There are inherent difficulties in writing a biography of Mary Washington. Foremost among them is that she was not the mother of George for a portion of her life and George was not GEORGE for a portion of his life. When Mary would write letters as a young girl or even in her role as mother, no one was thinking that they should preserve those letters for antiquity. Even if a relative or scholar had possessed that degree of foresight, it was not going to be easy to preserve letters or papers for 300 years.
Craig Shirley tries admirably to fill in some of the blanks in Mary’s life with “Mary Ball Washington: The Untold Story of George Washington’s Mother,” but that publisher-imposed subtitle is a bit deceiving. Shirley brings forth a portrait of Mary with much of that portrait necessarily based upon speculation from her era. Shirley is keenly aware of our limits in understanding George’s mother, and peppers this biography with a number of qualifiers such as “probably” and “possibly.” This is prudent scholarship, but begs the question of what his publisher felt was previously untold.
For Fredericksburg-area readers and students, the story of Mary Washington should be required reading, as she remains Fredericksburg’s most famous citizen (apologies to Doris Buffett and Danny McBride). Mary herself would have bristled at the designation of “most famous” because of an underlying humility and devotion to the Bible. From the time Mary moved to Ferry Farm as a young bride to her death many decades later, she spent almost every day of her life in or around Fredericksburg. Her final resting place is near the Mary Washington monument on Washington Avenue, but the exact location of her grave remains unknown.
What makes Shirley’s biography valuable is that he attempts to remain neutral and avoid the pitfalls that have plagued previous biographers who canonized Mary as the main influence on young George, solely responsible for his rise to godlike status; or the biographers who came later, who said that George hated his mother and resented her as a drain on his finances later in life. Shirley believes that the truth lies in a more nuanced middle ground.
Much of “Mary Ball Washington” consists of George’s story because her story should not stand alone. Shirley attempts to touch upon other characters to flesh out his narrative but this has mixed results. At one point, Shirley dismisses Molly Pitcher as a fiction. (The name may have been fictional, but most scholars believe the exploits were based upon Mary Hays and her efforts at The Battle of Monmouth.) These are small quibbles in an important and difficult biography. We will never fully know Mary’s story, but “Mary Ball Washington” helps get us closer to understanding.
Drew Gallagher is a freelance writer in Spotsylvania.