It was indeed desolate to Martha Washington as she read the message of dreaded triumph which placed the destinies of the country in her husband’s hands. The sacrifice was hers. In less than two years she had seen her family completely disintegrate: her daughter lost by death; her son by marriage; her husband by the call to the military service of his country. A sympathetic sense of this prompted Washington to write those first letters, after receiving his commission, to her relatives and his, begging them to go to Mount Vernon and comfort his lonely wife.
Jack Custis and his wife came down frequently from Abingdon, as the years rolled by, bringing the growing family of babies to their affectionate grandmother : Elisabeth Parke the first; then Martha Parke, named for Mrs. Washington; then Eleanor Parke, named for her mother and hurried from her frail arms to Mount Vernon to be nursed by sturdy Mrs. Anderson, wife of the English steward; and finally the first boy, named for the only father he ever knew, George Washington Parke. Mrs. Washington’s brothers and sisters, the Dandridges and Bassetts, journeyed up from New Kent, and friends from Alexandria and the neighboring estates on both sides of the Potomac came to break Mrs. Washington’s loneliness. The house was “seldom with-out company” while she was there and “our stables are always full of horses,” read the letters from home to the General.
Mount Vernon was in charge of Lund Washington, as manager for the General, with whom no doubt a connection could be traced far out on some leafy branch of the ancestral tree. But it is said that neither of them knew what it was. Lund’s lieutenant was Bishop, who only once, since the memorable vigil outside Mr. Chamberlayne’s door, had strayed from his chief. Too old for the active service of the days of Braddock, “he was left at home,” wrote one who knew him well, _” in charge of the manufacturing establishments of the household, wherein the veteran would flourish his cane, expecting as perfect obedience as though he had been commanding officer on parade. A comfortable house had been built for him; he had married; and, looking no more toward his native land, he was contented to pass the remainder of his days on the domain of his patron, where he rested from labor, in the enjoyment of every possible ease and indulgence.”
It may or may not be significant, but it is difficult to discover the traces of cordial intercourse between the Washingtons and the Custises. From the time of Washington’s marriage his mother never came to Mount Vernon. His sister and brothers seem rarely to have appeared there. It is indeed suspected that on their wedding, Washington married into the Widow Custis’ family, rather than that she married into his. When her grandson wrote his reminiscences of life at Mount Vernon he mentioned but one of the General’s relatives, a young nephew whose first name appeared casually in a quoted letter. In the next generation, however, some of the children of the General’s brothers and sister appeared somewhat more at home at their uncle’s house than their parents before them.
When Washington accepted the command of the army he expressed no doubt that he would return safe to Mount Vernon and his wife in the fall. Instead of which he was detained in Massachusetts. Mrs. Washington, thereupon, was determined to go north and spend the winter in camp with him. For seven years this was her usual custom. When the stress of a summer campaign eased and the army settled in winter quarters, the General would send an aide-de-camp to Mount Vernon to be her personal escort to Cambridge, Morristown, Valley Forge, Middlebrook, New Winsor, or wherever the army happened to be. Her chariot was occasionally accompanied by a military escort, by the General’s order if the road lay dangerously near the enemy’s line, oftener as a spontaneous compliment of the citizens of the districts through which she passed.
Of the eight years and eight months that Washington was absent during the war Mrs. Washington spent nearly half the time with him. At such times Mount Vernon was deserted indeed. The house was quiet, the woods no longer echoed to the hounds and horn, and the well-travelled roadways, deserted by the smart-hoofed mounts and the broad-tired chariots of the customary stream of visitors, felt the green creeping up from ditches to wheel-rut. His mother resented his military activities now as formerly and said she wished “George would come home and attend to his plantation.”
However, even in the absence of both the master and mistress the doors of Mount Vernon were not entirely closed. The General wrote Lund Washington from Cambridge, shortly after Mrs. Washington joined him at headquarters: “Let the hospitality of the house, with respect to the poor, be kept up. Let no one go away hungry. If any of this kind of people should be in want of corn, supply their necessities, provided it does not encourage them in idleness; and I have no objection to your giving my money in charity, to the amount of forty or fifty pounds a year, when you think it well bestowed.”
