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George Washington In Love
The Vivacious Sally Fairfax stole the young man’s heart long before he met Martha
Fall 2009 | Volume 59, Issue 3
This is a forgery. As John C. Fitzpatrick notes tersely, “The location of the original is not known.” The statement about marching to the Ohio is wrong. Much to Washington’s exasperation, on July 20 the British army was still sitting on the edge of the wilderness, debating which route to take. He was not even sure his force would be included. The word “courier” was never used by Washington during these years; he preferred “express.” Other words in the letter strike similar false notes. The style is much too emotional for a man who had spent comparatively little time with Mrs. Custis, even if she was his fiancée.
The letter first appeared in 1886, in a sentimental dual biography entitled Mary and Martha, Mother and Wife of George Washington. The author claimed he had seen the original, but no one else has ever found it. It seems likely that the letter was forged by someone trying to cast doubt about the authenticity of the letter to Sally. It may have been written by some kinsman of Washington or some other well-meaning person, such as the mystery man who bought the letter to Sally in 1877. Now that it’s known that the love letter to Sally is authentic, the forgery makes Washington look like a complete hypocrite.
That leaves us with Colonel Washington grumbling and cursing in Fort Cumberland, Maryland, while his English superiors ignored his advice on the best way to march on Fort Duquesne. Meanwhile, the evidence of his plans for the future was unfolding at Mount Vernon, which he
had decided to expand and rebuild with all possible speed. George William Fairfax, back from Europe, was asked to help with advice and supervision. This inevitably led to Washington telling him about his engagement to Martha Custis. Fairfax naturally told his wife about this interesting development. Into an envelope with a letter from George William about the renovation of Mount Vernon, Sally slipped a letter of her own, teasing him about his complaints that the campaign was moving too slowly.
Was he impatient because he had become a “votary of love”? She was of course referring to his engagement to Martha Custis. But the lonely warrior, facing an Indian-rife wilderness from which the proverbial bullet with his name on it might rip at any time, read quite a different meaning into Sally’s question. For him it was dipped in acid sarcasm, and she received in return nothing less than an explosion—a jumbled cry of anguish from a man who could bury his feelings no longer.
As usual, Sally was discreet. Her answer was apparently indirect; some historians think she pretended that the colonel was joking. Her letter is lost. Only Washington’s reply exists: “Do we still misunderstand the true meaning of each other’s letters? I think it must appear so tho I would fain hope the contrary as I cannot speak plainer without—But I’ll say no more and leave you to guess the rest.”
He gloomily added that he was almost certain the expedition to the Ohio would end in disaster. Then he added words that had deep meaning for both of them: “I should think my time more agreeably spent, believe me, in playing a part in Cato with the company you mention and myself doubly happy in being the Juba to such a Marcia as you must make.”
He closed with some offhand speculation on the marital plans of several friends, but made no mention of his own. Then came a last burst of emotion: “One thing more and I have done. You ask if I am not tired at the length of your letter? No, Madam, I am not, nor never can be while the lines are an inch asunder to bring you in haste to the end of the paper. You may be tired of mine by this. Adieu, dear Madam, you possibly will hear something of me or from me before we shall meet. Believe me that I am most unalterably, your most obedient and obliged . . .
In his surviving letters to Sally, Washington never before wrote “most unalterably.” Once more he was telling her the secret that they would share for the rest of their lives. They were lovers that destiny had tragically separated, as history had forever parted Marcia and Juba.
Four months after he had bared this passionate longing, George Washington married Martha Custis. If romance was not uppermost in his mind, there is evidence that Martha felt a few tremors. Her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, had been 15 years older than she—and he was by most accounts a rather pathetic (though extremely handsome) man, browbeaten all his life by a miserly father. The towering Colonel Washington was not only Virginia’s foremost soldier; he must have been a breathtaking sight in his English wedding suit of superfine blue cotton velvet. To the end of her life, Martha saved a piece of her wedding dress—white brocaded satin threaded with silver— and the white gloves her husband had worn to the ceremony.
A YEAR LATER, Washington wrote to Richard Washing ton, the English merchant with whom he usually did business in Lon don. “I am now I believe fix’d at this seat [Mount Vernon] with an agree able consort for life, and hope to find more happiness in retirement than I ever experienced in a wide and bustling world.” These are the words of a contented husband. To a man who had grown up in a household whose mistress had specialized in being disagreeable, Martha Dandridge Custis’s sunny disposition was something to treasure. He had begun to realize that marrying her was one of the best decisions of his life.
Fifteen years later, George Washington was attending the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. On June 23, 1775, he wrote an even more important letter to Martha.