The True George Washington: Social Life: During the Revolution

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff

During the Revolution

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 without vegetables."

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 water."

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 special invitation."

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 mnage 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 see them."

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."

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