The progress of the war was followed with passionate but somewhat starved eagerness at Mount Vernon. The newspapers were few and without modern facilities for quick, precise, or ample news. There was no postal system to speak of. At intervals, usually of a week, express pony riders carried the mails north and south between the larger ,towns. England did nothing for the colonies in this respect and they did practically nothing for themselves. The mails were in the hands of private carriers, and important letters or consignments of money were not considered safe in their hands. If the matter was urgent and confidential a private bearer was despatched with the letter. Gentlemen about to undertake a journey allowed the fact to become known among their particular friends in the neighborhood and often started away with numerous packets of letters, large sums of money, and with negotiable papers of considerable value. Nevertheless it was upon the unreliable post-rider and the occasional accommodating traveller that Mount Vernon depended for communication with the General. Lund was faithful to the ‘order that Washington ever put upon his managers in his absence, to write regularly and in full once a week about the condition of his estate. Many of his letters are preserved, and they afford an acquaintance with the life there to be found at no other source.
Washington had been gone but a few months when the presence of war in the land became evident at Mount Vernon. One of Governor Dunmore’s first strokes was to threaten a declaration of freedom for all indentured servants in the colonies. Lund Washington wrote that such an order would wreck their working forces. But this fear dwindled presently before the larger alarm which spread along tidewater Potomac, as news came that English ships were on their way up the river to lay waste the towns and country, capture Mrs. Washington, and burn Mount Vernon.
Lund wrote the General in a tone obviously designed to allay his fears: “She does not believe herself in danger, nor do I,” he said ; “without they attempt to take her in the dead of night, they would fail, for ten minutes notice would be sufficient for her to get out of the way.” A few days later he wrote: “Mrs. Washington was under no apprehension of Lord Dunmore doing her an injury, until your mention of it in several of your letters.” Nevertheless, she postponed a trip down country in order to pack the General’s papers, the silver, and other valuables, and hold herself and them in readiness for instant departure inland.
Dunmore’s expedition came up as far as the mouth of Occoquon Creek, into which flows the Bull Run of two great battles nearly a century later. Here he encountered the Prince William Militia and a severe storm, a combination which he found too forbidding for his further progress; not, however, before he had thrown the countryside into a panic. A few days later George Mason wrote Washington: “Dunmore has come and gone, and left us untouched except by some alarms. I sent my family many miles back into the country, and advised Mrs. Washington to do likewise as a prudential movement. At first she said, `No, I will not desert my post,’ but finally she did so with reluctance, rode only a few miles, andplucky little woman as she is, stayed away only one night.”
The dwellers along tidewater became active in considering measures to thwart the dreaded Dunmore; more active in considering than in putting them into effect. It was proposed to protect Mount Vernon and the upper river by batteries on Lower Cedar Point where the channel is narrowest, or at Maryland Point, or farther up even on the commanding bluffs of Indian Head. Hob-son’s Santiago expedient was anticipated, Lund Washington writing his chief, October 29, 1775: “As I re-membered hearing Captain Boucher say he would undertake with three ships to stop the channel so that no ship of force could get up the River, I proposed that he should be immediately sent to and consulted upon it.” But in the end nothing was done.
The following January there were renewed rumors of the approach of British vessels to destroy 1VZount Vernon, and the neighborhood was in another panic. This time Lund did not conceal his apprehensions, perhaps because Mrs. Washington was with the General, and he did not have to dissemble to spare his chief’s fears for his wife.
