Christmas conjures up images of festivity, family, and especially sumptuous dinners but it wasn’t that way for George Washington during the Revolutionary War. He served as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army from May 1775 to December 1783 or about 104 months.
During that time, he visited his beloved Mount Vernon just once, in 1781 following the victory at Yorktown before returning to his home for good in 1783.
Washington did not keep up his diary during the War for Independence and he left no descriptions of Christmas dinner at army headquarters in his extensive correspondence. In fact, Christmas was not widely celebrated as a holiday in the colonies. Much of what we today identify with Christmas comes from the 19th century. What one experiences at Colonial Williamsburg today during the holidays is much different from what actually transpired in the 18th century especially in the northern and middle colonies.
In the Washington Papers, there are two references to the holiday season prior to the American Revolution. In 1753, he spent a miserable period of freezing cold, and snowy weather along the Virginia- Pennsylvania frontier in late December being chased by the Indian allies of the French. Major Washington was returning on foot to deliver his report to the governor of Virginia and almost drowned along the way. Provisions were limited to bread and water! The following year, Washington was invited to spend the Christmas holidays at Westover, the palatial estate of William Byrd. He declined, however, having just acquired a much less grand home at Mount Vernon a few days previously. He did pass some of the time there playing cards from December 25th to the 27th.
For George Washington, there were two constants around the end of December during the Revolutionary War: it was always cold and snowy where he wintered, no balmy Christmases then; and Martha Washington was usually with her husband during the winter months though not necessarily at Christmas. We know they were together for Christmas in 1775 and 1779, probably 1780, 1781, 1782, and also in 1783. But there is no mention of Christmas dinner in 1775 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, or in 1778, 1780, 1781, or 1782.
We know Washington was very busy in 1776. He crossed the Delaware River on Christmas morning on the way to attack the Hessians at Trenton; no time for dinner then! The following year at Valley Forge, with food being scarce and having lost his baggage earlier at Brandywine chasing General Howe on his way to Philadelphia, Washington “dined” on mutton, potatoes, cabbage, bread crusts, and water (no wine was available) and he had to eat with a spoon as his only utensil.
That was a splendid meal compared to the fare available for his troops. One of his soldiers reported that he had only half a pumpkin to eat over a period of two nights and a day.War was often hell too for the poor horses that served him and his army. On Christmas Day 1782 Washington wrote that his horses were starving for lack of forage around the Hudson Highlands.
During the summer of 1783, Washington traveled some 750 miles by horseback and canoe into upstate New York. He visited the Cohoes Falls and Fort Ticonderoga and toured the Saratoga Battlefield where Burgoyne surrendered his army in 1777. Washington also bought land along the Mohawk River on his trip.
In 1783, Washington timed his return to Mount Vernon following the British evacuation of New York City, his farewell to his officers at Fraunces Tavern, and the surrender of his commission to the Continental Congress sitting in Annapolis. He had promised Martha that he would be home for Christmas and indeed he arrived at Mount Vernon on Christmas Eve.
Thinking his years of public service were over, Washington expected to remain a gentleman farmer for the rest of his days. Little did he suspect that six years later, he would spend Christmas in New York City as the President of the United States.
Illustration: George Washington and Family by Thomas Pritchard Rossiter, 1858-1860.