Mount Vernon – Cherished Spot, the Home of Washington

WHILE the homes of most of the illustrious men who founded the American Republic have been suffered to decay, and finally to disappear from the earth, the home of George Washington has been fortunately preserved. That home to which he brought his lovely bride in the blithesome days of youth—those days of pleasant company, of country merry-makings, of riding to hounds, and the sports of the field, of sweet domestic bliss ; that home whence he departed to fight the battles for his country’s freedom and independence, and to which he returned crowned with more than the laurels of Miltiades ; that home whence again he departed to guide the Ship of State on its untried course, and to which he returned when he had relinquished his great office, never more to depart from until death claimed him — that beautiful Mount Vernon is to-day in almost as substantial a condition as it was when the First President sat under the venerable trees, or walked the broad piazza of the commodious mansion a hundred years ago.

This cherished spot, the home of Washington, is situated on the western bank of the Potomac River, in Fairfax County, Virginia, and is sixteen miles from the city that bears his name. The steamer ” W. W. Corcoran,” Capt. L. L. Blake, makes daily trips, leaving Seventh Street Wharf at 10 o’clock, A. M., and re-turning at 3.30 o’clock, P. M., and visitors are permitted to explore all portions of the historic estate, and to wander at will over the mansion. The association in whose charge it is provides a guide, and the yarious objects of interest are explained in an intelligent manner. Thousands of people from every section of the United States, and eyen from foreign lands, yisit Mount Vernon yearly. In 1876, the centennial year, there were forty-fiye thousand yisitors. As the river steamers approach the hallowed grounds they slacken speed, toll their bells, and go slowly sailing, slowly sailing, past the tomb of Washington.”

The Mount Vernon mansion stands near the brow of a sloping hill which rises one hundred and twenty-four feet above the riyer, and can be seen from a great distance. A spacious lawn extending to the river, and majestic trees, give it a setting of rare beauty. At this point the Potomac is two miles in width, and its course is westerly until it borders the estate ; then it makes a sudden, sweeping bend to the southward, displaying a long stretch of glittering waters. The mansion overlooks the riyer as it flows south, and the thickly wooded Maryland hills on the opposite bank, for many miles, and the prospect from its piazza and upper windows is most charming and picturesque. The grounds adjacent to the mansion are covered with an extensive variety of shade-trees, most of which were planted by Washington, and many of them haye remarkably luxuriant foliage. In one flourishing thicket are hemlocks, lindens, chestnuts, and beeches, all of which Washington planted when a young man, and carefully nourished. The estate in his time comprised eight thousand acres—a princely domain, even in those days of vast landed possessions. More than one-half of it was wood land, and the remainder was divided into five farms tilled by seyeral hundred negroes. Each farm was devoted to special crops, the principal ones being wheat, Indian corn, and tobacco, and was in charge of an overseer who made weekly report to a general superintendent, who in turn reported to Washington. After the death of Washington the lands were sold by his heirs, from time to time, nothing being retained except the home-stead or “mansion-house farm,” which now consists of two hundred acres.

Around the mansion is a lawn of ten acres, laid out in the olden style of English landscape gardening, and on one side is an orchard of about twenty acres, filled with peach, nectarine, apricot, plum, cherry, and apple trees. Twenty acres are devoted to grains and vegetables, and the remainder are wood and pasture lands. The farm is considered one of the best in that section of Virginia, and is very skillfully managed by its superintendent. Adjacent to it quite a village has grown up, and a post-office for the residents is located on the Mount Vernon grounds.

The main portion of the wharf at the river-landing was constructed by Washington, but within a few years additions have been made. Here vessels were laden with great quantities of tobacco, and also with flour ground in the Mount Vernon mill, each barrel bearing the widely-known brand, ” George Washington, Mount Vernon.” The old flour-mill is located about three miles from the landing, but it is now only a heap of ruins. A short distance above the wharf, on the path to the mansion, is the decaying stump of the once magnificent and famous ” Washington Oak, ” in the grateful shade of which the illustrious farmer was accustomed to rest when returning from directing his shipments. The tree was twelve feet in circumference, and was supposed to be more than two hundred years old. It was blown down during a severe storm on the 8th of August, 1882. Pieces of it haye been taken as relics to most every part of the world.