“Alexandria is much alarmed, and indeed the whole neighborhood,” he wrote. “The women and children are leaving the town and stowing themselves in every but they can find, out of the reach of the enemy’s cannon. Every wagon, cart, and pack-horse, they can get, is employed. The militia are all up, but not in arms, for indeed they have none, or at least very few. I could wish, if we were to have our neighborhood invaded, that they would send a tender or two among us, that we might see how the people would behave on the occasion. Thay say they are determined to fight. I am about packing up your China and glass in barrels, and other things into chests, trunks, and bundles, and I shall be able at the shortest notice to remove them out of the way. I fear the destruction will be great, al-though the best care has been taken. Everybody l see tells me, that if the people could have notice they would immediately come and defend your property, so long as they have life, from Loudoun, Prince William, Fauquier, and this county.”
But this time the ships did not even enter the Potomac. After cruising about the Chesapeake they finally felt the sting of the colonists’ gunfire, and sped away, and Dunmore did not appear again to disturb the planters of the Potomac.
For the rest of the war Mount Vernon was unthreatened until its very last year. Early in 1781 British Tarleton with his band of red-coat raiders swung up from the southwest like a whirlwind. Word came that Jefferson’s Monticello was their first objective and Washington’s home would be the next. Tarleton reached Charlottesville, but his easterly course was aimed no higher than Fredericksburg.
When the fright about the river raid was first on at the beginning of the war, Lund wrote bravely: “I think fifty men well armd might prevent two hundred from burning Mount Vernon, situated as it is; no way to get up to it but up a steep hill, and if I remember right General Gates told me it could not be done by the shipping. I wish I had the muskets I would endeavor to find the men, black or white, that would at least make them pay dear for the attempt.”
Apparently he never got the muskets, for shortly after the Tarleton scare British ships appeared in the river and actually anchored off Mount Vernon. Lund obviously was not without spirit; but without arms and the men, discretion seemed to him the better part of valor. What he did, and his chief’s reflection on it, appear in the General’s celebrated rebuke to the man for whom, however, he never lost admiration or affection:
“I am sorry to hear of your loss. I am a little sorry to hear of my own; but that which gives me most concern is, that you should go on board the enemy’s vessels, and furnish them with refreshments. It would have been a less painful circumstance to me to have heard, that in consequence of your non-compliance with their request, they had burnt my House and laid the Plantation in ruins. You ought to have considered yourself as my representative, and should have reflected on the bad example of communicating with the enemy, and making a voluntary offer of refreshments to them with a view to prevent a conflagration. It was not in your power, I acknowledge, to prevent them from sending a flag on shore, and you did right to meet it; but you should, in the same instant that the business of it was unfolded, have declared explicitly, that it was improper for you to yeild to the request; after which, if they had proceeded to help themselves by force, you could have but submitted; and, (being unprovided for defense,) this was to be preferred to a feeble opposition, which only serves as a pretext to burn and destroy.”
None of the military “alarums and excursions,” however, disturbed the work on the place. The improvements on the house went forward. Before the end of 1775 Lanphier and Sears and “the stucco man” completed “the new room,” the chimney piece, and the dining-room ceiling, which was “a handsomer one than any of Col. Lewis’s [at Kenmore House, Fredericksburg] although not half the work on it.” Lund had many other operations on the way at this time, among them the building or rebuilding of the storehouse, the wash-house, the garden walls, and their little octagon houses for school and seeds and tools. He was, moreover, eager to complete the other addition to the mansion, but the fear of new raids filled him with apprehension.
“I think if you could be of opinion that your buildings would not be destroyed this summer,” he wrote his chief in February, 1776, “it would be best to have the other addition to the end of your house raised .
but this cannot be done without a master workman, unless you choose to once more try Lanphier.” Washington evidently was forced to put up with this incorrigible, for in the spring of 1778 Lund still had him on hand and wrote: “Of all the worthless men living Lanphier is the greatest, no act or temptation of mine can prevail on him to came to work notwithstanding his repeated promises to do so. I wanted so much to get the windows finished in the Pediment that I might have the garrett passage plastered and cleared out before Mrs. Washing-ton’s return. Besides this the scaffolding in the front of the house cannot be taken away before it is finished. This prevents me from putting up the steps to the great front door.”
