Life as a military spouse can be lonely, anxious, and filled with social pressure. But where do those high expectations come from? Military spouses have long been expected to make sacrifices for their country—and Martha Washington, the first First Lady, helped set the tone nearly 250 years ago.
Like other upper-class white women of her day, Martha was expected to raise children, oversee her massive staff of slaves and servants, and receive her husband’s guests. But when George Washington took command of the Continental Army, her life changed irrevocably. She did not know it, but her husband would be gone for eight long years as the army struggled to defeat the larger and more technologically advanced British army.
Today, many military members’ deployments are overseas, but George was deployed nearby. Martha followed him to camp, and they spent about half of the war together.
During the 18th century, war was seasonal, and when autumn came, both armies hunkered down in winter quarters. This gave Martha a chance to see George, and he requested that she visit his winter encampment each year of the war. As the war dragged on, she became a critical comfort to the increasingly unhappy general.
Martha took an active role at camp. She managed food and essentially ran Washington’s headquarters, organizing social events and soothing the tempers of officers and their wives. She comforted not only her husband, but the soldiers she met there.
“I never in my life knew a woman so busy from early morning until latest as was lady Washington,” wrote a woman who visited Valley Forge in 1778. Martha oversaw social events, nursed sick soldiers, acted as a liaison between her husband and other officials, and cheered troops whose prospects of victory looked increasingly bleak.
She also became the general’s confidante not just in issues of love, but in issues of military strategy. “Martha had more responsibility than the other wives,” notes George Washington’s Mount Vernon. “She was the General’s sounding board and closest confidant. She acted as his secretary and representative, copying letters and representing him at official functions.” She also organized a massive donation campaign that collected funds and clothing on behalf of the troops.
Martha traveled so much during the Revolutionary War that she called herself “the great perambulator.” She risked her life by traveling through dangerous territory to reach camp, and was accompanied by an armed guard to prevent being kidnapped. She also left her family—and the world to which she was accustomed—far behind.
Without knowing it, Martha Washington had set a precedent for wives in war. The resilience and strength she displayed—and the image of military wives as long-suffering and willing to give up everything for their husbands—has persisted to this day. Military spouses are no longer expected to accompany their partners onto the actual battlefield, but they are still asked to make massive sacrifices for their country.