Washington DC – From Alexandria To Fredericksburg

From his early youth George Washington was a man’s man. He made friends with all classes, rich and poor, British, French, German, Indian and American ; and among the amusing examples of this was his becoming a volunteer fireman, a member of the Alexandria company organized in 1774. He bought for them in Philadelphia an up-to-date hand engine and had it drawn by oxen to Alexandria; that being an old town even then.

Alexandria was always important to George Washington as the town nearest Mount Vernon. And Alexandria gave one of the most remarkable examples of his life in his successful way of meeting men, for here he conferred with General Brad-dock and five Colonial governors, and impressed them all, before the Braddock expedition started for the Ohio River country.

The original fire engine has gone, but the house and the very room in which Braddock held his meeting are still there.

Alexandria is a trifle less than eight miles down the Potomac from Washington. You drive into it through King Street, an old brick-housed thorough-fare; the houses showing an unexpected medley of color in cream, red and yellow, and in all with a decided sense of attractiveness. King is only one of the many old-fashioned street names, there being also Duchess, Princess, Royal, Queen, Prince, Duke and other rolling titles of monarchy in this old aristocratic little town—itself named Bellhaven in early days, a name put upon a charming volume of short stories regarding it by one who was a child here. There is also a St. Asaph Street, remindful of the English bishop who was Franklin’s friend and at whose home Franklin wrote most of his Autobiography. Cameron Street was named for the Baron of Cameron, better known as Lord Fair-fax.

Among the colored people of Alexandria “Marcus” still survives as a name, a run-to-seed form of Marquis, from the Marquis de Lafayette who was often here. When he was welcomed on his 1824 visit the entire town turned out and at every opportune moment a live eagle on an arch, flapped its wings and screamed a welcome—a boy hidden in the decorations jabbing it at the opportune moment with a pin. It is not every little town that could so spiritedly arrange matters!

Down near the Potomac’s side stands the Carlyle house, where Braddock summoned his conference. At that time, it stood at the very water’s edge and was prominently in view as a distinguished town-house. It no longer shows from the street but is hidden from sight by an old hotel of Civil War days.

The Carlyle house was built on a terrace formed by the foundations of an early fort, and within these foundations are still the original vaults and pass-ages. It is a huge, hip-roofed, square-fronted, three dormered old house, of stuccoed stone with cut quoins at the four corners.

It is fascinating to realize that up the outside steps and through this front doorway and into the meeting-room walked Braddock and Governors Shirley of Massachusetts, Delancey of New York, Sharpe of Maryland, Morris of Pennsylvania, Dinwiddie of Virginia and George Washington.

The blue room, beautifully paneled and corniced, in which they met has an open fireplace surmounted by a paneled and pilastered chimney-breast ; on each side of which is a superbly topped doorway, with the fine curve of an old open pediment.

There are few rooms in America more filled with intense feeling for the past. Not only was the Braddock campaign discussed in this room but it represented the first meeting of representatives of the colonies to arrange a harmony of action. Washington, at this first meeting, in 1755, in spite of some criticisms of the British general’s plans, was given a commission as major and a place on Braddock’s staff, he not only being an unusually impressive young man but he had commanded in the Ohio River country the year before when he was scarcely more than of age; and even before that had been in the same country as a commissioner from Governor Dinwiddie to the French.

Washington’s familiar title of colonel was given him by Virginia. And as to “major,” Hawthorne had a curious story, for standing one day, with a friend, on a London street corner, an English regiment went marching by, bound for the Crimean War, and Hawthorne’s friend remarked that it was the very regiment with which George Washington had marched as a major a score of years before our country came into existence.

There is a quaint and ancient church, Christ Church in Alexandria, a squarish church, square-sided, with square flat ceiling with a broad gallery on each side, with carved cornice, a church which shows a pew which was Washington’s. There is an hexagonal, high-perched pulpit, on a slender pedestal, with a beautiful, suspended sounding-board above, standing squarely in the middle of the chaneel—here pronounced carefully, “chauncel “—and flanked by two great panels of the creed and Lord’s Prayer.

A lovely old churchyard with shade trees and ancient stones adds charm and setting to the old mellow brick church. There is a sweet old belfry rising from a square tower in front of the church to an octagon of brick and gradations of white pillars above.

Robert E. Lee had a pew in Christ Church and here he attended service on the April Sunday of 1861, between the Saturday on which the resignation of Lee was received by the National Government and the Monday on which he left for Richmond to take command of the Virginia forces of the Confederacy.

