Martha Washington thought it would be a great idea to throw a Twelfth Night party in 1776 at Continental Army headquarters in Cambridge, Mass. After all, 17th wedding anniversary and the troops needed a morale booster.
George Washington didn’t like the idea of a Christmas party in Puritan Boston — or in a time of war.
Then he changed his mind.
Subsequent generations of those who attended the party re-enacted it. So did the children of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who later lived in the house.
Martha Washington Goes To Cambridge
Martha Washington had never been farther north than Alexandria, Va., when she set out for her husband’s winter headquarters during the Siege of Boston. She had stayed close to Mount Vernon, but as the Marquis de Lafayette said, she loved her husband madly.
George in October had asked Martha to join him. She brought her son Jacky and his wife Nelly, a maid and a coachman in scarlet livery. They set out in a chariot drawn by four horses, and often picked up military escorts through the 500-mile journey. When Martha Washington arrived in town, church bells rang, crowds cheered and newspapers reported on the event.
They reached Cambridge on Dec. 11, 1775, a signal for rejoicing in camp.
When Washington arrived in Cambridge on July 2, 1775, he was appalled by what he found. His 16,000 mostly filthy men gambled and drank all day instead of drilling. They relieved themselves in the street and piled up garbage. Men who had never fired a musket shot themselves while trying. Massachusetts militia feuded with Virginia and no one liked the Pennsylvanians. City and country folk didn’t get along, officers quarreled and ethnic rivalries turned into fights.
There were 6,500 British troops bottled up in Boston, but that looked likely to change soon. Washington was getting reports that Benedict Arnold’s expedition to Quebec had failed miserably. He had sent 1,100 men through rough terrain and bitter weather to block the British from sweeping down and attacking the rebels from the north. On Dec. 31, the Americans attacked Quebec, but Gen. Richard Montgomery was killed and Arnold badly wounded. The ragtag troops that survived the march and the battle tried to besiege the city, but they would fail.
Washington set about disciplining his men, with drills, work and standards of conduct. On Jan. 1, 1776, he raised a new flag and declared the Continental Army ready. He was putting on a brave front. Many thought he would suffer an ignominious death at the hands of the world’s best trained army. The death penalty hung over him.
‘Very terable indeed’
Into that bleak and desperate place came Martha Washington. She recorded her impressions in a letter to her friend Elizabeth Ramsay, in which she wrote,
…every person seems to be cheerfull and happy hear–some days we have a number of cannon and shells from Boston and Bunkers Hill, but it does not seem to surprise any one but me: I confess I shudder every time I hear the sound of a gun–…I just took a look at pore Boston and Charlestown–
Martha noted that Boston had a number of very fine buildings, “god knows how long they will stand.” The British were pulling up the wharves for firewood. “To me that has never see anything of war, the preparations, are very terable indeed, but I endever to keep my fears to myself as well as I can…”
Martha Washington made her home with her husband in the Georgian mansion of John Vassall, a Loyalist who fled when war broke out.
She immediately relieved him of the vexing social problems that took up too much of his time. Washington received a number of visits by members of Congress, local Massachusetts officials, governors from nearby colonies and revolutionary leaders such as John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. His officers, too, wanted his attention.
“Questions of social etiquette, jealousies with regard to dinner invitations to headquarters, and the like, had perplexed Washington,” wrote historian Anne Hollingsworth Wharton. “And in one of his letters to Mr. Reed he refers to “unintentional offences, which were rather owing to inattention, or more properly [to] too much attention to other matters.”
Martha created a social stir when she arrived in Cambridge. She was fashionable, outgoing, an assertive woman of means who knew how to get along with people. Her calmness boosted morale in a desperate time.
She greeted visitors with tea, oranges and vivacious conversation, and hosted frequent dinner parties for the young officers. The walls of the Vassall House resounded to talk of war and sport and frolic, wrote Dorothy Dudley and Arthur Gilman in The Cambridge of 1776.
Women were dazzled by the glamor and excitement Martha brought to Puritan Boston. Mercy Otis Warren, who became a lifelong friend, wrote,
The complacency of her manners speaks at once the benevolence of her heart, and her affability, Candor and gentleness, qualify her to soften the hours of private life, or to sweeten the cares of the Hero, and smooth the rugged paths of War…
Not long after Martha Washington arrived in camp, she decided to throw a Twelfth Night party to celebrate her wedding anniversary. Washington at first was horrified at the idea of partying in the middle of war. But then he realized “a little amusement often served to raise the spirits of both officers and men.”
They celebrated their anniversary with cake, candles and rejoicing, wrote Wharton. There would have been music, and guests would have danced the minuet and reels. Martha’s friend Lucy Knox, the pregnant young wife of Gen. Henry Knox, would have been the life of the party. Catharine Greene, the wife of Gen. Nathanael Greene, would have flirted with the officers wearing their beautiful blue uniforms.
Who else was at the party? Present at camp, and likely the party, were
- Maj. Gen. Charles Lee, a dashing Virginian who got drunk at one of Martha’s soirees and introduced Abigail Adams to his dog;
- Nathaniel Greene, the Rhode Island Quaker who became close to Washington;
- Israel Putnam, the brave, nearly illiterate Connecticut farmer, another Washington favorite;
- Thomas Mifflin, charming and elegant, a favorite of the ladies;
- Washington’s close friend and secretary, Joseph Reed.
George and Martha Washington left Cambridge in April, after the British evacuated Boston. Eventually the Vassall House was purchased for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow by his father-in-law.
Longfellow’s children carried on the Twelfth Night tradition, holding parties in which guests dressed in costumes of the guests at Washington’s party. Some were descendants of those guests.
About That Cake
Martha Washington famously served a great cake at her Twelfth Night parties. Here is the recipe:
Take 40 eggs and divide the whites from the yolks and beat them to a froth. Then work four pounds of butter to a cream and put the whites of eggs to it a Spoon full at a time till it is well work’d. Then put 4 pounds of sugar finely powdered to it in the same manner then put in the Yolks of eggs and 5 pounds of flour and 5 pounds of fruit. 2 hours will bake it. Add to it half and ounce of mace and nutmeg half a pint of wine and some fresh brandy.
This story last updated in 2022.
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