Mount Vernon – Absences From Home

THE story of Mount Vernon during the next seven years is not notably eventful. Its new master was a bachelor, the leading strings of his developing career drew him easily away from his home, and he has not left in his letters evidence that he was even preparing to organize his estate into anything approaching the perfected condition which it reached later and which became the wonder and the admiration, and in some degree perhaps the despair, of those who ap­preciated what he overcame in meagre resources and service.

He was a constant visitor to the Fairfaxes at Belvoir, to George Mason’s family at Gunston Hall, and to the Ewells of Belle Aire, where he often stopped on his way to see his mother and sister Betty at Fredericksburg and to keep in touch with others of the family thereabouts. On the 4th of November, 1752, he was initiated into the secrets of Masonry at Fredericksburg, though later he affiliated with the lodge at Alexandria, so much more conveniently near his home.

A mistress for Mount Vernon was continually in his thoughts. Women had a great attraction for him from his earliest youth. His early diaries and letters are full of sentimental confidences.

Perhaps at this time his attack of “pleurise ” had passed and he continued on down to the lower tidewater home of Betsy Fauntleroy, as he promised her father in this letter of the previous May :

“Sir; I should have been down long before this, but my business in Frederick detained me somewhat longer than I expected, and immediately upon my return from thence I was taken with a violent pleurise, which has reduced me very low; but purpose, as soon as I recover my strength, to wait on Miss Betsy, in hopes of a revocation of the former cruel sentence, and see if I can meet with any alteration in my favor. I have enclosed a letter to her, which should be much obliged to you for the delivery of it. I have nothing to add but my best respects to your good lady and family.”

Betsy, however, seems to have been unwilling to revoke her “former cruel sentence,” and so his detached domestic situation made it easier to accept Governor Dinwiddie’s difficult commission to bear his protest to the encroaching French on the far western frontier of the Ohio. It may almost be believed that for the next two years he made no effort to keep Mount Vernon in commission as a place of residence, for he frequently passed it by on his way between Alexandria and Fredericksburg without mention of visiting his estate, though the highroad ran near his western boundary.

In his diary of the Ohio expedition in 1753 he begins by noting: “I arrived [November 1st] at Fredericks-burg and engaged Mr. Jacob Vanbramm, to be my French interpreter; and proceeded with him to Alex­andria, where we provided Necessaries. From thence we went to Winchester.” This diary of his two months’ absence draws to a close with this note, of January, 1754: “On the 11th I got to Belvoir: where I stopped one Day to take necessary Rest; and then set out and arrived in Williamsburg the 16th.”

On these occasions he was within two miles of his own house. Yet it is scarcely to be believed that he crossed over even while stopping the day at Belvoir, for in mid-January boating on tidewater Potomac is made treacherous by cold high winds sweeping down the “creeks” when the river is not actually impassable by reason of the ice which sometimes grips its entire surface.

Soon after his return from the West he was commissioned Lieutenant Colonel and ordered to return to the Ohio in command of a military expedition which Gov­ernor Dinwiddie sent at the end of March “to aid Captain. Trench in building Forts and in defending the Possessions of his Majesty against the attempts and hostilities of the French.” It was the beginning of the Seven Years’ War.

“It was strange that in a savage forest of Pennsyl­vania,” says Thackeray in “The Virginians,” “a young Virginian officer should fire a shot and waken up a war which was to last for sixty years, which was to cover his own country and pass into Europe, to cost France her American colonies, to sever ours from us, and create the great Western Republic; to rage over the Old World when extinguished in the New; and, of all the myriads engaged in the vast contest, to leave the prize of the greatest fame with him who struck the first blow ! ”

Washington fought through the summer in the West, but a military order from Dinwiddie made it impossible for him to serve longer with self-respect. He resigned his commission and returned to Mount Vernon, where he arrived in October, remaining almost continuously until March.

Whatever his other occupations during the winter, he seems not to have been free of his chronic entanglement of the heart, for a friend, one of the officers at Williamsburg, wrote him:

“I imagine you by this time plung’d in the midst of delight heaven can afford and enchanted By Charmes even Stranger to the Cyprian Dame.” (Mrs. Neil.)

The arrival of the spring of 1755 seems to have found some sort of menage established in the house, for, hav­ing been invited by General Braddock to accompany his expedition to the West, he writes from home, in a letter to Orme, the General’s Aide-de-Camp:

“The arrival of a good deal of company (among whom is my mother, alarmed at the report of my intentions to attend your fortunes) prevents me the pleasure of waiting on you to-day, as I had intended.”

This was Mary Washington’s last appearance at Mount Vernon. She retired to Fredericksburg, where she spent the rest of her days, at first at her farm across the Rappahannock but, later, near her daughter Betty Lewis’ “Kenmore,” in the centre of the little city, in a house which her son George bought for her. He visited her whenever he passed through Fredericks-burg and wrote to her always with high but somewhat formal affection.

