When Washington married Martha Custis 22 years before the Yorktown battle, she brought her two children to the union – Patsy, 2, who later died as the result of an epileptic seizure when she was a teenager, and John, 4, nicknamed “Jack.”
Jack, who enjoyed partying and other frivolities much more than tending to his responsibilities even after he married and became a father, exasperated Washington. In school, he lived on the edge of being expelled, and he dropped out of college years later. As a husband and father, he became so angered when his wife delivered a daughter instead of a son that his mother sought to adopt the baby. In his business dealings, he cheated Washington in a cattle purchase – calculating the price based on only the least-desirable animals and applying that value to the entire herd that he was buying from his stepfather, who was away leading troops.
But despite his notable shortcomings, “Jack remained Martha’s darling. She would not tolerate any criticism of him from anyone, even George,” wrote Thomas Fleming in his 2009 book The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers.
Martha would not consider allowing Jack to become a soldier for the American cause. But as the British army under Lord Cornwallis became trapped at Yorktown in fall 1781, Jack pleaded with Washington to join his staff as an aide. Because the battle was shaping up as only a siege of the British garrison, and that Jack would face even less danger if he remained with Washington’s staff, he was allowed to join the general at Yorktown.
As the American siege of British forces came to a head in October, Jack became ill with “camp fever,” which was probably typhus. After the British surrender, Washington sent Jack to the home of Jack’s maternal uncle, about 30 miles away, for better care and recovery. Washington’s wartime duties fell to a level that allowed him to visit Jack and check on his status a week or two later.
Upon arriving at the uncle’s home, Washington was surprised to find Martha, Jack’s wife Nelly, and Jack and Nelly’s eldest daughter there, all deeply upset. Jack was near death. Only 27, he soon succumbed, and Martha in particular was overwhelmed with grief.
“Washington spent the next five days there, overseeing the funeral and trying to console his wife ... while everyone else in Virginia and the rest of America was celebrating the Yorktown victory over the British,” wrote Fleming. Depite that victory, the war was not over, and Washington had to return to his troops, for whom war raged for another two years. Martha's brother reportedly agreed to oversee Jack's estate, but refused an offer to take responsibility for Jack's wife and children. So George and Martha ultimately took on much of that role.