iconoclasm

Did George Washington have a mental breakdown at Valley Forge?

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Greeting, TURNcoats, and Happy Finale Day! As Season 2 of TURN: Washington’s Spies comes to a close, there are certainly lots of plot points both factual and fictional to reflect upon.

One of the most controversial parts of Season 2 was undoubtedly the portrayal of George Washington in the episode “Valley Forge.” In that episode, Washington has an extreme mental breakdown resulting in flashbacks, hallucinations, nonsensical outbursts, and even a violent attack on his enslaved manservant, Billy Lee. The writers of TURN justified Washington’s “madness” by having Dr. James Thatcher diagnose him with “melancholia” as brought on by extreme stress — but as the Oxford English Dictionary notes, that term was rarely used in that context in the 18th century.

melancholia
While “melancholy” was a popular adjective in the 18th century, formal diagnoses of “melancholia” as a synonym for depression mental illness were not.

Perhaps the most memorable scene of the episode featured a dramatic camera angle that directly parodied a popular 20th century portrait depicting Washington kneeling in the snow. In the original painting, titled “The Prayer at Valley Forge,” Washington is meant to be praying to God. In TURN, Washington is pleading with a hallucination of his dead half-brother Lawrence in the midst of a mental breakdown.

Needless to say, this iconoclastic treatment of Washington caused quite a stir with TURN viewers. This blog was flooded with questions about whether or not there was any historical basis for Washington having a mental breakdown at Valley Forge, e.g.:

“In a recent episode George Washington appeared to have a mental breakdown as he struggled to make a decision. Is there evidence to support that?

“Is there any basis for Washington’s breakdown and conversation with his dead half brother at Valley Forge?

Given the potentially far-reaching implications of TURN’s insinuations that Washington was mentally unstable, I knew it was time to call in reinforcements to help set the record straight. To answer those questions, we TURN to a formidable authority on the subject: Mary V. Thompson, a Research Librarian at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington who has been researching, writing, and teaching about Washington for over thirty years at Mount Vernon.

Washington in the midst of a hallucination.
Washington in the midst of a hallucination in the TURN episode “Valley Forge.”

Mary V. Thompson writes:

All of the questions you’ve received are basically asking the same thing and would get the same answer. There is no evidence at all that George Washington was dealing any kind of mental breakdown either at Valley Forge, or any other time in his life.  Throughout that winter of 1777 – 1778, he was dealing with serious supply issues, which he was able to rectify, as well as some rather under-handed attacks on his competency as commander-in-chief (the Conway Cabal), which he handled rather deftly.

As she did for all eight years of the Revolution, Martha Washington spent the winter at Valley Forge with her husband.  In a letter to a friend she wrote about what she found in camp that year:

The letters of Martha Washington, who was with her husband at Valley Forge, provide some of the best insight into the General's mental state.
The letters of Martha Washington, who was with her husband at Valley Forge, provide some of the best insight into George Washington’s mental state.

“I came to this place about the first of February whare I found the General very well…The General is in camped in what is called the great Valley on the Banks of the Schuykill officers and men are cheifly in Hutts, which they say is tolerable comfortable; the army are as healthy as can well be expected in general – the Generals appartments is very small he has had a log cabben built to dine in which has made our quarter much more tolarable than they were at first.”

Please note that there was no mention of a crisis on the part of her husband.

This is in decided contrast to a letter she wrote two years later, after the winter at Morristown, New Jersey, which was the worst of the war, in regard to the weather.  At that time, George Washington was also dealing with soldiers angry about not being paid and threatening mutiny.  This is what Mrs. Washington had to say about that winter after it was over:

“…we were sorry that we did not see you at the Camp – there was not much pleasure thar the distress of the army and other difficultys th’o I did not know the cause, the pore General was so unhappy that it distressed me exceedingly.”

Again, her husband was unhappy and preoccupied, but nothing worse.

There were times in the early years of the war, when George Washington seems to have been feeling overwhelmed or pessimistic about the incredible burden he had taken on as head of the American army, but that is a far cry from having a mental breakdown.  I’ve pulled together some of these below.  I think it is particularly interesting that, in many of them, he turns to his religious beliefs as a way of putting the situation into context.  Although the story about Washington praying in the snow at Valley Forge has been discredited, it does seem to me that, if Washington turned to anyone about the terrible months at those winter quarters, it would have been to his God.

George Washington to Joseph Reed, January 4, 1776

“…for more than two months past, I have scarcely immerged [sic] from one difficulty before I have [been] plunged into another.  How it will end, God in his great goodness will direct.  I am thankful for his protection to this time.  We are told that we shall soon get the army completed, but I have been told so many things which have never come to pass, that I distrust every thing.”

George Washington  to Joseph Reed, January 14, 1776

“…If I shall be able to rise superior to these and many other difficulties, which might be enumerated, I shall most religiously believe, that the finger of Providence is in it, to blind the eyes of our enemies; for surely if we get well through this month, it must be for want of their knowing the disadvantages we labour under….”

George Washington to his favorite brother, John Augustine Washington, December 18, 1776

“You can form no Idea of the perplexity of my Situation.  No Man, I believe, ever had a greater choice of difficulties and less means to extricate himself from them.  However under a full persuasion of the justice of our Cause I cannot [but think the prospect will brighten, although for a wise purpose it is, at present hid under a cloud] entertain an Idea that it will finally sink tho’ it may remain for some time under a Cloud.”

George Washington to his step-son, John Parke Custis, January 22, 1777

“…How we shall be able to rub along till the new army is raised, I know not.  Providence has heretofore saved us in a remarkable manner, and on this we must principally rely….”

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Mary V. Thompson is a Research Librarian at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington in Mount Vernon, VA. She is currently responsible for research to support programs in all departments at Mount Vernon, with a primary focus on everyday life on the estate. Mary has authored a variety of articles, as well as chapters in a number of books, and entries in encyclopedias. She curated the travelling exhibition, Treasures from Mount Vernon: George Washington Revealed, which opened in 1998 and travelled to five cities over the next 18 months. More recently, she authored the book In the Hands of a Good Providence: Religion in the Life of George Washington (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008), for which she received the 2009 Alexandria History Award from the Alexandria [Virginia] Historical Society and the 2013 George Washington Memorial Award from the George Washington Masonic National Memorial. She was a major contributor to both The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association: 150 Years of Restoring George Washington’s Home and Dining with the Washingtons: Historic Recipes, Entertaining, and Hospitality from Mount Vernon, published by Mount Vernon in 2010 and 2011, respectively. She is currently putting the finishing touches on a book focused on slave life at Mount Vernon.

Sources:

“Worthy Partner”:  The Papers of Martha Washington, compiled by Joseph E. Fields (Westport, CT:  Greenwood Press, 1994

The Writings of George Washington, compiled by John C. Fitzpatrick (available in multiple formats, including e-book)

National Archives’ Founders Online database