Mount Vernon in the Civil War

In April 1858, John Augustine Washington, George Washington’s great grandnephew, executed a contract to sell Mount Vernon to Miss. Ann Pamela Cunningham, Regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

As David Ribblett explains in his article, “Saviors of Mount Vernon,” Ann Cunningham’s mother had sailed past the deteriorating estate in 1853 and then asked her daughter, “Why was it that the women of this country did not try to keep it in repair, if the men could not do it?”  Ann, a South Carolinian, quickly took her mother’s question to heart and formed the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association the same year.  Naming herself Regent of the association, Ann appointed Vice Regents from each state to raise money with which to purchase the property.  Funds soon poured in from around the country; President James Buchanan sent a contribution, Californians sent a bar of gold, actress Laura Keene offered to give a benefit performance of “Our American Cousin,” the play she would be performing at Ford’s Theater on a fateful day in April 1865, and Edward Everett, the nation’s foremost orator of the era, contributed $69,000 to the cause.

The sale price of $200,000 included 200 acres, encompassing the home, tomb, gardens and wharf, as well as a landing then under construction.  The agreement between Washington and Cunningham called for an initial deposit of $18,000, followed by a payment of $57,000 to be paid on January 1, 1859, and three subsequent payments of $41,666, plus interest, to be paid on the 22nd day of February 1860, 1861 and 1862.  Though not obligated to vacate the property until he had received payment in full, John Washington, possibly seeking to escape the burden of upkeep, as well as the constant annoyance of visitors seeking to view the property, signed the deed on “February 22, 1860 – President Washington’s birthday.”

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Mount Vernon, courtesy Library of Congress

Ann Cunningham took possession of a deteriorated home, reportedly empty of possessions but for the key to the Bastille, presented to Washington by Lafayette, a globe in the study and a bust of the former president.  Ann hired Sarah Tracy, of New York, and began the process of restoring the venerable estate.  When Cunningham returned home in December 1860, following the death of her father, Tracy remained on the property, assisted by Mr. Upton Herbert, who served as superintendent, and several workers and servants.

South Carolina, Ann Cunningham’s home state, had also seceded from the Union in December, and four months later the opening guns were fired at Fort Sumter.  John Washington had briefly found privacy at Waveland, an estate he purchased in Fauquier County, but when Virginia seceded he accepted a commission in the Confederate service as a lieutenant colonel and died in battle in September 1861.

Though Ann Cunningham would not return to Mount Vernon for years, she had found a stalwart defender of both the property and of her reputation in Sarah Tracy.  When, in May 1861, a New York newspaper accused John A. Washington of removing “the remains of Gen. Washington from Mount Vernon,” Tracy quickly refuted the claim.  “Never, since first laid in this, his chosen resting place,” she declared, “have the remains of our Great Father reposed more quietly and peacefully than now, when the outer world is distracted by warlike thoughts and deeds.”

Throughout the war years, Tracy worked tirelessly to protect Mount Vernon, by insuring that the estate remained neutral territory.  After Federal troops moved into Northern Virginia she secured a promise from General Winfield Scott “that no troops shall be placed at Mount Vernon under any plea whatsoever.”  Tracy boldly returned the promise, assuring Scott that no Southern troops would take up a position there either.  Tracy then sought to assure all American citizens that they, “the owners of this noble possession – need fear no molestation of this one national spot, belonging alike to North and to South; over it there can be no dispute! The ladies have taken every necessary precaution for the protection of the place, and it is their earnest desire that the public should feel confidence in their faithfulness to their trust, and believe that Mount Vernon is safe under the guardianship of the Ladies of the ‘Mount Vernon Association of the Union.’” [Emphasis is in the original letter as published.]

Having refuted the wild rumors regarding George Washington’s remains, Miss. Tracy soon found herself confronted by John Forney, a Washington insider and owner of the Philadelphia Press.  In June 1861, Forney published a letter in his paper accusing Ann Cunningham of having deceived everyone who had contributed to the purchase of the estate, including himself.  Writing under the pseudonym “Occasional,” Forney charged Cunningham with having purchased Mount Vernon for her personal use as a “summer retreat.”  Forney acknowledged George Washington as “a national man, [who] loved the Union…yet his homestead was in Virginia.”  He then accused Miss. Cunningham of duping Northern contributors into believing “that in paying their money they were really securing [the estate] to the whole country… [whereas] recent events have shown, the South [has] not only kept Mount Vernon to themselves but the money paid to dedicate it to the country; thus enriching themselves without any loss, and securing a handsome residence for life to Miss. Pamela Cunningham.”