Though this visit to Mount Vernon, to persuade her son to keep out of the military service, was her last appearance there, it was not her last protest on this same score. In August she besought him again not to endanger his life in farther armed exploits. He re-plied from Mount Vernon:


“If it is in my power to avoid going to the Ohio again, I shall; but if the command is pressed upon me, by the general voice of the country, and offered upon such terms as cannot be objected against, it would reflect dishonor upon me to refuse; and that, I am sure, must or ought to give you greater uneasiness, than my going in an honorable command, for upon no other terms will I accept of it. At present l have no proposals made to me, nor have I any advice of such an intention, except from private hands.”

In the letter to Orme quoted above he said of the domestic situation at his home :

“I find myself much embarrassed with my affairs, having no person in whom I can confide, to entrust the management of them with. Notwithstanding, I am determined to do myself the honor of accompanying you, upon this proviso, that the General will be kind enough to permit my return, as soon as the active part of the campaign is at an end, if it is desired; or, if there should be a space of inaction, long enough to admit a visit to my home, that I may be indulged in coming to it.”

Orme replied :

“The General orders me to give his compliments, and to assure you his wishes are to make it agreeable to yourself and consistant with your affairs, and, therefore, desires you will so settle your business at home, as to join him at Will’s Creek, if more convenient for you; and, whenever you find it necessary to return, he begs you will look upon yourself as entire master, and judge what is proper to be done.”

Free to return as necessity might compel, he prepared to turn his back again on the comforts and interests of his estate. Three days before setting out to accompany Braddock he wrote from Mount Vernon, under date of May 25, 1755, to William Byrd, whose fame survives, not merely as master of Westover on the James, where he gathered the finest library in the colony, but as “the great Virginia wit and author of the century”:

“I am sorry it was not in my power to wait upon you at Westover last Christmas. I enjoyed much satisfaction in the thought of doing it, when an unexpected accident put it entirely out of my power to comply either with my promise or inclination, both of which prompted me to make the visit.

“I am now preparing for, and shall in a few days set off, to serve in the ensuing campaign, with different views, however, from those I had before. For here, if I gain any credit, or if I am entitled to the least coun­tenance or esteem, it must be from serving my country without fee or reward; for I can truly say, I have no expectation of either. To merit its esteem, and the good will of my friends, is the sum of my ambition, having no prospect of attaining a commission, being well assured it is not in Gen’l. Braddock’s power to give such an one as I would accept of. The command of a Company is the highest commission vested in his gift. He was so obliging as to desire my company this campaign, has honored me with particular marks of his esteem, and kindly invited me into his family—a circumstance which will ease me of expenses that otherwise must have accrued in furnishing stores, camp equipage, &c, whereas the cost will now be easy (comparitively speaking) as baggage, horses, tents, and some other necessaries, will constitute the whole of the charge.

“Yet to have a family just settling, and in the confusion and disorder mine is at present, is not a pleasing thing and may be hurtful. Be this as it may, it shall be no hindrance to my making this campaign.”

The “family just settling” was that of his younger and favorite brother, John Augustine, father of the next owner of Mount Vernon. He wrote his brother frequently during his absence, usually subscribing himself, “Dear Jack, your most affectionate Brother.”

In an early letter George expresses the hope that his brother “will have frequent opportunities to particularize the state of my affairs, which will administer much satisfaction to a person in my situation.”

In another he indicates his first interest in politics:

“As I understand the County of Fairfax is to be divided, and that Mr. Alexander intends to decline serving it. I should be glad if you would come to Colo. Fairfax’s intentions, and let me know whether he purposes to offer himself as a candidate. If he does not, I should be glad to take a poll, if I thought my chances tolerably good.

“Majr. Carlyle mentioned it to me in Williamsburg in a bantering way, and asked how I would like it, saying, at the same time, he did not know but they might send me, when I might know nothing of the matter, for one or t’other of the counties. I must confess I should like to go for either in that manner, but more particularly for Fairfax, as I am a resident there.”

His reply to John Augustine, on receiving the report of his own death, is one of the evidences that he was not without a healthy humor when he chose to disclose it : “As I have heard, since my arrival at this place, a circumstantial account of my death and dying speech, I take this early opportunity of contradicting the first, and of assuring you, that I have not as yet composed the latter.”