The Masons of Alexandria have done a great deal to preserve the important relics of the town and to uphold its traditions. Their meeting hall is a re-placement after a fire, in which much of value was lost, but an astonishing amount preserved! Here is still shown the portrait of that amazing land-owner, Lord Fairfax, ruddy-faced, stout, white-wigged, wearing a claret-colored coat. Here is the portrait of that man of unique record, Doctor Craik, “my old and intimate friend, Doctor Craik” as Washington’s will has it. He wears a blue coat, a dull red waistcoat, and a white stock, and has dark unpowdered hair. He was with Washington in the fight at Great Meadows, in 1754, and it is declared that he was likewise with Washington in every conflict after that date including the fighting at York-town. His Scotch blood showed, he stayed to the finish : for he was at the deathbed of Washington, and later at that of his widow.

Among the distinctly Masonic relics is the chair in which Washington sat when he presided at meetings. After his death it has been used only by important presiding visitors, among whom Lafayette was one of the first. A few years ago it was used by President Taft and, as they naively tell you, “it is now kept in a glass case.”

The Great War added much of the new to Alexandria but fortunately without destroying the old. There are wide old streets paved with the most impossible cobblestones and they alternate with smooth-paved thoroughfares. There are old town-houses with queer gables. There are fine houses on the corners and at length as you turn down South Washington Street, you find old mansions, large and dignified and full of charm. Here is one of yellow fronted by huge fluted white pillars. Here is one oddly with a half gable to the street, with two-story galleries and with dormers, adjoining an ancient garden shaded by tall trees. There are brass knockers and delightful doorways. Most of the houses are directly on the sidewalk, as they were made for old-fashioned town living, but there is much of delightful brick-walled gardening. A great deal of wealth was centered in Alexandria in the old days, and you think it must have grown up as a highly precise sort of town when you see such a sign as “Five hundred and ten feet to R. R. crossing.”

Market Square, in the heart of the town, is now largely covered by court and market buildings, but it is where Braddock’s troops were paraded and drilled—think of Washington quickstepping to the tune of the “British Grenadiers!” By going into the old market-house and looking about, you find an old, brick-paved square, and you visualize the old market place and drill ground, surrounded by the taverns and mansions of the old town. And in particular you may find an ancient inn, bordered by still existent galleries, such as might figure in Pick-wick or even the Three Musketeers. Lovers of the old get great satisfaction out of Alexandria, and its old houses and its streets like the one named Orinoco, reminiscent of the old shipping days.

From old Alexandria we may drive in a few hours to much older Fredericksburg, which is half-way between Washington and Richmond, over an excellent road and through the heart of typical Virginia. It is not a farming country, yet now and then there are farms, and there are not infrequently orchards. There are few towns. It is generally wild country, a country of old pine woods and young pines overgrowing old fields.

Myriad white birds twinkle in the sun on the water of the inlets. Buzzards go sailing in circles high over the cedars against the blue sky. Cedars and laurel grow freely on the hillsides. A sort of rough brown sedge-grass covers much of the scant meadows. It is a wild country with few crossroads. You come to a fork in the road but continue straight onward, for the road leading to the left would take you to Mount Vernon.

A distance farther through the green pines and you see a great house on a hillside at your right.

It is a large house of brick and white stone, of admirable design, and the architect was that Thornton who designed the Octagon, the Tudor House in Georgetown, and a great part of the Capitol. The house is Woodlawn, the home built for Lawrence Lewis and his wife, who was Nellie Custis, the adopted daughter of George Washington, the grand-daughter of Martha Washington, and Lawrence Lewis being Washington’s sister Betty’s son.

The house stands well up from the roadside on the top of a ridge and is reached by a cedar-bordered drive beginning at a great brick gateway with brick posts topped by stone balls.

The land was a wedding gift from Washington to Nellie Custis and her husband, he deeming it a “most beautiful site for a Gentleman’s seat.” The house was built after Washington’s death. It is a great wing-balanced mansion of brick, with small portico over the door, with white entablatures which show well at a distance, and with a small pediment over the center. Beyond the wings the front line of Woodlawn is extended by garden walls of brick, with a square garden house at each end ; and great box gardens continue the line onward. It is one of the finest of the old type of great Virginia mansions.

Continuing by the main road through the piney woods, Pohick is reached in two or three miles, a trifling collection of scattered homes at a cross-road. The central building is old Pohick Church, a venerable square structure, hip-roofed and oddly without either belfry or portico. When the parishioners were discussing the building of this church, Washington and his close friend, Colonel Mason of neighboring Gunston Hall led opposing factions as to the location. When the parishoners met to decide, Washington, surveyor that he was, was equipped with the actual distance from the front door of every house to the two localities ; and he won!

