james thatcher

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

 

Dueling: “The Vindictive Spirit of Malice and Revenge”

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Last Sunday’s episode of TURN (Episode 8: Mercy Moment Murder Measure) included a dramatic dueling scene that had plenty of viewers wondering “Did people really do that sort of thing back then?” In today’s guest post, Todd Braisted answers with a resounding “yes” as he shares four fascinating stories of Revolutionary affairs of honor, pulled straight from the historical record. Yet another reminder that truth is often stranger – and more colorful – than fiction. Enjoy! -RS

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“The vindictive spirit of malice and revenge”:
Dueling in the American Revolution

by Todd Braisted

When last we saw TURN’s Captain Simcoe and Abraham Woodhull (a.k.a. Jamie Bell and Samuel Roukin), they were facing off with pistols against each other over the fair Anna Strong (Heather Lind.) While the real Simcoe never dueled anyone (that we know of, anyway), duels, while perhaps not everyday affairs, were frequent enough during the Revolutionary War to be deadly to more than a few participants. And while duels were officially outlawed by both armies, the nuances of honor in the late 18th century virtually demanded that they take place.

James_Thacher
An engraving of James Thatcher, Continental Army surgeon, later in life. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

This is not to say that the practice was universally approved — far from it. Continental Army Surgeon James Thatcher, on 30 August 1780, after two officers had been killed in duels over the past 24 hours, lamented in his journal:

“…two valuable lives been sacrificed within two days, to what is termed principles of honor, or rather to the vindictive spirit of malice and revenge. Is there no remedy for this fashionable folly, this awful blindness and perversion of mind, this barbarous and infernal practice, this foul stain on the history of man!”

The duel the day before involved two cavalry officers of the 4th (Continental) Dragoons, one can be identified as Lieutenant Thomas Overton, the other only as “Mr. P.” Again, according to Thatcher’s journal:

“I learned that a duel had just been fought between Lieutenant O. and Mr. P., both of Colonel Moyland’s [4th] regiment of dragoons, and both of whom were yesterday on the most intimate terms of friendship. Mr. O. killed his antagonist on the spot, and received a dangerous wound in his thigh. When I visited him, his wound had been dressed, and I was astonished at the calmness and composure with which he related all the particulars of this melancholy and murderous catastrophe, and the agonizing state of mind of his late friend in his dying moments. The duel originated in a trivial misunderstanding, which excited these close friends to assume the character of assassins, and to hazard life for life. Nor did O. discover the least sorrow or remorse of conscience for having sacrificed the life of a friend and valuable officer to the mistaken points of honor!”

“Points of honor” concerning a woman’s virtue were the rationale behind Simcoe’s and Woodhull’s on-screen duel. Duels between officers and civilians were rare, if not unheard of. However, there are several recorded cases of two officers seriously disagreeing over a woman, for numerous reasons.

When a drunken Ensign Murdoch McKenzie of the [British] 79th Regiment threw a bottle in a tavern in Jamaica, striking a black woman in the head, a fellow officer, Captain William Townsend of the 88th Regiment “in the presence and hearing of the Officers in the Coffee House, [said] that he was surprized such people (meaning Murdoch McKenzie) were allowed to wear His Majesty’s Cloth, and then desired him…to blindfold himself and go out of the Coffee House, for that after such behaviour, neither he Captain Townshend or any other of the Officers would keep any further Company with him.” The two, attended by their seconds, ended up in a pistol duel at a race track, where the captain was shot in the hand. McKenzie was tried by general court martial for sending a challenge and “assault” on Captain Townsend. He was cashiered but recommended to King George III for a pardon. His Majesty pardoned the intemperate ensign, but not without noting his express disapproval:

“His Majesty cannot however pass over without reprehension the very inconsiderate and unwarrantable Conduct of the Said Ensign McKenzie, and which appears to have been the source of the Quarrel between him and Captain Townshend, in wantonly throwing a Glass bottle at a number of negroes, who were innocently assembled, neither committing nor meditating any outrage, whereby a Negroe Woman received a considerable (tho’ happily not a dangerous) hurt on the head; and His Majesty has… [signified] His royal pleasure, that this animadversion upon the Conduct of the said Ensign McKenzie be notified in Public Orders.”

Evidently, His Britannic Majesty was not a fan of dueling, either.