The mansion fronts to the northwest, and that portion of it seen from the river is the rear, or, as it may be called, the southeastern front. It is constructed of wood, cut in blocks and painted in imitation of stone, is ninety-six feet in length and thirty feet in width, and has colonnades at its sides. It has two stories and an attic with dormer windows, and on its peaked roof is an octagonal cupola crowned with an ancient weather-cock. On the river front is a piazza extending the entire length of the mansion, and which is fifteen feet wide and twenty-five feet high, with a roof supported by eight pillars and surmounted by an ornamental balustrade. The piazza has a paving of well-worn flag-stones imported from the Isle of Wight. When the weather in winter prevented Washington from taking his habitual horse-back rides over the plantations, he would frequently walk on this piazza for an hour or two at a time. The central portion of the mansion was built by Lawrence Washington, the half-brother of the General, and the first to reside on the ” Hunting Creek Estate,” as Mount Vernon was then called. When the estate descended to George Washington he re-named it in honor of Admiral Edward Vernon, of the British Navy, in whose fleet Lawrence Washington had performed service in the West Indies. After the Revolutionary War he added north and south extensions to the mansion, thoroughly refitted its rooms, erected out-buildings, and greatly improved the estate.

Extending from the northwestern front of the mansion is a half-mile circular drive-way, which terminates at an arched gate opening into the high road. In 1759, a few weeks after their marriage, Washington brought his wife through this gate to her future home ; and in 1799, forty years afterward, his funeral cortege solemnly passed through it. On the line of the drive-way is a luxuriant flower-garden and a new conservatory, and the ruins of the original brick conservatory, constructed by Washington, which was destroyed by fire on Dec. 16, 1835. There are also the old brick cook-house,” or family kitchen, in which the food for the family was prepared ; the butler’s house, and servants’ quarters. On the south is a barn with a long slanting roof, erected by Lawrence Washington in 1733, of English brick. The mansion and out-buildings appear in a good state of preservation, and, as great care is taken of them, are likely to stand for many more years.

A few yards from the mansion, down the sloping southern bank, is the old family tomb in which the body of Washington was deposited for nearly thirty-one years, or until the new tomb was constructed. It has recently been restored, and made to look as it is believed to have appeared in former years. Here the bodies of Washington and his wife, and those of other members of the family, rested until April 19th, 1831, when they were conveyed to the new tomb. In 1825, when General Lafayette made his last visit to Mount Vernon, he went into this old vault, and lovingly kissed the coffin of the hero who had been almost as a father to him in his youth.

The present tomb of Washington is situated on the road from the river-landing, a short distance south of the mansion. In his will Washington stated that ” the family vault at Mount Vernon requiring repairs, and being improperly situated, I desire that a new one, of brick, and upon a larger scale, may be built at the foot of what is called the Vineyard Inclosure, on the ground which is marked out, in which my remains and those of my deceased relatives (now in the old vault), and such others of my family as may choose to be entombed there, may be deposited.” But his heirs, strangely tardy, allowed more than thirty years to pass away before they erected the new tomb.

The tomb consists of a large vault, extending into a bank in a thickly wooded dell. It is enclosed by a brick structure with a high, arched entrance, in which is a gate fashioned of iron bars. Within the enclosure, and plainly to be seen through the gate, is a massive marble sarcophagus, impenetrably sealed, containing the coffin of Washington, and bearing on its top only the coat of arms of the United States upon a draped flag, and the name, Washington.” At the side of this sarcophagus is another, similar in construction, which contains the coffin of Mrs. Washington, and which is inscribed : ” Martha, consort of Washington. Died May 21st, 1801 ; aged 71 years.” Above the door of the tomb are the words: ” Within this en-closure rest the remains of Gen. George Washington.” The sarcophag are covered with choice flowers, which are continually renewed.