In one of the many fiction stories of Virginia, a brother and sister, before the war, are pictured in an isolated home, and a visitor from the North asks if they have ever been at Washington. “No,” responded the brother, with proper dignity, “but my sister has been at Pohick!” The full paucity of this worldly experience strikes you as you come through the lonely pine woods to the solitary old church and the two or three chicken-scratched old dooryards and forlorn cabins and farm houses. Yet in early days this little brick church was the center of a distinguished parish, and its list of vestrymen, before the Revolution, shows that eleven were members of the House of Burgesses, and Washington was a vestryman of the parish as was his father before him.

The ivy-hung cedar-surrounded church was a ruin after the Civil War, but has been lovingly restored; and its original fine stone quoined corners, its old worn doorsteps, and fine paired doorways, are still in place. If you are there on a pleasant Sunday morning, you will see a few motors and country carriages scattered among the trees, and if service has begun, you will hear the echoing sound of responses come softly through the windows. Enter, and you find the congregation standing, in their square pews, and facing the rector and pulpit on the side toward the road. As if continuing an old idea, the country carriages and the motor cars are not in line on the road but are scattered among the trees, past the old graves, below the church.

It is a small and intimate group who worship here, and the faces of most of them show breeding. There could not well be a more peaceful setting, with the Sabbath quiet, and the sunshine and the gentle breeze.

Farther along in the road you see that it is a country of peepers in the swamps, and near the nicer of the little homes, you will see bird-houses on poles, sometimes six or seven in a group, a little thicket of bird-houses, and if it is early spring, these old, old homes are bowered in clouds of white plum blossoms.

A careless desolation lies over the entire country-side. Nor is this to be ascribed entirely to the Civil War, for Charles Dickens, driving to Fredericks-burg twenty years before that time, wrote that the country approaching that city had once been very productive but that the soil had been exhausted by employing slave labor without strengthening the land, whereby it had become little better than a sandy desert overgrown with trees; and George Washington, before the Revolutionary War, wrote of the evils of tobacco crops and said: “Our lands were originally very good, but use and abuse have made them quite otherwise.”

There are still fords on the road and the water splashes high as you drive through.

One notices the remains of three great old brick and stone Colonial mansions, among the small houses of the little village of Dumfries. One by the roadside is used as a lodge and thus kept from ruin. Another is barely more than a chimney—but such a chimney ! a tall chimney, Jacobean in style, with an insignificant wooden cabin built against it and using the flues of ancient grandeur. Another great old house upon the green hillside, faces out over the landscape with empty window sockets, with the stone steps crumbled away from the door and horses stabled in the cellar; a house that has been beautifully paneled but which has had its paneling torn out within a year for kindling wood; and around the old place rose bushes and daffodils still grow.

There are amber lights in the misty distances. There is the pervasive smell of the piney woods. The singing of birds, the thorny hedges, the lush beauty of spring time, all are here.

The road turns down a hill as if hanging against a cliff of yellow sandstone to a broad stream at the picturesque old crowded riverside village of Occoquan, with its old ruined stone mill much like a medieval ruin, with the waterpower still tearing through, although the wheels have not turned for half a century.

It is hard to realize that amid the lonely pine woods that border the road for mile after mile were great camps for the soldiers during the great European war; the road leads, high-causewayed and dry, across a great swamp, formerly a complete bar to traffic in wet weather, and at length you come to a point where you may look down and off at the broad Rappahannock, hurrying on through its rocks. You go down a long steep road into old Falmouth, passing a little courthouse always spoken of locally as the “third seat of Justice in America.” It could never have held a jury, twelve men couldn’t get in! This old miniature seat of justice ranks in impossible tininess with the miniature old custom-house of Stonington in Connecticut—which, carefully built, does not look as if a chair and a table could be placed inside. Yet in this now shabby and forsaken old Falmouth, literally down hill, George Washing-ton went to school.

You turn sharply into the road which parallels the riverside and in a few minutes you are opposite Fredericksburg. But before crossing the long, narrow bridge, you look first at the nearby farm where Washington’s parents lived, and where his mother lived for some years as a widow. It is a high-set, riverside farm beautifully situated. The original house has gone but another is on the same site. This is the farm where the cherry tree grew: and the story told by Parson Weems does not seem impossible or absurd except in his method of telling. Weems knew everybody in the countryside and was liked by everybody and nothing is more probable than that the small boy chopped the tree and told about it. The neighborhood still abounds in human stories of George Washington and of his mother and sister. The grandeur of Mount Vernon was far away and they here remember the simple days.

A dear old lady, over in Fredericksburg, looked back with me at this farm across the river, and told me, as if it were confidential and as if it happened but yesterday, that over there, little George was taught by his father to plant the name George Washington in cabbage seed, so as to give him the delight of seeing his own name spring into life, and that his father taught him also carefully to pull up the weeds, they being like vices or sins that needed uprooting. And all this as if it were about some little boy of yesterday!

