turning to the door, she saw that the window had been opened again. She closed it with a bang, opened her mouth to speak, and then rushed from the room.
Upstairs, she selected a pair of close-knitted woolen stockings that she had made herself. He hated wool, but they would warm him. She had a deep, abiding faith in wool against the skin woolen stockings, woolen undershirts.
Coming downstairs with the stockings, she decided that he had taken cold. It would mean dosing him; it would mean sweating him with a host of quilts; it would mean forcing him to sit with his feet in hot water. It would mean hours and hours of pleading with him not to go out.
SHE sighed and nodded her head, and her lips formed a tight, determined line. All men were a problem. Meanwhile, her hands were probing into the stockings, stretching them just a little. Her husband couldn't abide tight stockings.
At the foot of the stairs, the maid was waiting. Martha stopped, and the girl said anxiously, "Ma'am you'll not say that he was deserting? It was my doing, and you know how a maid can get a man to do as she wishes. He'll not desert, I'll give you my word for that."
Martha shook her head.
"Please, ma'am you won't have him whipped? There's no man can stand a whipping in this weather."
"Perhaps " Martha was thinking of the man, who was only a boy, of other men whipping him. "If he was your man, you had no business leading him on."
"God forgive me. Please?"
"I'll think of it."
"I found a little cold mutton for the dinner, ma'am."
"Very well you can serve dinner in a few minutes."
When Martha entered the room, Hamilton was writing at the table. Her husband paced back and forth, nervously. He had thrown off his wig, and his thin red hair, streaked with gray, was all in a tangle on his head. He kept running his hands through it, as trying to clear it.
"I brought your stockings," she said brusquely.
HE STOPPED, nodded, and glanced down at his feet. He kept staring at them, as if struck by the fact that they were quite bare and in slippers.
She said, "Do sit down by the fire and put them on. Mr. Hamilton, surely you could see that he doesn't walk around barelegged."
Hamilton began to apologize. Washington said, " I'm sorry, Martha I didn't notice."
She drew him into the chair by the fire. She realized that he hadn't noticed; he was that sort of man. Then her love for him was complete, and if Hamilton hadn't been there she would have stood close to him, smoothed his hair.
He pulled on the stockings, twisting them. He was clumsy about such things, and she wondered how he ever managed when he was on campaigns without her. She bent down, helping him to button his breeches over the stockings. Then she took up his wig and offered it to him.
"We're going in to dinner now, Mr. Washington."
HE PUT on the wig, a trifle askew. She straightened it for him. Then he went to the window, opened it, and stood there a moment listening. Martha clicked her tongue; he closed the window and came back to the table.
He said, "I'll read what you've written, Mr. Hamilton. Then we'll go to dinner. I was expecting General Wayne."
"He'll be here later."
"Has he lost faith in me too?"
"Not in you, sir none of us. But Congress"
He began to read aloud: "A proclamation to the enlisted men of the American Continental Army; whereas we have entreated our Congress to make provision"
Martha walked over to the table and held up his spectacles. She said, "Mr. Washington, I can't be watching every move you make. You do drive a woman to distraction. Please come to dinner." She brought him his scarf, wrapped it around his neck, and then buttoned the coat over it. A moment she let her hand rest on his forehead. It was warm, but she was not certain that there was fever yet; she would make him drink at least two and possibly three glasses of hot, spiced wine.
He nodded, allowed the paper to slip from his hands, and rose. Then she went to dinner, a man on either side of her. At such times she liked to pretend that it was Mount Vernon again, that the table would be laid with white damask and silver service, that there would be a procession of game and fruit and fish.
She could not allow herself to think of what they had said; that the army would move south and west over the mountains, that the war would last for ten even for twenty years.
At the table she attempted be gay, as she had planned. But it wasn't much use. Hamilton stared at his plate dabbed at the food with his fork, but scarcely ate.
When she apologized for the potatoes and cold meat, they looked at her, as though they had not even known what they were eating. She forced food upon her husband, and saw to it that he drank two glasses of the wine. She watched his face very carefully, and was disappointed to find that more color didn't come into it after he had tasted the wine.
She could see that they were both listening for something, waiting for something.
The maid came in with the stewed fruit. She stood a moment, looking at Martha, and Martha said to her husband, "Sir. if a man deserts, and then returns of his own will would you punish him?"
"An army exists upon discipline Martha."
"But if he returned of his own will?"
"He would be lashed and sent to quarters. "
The maid was standing there, straining her face very white.
Hamilton said, "God knows, sir, why they don't all desert."
MARTHA nodded at the maid, said, "I don't know of anyone who has deserted."
Tears were starting from the maid's eyes.
"Please have another cup of wine, Mr. Washington," Martha said.
He picked up the wine, made a wry face as he tasted it. There was a clatter of hoofbeats outside, and both the men started to their feet. The glass trembled in Washington's hand, and a few drops of the wine spilled on to the cloth. He stared at Hamilton, and Hamilton's face was hope.
They waited; it was as if neither of them dared to move first. Martha kept her eves on her husband, on his face. She reacted to every flicker of expression that passed over his face.
Then an orderly came to the door and announced: "General Wayne, Your Excellency."
Martha went to her husband as he dropped back into his chair. The brief flush of color drained from his face, he fumbled at the wineglass. Martha put her hand on his, glanced at Hamilton looked at Hamilton, who stood as before, a curious half smile fixed upon his face.
"Finish your fruit, my dear," Martha said very calmly. "I was talking to Doctor Winton the other day, and he said there's a rare medicine in stewed fruit. Please finish your fruit, my dear."