A Philadelphian defended Miss. Cunningham, citing “the patriotic character of the sentiments which actuated her in this great undertaking, accomplished at the sacrifice of much health and strength, and of her personal pecuniary resources… A dark cloud indeed overhangs our country,” the man acknowledged, “but when it shall be dissipated, present and future generations will doubtless make their pilgrimage to Mt. Vernon, with most grateful remembrance of one who…secured the home and grave of Washington for a national inheritance.”

Mr. Forney attacked Miss. Cunningham on several other points, including her use of slave labor on the estate.  An unnamed vice regent of the Mount Vernon Association refuted each of Forney’s fabrications in a July 4 letter to the Daily National Intelligencer, concluding, “A principal object [Miss. Cunningham] had…was the creation of an additional bond of union, by a universal and special interest in the dear spot where rests the ashes of the Father of his Country.”[Emphasis is in the original letter as published.]

Having staved off Forney’s accusations, association members soon found themselves facing another erroneous report.  In late-July, General Scott issued a statement alleging “that Mount Vernon has been ‘overrun by bands of rebels.”  An unnamed officer of the association immediately refuted Scott’s claim.  “Since the occupation of Alexandria by the Federal troops not a single soldier from the Southern army has visited Mount Vernon.  It is but justice to say the intruders who refused to accede to the regulations of the Association, heretofore willingly followed by soldiers from both sides, were a company of New York volunteers, headed by their colonel and other officers.” [Emphasis is in the original letter as published]

Miss. Tracy and Mr. Herbert continued to direct the restoration of the home throughout the war and to maintain the grounds, but other avenues of income were needed to finance the work.  The Association owned a steamship, the Thomas Collyer, and Tracy employed the vessel to bring visitors to the estate from the Seventh Street wharf in Washington.  The ship departed each Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 10 a.m., and Tracy ran ads in the Washington papers as a means of maintaining a steady influx of visitors.  The captain soon noticed, however, that he often returned to Washington with fewer passengers than he had set out with.  Realizing that Southerners were using the vessel as a means of avoiding the Union blockade, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton seized the ship, ending the Association’s revenue stream.  The blockade also prevented Tracy and Herbert from reaching Alexandria for necessary food and supplies.  Ever industrious, Tracy found her way around the Union outposts and into Washington, where she met with President Lincoln.  With a note from Lincoln, Tracy went to see General George McClellan, then commander of the Union forces.  The general renewed her pass through the Union lines and agreed to assist her as much as possible.  In the spring of 1862, Stanton released the Association’s steamer and tours resumed in early April, though, as the provost marshal made clear, “No other boat or vessel will be allowed to land at [Mount Vernon].”

An early passenger observed, “Since the Mount Vernon property came into the possession of the Association, about two years since, a new and very good wharf has been made, the tomb repaired, the mansion and out-building thoroughly put in order.  The place has now an air of thrift and order, which it never had before under the regime of John A. Washington.  The object has been…to make it look as probably it did in the hands of the thrift and order-loving old General.”  The visitor appreciated being “at the home of the man, whom above all others, we have by national consent called the Father of his country.  We feel it as we walk, where he walked, and look out of the windows and doors, whence he looked upon the same scenes which gladdened his eyes… We feel somewhat like grateful children, coming up to the old house of a good, wealthy and honorable father, there in respectful mood to look upon his home, and indulge to some degree devotional feelings.”

The visitor did not view the late John Washington in the same light, however.  “The Association paid Mr. John A. Washington…about forty times as much as [the property] would have brought if it had not at one time been the home of the Father of his country.  This mean descendant of the Great Washington, after steeping his crabbed soul in avarice all his life, as a final act of meanness, chose to take the traitor’s path, and has met with a traitor’s fate.”

Possibly seeking to recoup lost revenue, Miss. Tracy began to charge visitors an extra twenty-five cents to view the room in which Washington died, a point noted by the unnamed visitor, who found the bedroom guarded by a black man asking for the additional quarter.   “Why so,” the visitor asked?  “General Washington died in that room and you can’t go in without a quarter of a dollar, the sentry replied.  “Why cannot the Association take some other means to get money,” the visitor wondered.  “There were 150 passengers on this trip at one dollar and a half each, of which the Association have one quarter, giving them for this one trip more than fifty dollars.”

Miss. Tracy required soldiers visiting the estate to leave their weapons outside the entrance.  When some refused, Tracy asked for and received an order from the War Department requiring them to do so.  The soldiers often pled “poverty – many with truth,” when asked to remit the twenty-five cent admission, and I get the sense that Miss. Tracy waived the fee on many occasions.  Still, in 1864 the Association realized an income of just $348.03, ($230 came from the twenty-five cent admission) against expenses of $243.30.  The Association also offered fruit and vegetables, as well photographs of the home, for sale.