The vault at the rear of the enclosure contains the remains of Judge Bushrod Washington, and other members of the Washington family. It is closed with a solid iron door, over which is inscribed : ” I am the Resurrection and the Life. He that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.” In front of the tomb are two marble monuments erected in memory of Judge Washington, and John Augustine Washington.

In a small room in the second story of the Mount Vernon mansion which he had used for a bed-chamber for many years, the Father of His Country died on the 14th of December, 1799, between the hours of ten and eleven at night. After his death the room was closed for a long time. The bedstead on which he lay in his last hours has been preserved, and the room is now arranged in much the same manner as it was on that sorrowful night. The bedstead is of mahogany, dark with age, is six feet square, and has four high posts. It was manufactured in New York in 1789, and was used by Washington during the eight years he served as President. It stands between two long windows opening on to a balcony from which a delightful view of the Potomac can be obtained. The room has a spacious fire-place, in which are the andirons in use on the night of Washington’s death. Several small pieces of furniture then in the room also have been pre-served. There is a closet containing various articles of the great soldier’s campaigns, and placed here and there are other mementoes.

After her husband’s death, Martha Washington occupied a room in the attic, from the narrow dormer-window of which she could view the old tomb. The tradition is that she never left this room during the eighteen months of her widowhood, and that she would see no one except her two grandchildren and a fayorite serving-woman. This gracious gentlewoman is said to have spent the time in gazing at the tomb containing her husband’s body, and in lamenting her loss. For forty years man and wife, loving, tender, and true, the peerless couple were not long separated by death. Mrs. Washington’s room now contains but one article of furniture she used—a mahogany wash-stand ; but the bed, the bed-hangings, the carpet, etc., have been carefully reproduced in close imitation of the originals.

The interior of the mansion is constructed in a strong yet elegant manner. It is wainscoted in the style prevailing at that period, and has elaborately carved cornices, and heavy shafts. It is nearly as substantial as it was when occupied by the Washing-ton family, the decaying parts having been thoroughly repaired within a few years. A wide central hall extends from the front door to the rear, and there is a spacious staircase to the story above. On the front door is the huge brass knocker used by the guests of Washington to announce their arrival. A prominent object in the hall is the Key of the Bastile, presented to Wash ington by Lafayette in 1789, soon after the famous French prison was destroyed. There are six apartments on the ground floor, namely : the banquet-hall, the music-room, the west parlor, the family dining-room, Martha Washington’s sitting-room, and the library-room. The Mount Vernon Association has furnished the rooms with ancient pictures, tables and chairs, and other articles, some of which were the property of Washington.

The banquet-hall, or the state-parlor, as it was frequently called, is a fine large apartment in the north extension, which in its day was richly adorned and furnished. It has a high ceiling with designs in stucco, and its walls are painted gray and have a wide frieze. At one side is a fire-place, around which is a beautifully carved mantel of Carrara marble, wrought in Italy, it is supposed by Canova. It has three panels in which are scenes of agricultural life. It was presented to Washington by an English gentleman, and it is related that the vessel bringing it to the United States was captured by pirates. When they learned that the mantel was intended for Washington they for-warded it to him uninjured. Extending across the western end of the apartment is a colossal painting by Rembrandt Peale, entitled ” Washington at Yorktown,” which was presented to the Mount Vernon Association in 1873. In a glass case is a model of the Bastile, the gift of Lafayette ; and in the apartment is also the celebrated arm-chair which ” came over in the ‘ Mayflower.” In this old slat-back oaken chair more than 100,000 visitors to Mount Vernon have sat. One short sitting is usually enough, as the chair is very hard and uncomfortable. Several pieces of antique furniture, portraits, and the military equipments used by Washington while serving in General Braddock’s army, are disposed about the apartment.

In this grand hall Washington gave his state dinners when entertaining the distinguished men and women who visited him ; and many a brilliant reception, followed by a ball, also has been held here by Martha Washington. If the old walls could speak, what interesting tales they might tell of the scenes they have enclosed — the entertainment of Lafayette, Rochambeau, and the French officers ; of the illustrious American generals of the Revolution ; of Franklin, of Jefferson, of Hamilton ; of the heroic men and the stately dames of the Old Dominion in those far-off days when the mansion was bright and cheerful with the highest social life.

