|George Washington’s Mount Vernon Christmas is a holiday tradition at MLLG. Enjoy!|
George Washington’s Mount Vernon Christmas
By: George Noga – December 18, 2016
We are reprising America’s greatest Christmas story; it is 100% true but known only to few; it is deeply moving and uniquely American. The events that ended on Christmas Eve 1783 could not have happened anywhere but America. It shaped our republic in ways being felt today. It is an authentic, feel-good classic to be shared with children and grandchildren.
Note: This post is much longer than normal but I believe you will agree that it is well worth it.
Christmas – New Year’s Eve 1776
Washington wrote, “The reflection upon my situation and that of this army produces many an uneasy hour when all around me are wrapped in sleep. Few know the predicament we are in.” Washington was desperate; 1776 had been the darkest year in American history. He had endured a succession of military disasters. The morale of his remaining army, starving and freezing, was rock-bottom; hundreds desert during the night. He is down to only 2,400 troops.
On the New Year’s Eve march to Trenton, many have no shoes and wrap their feet in burlap during the all night march, leaving behind a crimson trail of blood in the new fallen snow as a sudden and fierce northeast storm engulfs his Continentals. The fate of the American Revolution has come down to this. Washington is down to one last desperate throw of the dice. And although Washington leads one of the most successful surprise attacks in history, it only buys time. Ahead is the desperate winter of 1777-1778 at Valley Forge. Indeed, every winter and Christmas until 1783 was the same story of hunger, cold and privation.
Quelling a Revolt; Word of Peace Treaty
Just before receiving word of the peace treaty in 1783, Washington was confronted with a rebellion. He called a meeting of his officers, gave a short speech and then reached for a letter from Congress in his pocket to read aloud. He gazed upon it and fumbled with it without speaking. He then took a pair of reading glasses from his pocket which none had seen him wear before. He said, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.” This moved everyone to tears as they realized the sacrifices Washington had made; the rebellion died instantly.
On November 17, 1783 Washington received word that the peace treaty had been signed ending the war. Only then could he resign his commission and return home to Mount Vernon, from which he had been away for eight long years – except for only a few days while enroute to Yorktown. Upon learning of the treaty, Washington yearned to be home in Mount Vernon in time for Christmas but he had less than six weeks, many duties to perform and many miles to travel. What follows is the story of Washington’s incredible 38-day Christmas journey.
A Mount Vernon Christmas: November 17 to December 24, 1783
Farewell Orders to the Troops
On November 17th Washington issued his “Farewell Orders” 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” meaning for all future offices. Instead of using such an opportunity to promote himself, he appeared above all human ambition. When his remarks reached King George III, he called Washington “the greatest man of his age”.
New York and Fraunces Tavern
Washington left camp and arrived in New York November 21st; he thought it necessary to reoccupy New York but he had to wait for the British to evacuate. While there he made sure Tories who had secretly assisted the American cause were shielded from retribution. He also protected the British withdrawal to prevent untoward actions. Everywhere 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 the 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, Wilmington and Enroute to Annapolis
From December 5-18 Washington’s journey took him to Philadelphia where he spent several days and then onward, via Wilmington, toward Annapolis, where Congress was then sitting. At every stop and all along his route throughout 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 glory and 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, 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 by 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 to him in 1775 that was his appointment as Commander-in-Chief and ceremoniously returned it. Some consider Washington’s Annapolis speech the most significant address ever delivered in civil history.
Christmas in Mount Vernon
Immediately after his speech, Washington set out for Mount Vernon, still hoping to arrive in time for Christmas. It was so late on the 23rd and the days so short, he got only as far as Bladensburgh, 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 when he approached Mount Vernon. About a mile away he could see its many green-shuttered windows – now all ablaze with candles; it was, after all, Christmas Eve.
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Much material is from “General Washington’s Christmas Farewell – A Mount Vernon Homecoming 1783 ” by Stanley Weintraub. The 174 page book is readily available on Amazon for $16.95 new or for under $5.00 used. If you enjoyed reading this post, I guarantee that you will love the book even more!
We are taking a holiday break; the next posting will be in January 2017.