Revolutionary War Historical Article

George Washington and Martha Custis
Unpublished Letter on Their Courtship

by Donald N. Moran

Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the December 2001 Edition of The Liberty Tree Newsletter

Stanley C. Henderson, President of the General George Washington Chapter, has been given permission by Mrs. Roberta Shurtz of Marysville, California Chapter to publish a letter that has been saved by her family. The letter had been transcribed on to lined paper because the original letter was deteriorating. Mrs. Shurtz can not provide the provenances of the letter, but states it’s been a family "treasure" for many generations.

The letter was written by Charlotte Chamberlain of New Kent County, Virginia to Lady Frances Shelbourne of London, England. The Chamberlains were a prominent family in Virginia and were related to the Dandridge family through marriage. The exact connection between Charlotte and Lady Shelbourne appears to have been friends and not related. The Shelbourne name is the hereditary title for an Earldom in England, the family name was Petty-Fitzmaurice. The significance of the letter is that it provides some insight into the wedding of George Washington to Martha Dandridge Custis, heretofore unknown, as well as the pre-Revolutionary War reputation of Washington. The lack of provenances (comprehensive evidence establishing the authenticity of the letter) must be considered. It is possible that this letter was an early 19th century piece of historical fiction. However, owing to the historical importance of the content of the letter, it is believed that it should be published to preserve it until such time as the letter is authenticated. We have corrected spelling errors and added footnotes for our commentary.

 

THE LETTER FROM CHARLOTTE CHAMBERLAIN TO LADY FRANCES SHELBOURNE

County of New Kent, Virginia
May 15th 1759

Lady Frances Shelbourne,

My Very Dear Friend,


Your letter was received with great pleasure by us here in our far away home. The news from Englang
[England] and our friend is very dear and welcome to us. And the interest you manifest towards us, and the prosperity of our colonies is very flattering to us. And is what we most delight to write and talk about. The greatest social event that has ever taken place in our colony, occurred some three months ago, being the wedding of our mutual friend Mrs. Dandridge’s daughter, Mrs. Martha Custis (1) to Colonel George Washington. The wedding was a splendid affair, conducted after the old English style that prevailed among wealthy planters. Military and civil officers with their wives graced the occasion. Ladies appeared in the costliest brocades, laces, and jewels which the old world could provide. The bride was arrayed in the height of English fashion, her wealth of charms a fit accompaniment to the manly beauty of the bridegroom, who stood six feet three inches in his shoes. The tallest and handsomest man of the Old Dominion. Colonel Washington is the hero of our new country, his heroic deeds for his country, his patriotism, perseverance, quick discernment, and military skill shown during the war with the French and Indians has been marvelous for such a young man, he being now hut twenty-eight years of age. I know you have heard his name often mentioned in England, and will be interested in him so [I] will tell you more particularly of the life of this young man to whim we give a kind of hero worship. At the commencement of the trouble between the French and English in regard to possession of lands, Gov. Diwiddie [Dinwiddie] found it necessary to send an ambassador to the French on the Ohio to inquire into their claims and purpose. It was a responsible and perilous undertaking, accompanied by great hardship and risk of life. There were 600 miles of pathless forests, gloomy morrassas [morasses] and craggy mountains to traverse, infested by wily bands of Indians, who hated the English, and had given their friendship to the French. Gov. Diwiddie [Dinwiddie] offered the commission to several responsible men, but all declined. At length Colonel Washington then 22 years of age, offered his services, which were readily accepted. Hastily he prepared for the expedition, first paid his mother a flying visit, who was dearer to him than any other person (2). When ready to start, the company consisted of eight persons, all well qualified for work given them. They left Williamsburg October 31st 1753. Excessive rains, and vast quantities of snow, impeded the way, and the rivers swollen to torrents, so it was impossible to ford them, caused many miles extra travel to reach a safe crossing, at a fork of the Ohio river he visited Shingiss [Shingas] King of the Delewares [Delawares] and Half King (3). He was detained by them three days, using great tact and skill not to displease them, and gain their friendship. They gave him belts of wampum, and guides to the French Fort Verrango [Fort Venango], 70 miles distance. Now his commission was received from England, and America well understood at this time. His return to Williamsburg, proved more perilous than his journey to the Fort. Deep snows, treacherous Indian guides, pesky frozen streams that they were obliged to swim in order to cross and the danger of freezing afterwards was great. Washington arrived in Williamsburg, Jan. 16, 1754, and reported to Gov. Diwiddie [ Dinwiddie] delivering the reply of the French Commander, the belts of wampum from the Indian tribes as pledges of friendship, together with his journal, as a report of his expedition. The Governor [Governor] ordered the journal published (5) and it was received with great praise and excitement everywhere, both in England and America. The King directed Governor [Governor] Divisive [Dignified] to raise a force in Virginia. Washington was painted [appointed] recruiting officer. After the companies were raised he was offered command of the troops but with the usual modest estimate of himself, he would not accept and was appointed Lieutenant Colonel. After recruiting 3 companies, and procuring an order from the Governor [Governor], he marched to the frontier, with 150 men, proceeded to Great Meadows. They had just encamped when a messenger brought the news that a party of French were within five miles of them. Washington pursued them with 40 men.