There still remains in the music-room the harpsichord Washington gave his charming adopted daughter, Eleanor Parke Custis, on her wedding-day. It is a fine instrument, with two banks of one hundred and twenty keys, and cost $1,000. The furnishing of this room is a faithful reproduction.

The library is a square room in the south extension, with windows opening on to the portico. It has a large fire-place with a wide hearth-stone, and on three sides are many small closets, some of them mere panels, in which silver-plate and china, valuable papers, etc., were kept. When it was used by Washington it contained numerous fire-arms, swords, and military accoutrements, and his private collection of books. These books were all stamped with his book-plate, and also bore his autograph. Many of them were purchased in 1849 by the Boston Athenaeum. Here Washington was accustomed to sit in the afternoon, attending to his correspondence and business affairs, and often of a winter evening the family gathered around the glowing fire-place. None of the original furniture is now here.

In the second story, and in the attic, are numerous chambers furnished by the Mount Vernon Association with antique articles and revolutionary relics, and mostly named after different states. The one known as ” Lafayette’s room,” at the head of the first landing, was always occupied by the gallant Frenchman whenever he passed a night at Mount Vernon. The only original piece of furniture it now contains is the bureau, but it has been reproduced nearly as it was when he used it. Near this room is the one occupied by Miss Custis, all the furniture of which is a reproduction. One of the rooms has a case of relics of Washington.

The mansion contains little of the original furniture, from the fact that there was a sale by the heirs of the entire household effects, not disposed of by will, soon after the death of Mrs. Washington. The most notable articles were purchased by George Washington Parke Custis, and taken to his mansion at Arlington, but a good part of the ordinary furniture was scattered throughout Virginia and Maryland, and is doubtless now in the possession of old families in those states. Mr. Custis presented a number of relics to the government, some of which are in the National Museum, and those he retained were inherited by his daughter, Mrs. Lee. When the Lee family departed from Arlington at the beginning of the Civil War, they had the valued memorials conveyed to a place of safety. Afterward, members of the Lee and Lewis families contributed the Washington articles at present in the Mount Vernon mansion.

The title to the Mount Vernon estate originated from a patent issued by Lord Culpepper in 1670, to John Washington, the founder of the Washington family in America. He was of English parent-age, and had settled in Virginia in 1657. His son, Augustine, married two wives : the first, Jane Butler, bearing two sons, Lawrence and Augustine ; and the second, Mary Ball, a member of one of the prominent families of Virginia, bearing five children, of whom George Washington was the oldest. At the death of the father in 1743, Mount Vernon descended to Lawrence Washington, and at his death to his only child, an infant daughter. George Washington was the guardian of this child, and at its death he inherited the estate. He was born Feb. 22, 1732, and when he had barely reached his twenty-first year, became the owner of Mount Vernon, and also of a fine estate on the Rappahannock, and took a position among the opulent landholders of the Old Dominion.

Until 1758, when he closed his service with General Braddock, Washington was constantly engaged in military campaigns, and passed but little time on his plantation. When the young soldier was freed from the toilsome duty of camp and field, he became a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, and for a number of years per-formed legislative work. On Jan. 17, 1759, he was married to Martha Dandridge Custis, a widow with two children. She was young, beautiful, and accomplished, and the possessor of $75,000 in her own right, as well as the guardian of a large fortune for her children. Then began a gladsome domestic life at Mount Vernon, extending through sixteen tranquil years — Washington as the lover and attentive husband, as the farmer profitably engaged in crops, as the fox-hunter and fisherman in his hours of leisure, as the gay, liberal host in a social community, his bruised arms hung up for monuments,” as he thought, forever.