With little money to spend, however, the soldiers often sought a flower from the gardens, a leaf from the holly and magnolia trees or a chip of wood taken surreptitiously.  As Delevan Arnold, 1st Michigan Cavalry told a friend, “I was down to Mount Vernon last week and took a good look at the home of Washington.  It looks much like all the homes of the wealthy Virginia planters, and is going to decay fast.  The Rose Geranium leaf I send you, I picked from the grave of the ‘Father of his Country.’  I got several pieces of the wood work of the house besides.”

Reporting the visit of three British subjects to the estate in the summer of 1861, a New York Times correspondent deemed their trip “entirely successful, and gives an occasion for the contradiction of the reports that the grounds and buildings had been mutilated.  They were in perfect condition as of old, though the place presented the same gloomy desolation.  Mr. [Herbert], the superintendent of the place, and his attendants were in perfect security.  They had been disturbed by no rebel incursions, nor had any scouts even been seen in the vicinity.  The party met with no trouble on their way from Alexandria, though they were urged at headquarters not to undertake the journey.  It would hardly be safe for a loyal American citizen to visit Mount Vernon,” the reporter opined, “but the passport of a foreign government protects its citizens in the sacred pilgrimage.”

In January 1862, a soldier from the 27th New York wrote of his scholarly comrades who “are always seen, when off duty, over some books or reading the news of the day. Quite extensive libraries …have been formed by some,” he observed.  The soldier noted one studious thief in particular, “who pursues his Latin and Greek from books obtained on a foraging expedition from the overseer’s house on the John Washington estate Mt. Vernon.”

A week later, a soldier in the 2nd Michigan Infantry informed readers back home, “Our camp … [overlooks] the valley in which lies in calm quietude the home of Washington, where we, as well as every soldier in this portion of the army, have spent a pleasant hour strolling over the beautiful grounds of Mount Vernon, made sacred by the foot of Washington.  Although much care has been taken to keep things in order, there is still room for improvement to be made by the present overseer.  The first thing which the visitor notices, is the dilapidated condition of out-houses, fences, etc.  The interior of the mansion remains just as Washington left it.  Among the many objects which attract one’s attention is the mantle-piece, which is solid marble.  On the front is a finely executed German country scene…which seems so natural and life-like that it is difficult for us to feel that it is only an imitation wrought in marble.”

In March 1862, a correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer thought the grounds to be “in a very dilapidated condition,” while the house “is clean to all appearance… It is visited daily by a large number of our soldiers, who are generally reverential, and do not disturb anything.”

In April, a soldier from the 105th New York, sailing down the Potomac River, en route for the Peninsula, observed, “On the high bank…with its wharf stretching out into the stream, and carriage way leading to the house above, lies Mt. Vernon.  At the mention of the place there was a rush to…take a view of the grave of ‘the Father of his Country.’”

In May, a soldier from the 101st New York, stationed at Fort Lyon, just south of Alexandria, visited “the place where once lived the noble Washington and where the hero and father of his country rests in the tomb.  [It] is a beautiful place… [and] has not even been guarded by either side such is the respect for the noble dead.”

In early September 1862, a group of soldiers from the 24th Michigan made the four mile walk to the estate from their campsite.  “Our guns were left outside the enclosure, as no soldier of either army was allowed to bear arms inside the hallowed grounds,” the regimental historian remembered.  “With delight we stood on the stately veranda, passed along the graceful walks and beneath the magnolia tree planted by Washington’s hands.  We visited the ancient mansion, going room to room.  Up a narrow staircase…we reach the room in which he died, on which still stands the bedstead on which he breathed his last.  The shutter of the window was adjusted as it was to allow him to behold his last sunset view.  His tomb was visited, and, with uncovered heads, we gazed upon the mound containing his mortal remains.  On returning to camp, we passed the [Negro] quarters, where dwelt the descendants of Washington’s slaves.”

George Washington’s slaves were freed upon his death, but most continued to live in their former cabins and work at the estate after gaining their freedom.  The area where they lived, and where the Michiganders would have seen them, has long been known as Gum Springs, for an old Gum tree which marked the property several miles north of the estate.  According to a 1985 story in the New York Times, about one-fifth of the then 2,500 residents of Gum Springs traced their lineage to former slaves.

