Mount Vernon


Governor’s Palace

Today (3/29/17), we had planned to do another tour of historic Jamestown with the woman who was giving the Roads Scholars’ tour, but when we called Jamestowne, we were told her tour wouldn’t be until 3 (Turns out, it was a miscommunication and she wasn’t giving a tour today.)  So, with our initial plans out the window, we were left to explore new territory.

We spent the morning running errands and trying to obtain contact information for the new man in charge of Colonial Williamsburg.  As long time guests, we believe he’s making some major mistakes in direction and wanted to address them before it’s too late.  While his schedule wouldn’t allow us to meet this week, I received assurances that his chief of staff would contact me.  We’ll see.

Freedom Park cabins

So, we had time to kill before our 5:30 lecture on George Washington.  Last night, I had Googled a “Must see” list for the area to see what we had missed in our devotion to our favorites.  One area that caught my eye was Freedom Park.  While it is known for its hiking and biking trails and zip lining, it also is the site of one of the oldest free black settlements.

Reconstruction of a cabin like John Jackson’s.

The place got its start when William Ludwell Lee of Green Spring Farm not only freed his slaves in his will, but also made provisions for comfortable homes to be built for them. His executor saw to the project which allowed the former slaves to live rent free for ten years.  One of the homes represents the home of John Jackson (with his wife Nancy and two children.)  Jackson was able to purchase and develop his own property, and his descendants still live in the area!

The park guide also references an 18th century cemetery, and though there were archaeological digs on the grounds and bodies were found, they were reinterred after research was completed.  Unfortunately, there are no markers nor clues to the information archaeologists found, and the area is simply blocked off by rail fences.

Botanical Gardens

The park does, however, have a visitor center which displays a small collection of artifacts and information.  My favorite piece was a map from the Civil War simply listing the area as “Free Negro Settlement.”  There aren’t any houses marked or details, indicating the artist didn’t explore the area. I wished I’d gotten a picture of it, but alas,  I didn’t.

There is a beautiful botanical garden as well, which is run by volunteers.  Though I don’t expect Freedom Park to become a new favorite, it is definitely worth visiting, and since it’s only about five years old and a county park, I’m sure it will continue to improve.  It will be fun to see the changes that occur.

A sampling of period clothes

We left Freedom Park to head back to Colonial Williamsburg for a lecture in the building formerly known as the Dewitt Wallace–now the Art Museums of Williamsburg.  Being a reenactor and a seamstress, I wanted to check out their collection of Colonial Fashion, now on display.  There was a beautiful exhibition of clothes and quilts–well worth visiting, even though I didn’t have much time before the lecture.

The lecture by Professor Peter Henriques was entitled I cannot tell a lie. Myths about George Washington that should be discarded. In his discussion, he gave twelve myths and his reasons why they’re “fake news.”  I’ll recount them here.

Washington’s false teeth

Myth #1:  He had wooden teeth.  Actually,  Washington’s false teeth were a combination of human, ivory, and animal.  In fact, he even bought teeth from his slaves!

Myth #2:  He threw a silver dollar across the Potomac. First, silver dollars hadn’t been invented, and Washington wouldn’t have thrown money away if they had.

CW not GW

Myth #3:  He cut down his father’s cherry tree and said,  “I cannot tell a lie…” This myth was popularized in the book by Mason Locke Weems called The Life of Washington, but, though it appears in the book, it wasn’t added til 5-6 edition. There is some background, though. A vase in Germany (1770-1790) depicts Washington cutting down a tree with GW over his head. Unfortunately, on this case, “Washington” is a grown man, and the initials?  CW.

Myth #4:  Washington prayed on his knees at Valley Forge. While there is nothing implausible about Washington praying. He was a very private man, not given to such ostentatious displays. The story only was added by Weems in the 17th edition of his book. Additionally, the description of the man who supposedly witnessed this differs in accounts.  One has Potts as a Quaker encouraged by the event while others portray him as a Tory disheartened by the event.  In either case, he didn’t buy the farm in Valley Forge until after war was over, so could not have witnessed Washington there.

Myth #5:   Washington was a great curser. The reference to this comes from an account of his clash with Lee in 1778 at the Battle of Monmouth. Lee had turned his troops, and Washington had to rush in to save the day.  A quote by Colonel Charles Scott says, “He swore til the leaves shook the trees.” First of all, Scott wasn’t there, and recounted the story many years later. Also disputing this character portrayal, Alexander Hamilton said Washington never cursed. Charles Lee himself said in his testimony that Washington’s manner was stronger than his language. Finally, Washington prided himself on self- mastery and disdained use of profanity.   All of these are good reasons to doubt the account.