But it was not so to be, for in 1775 the war for American Independence began, and Washington was appointed as the Commanderin-Chief of the Continental army. During the war he seldom visited Mount Vernon, but when it was over he resumed his life on the estate, and for five years the mansion was continually full of distinguished guests, who came to pay homage to the patriot and soldier who had achieved the liberty of his country. He became once more the active farmer and the profuse Virginia host. In a letter written to Lafayette in 1784, Washington said: I am become a private citizen on the banks of the Potomac, and under the shade of my own vine and fig-tree, free from the bustle of a camp and the busy scenes of public life, I am solacing myself with those tranquil enjoyments of which the soldier, who is ever in pursuit of fame, the statesman, whose watchful days and sleepless nights are spent in devising schemes to promote the welfare of his own, perhaps the ruin of other countries, can have very little conception. I have not only retired from all public employments, but I am retiring within myself, and shall be able to view the solitary walk and tread the paths of private life, with a heartfelt satisfaction. Envious of none, I am determined to be pleased with all, and this, my dear friend, being the order of my march, I will move gently down the stream of life until I sleep with my fathers.”

But again it was not so to be, for on the 14th of April, 1789, a messenger rode up to the door of the Mount Vernon mansion, bearing the official intelligence that Washington had been unanimously elected as the First President of the United States, and that he was requested by Congress to immediately assume the office. Two days later, Washington departed for New York to be inaugurated as President, and on his journey thither he was the recipient of ovations in the towns and cities through which he passed, and his entry into the metropolis was made the occasion of a grand jubilee. He took the oath of office on the 30th of April.

Then followed eight years of the honors and duties of the Presidency, relieved now and then by short visits to the Virginia home. A few days before he finished his official career he celebrated his sixty-fifth birthday, and on the 4th of March, 1797, he attended the inauguration of John Adams as President, and soon after de-parted from Philadelphia for Mount Vernon. Throughout his long public life he had been faithful to the trusts confided to him, and no taint of dishonor had ever sullied his character.

During the two years and nine months which passed between his retirement from office and his death, Washington never went twenty miles from home. Occasionally the cream-colored chariot he had used while President would be brought out, six blooded horses attached to it, and, with servants in livery, away would go the hero and his wife to pay ceremonious visits in the neighborhood, or to Alexandria, or to the new capital city slowly and toilsomely being prepared for the use of the government. But usually, day by day he was busy with his farming operations, with improving his property, and putting his long-neglected affairs in order. He had a host of farm hands, and their little cabins dotted the estate ; he had nearly one hundred horses and mules for heavy work, and a stable full of steeds in whose blood and beauty he took considerable pride. He had more than three hundred head of cattle, and great numbers of sheep and swine, and raised bountiful crops of the staples. He relinquished the field-sports of his earlier life, saw less company, and was very methodical in the disposition of his time.

His habits and tastes were simple. It was his custom to rise early, to shave and dress himself unattended, and after a frugal breakfast of Indian cake and tea, to mount his horse for a long ride round his plantations. He would closely inspect the work of his laborers, consult with his managers, and be entirely absorbed in the extensive agricultural operations. Dinner was served at three o’clock, after which he would employ himself in the library with his private secretary for two or three hours. The evenings were devoted to amusements with the family. He was free and kindly in his manner, was always in a cheerful mood, and frequently laughed heartily at the jokes and pleasantries of his adopted children and relatives ; and, as his nephew has said, ” was so agreeable to all that it was hard to realize that he was the same Washington whose dignity had awed all who approached him.” On his cheeks was a clear, healthy flush, and he had retained much of the grace and comeliness of youth. In height he was two inches over six feet, and was slim and straight, and he had remarkable muscular power and endurance.

Thus, in congenial occupation, and by the side of that sweet and affectionate woman who had been his constant companion for two-score years, the last days of the eventful life of this greatest of Virginia planters glided peacefully away.

