- George Washington, Slave Catcher is the provocative title of an opinion piece by Erica Armstrong Dunbar (The New York Times, 16-Feb-2015). Although nothing new is revealed, it is a sharp reminder that Washington and his wife Martha were typical and not in any way unexceptional slave-owners. When Martha’s personal attendant, Ona Judge, ran away in 1796, Washington discreetly pursued her until his death in1799. Famously, Washington arranged to have his slaves freed upon his wife’s death, and, per Virginia law, he set up a fund to support them. But when Martha died in 1802
all of her human property went to her inheritors. She emancipated no one.
George Washington, Slave Catcher
Washington’s courage thrilled his men. But he was not an enlisted man’s general. He did not interact personally with them, and would not let his officers do so either. Officers under his command who supped or slept in enlisted men’s headquarters were routinely punished. To Washington’s mind, discipline and hierarchy were central to maintaining unit cohesion and integrity.
No warm, outgoing person, notes one historian, Washington
bound men to him by his own sense of justice and dedication. Yet how his troops viewed him, and in what ways their opinions may have changed over time, is uncertain. Although nineteenth-century history books and old soldiers’ memoirs resonate with references to the commander-in-chief’s inspirational presence, diaries and other accounts written in wartime rarely mention him.