IMG_6472

Sculpture of Washington

Myth # 6:   He was cold and aloof.  Apparently, his friend Gouverneur Morris said he was remote. This stems from a story circulated that Morris had told Hamilton he thought Washington quite genial.  Hamilton apparently bet him dinner and wine if Morris would put his hand on Washington’s shoulder and say, “General!  How happy I am to see you looking so well.”  Supposedly, Morris did it, and Washington removed his hand from his shoulder and glared at Morris until he left.  As with the other myths, there is no contemporary evidence. First, the record is third hand gossip 80 years after the event. Additionally, the story is out of character for both men. Delegates who served with Washington said, “He is sensible, amiable, virtuous, modest, and brave.” To publicly embarrass someone would go against his rules of civility; therefore, it’s safe to assume the incident never happened.

Myth #7:  He had no sense of humor.  James Madison said Washington “enjoyed good humor and hilarity, though he takes little part in them.”  Additionally, Washington’s bad teeth might have given credence to this rumor as well, since most people don’t like smiling and laughing if they’re self conscious–and self-mastery was extremely important to him.

Myth #8:  Washington had a child with his slave.  This rumor has two sources.  The first was letters put out by the British during the war trying to slander Washington’s character.  The other comes from West Ford, who was the son of George Washington’s brother John’s wife’s slave.  The Ford family gave oral tradition that he was Washington’s son.  A number of facts dispute this, however.  First, West didn’t come to Mount Vernon until three years after Washington died. Additionally, there is incredible difficulty with putting Venus (West’s mom) and Washington together.  Since West was born during the war when we have very credible evidence where Washington was, the only possibility would be when John’s family visits Mount Vernon. There’s no plausible reason why Washington–a happily married man who valued duty and self discipline above most else–would do that. West is most likely the son of one of Washington’s nephews.  Doctors now think that Washington was most likely sterile. This doesn’t necessarily disprove the Fords story of having Washington DNA.  The Fords may be directly related to Washington without being directly descended from him.

Myth #9:  Washington struggled about whether to be a king. In actuality, he was fundamentally a believer in republican values. The origins of this belief may be because of a letter from a French officer suggesting it may be better for America to have a king (strong leadership in tumultuous times.). George responded with a blistering letter contradicting that view and even went as far as to have witnesses sign that he sent it. It would have caused him to be viewed as a traitor if he abandoned his republican principles.

Myth #10:  Washington added “So help me God” to his presidential oath.  First, there isn’t contemporary evidence to this.  A letter from the French ambassador which spells out the whole scene of the inauguration in vivid detail doesn’t include it.  But, 65 years later, it appears in a book. It seems out of character for Washington to tamper with the constitutional text when he’s such a stickler for the Constitution being taken literally. The tradition may come from the fact that he’d said it in other oaths.

Myth #11:  Washington is a front man for Alexander Hamilton.  This myth had its origin with Jefferson who immensely disliked Hamilton.  Unfortunately, Washington tends to side with Hamilton’s perspective more than Jefferson’s.  Jefferson’s answer to this frustration is that Washington is deceived by Hamilton, since he cannot consider Washington evil like he considers Hamilton.

Myth #12:  Washington originated the 2 term tradition. It’s important to understand the factors here.  First, Washington steps down from a combination of fatigue and a desire to establish a transition of power. He was not opposed to the idea of serving a number of terms. In fact, in a letter to Lafayette, he said that he saw no problem with serving multiple terms, and thought limiting terms stifled the voice of the people, who might desire a particular person to serve longer (or be in circumstances that would make it easier or better for a leader to continue.)

All in all, it was a fascinating evening, and I see why his lectures are so popular and well attended.

Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon

Wednesday (6/11/14), we planned to see the homes of two icons in American History: George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Robert E. Lee’s Arlington. While mom and I had been, Jen had not, so we were excited to see what had changed.

Back lawn of Mount Vernon

Back lawn of Mount Vernon

We started at Mount Vernon. This vast expanse of land is not only beautiful, but offers so many experiences for the visitor. One new tour Jen and I were especially excited about was the National Treasure tour ($5.00+ admission). Those familiar with the Second National Treasure (Book of Secrets) will recognize Mount Vernon as the spot where Benjamin Gates kidnaps the president. Parts of the movie were actually filmed on location at Mount Vernon, or recreated after parts of it, so we were excited to see specifically the “tunnels” under the building. Since our tour was at 11:30, we jumped in line to tour the house and surrounding buildings. Visitors are not allowed to photograph inside the building, but it was still an awesome experience. It was especially interesting to see the bed in which George Washington died and learn that Martha never slept in their bedroom after that, but made herself a room on the third floor. Unfortunately, there’s no photography inside.