At this time, 1778, instead of after the war as generally stated, the mansion was raised to the extended pro-portions in which it has ever since been so familiar, and the curved and colonnaded covered ways now rose to connect the big house with the nearest of the many little houses. To this time, too, may doubtless be attributed the lofty portico extending the length of the river side of the mansion, for so shortly after his return .after the war as to have made it impracticable for him to have built it at that time, Washington ordered new stone flagging and dug up the old pavement and laid the new.
The traditions which cluster about the old house include among the improvements made early in the war, the removal of the partition in the main passage or hall, thus making one extended hall from front to front, and the installation of the panelling of the new big hall as it has since remained.
Lund included in his letters all the personal news of the neighborhood and the estate, making them a gazette of life at home on the big river. After the receipt of one of these letters it was Washington’s sad duty to be obliged to write Colonel Fairfax in England of the complete destruction of his house, Belvoir, by fire early in 1783. “But mine (which is enlarged since you saw it),” he hastened to add, “is most sincerely at your service till you can rebuild it.” Belvoir was never rebuilt. Of it there remains neither authentic plan nor painting. Its site is an overgrown thicket where the lines of the foundation are scarcely to be traced. This beautiful and historic spot, which bound up some of the most agreeable and cherished experiences of Washing-ton’s life, was threatened with uses a few years ago which would have been at once a blight upon it and Mount Vernon. Friends of Washington’s home and neighborhood, however, led by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, preserved it by securing the transfer of the threatened lands to the United States Army, which has dedicated it to the training of soldiers and officers.
It has been said that when Washington rode away in the spring of 1775, to attend the Second Continental Congress at Philadelphia, he did not return to Mount Vernon again for six years. In fact, during the whole course of the war, and for two years after Cornwallis surrendered to him at Yorktown in 1781, he was in Virginia only once. In passing south to Yorktown and in re-turning north again he stopped briefly at his home. During his absence of eight years and eight months he was at Mount Vernon only ten days.
The whole plantation was thrown into a commotion in the early morning of Sunday, the 9th of September, 1781, by the announcement of the arrival of the General, and old Bishop’s younger rival, Billy Lee, his groom of hunting days and personal attendant throughout the war. They had pressed on ahead of the army which was making a forced march south to join LaFayette at Williamsburg.
Next to the greeting of his “dear Patsey,” his return was distinguished for him by his first sight of his now completed mansion, and by his first acquaintance with Mrs. Washington’s four grandchildren, the three daughters and baby boy of Jack and Nelly Calvert Custis, all born during his absence in the field.
On Monday General Count de Rochambeau came, followed by General Count de Chastellux. After resting another full day Washington; accompanied by his two French guests, their servants, and Jack Custis, set off on Wednesday morning for the south.
On this trip there was no dallying at country houses. The errand was stern and significant, and Washington pressed across country in record time. He reached the capital Friday afternoon and was welcomed by La-Fayette and the French soldiers with military honors which became his exalted command. One month and five days later the fighting ceased.
This happy event was clouded by the news brought Washington from Eltham, Colonel Bassett’s place in New Kent, where Jack Custis lay at the point of death. Couriers had already speeded to Mount Vernon to summon the dying man’s wife and mother. Doctor Craik hurried from Yorktown to give his friend what assistance he could. The General and his wife together watched the ebb of the young life of him who had been as son to both of them. By his death Mrs. Washington was now childless, but the General filled the gap in both their lives and gave promise of continued youthfulness at Mount Vernon by adopting the two youngest children, Eleanor Parke Custis and George Washington Parke Custis, as their own.
Six days later Washington was at Mount Vernon, where he remained a week, and departed to the north for another absence of two years, holding the army in that preparedness which would insure a desirable treaty of peace; then disbanding it and concluding his own relation to the military service. He resigned his commission at Annapolis on December 23, 1783; took affectionate leave of his companions in arms; and once more a private citizen, with Mrs. Washington by his side, and accompanied by Colonels David Humphreys, William Smith, and Benjamin Walker, he rode forward over the familiar Maryland roads toward his beloved Mount Vernon.