During the Revolution all of Washington's aides and his secretary lived
with him at head-quarters, and constituted what he always called "my
family." In addition, many others sat down at table,—those who came
on business from a distance, as well as bidden guests,—-which frequently
included ladies from the neighborhood, who must have been belles among
the sixteen to twenty men who customarily sat down to dinner.
"If ... convenient and agreeable to you to take pot luck with me to-day,"
the General wrote John Adams in 1776, "I shall be glad of your company."
Pot luck it was for commander-in-chief and staff. Mention has been made of
how sometimes Washington slept on the ground, and even when under cover
there was not occasionally much more comfort. Pickering relates that one
night was passed in "Headquarters at Galloway's, an old log house. The
General lodged in a bed, and his family on the floor about him. We had
plenty of sepawn and milk, and all were contented."
Oftentimes there were difficulties in the hospitality. "I have been at my
prest. quarters since the 1st day of Decr.," Washington complained to the
commissary-general, "and have not a Kitchen to cook a Dinner in, altho'
the Logs have been put together some considerable time by my own Guard.
Nor is there a place at this moment in which a servant can lodge, with the
smallest degree of comfort. Eighteen belonging to my family, and all Mrs.
Ford's, are crowded together in her Kitchen, and scarce one of them able
to speak for the cold they have caught." Pickering, in telling how he
tried to secure lodgings away from head-quarters, gave for his reasons
that "they are exceedingly pinched for room.... Had I conceived how much
satisfaction, quiet and even leisure, I should have enjoyed at separate
quarters, I would have taken them six months ago. For at head-quarters
there is a continual throng, and my room, in particular, (when I was happy
enough to get one,) was always crowded by all that came to headquarters on
business, because there was no other for them, we having, for the most
part, been in such small houses."
There were other difficulties. "I cannot get as much cloth," the general
wrote, "as will make cloaths for my servants, notwithstanding one of them
that attends my person and table is indecently and most shamefully naked."
One of his aides said to a correspondent, jocularly, "I take your Caution
to me in Regard to my Health very kindly, but I assure you, you need be
under no Apprehension of my losing it on the Score of Excess of living,
that Vice is banished from this Army and the General's Family in
particular. We never sup, but go to bed and are early up." "Only
conceive," Washington complained to Congress, "the mortification they
(even the general officers) must suffer, when they cannot invite a French
officer, a visiting friend, or a travelling acquaintance, to a better
repast, than stinking whiskey (and not always that) and a bit of Beef
At times, too, it was necessary to be an exemplar. "Our truly republican
general," said Laurens, "has declared to his officers that he will set the
example of passing the winter in a hut himself," and John Adams, in a time
of famine, declared that "General Washington sets a fine example. He has
banished wine from his table, and entertains his friends with rum and
Whenever it was possible, however, there was company at head-quarters.
"Since the General left Germantown in the middle of September last," the
General Orders once read, "he has been without his baggage, and on that
account is unable to receive company in the manner he could wish. He
nevertheless desires the Generals, Field Officers and Brigades Major of
the day, to dine with him in future, at three o'clock in the afternoon."
Again the same vehicle informed the army that "the hurry of business often
preventing particular invitations being given to officers to dine with the
General; He presents his compliments to the Brigadiers and Field Officers
of the day, and requests while the Camp continues settled in the City,
they will favor him with their company to dinner, without further or
Mrs. Drinker, who went with a committee of women to camp at Valley Forge,
has left a brief description of head-quarters hospitality: "Dinner was
served, to which he invited us. There were 15 Officers, besides ye Gl. and
his wife, Gen. Greene, and Gen. Lee. We had an elegant dinner, which was
soon over, when we went out with ye Genls wife, up to her Chamber—and saw
no more of him." Claude Blanchard, too, describes a dinner, at which
"there was twenty-five covers used by some officers of the army and a lady
to whom the house belonged in which the general lodged. We dined under the
tent. I was placed along side of the general. One of his aides-de-camp did
the honors. The table was served in the American style and pretty
abundantly; vegetables, roast beef, lamb, chickens, salad dressed with
nothing but vinegar, green peas, puddings, and some pie, a kind of tart,
greatly in use in England and among the Americans, all this being put upon
the table at the same time. They gave us on the same plate beef, green
peas, lamb, &c."
Nor was the ménage of the General unequal to unexpected calls. Chastellux
tells of his first arrival in camp and introduction to Washington: "He
conducted me to his house, where I found the company still at table,
although the dinner had been long over. He presented me to the Generals
Knox, Waine, Howe, &c. and to his family, then composed of Colonels
Hamilton and Tilgman, his Secretaries and his Aides de Camp, and of Major
Gibbs, commander of his guards; for in England and America, the Aides de
Camp, Adjutants and other officers attached to the General, form what is
called his family. A fresh dinner was prepared for me and mine; and the
present was prolonged to keep me company." "At nine," he elsewhere writes,
"supper was served, and when the hour of bed-time came, I found that the
chamber, to which the General conducted me was the very parlour I speak
of, wherein he had made them place a camp-bed." Of his hospitality
Washington himself wrote,—
"I have asked Mrs. Cochran & Mrs. Livingston to dine with me to-morrow;
but am I not in honor bound to apprize them of their fate? As I hate
deception, even where the imagination only is concerned; I will. It is
needless to premise, that my table is large enough to hold the ladies. Of
this they had ocular proof yesterday. To say how it is usually covered, is
rather more essential; and this shall be the purport of my Letter.
"Since our arrival at this happy spot, we have had a ham, (sometimes a
shoulder) of Bacon, to grace the head of the Table; a piece of roast Beef
adorns the foot; a dish of beans, or greens, (almost imperceptible,)
decorates the center. When the cook has a mind to cut a figure, (which, I
presume will be the case to-morrow) we have two Beef-steak pyes, or dishes
of crabs, in addition, one on each side of the center dish, dividing
the space & reducing the distance between dish & dish to about 6 feet,
which without them would be near 12 feet apart. Of late he has had the
surprising sagacity to discover, that apples will make pyes; and its a
question, if, in the violence of his efforts, we do not get one of apples,
instead of having both of Beef-steaks. If the ladies can put up with such
entertainment, and will submit to partake of it in plates, once Tin but
now Iron—(not become so by the labor of scouring), I shall be happy to
Dinners were not the only form of entertaining. In Cambridge, when Mrs.
Washington and Mrs. Jack Custis were at head-quarters, a reception was
held on the anniversary of Washington's marriage, and at other times when
there was anything to celebrate,—the capitulation of Burgoyne, the
alliance with France, the birth of a dauphin, etc.,—parades, balls,
receptions, "feux-de-joie," or cold collations were given. Perhaps the
most ambitious attempt was a dinner given on September 21, 1782, in a
large tent, to which ninety sat down, while a "band of American music"
added to the "gaiety of the company."
Whenever occasion called the General to attend on Congress there was
much junketing. "My time," he wrote, "during my winter's residence in
Philadelphia, was unusually (for me) divided between parties of pleasure
and parties of business." When Reed pressed him to pass the period of
winter quarters in visiting him in Philadelphia, he replied, "were I to
give in to private conveniency and amusement, I should not be able to
resist the invitation of my friends to make Philadelphia, instead of a
squeezed up room or two, my quarters for the winter."