The bridge leading into Fredericksburg is slender and high-set. The old town, officially organized two hundred and fifty years ago, has many quaint old houses, all fresh and prosperous. And there are charming gardens. There are hard-paved streets, for it is a busy prosperous place—an odd thing to find after a drive of hours through wilderness. And this thoroughly descriptive word marks one of the famous battlefields within a few miles’ radius from this place.

This sunny, prosperous, church-steepled town, nestled in the Rappahannock valley, has the terrible record of more dead in the Civil War within a radius of twelve miles, than anywhere else in America. The most terrible battle of the region was here in Fredericksburg; General Lee and his men occupying Marye’s Heights, the slight rise of land hemming in the town. It was a pitiful fight, for to begin with, Burnside lost heavily in trying to force a crossing from the north side of the river, a task at which he stubbornly kept, though his men fell off the pontoons and the skeleton of the bridge with sickening steadiness, until Lee, who really wanted his opponents on his own side of the river, stopped his firing to let them walk into the trap. Through these streets, the Northerners marched only to be slaughtered by thousands as they attempted the hopeless task of driving Lee from his Heights. You see the locality just as it was on the battle day, with the cedar-bordered sunken road at the foot of the rise—a green, pleasant country lane. But Fredericksburg has lived down its tragedy.

Both armies, in their shelling, avoided any serious damage to the historic home of Washington’s mother—she having, as a widow, lived in the town; and the old home of Washington’s sister, Mrs. Lewis, was also spared.

A steep-roofed, dormered little house of wood at a quiet little corner of two quiet streets, in a good neighborhood then and now, as shown by the old houses still there, is where the mother lived; what is now the center of the house has been changed since her death but the corner wing with its brick chimney-end and the garden are as she left it. It was in this little dooryard garden with flowering shrubs and box bushes, busy with her potherbs, that Lafayette found her when he called, and a delightful description of the old lady’s spirited conversation and Lafayette’s admiration of her, the mother of his great chief, has come down to us.

Kenmore, the beautiful home of Washington’s sister Betty, Mrs. Fielding Lewis, is a large brick mansion, delightfully placed as the important house on the green, and explaining why Thackeray drove down here to look for the home of the Warringtons.

On the green, beside Kenmore, is the monument to the distinguished General Mercer who fell at Princeton, one of the American officers who had served in the army of Prince Charlie and had in consequence come to America.

In an old graveyard near the green is the monument to Washington’s mother, of which it has often been said, that it is the only monument erected by women to the memory of a distinguished woman.

One of the most familiar stories of Washington is still told in connection with the Rappahannock here, although it is often mistakenly placed beside the Potomac: the story that Washington once threw a silver dollar across the river, which was a possible thing for a man of unusual strength to do at this river ; but in need of the witty elucidation of Choate that “money went farther in those days” when applied to the broad Potomac: to which remark Choate added, after a little reflection, that Washington did more than that, “having thrown a Sovereign across the Atlantic.”

Even now, a century and a quarter after the death of Washington, you will still find Fredericksburg people as full of the oral tradition of him as if he were alive but yesterday.

And a man of perhaps fifty told me, with as much sidewise caution as if telling of the doings of some distinguished citizen of to-day who might come upon us around the corner, that George Washington, coming to visit his rigid mother at Fredericksburg, did not always spend all his time in visiting, but that on occasion he would meet with friends at the little tavern, the Indian Queen, still standing there, and would not only talk, as wise men of old loved to do, and drink, which every gentleman did as a matter of course, but would at times join in a friendly game —and that he was not by any means always the winner ; and of how, one night, he left for home by the ferry, having lost all his ready money, and met a stranger who wanted to buy his fine black horse, whereupon he sold it and with the money returned to the tavern, found his friends still there, sat in again with them and, amid uproarious gayety, won back all that he had lost, and more!

His sister Betty was tall for a woman and well set up, and her face so much resembled George’s that when, for fun, she would throw a cloak around her shoulders, put on a Continental hat, and draw her-self up like a soldier, it was a famous matter in Fredericksburg how much she could look like her brother!

In early days Fredericksburg had odd and important connection with the sea. The people are proud of an old house, so made over as to seem new, lovingly known as the “sentry box” because from it the Rappahannock was watched during four wars for sea-raiders. And another old house is at least locally believed to have been “the only legal home in America” of John Paul Jones; a sidewalk-set old wooden house of two plain simple stories.

But twilight is coming on and we start back on the long run to Washington. We look off in the sunset light into sapphire and rosy distances. The views seem more sweeping than on our approach. The pines are of an extraordinary vivid green. As darkness settles we realize that this is the very heart of old Virginia.