On November 17, 1783 Washington received word the peace treaty had been signed. Now he could resign his commission and return to Mount Vernon, from which he had been away for eight long years – except for only a few days while enroute to Yorktown. Washington yearned to be home in Mount Vernon in time for Christmas but had less than six weeks, many duties to perform and many miles to travel.
Farewell Orders to the Troops
Washington issued his Farewell Orders on November 17th, lauding his troops for their extreme hardship and urging them never to forget the extraordinary events to which they bore witness. He closed by announcing his retirement from service stating, “The curtain of separation will soon be drawn . . . and closed forever“. Instead of using such an opportunity to promote himself, he appeared above human ambition. King George III, upon hearing his remarks, called Washington “the greatest man of his age“.
New York and Fraunces Tavern
Washington arrived in New York November 21st; he thought it necessary to reoccupy New York but had to wait for the British to evacuate. He made sure Tories who secretly assisted the Americans were shielded from retribution. He also protected the British withdrawal to prevent untoward actions. Washington was greeted as a hero with cheering and enthusiastic crowds; nearly every home had a drawing or lithograph of him in the window. Receptions and dinners were held nightly in his honor.
On December 4th Washington hosted a farewell reception for his officers at Fraunces Tavern. He realized the inadequacy of any formal address and did not trust his emotions to read one. When all glasses were filled, Washington offered a toast, “With a heart filled with love and gratitude, I now take my leave of you. I most devoutly wish your later days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.” Following the toast, blinded by tears and his voice faltering, Washington continued, “I cannot come to each of you but shall be obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand.” Each officer came forward suffused with tears and unable to utter a single intelligible word.
Philadelphia and Enroute to Annapolis
From December 5-18 Washington’s journey took him to Philadelphia where he spent several days. Next was Annapolis, where Congress was sitting. At every stop and all along his route for his entire journey, citizens gathered to pay tribute. Always courteous, the general accepted every proffered hand and returned every greeting.
America never before had and never again will experience such an emotional outpouring for one man. Every citizen understood that he conducted them through a long and bloody war that achieved independence for their country. All knew viscerally that there never would be another such moment or another such man.
Annapolis and Returning His Commission
Washington arrived in Annapolis, then the capital and seat of Congress, on December 19th. From December 20-22 he was feted endlessly at lavish dinners and balls, always preceded with 13 toasts followed by 13 cannon shots. On December 23rd there was a special session of Congress to honor Washington and to accept his resignation. Attendance overflowed the facilities with people everywhere.
He closed his address stating, “I retire from the great theatre of action and here offer my commission and take my leave of all employments of public life.” Then he withdrew from his coat pocket the parchment given him in 1775 that was his appointment as Commander-in-Chief and ceremoniously returned it. Washington’s Annapolis speech is considered the most significant ever delivered in civil society.
Christmas in Mount Vernon
Immediately after his speech, Washington set out for Mount Vernon. It was so late on December 23rd and the days so short, he got only as far as Bladensburg, Maryland before retiring for the night. The next morning, Christmas Eve, he rode to the Potomac River, crossed via ferry to Alexandria and rode the final miles. It already was dark but about a mile away from Mount Vernon he could see its many green-shuttered windows – now all ablaze with candles. It was, after all, Christmas Eve.
We are taking a holiday break; the next posting will be January 19, 2020.
Best wishes to our readers for a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year !