A circumstantial account of the death of Washington, written by Tobias Lear, who was his private secretary for nearly fifteen years, is preserved. It appears from this account that on the afternoon of the 13th of December, 1799, Washington was engaged in surveying the lawn round the mansion, and marking some trees he wished felled. He had taken a slight cold the day previous while riding in a storm of sleet and snow, and had remained in-doors on the morning of the 13th, but as the sun shone warm in the afternoon, he went about the surveying. That evening he complained of hoarseness, but sat up later than usual, reading the newspapers that had just arrived, frequently reading aloud to the family, in spite of his hoarseness. About two o’clock the next morning he woke his wife, saying that he felt ill, but would not allow her to rise and attend to him for fear she should catch a cold. At daybreak, when the servant came into the chamber to build the fire, she was sent to arouse Mr. Lear, who immediately responded to the call. Horses were saddled and servants dispatched at once to Alexandria and Port Tobacco for physicians, as it was seen that Washington was seriously ill. He was bled, and when the physicians arrived they repeated the bleeding, and used their utmost skill to relieve him, but he lay in pain and distress all day, breathing with great difficulty, and scarcely able to speak at times. Toward night he said to his attendants : ” I feel myself going , I thank you for your attentions, but I pray you take no more trouble about me. Let me go off quietly ; I cannot last long.”

Mr. Lear says : ” About ten o’clock he said to me, ‘ I am fast going. Have me decently interred, but do not let my body be put into the vault in less than three days after I am dead.’ I bowed as-sent. He then looked at me again and said : ‘ Do you understand?’ I replied, ‘ Yes.’ ”Tis well,’ said he. About ten minutes before he expired (which was between ten and eleyen o’clock) his breathing became easier. He lay quietly ; he withdrew his hand from mine and felt his own pulse. I saw his countenance change. I spoke to Dr. Craik, who sat by the fire. He came to the bedside. The General’s hand fell from his wrist. I took it in mine and pressed it to my bosom. Dr. Craik put his hands over his eyes, and he expired without a struggle or a sigh.”

” While we were fixed in silent grief,” continues Mr. Lear, ” Mrs. Washington, who was sitting at the foot of the bed, asked with a firm, collected voice, ‘ Is he gone?’ I could not speak, but held up my hand as a signal that he was no more. “Tis well,’ said she in the same voice ; ‘ all is over now. I shall soon follow him. I have no more trials to pass through.'”

In this manner passed from earth this pure spirit, this patriot and sage, before he had completed his sixty-eighth year. The cause of his death was acute laryngitis.

Washington neyer had a child of his own, but at the death of Major John Parke Custis, the eldest son of Mrs. Washington by her first husband, he adopted his two younger children, Eleanor Parke Custis, afterward Mrs. Lawrence Lewis, and George Washington Parke Custis, and they lived at Mount Vernon until after the death of their grandmother. As his wife was amply provided for, having a fortune of her own, and as the Custis children inherited their father’s large estate, Washington bequeathed Mount Vernon to his nephew, Judge Bushrod Washington. He also made bequests to all his relatives, and directed that his slaves should be liberated and provided with the means of obtaining their livelihood. Some of the descendants of these slaves still live in that portion of Virginia.

After the death of Judge Washington in 1826, Mount Vernon descended to his nephew, John Augustine Washington. He died in 1832, and his widow, Jane Washington, was the next heir. In 1855 her son, John A. Washington, was the last of the family to hold possession of the estate. He had not the means to keep it in proper order, and in 1860 disposed of it through the State of Virginia to the Mount Vernon Association for the sum of $200,000. This association was incorporated for the sole purpose of acquiring Mount Vernon, and by the terms of its charter the estate can never pass from its possession. Virginia retains a super-vision over it, and appoints a board of visitors whose duty it is to examine the property annually and report if the charter conditions have been faithfully observed.

The project to purchase Mount Vernon, and preserve the home of Washington from decay, originated with a Southern woman named Pamelia Cunningham. When its last proprietor announced his intention of selling the estate, this devoted woman quickly obtained the refusal of it for a certain time. She first appealed to Congress for the purchase-money, but without success, and then, under the title of

The Southern Matron,” caused to be circulated a strong appeal to the women of America for aid in the patriotic work. She secured a charter from the Virginia Legislature, organized an association, of which she became the Regent, appointed vice-regents in the various states, and began to collect the funds. Contributions, large and small, were received from all parts of the United States. Edward Everett, by his writings and lectures, contributed over $68,000, the largest single contribution. In one way and another the full amount was obtained, and Mount Vernon was saved to the Nation.