Half King and a few Indians joined them. The French were surprised. A brief encounter ensued. When the French surrendered, 10 were killed, and 21 made prisoners. One of the 21 being their leader. Washington served voluntary, refusing pay. When his soldiers were receiving a mere pittance, and were half starved. Twice a day his little army were called to prayers at the fort which he himself conducted, and on the sabbath he conducted religious services. Later 800 Frenchmen and 400 Indians attacked them at Fort Necessity. The battled raged all day until 8 o’clock in the evening, when the French sent them a flag of truce. Articles of Capitulation were signed, and the Fort surrendered. The next morning Washington’s little band marched out of the fort, with banners flying, bands playing, and bearing their arms, so they were not degraded. The next year came Gen. Braddock with his two regiments, and another attack was made on Fort Dukane (6) [Fort Duquesne], the result of which you well know, when if he had listened to the counsel of Colonel Washington great loss of life and probably defeat would have been avoided. Too late he acknowledged his mistake. Again the armies returned to Williamsburg and Washington was appointed Commander of the Virginia troops.

After Braddock's Defeat, George Washington was Credited
with Saving the Survivors Making Him a Colonel Hero

The next two years he spent in trying to defend the frontier, In 1758, General Abercombe [Abercromby] succeeded Govenor [Governor] Diwiddie [Dinwiddie]. He issued an order to organize a strong expedition against [Fort]Duquesne and Washington was overjoyed. He saw rifts in the clouds that had so long overshadowed them. Washington at this time was in Williamsburg for the purpose of laying before the committee of the ligisation [legislature?] the wants of his army, and secure liberal supplies for them. On his way to Williamsburg, he passed through New Kent. As he approached our estate, Mr. Chamberlain was near our front gate and recognized Washington who was accompanied by his servant, saluted him, and invited him to dine with us, and insisted upon the honor of detaining him as a guest, but Washington refused, saying thank you with all my heart, but business of importance would admit no delay. Upon further persuasion, he accepted his invitation upon the condition that he might be excused immediately after dinner.

Among our guests that day was Mrs. Martha Custis. Her charming appearance captivated the young hero’s heart. After dinner, he lingered, the longer he talked the more he admired the grace and character of the lady, and after a time he accepted our invitation to stop over night, and all thoughts of war was [were] banished. The next morning he hurried away at break neck speed, seemingly no longer merciful to his beast, and puzzling to the servant at his conduct. Having secured the supplies for his army, he returned by the way of the “white house (4)” where Mrs. Custis lived in English style. How long he remained there I know not, but long enough to consummate a treaty of love, in which it was stipulated that she should become his bride when the expedition against Fort Duquesne had been brought to a close. The next expedition against Fort Duquesne under General Forbes was but a repetition of General Braddock’s attempt. As Washington said "Braddocks folly repeated must end in Burdocks defeat and shame." After the army retreated to Laurel Hills where Washington was, the General asked counsel of Washington and acted upon it which was to push on at once to the Fort which they did and found it deserted, so planted their standard, burned [buried] their head, rebuilt the fort and named it Fort Pitt, Washington then resigned his military office, and now with his bride resides at the White House (4).


If I have interested you in our hero, well I am glad. My long letter admits of no more particulars at this time.

Hope you will write to me soon.

Your Sincere Friend, Charlotte Chamberlain.

 

EDITOR’S NOTES AND COMMENTS:

(1) Martha Dandridge was the widow of Daniel P. Custis.

(2) The truth about George Washington’s relationship with his mother has only recently been disclosed.

(3} Half King was the King of the Seneca Tribe, the most powerful of the chiefs Washington dealt with.

(4) The reference to the "White House" is an unconfirmed title for the Chamberlain estates, and becomes confusing when Charlotte refers to Mount Vernon also as the "White House", this is the only reference we have found to Mount Vernon by this title.

(5) This Journal is entitled "The Journal of Major George Washington" and is currently published by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Although very brief, it is well worth reading. It provides some insight into the character of Washington long before he became an icon.

(6) We find this strange - Charlotte spelled Fort Duquesne phonetically, the first time she mentioned the Fort, then correctly spelled it every time thereafter Fort Duquesne was renamed Fort Pitt and today it is the city of Pittsburgh.

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