HE NODDED, still staring at the wineglass. Wayne entered, a tall, lean man, pale eyes and a hatchet face. He bowed to Martha, and then he stood just in the room, looking questioningly at Hamilton and Washington.
"You're asking for news, sir?" Hamilton said. " We thought you were the messenger from Congress. He was due at noon today."
"He won't come!" Hamilton blurted out. "They've left us to fight it out alone with three thousand men."
"And what's left?"
"There's one plan, only one."
Martha rose and excused herself. As she left, her husband was speaking. His voice was dead and expressionless, consisting of words without meaning.
She went into the kitchen. The girl came over to her, stood a moment staring at her, and then dropped at her feet, sobbing. She bent over, lifted the girl's head.
"What is it, my dear?"
"He's all I have," the girl said. "My people are Tory. I followed him here to be with him."
Martha nodded. There was nothing she could say. Inside she was all tight, as if one part of her were struggling with another.
"He wouldn't have stood whipping. He would have died out there."
"I know, my dear."
"I'd do anything for you. I burnt the meat. I can't stop thinking of how wicked it was of me to burn the meat that way."
"There's nothing you can do for me, child."
SOME of the wine was left, and Martha had the girl reheat it. If the men persisted in staying up, she would serve it later. Yet she would try to persuade her husband to go to sleep early. A hot foot bath and then bed with many quilts over him. She was a firm believer in a hot foot bath. She had the girl heat a pot of water, and then she carried it up to her room and placed it close to the fire. She had some scented salts, and she would make a strong mixture of water with scented salts.
When she came down again, the men had retired to the office. She knocked at the door, and as Hamilton opened it she heard her husband sneeze. He and Wayne were standing in front of the open window. The single candle swayed in the draft.
This time, she made no remark about the window. She only sighed and considered how absolutely hopeless it was to attempt to teach a man anything at all about his health.
She went to the sideboard and took down a candlestick, lighted the three candles it held, and placed it upon the table. General Washington sneezed again, and then turned to her, a guilty expression upon his face.
SHE said, pointedly, "I asked you, Mr. Hamilton, to see that he has light enough for his reading."
"But Mr. Hamilton is not to blame, Martha. I'm disturbed tonight."
"You've taken cold, and you belong in bed, not bothering your mind with all this."
Then, in an instant, they were all listening, and she found herself listening with them. They rushed to the window, opened it wider. The sound was the drumlike beat of a horse's hoofs on the frozen surface of a road. The sound was staccato, louder, until it seemed to take up all the night.
A moon was out. She could see past them the snow-covered fields, the more polished, packed surface of the road extending down the riverbank, and then a speck on the road growing larger.
The hoofbeats stopped.
"Challenged by the guard," Wayne muttered. "If he's for us, he'll be on again in a moment."
A man appeared in the night. He rode down on the house, reined up his horse at the challenge of the sentries, and then spurred around to the front door.
The three men returned to the table. Martha closed the window, stood by it shivering. As if it were not enough for her husband to be sick, she would be in bed herself. The man was hopeless.
An orderly announced at the door: "Captain Murry, Your Excellency."
Murry came striding in, the frost from his clothes dripping on to the floor as he walked. He was a tall young man with dark, flashing eyes.
Martha could see how the three men were watching him, watching his face the way card players watch the face of their opponent.
He stopped, bowed to her, and then gave a letter to General Washington. Her husband looked at her, tried to smile, and then picked up his spectacles and fastened them on his face with a trembling hand. Wayne stood as rigid as a statue; Hamilton slumped into a chair.
"From Congress?" Washington asked.
"From Congress, Your Excellency," Captain Murry said. "I fell in with a British patrol, otherwise I should have been here at noon. However, I left two dragoons cooling in the snow and regretting my delay."
He fumbled at the letter, opening it. Twice he fixed his spectacles, and then he took them off. He handed the letter to Hamilton. "Read it, Mr. Hamilton. Read it aloud, please. My eyes are not"
Hamilton took the letter. The general turned to Martha and said, "Come here, my dear." He put his arm about her, and she could feel how he was trembling.
"You shouldn't excite yourself," she whispered. "Sit down." She forced him into a chair; Hamilton read:
"To his excellency, George Washington, commander in chief of the Continental Armies; we have studied and granted the justice of your request, and in spite of the difficulties connected with the raising of money, we are sending you twenty thousand dollars in silver and a wagon train of food. The silver will come with escort, but we trust you will meet the food train within"
THAT much she heard, and then the girl was at the door with a tray containing a bottle of hot wine and some glasses. Martha set it on the table and poured wine for them. Her husband was sneezing, his eyes wet with tears. He said:
"Please, Martha, I can't drink that hot wine. You've overspiced it."
"Mr. Washington," she said, "you've taken cold already. If you'll excuse him gentlemen, he'll go up to bed."
And upstairs, she watched him fondly although she winced each time he sneezed. He sat wrapped in a comforter, his feet in a basin off hot water and salts. His wig was off, and his thin red hair, streaked with gray, lay across his forehead.
And Martha, piling quilts on the bed, considered that she liked him best that way. She was thinking that she would keep him in bed tomorrow, and in the house for a day or two following. She told him so, and he said:
"I was thinking I would review the troops tomorrow, Martha, tell them"
Then she looked at him, and he glanced down at his feet, and then he nodded, a sort of smile on his face.
"I am a bother," he murmured.
"A bother," she agreed, fluffing up the quilts.