The fruit of the sacrifices he made in his absences from Mount Vernon, during the three years since it became his, he sums up vigorously to his half-brother, Augustine, on his return from the Braddock campaign at the end of July:

“I was employed to go on a journey in the winter (when, I believe, few or none would have undertaken it), and what did I get by it? My expenses borne! I then was appointed, with trifling pay, to conduct a handful of men to the Ohio. What did I get by this? Why, after putting myself to a considerable expense, in equipping and providing necessaries for the campaign, I went out, was soundly beaten, lost them all!—came in and had my commission taken from me, or, in other words, my command reduced, under pretence of an order from home! I then went out a volunteer with General Braddock, and lost all my horses and many other things; but this being a voluntary act, I ought not to have mentioned this; nor should I have done it, was it not to show that I have been upon the losing order ever since I entered the service, which is now near two years. So that I think I cannot be blamed, should I, if I leave my family again, endeavor to do it upon terms as to prevent suffering; (to gain by it being the least of my expectation).”

Futile and tragic as had been Braddock’s whole campaign, Washington came out of it with added distinc­tion. An amusing and intimate proof of this is found in a note which was brought to Mount Vernon the day after his arrival. The master of Belvoir wrote begging his appearance at his house on. Sunday, intimating that if he did not come, “the Lady’s will try to get Horses to equip our Chair or attempt their strength on Foot to Salute you, so desirous are they with loving Speed to have an occular Demonstration of your being the same Identical Gent—that lately departed to defend his Country’s Cause.”

With this arrived the following appeal signed by Sally Fairfax, Ann Spearing, and Elizabeth Dent:

“DEAR SIR: After thanking Heaven for your safe return I must accuse you of great unkindness in refusing us the pleasure of seeing you this night. I do assure you that nothing but our being satisfied that our company would be disagreeable should prevent us from trying if our Legs would carry us to Mount Vernon this night, but if you will not come to us to-morrow morning very early we shall be at Mount Vernon.”

There was another Sally Fairfax besides the signer of the Belvoir round-robin. She was born Cary and was the wife of George’s friend, George William Fairfax. If George had had his way she would have succeeded Ann as chatelaine of Mount Vernon. However, he was a persevering lover and is said to have proposed at varying times to Mary Cary, who afterward married Edward Ambler; to Lucy Grymes, who later became Mrs. Henry Lee, mother of “Lighthorse Harry”; and to Mary Philipse, a New York Tory who fled to England on the outbreak of hostilities with the mother country.

Accompanying Washington to Mount Vernon on his return from the Braddock expedition was a servant who deserves some introduction, for he henceforth became a figure in his master’s life and one of the historic characters of his home.

His name was Bishop. He was an English soldier who accompanied Braddock to America. The General observed superior qualities in the man and made him his military servant. When Braddock fell he made some effort to repair his neglect of the young Virginia Colonel’s sound advice. The dying soldier presented his battle charger to Washington, the only one of four he rode in the fatal battle of the Monongahela to survive, and he commended to his service and care the faithful Bishop. The two rode together across the mountains to Mount Vernon and only once afterward did Bishop leave the neighborhood except to accompany his master.

A proof of the colony’s appreciation of Colonel Washington’s performance under Braddock came within a few months when there arrived at Mount Vernon his com­mission as commander of all the Virginia forces. He was soon off, and during the two years following he was rarely at home.

In August of the next year, 1756, however, he petitioned the Governor for leave to return to the Potomac, “As a general meeting of all the persons concerned in the estate of my deceased brother is appointed to be held at Alexandria about the middle of September next, for making a final settlement of all his affairs; and as I am deeply interested, not only as an executor and heir to part of his estate, but also in a very important dispute, subsisting between Colonel Lee, who married the widow, and my brothers and self, concerning advice in the will which brings the whole personal estate in question.” The trip was in vain, “the As­sembly having called away the principal persons concerned.”

After another year on the frontier he hurried back again the next September, 1757, to attend the funeral of “Col. Fairfax.” It is not surprising he should have made this long trip, under necessity of hurrying directly back, for it was William Fairfax he came to bury, father of Anne, the first mistress of Mount Vernon, the friend of his earliest recollections when the two families came up river to Dogue Creek neighborhood together.

His friends found him somewhat changed under the stress of his long military campaigns. Soon after his return to his service duties he was stricken with an illness which obliged him to return home again, where he arrived in November. He was attended by his friend, Charles Green, doctor at once of physic and divinity, the Mount Vernon family physician and rector of their parish Church of Pohick. Instead of abating, the disorder became so aggravated that early in the new year Washington wrote that he had “too much reason to apprehend an approaching decay.” But good Doctor Green had him up and on his feet and off again before April.

Much of significance in the story of his home was to happen before Mount Vernon saw him again. In May he hurried to Williamsburg with his report on affairs in the West. He was accompanied by the now inseparable Bishop. On his way to the capital, in crossing the ferry over the Pamunkey River, the south branch of the York, he most miraculously fell in with “one Mr. Chamberlayne, who lived in the neighborhood,” and insisted on the traveller resting at his house as his guest. Colonel Washington submitted amiably to being captured and led off, but before the day was done he had been twice captured.