In the spring of 1863, the commander of the 13th Vermont granted passes to two men from each company per day to visit Mount Vernon, or other local places of interest.  Camped along the Ox Road in the present-day Lorton area, the soldiers had a hike of about nine miles to Mount Vernon.  Curious as to just how far the estate was from the camp, one regimental wag grew exasperated asking for estimates from local residents.  “These Virginians never know anything for certain,” he complained.  “They ‘reckon’ it about so far – some say six, some say eight miles; but the most definite distance that has been given was told by a young lady nearby here.  She answered that it was ‘about six trots and a look and a right smart walk beyond, I reckon.”  Later, when the 7th Michigan Cavalry established their camp nearby, a few of the Vermonters, borrowed horses from the Wolverines to ease the long trek to the estate.

Shortly after the surrender at Appomattox, a trooper in the 3rd Massachusetts Cavalry visited Mount Vernon.  “The most sacred place visited was the room in which Washington died,” the trooper recalled.  “It was a small room…unpretentious, but tidy… Here was the bedstead on which he died, dark with age, six feet square; mahogany; and having four high posts.  It stands between two long windows, opening on to a balcony.  From this balcony, a most charming view of the beautiful Potomac can be enjoyed…In yonder fireplace are the very and-irons used on the night when the great American died.”

In fact, the bed viewed by visitors during the war was not the bed upon which George Washington died.  According to Samantha Snyder at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, and located on the grounds of the estate, “After Washington’s death, the bed was transferred to Arlington House, the residence of George Washington Parke Custis, and then eventually transferred to the Patent Office in the latter part of the 19th Century.”  George Washington Custis Lee later loaned the bed to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, before the Association purchased the bed in 1908.

In July 1865, with the country again at peace, a tourist left the following account of his journey down the Potomac and his visit to Mount Vernon.  “[In] company with about 300 excursionists from the various Departments of the Government, I embarked…for a trip down the river and a moonlight visit to Mt. Vernon… At a few minutes past five o’clock…the fine brass bands of the War and Treasury Departments…struck up a lively and patriotic air, and the boat glided quietly and almost noiselessly down the river… At a few minutes before seven the steamer stopped at Fort Washington…taking on a guard of soldiers, which is required to accompany visitors to the Washington estate as a necessary precaution to the preservation of various articles of value and antiquity there.”  As the ship approached the wharf, “the engineer’s bell tolled slowly and solemnly the knell that will never cease to echo and re-echo among the hills and homes of America in honor and reverence to the memory of the former owner of the estate… With feelings of deepest reverence we entered the grounds of Mount Vernon.  It was difficult to realize the fact that our feet pressed the sod and gravel walks which had so often been trod…by the immortal Washington.”

After viewing the main home, the tourists followed the path “to the present resting place of all that remains on earth of ‘Our Washington.’  There is nothing grand about this place, but, on the contrary, it has a very common appearance… Above the entrance and set in the brick is a square white marble slab, on which is inscribed… ‘Within this enclosure rest the remains of General George Washington.’”

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Washington’s Tomb, courtesy Library of Congress

As he viewed the tomb the visitor pondered the war just ended.  “Grand events have since transpired, and it is today recorded in our nation’s history that there was a ‘Lincoln’ to save, as well as a ‘Washington’ to create – each born for the respective occasion…  I lingered, loth to depart… I was indeed at Mount Vernon.  I repeated the words, ‘Mount Vernon, – once the home – now the grave of ‘Washington.’  ‘Washington’ and ‘Mount Vernon’ – there is music in those sounds… I involuntarily asked myself, “Can it be that the free government founded and bequeathed to us by the immortal sleeper in yonder sarcophagus shall ever perish?”  And the soft zephyrs whispered…”Never no Never.”

 

With special thanks to Samantha Snyder at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington.

 

Sources –

Andrew to Dear Maria, Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan University

Burlington Daily Times

Daily National Intelligencer

Detroit Free Press

New York Times

Philadelphia Press

Rochester Daily Union & Advertiser

Montpelier Vermont Watchman & State Journal

James Rees, “Protecting Mount Vernon, Civil War News, May 2003

David Ribblett, “Saviors of Mount Vernon,” Civil War, Vol. 21, 1989

J. Cutler Andrews, The North Reports the Civil War

Delevan Arnold, A Kalamazoo Volunteer in the Civil War

O. B. Curtis, History of the Twenty-Fourth Michigan of the Iron Brigade

Ralph O. Sturtevant, Pictorial History: The Thirteenth Regiment Vermont Volunteers

 

 

2 thoughts on “Mount Vernon in the Civil War

  1. As always, thanks for an interesting history lesson from Mr. O’Neill. It’s good to know there were history buffs interested in tramping around important historic sites even during the war.

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    • Thanks Craig. I should have asked the staffer at the Mt. Vernon Library is Miss. Tracy maintained any kind of visitor log during the war. I doubt it but what a treasure that would be

      Like

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