Thursday, March 18, 2010

A sewing needle may have won a war

We've all known since we were bitty kids that Betsey Ross sewed our first American flag. But how many of us know about the contributions of Martha Washington--and how she played a crucial role in establishing America? I must admit that my impressions of her when I was a kid was a glimpse of a rather dowdy old lady in a lace cap. The more I read, the more I know that this couldn't be further from the truth.

It's 1777, Morristown, New Jersey. You know the 'freak' snowstorms that blanketed the East Coast this past year? Well, contrary to the global warming theorists, they were happening back in the 1770's. Snow on the ground was two feet deep, New York harbor froze for the first time in recorded history, Baltimore's harbor was frozen, and it was possible to cross the iced-over Hudson on horseback. I've lived back east, and the cold cuts you to the quick. The snow is unbelievably heavy--that's why houses in the region have steep peaked roofs because the snow can literally cave them in. I have also been frost-bitten before (long story), and it isn't a cold burns and burns. Simply put, it's agonizing. I cannot imagine these colonial men going without shoes, shirts, pants, some of them virtually naked in that biting cold.

Here's a paragraph that really gives us a picture of how really bad our American soldiers had it, taken from "The General and Mrs. Washington" by Bruce Chadwick:
"Men began to sneak out of camp to steal food, kitchen utensils, clothing, and anything they could find from area farmers. Washington ordered a halt to this behavior, writing that his men were 'becoming a band of robbers [rather] than disciplined troops.' But he looked the other way and let them do it. They had to keep themselves alive because the army could not. Finally, on January 3, the commander was told by Nathaniel Greene that there was no more money left to purchase supplies and that the army had run out of food. The money for clothing had been depleted, too. Then, in the first week of January, a double blizzard hit New Jersey, dumping over four feet of snow on the ground. Accompanying winds created TEN-foot high drifts. "

Enter Martha Washington. She is not only the wife of Washington--she is his dearest friend and support system. The General has chosen well in his life partner. She is incredibly strong and capable, a woman able to smile and embrace the joys in life, despite a life haunted by tragedy. In a span of less than a year, she has lost her former husband, three of her siblings, and two of her children. She is, by all accounts, the kind of woman, who asks you how you are doing, rather than sharing her troubles. She makes everyone feel special. She's rather plain, struggles with her weight, and likes understated clothes, but she has lovely white teeth, and her smile lights up her face. She has suffered recent economic privation, despite her wealthy background, and now that she has found love again in George Washington, he has been torn away from her for years of war and public service.

Washington has sent for her, as he often does during the war. He needs her beyond words. One could easily argue that Congress is as ineffective and apathetic as it is today, and he cannot convince them of the dire need for supplies. And besides, the fledgling government is as broke and desperate as he is. He is completely worn out, both physically and mentally.

First of all, she nurses the General back to health. He quite literally is on his deathbed when she arrives. He had been shoveling for days along with his men, and has contracted another devastating sore throat, a condition that plagued him his entire life, and eventually did kill him. Bed-ridden and weak from his physician's constant attempts to bleed him, his troops hold out little hope. When Martha gets there, she treats him with wifely TLC and certainly her molasses and onion tonic, and Washington survives. She immediately sets to work establishing sewing circles with the officer's wives. She orders all of her seamstress slaves at Mount Vernon to sew for the war effort, and coordinates circles of paid female laborers. She organizes get-togethers for the officer's families and generally raises the morale of every soldier there.

This work continues tirelessly into the infamous camping at Valley Forge. After returning to Mount Vernon, to take care of affairs there, she again rejoins her husband on the battlefield. Contrary to popular belief, the winter was not nearly as harsh as it had been in Morristown. The men were still woefully lacking in basic necessities, including shelter. Martha resumes her punishing days of sewing, everything from shirts to knitted stockings. She visits the sick daily, and probably was the first USO, as she constantly organizes dinner parties, choral singings, prayer services, and plays. She also understands that if she takes care of her man, she is taking care of the troops, and she makes sure that her husband rests, and takes moments out for leisure. Her sacrifices, among them being away from her surviving children and risking her life in a war zone, are inspiring, starting a chain reaction and galvanizing the women in the country. In fact, women from around the country raise $300,000 (imagine, how much that was in those times) to give to Martha, not to the General, for the sewing of soldier clothing. Hundreds of women huddle over their needles sewing and sending clothes. In fact, many of them embroider their names along a seam, so the soldier will know their hearts are with the man wearing it. Keep in mind, clothing was such an imperative in those days, because it wasn't like one could go the local store and buy a bolt of cloth. The colonies had been boycotting all ready-made fabric for some time, so all of these pieces of clothing were completely constructed from "scratch", so to speak. The cloth was hand-woven on a loom, and the item was hand-stitched.

Martha balanced the operations of an enormous plantation with handling the needs of an army, and this showed women all over the nation what they could be capable of. Most of these women were tending their own farms while their men were away, and working far into the night to support the war.  As Bruce Chadwick puts it:

"From Anne Terel, the wife of an American a letter published in 'The Virginia Gazette', 'Women [are] part of another branch of American politics which comes immediately under our province, namely, in frugality and industry. [Women] raise their crops, make clothing, run their husbands' farms and stores, and secure the home front so that their husbands could continue to fight in the fields."

I wish that I had learned more of this in my history classes. In an age where textbooks are so sensitive about providing role models for women, it's so sad that the backbone, elegance, and grit of our new nation's women is so completely overlooked. Heroes do come out of kitchens, and yes, they can wear an apron.

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