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There were plenty of disagreements between officers about women in more intimate (and scandalous) circumstances, too – although such disagreements did not automatically lead a duels. One example would be within the Queen’s Rangers (which, as we’ve mentioned earlier, Simcoe would command later in the war). After the British occupied Philadelphia in late 1777, the Rangers formed part of an expedition into Salem County, New Jersey. Not making the trip however was Lieutenant Nathaniel Fitzpatrick, who stayed behind to receive a “cure” for a “violent venereal disorder.” This did not stop him from sleeping with one Mary Duché, the live-in girlfriend of Captain James Murray of the same corps. He promptly transmitted the disease to her, who in turn gave it to the unknowing captain upon his return from New Jersey, thereby “disordering” him as well. Fitzpatrick privately acknowledged to Murray that he slept with Mary, though he mentioned nothing about being “poxed,” which he left for Murray to discover in due course. Since the captain “had many private reasons for wishing that the matter might not be made publick,” he begrudgingly “forgave Lieutenant Fitzpatrick.” Simcoe, however (perhaps somewhat resembling his TURN character) thought the whole matter outrageous and ordered Fitzpatrick to resign his commission over the incident. When the lieutenant refused, Simcoe placed him under arrest, telling him he was “not sensible of the Injury he had done to his own Character and to the Corps in General.” Tried for “behaving in a Scandalous infamous Manner such as is unbecoming the Character of an Officer and a Gentleman,” Fitzpatrick was acquitted, upon condition of apologizing to all the officers of the Rangers. (You can read the transcribed court martial documents, if you feel so inclined, here.)

Finally, there perhaps is no better example of poor judgment combined with liquid courage than when the boastful Ensign John Moffet, also of the Queen’s Rangers, spent one cold January 1780 night drinking in a tavern and making disparaging remarks against another corps in garrison there, the New Jersey Volunteers. When an officer of that battalion, Ensign John Lawrence, took exception, the two took to blows, hurling each other from table to table until both were placed under arrest by a superior officer, Lieutenant Allan McNabb. Several hours later, McNabb sent each officer back his sword and told them to settle it like gentlemen – meaning, of course, to either apologize or shoot lead balls at each other from close range. Moffet believed himself the aggrieved party and immediately penned the following note to Lawrence:

moffet letter
Original copy of the letter from John Moffet challenging Ensign John Lawrence to a duel. Courtesy of Jan Nordhoff, whose husband is a Lawrence descendant.

Richmond [Staten Island] 13th Jany. 1780

(Sir)
In consequence of your behaviour last night to me (when totally intoxicated) request that satisfaction due by one Gentleman to another. Mr. McNabb sends you your side arms, and wishes that you should not consider yourself longer under an arrest by him. I now call upon you as a Gentleman and a Soldier with your Sword & Pistols to wipe off any Odium I might have received by your Ungentlemanlike treatment to

Yrs
John Moffet

The two met on that frigid January day with their seconds, marked the distance at six yards (as opposed to the 4 yards distance requested by Moffet), and fired simultaneously. Moffet’s ball barely grazed Lawrence near the right breast, not even breaking the skin. Lawrence’s shot however went true, straight into the Ranger’s stomach. Moffet was killed, as he was good enough to tell his second, Lieutenant George Pendred, looking up at him and declaring “My dear fellow I am killed” upon which he immediately died. Moffet was eventually buried at Richmond Church, where he presumably remains today. The burial was delayed several days because of an incursion of 2,700 Continental troops onto Staten Island. This forced Moffet to take one last tour of the island, his corpse taking a sleigh ride from tavern to tavern until the island was secured.

StAndrewEpis
The Church of Saint Andrew (Episcopal) on Staten Island, with a view of the graveyard where Ensign John Moffet was buried in 1780.

Lawrence was tried for murder but made the defense all such officers and gentlemen in similar circumstances made. Appealing to the court’s sense of honor, Lawrence related how he had been challenged, and had to accept, stating “I considered myself bound by the Laws of honor, to give him the Satisfaction he demanded. My reputation as an Officer and a Gentleman, in short my all was at stake—had I omitted meeting him in the manner he requested, I must ever after been treated as a Rascal and Coward…” The court agreed, acquitting him by reason of self-defense.

We don’t know what will become of TURN’s Simcoe and Woodhull in future episodes, but we can only hope we don’t see either looking up at the camera and exclaiming “My dear fellow I am killed…”

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Todd W. Braisted is an author and researcher of Loyalist military studies. His primary focus is on Loyalist military personnel, infrastructure and campaigns throughout North America. Since 1979, Braisted has amassed and transcribed over 40,000 pages of Loyalist and related material from archives and private collections around the world. He has authored numerous journal articles and books, as well as appearing as a guest historian on episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? (CBC) and History Detectives (PBS). He is the creator of the Online Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies (royalprovincial.com), the largest website dedicated to the subject.  Braisted is a Fellow in the Company of Military Historians, Honorary Vice President of the United Empire Loyalist Association of Canada, and a past-president of the Bergen County Historical Society.

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Postscript (by Rachel Smith)

Benjamin Tallmadge also had very strong feelings about dueling.  In fact, he felt so strongly about it that he devoted the two very last paragraphs of his memoirs (written decades after the Revolutionary War) to the subject. Dueling didn’t fade away with the advent of the new American republic: in fact, it became even more widespread and infamous in the tumultuous first years of the 19th century, epitomized by the fatal duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804.  Anyone familiar with Tallmadge’s personal history knows that he himself harbored plenty of bravado and (occasional) impetuousness while serving as dragoon commander and spymaster during the American Revolution. Nevertheless, here are his final thoughts on dueling, in his own words:
bentallmadgedueling