"Tunnel" exit

“Tunnel” exit

After touring the house and gardens, we met our group for the National Treasure Tour. This tour, nicknamed by our tour guide the “Hollywood and History” tour, truly lived up to its name. We started the tour on the back lawn which was the location of the party in the movie. Our guide shared how careful the crew had to be to protect the location: They wrapped the pillars with Styrofoam before hanging light wires, kept a row of firetrucks on hand for the pyrotechnic sign, and generally protected the area. The incredible part for me was the second area of the tour. After leaving the lawn, we got special access to the cellar area under Mount Vernon. I love being able to see things that are not readily accessible to the general public. This area served as a model for the movie, though no actual filming took place here–it’s too steep, too narrow, and too fragile. But, as we walked along the corridor, I noticed a stone designed like the secret door in the movie. Our guide shared that this was a replica of the original cornerstone, the original having been removed and placed in the museum at Mount Vernon.
View of Mount Vernon from the Beach

View of Mount Vernon from the Beach

One interesting fact was that the initials on the stone are L.W. after George Washington’s half brother Lawrence Washington, who was the first to live in Mt. Vernon and who named it after his commander, Admiral Vernon, in the War of Jenkins’ Ear. One fun fact we learned is that in the version of the film shown on the big screen, the initials on the stone had been changed to G.W., to make it connected to George Washington for the viewers. Those who own the DVD edition will notice that they have been changed back to the original L.W. This is because the Mount Vernon Ladies Association were upset that they had changed it for the film and demanded it be historically accurate–apparently, they have a lot of pull. And rightly so. This group was started by the women that saved Mount Vernon from oblivion. Louisa Bird Cunningham was travelling down the Potomac River and noticed the disrepair of Mount Vernon. Realizing if something wasn’t done, and soon, this great building would be lost to the ages, she wrote a letter to her daughter who challenged the women of the South, then the nation to save this estate.
Coastline where the fishing scene was filmed

Coastline where the fishing scene was filmed

They raised $200,000 to buy the property, and the rest is history, albeit one of a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears. No wonder they want to make sure it is represented accurately!

After the tunnels–sorry, no pictures could be taken there either–we headed down to the beach. This was an incredibly steep climb with a lot of stairs, but well worth it. In the movie, this is the spot of the fishing scene–how Benjamin Gates gets into the party (He definitely would have had a haul to make it up that cliff!) The beach was beautiful, and afforded a great view of Mount Vernon from the vantage point that most visitors would have first seen it. The beach was the last stop on our National Treasure tour.

The Washingtons' graves

The Washingtons’ graves

On the way back up, we decided to stop at the tomb of the Washingtons. The design and dimensions for this gravesite were described in George Washington’s will. He was initially buried in the old tomb, but it was in such disrepair that Washington wanted a new tomb constructed and the remains of the family moved into it. The new tomb wasn’t completed until 32 years after his death (1831), while the sarcophagi weren’t completed until 1837. Most prominent are the graves of George and Martha, with the rest of the family in the vault behind them. It’s an impressive site.

Martha Reading

Martha Reading

We arrived in time to visit with Mrs. Washington. This is always a favorite for us. We first saw this actress in Colonial Williamsburg where she also played Mrs. Washington. She has, in fact, been Mrs. Washington for over twenty years. She’s such a joy to spend time with because she simply embodies Mrs. Washington the way only someone with twenty years of research can do. She posed for portraits, read to the children, and recounted stories of herself and the general. If you get a chance, go see her–it’s well worth it.

After visiting with Mrs. Washington, we went on the slave tour. This tour is free with admission, though you do need to register, and it also was an incredible tour. It seems difficult to picture our founding father as a slave owner, but he was indeed. There were a few very interesting things we learned, however. First, our guide shared with us Washington’s standards for his overseers. His instructions were, “Conduct yourself with integrity, sobriety, industry, and zeal.” Interesting. He also established a system for review that allowed slaves a recourse if they felt they were not being treated correctly. Despite that, most of his slaves worked from “Can see to Can’t see,” extremely long hours in summertime!

Slave quarters

Slave quarters

Another interesting fact was that good treatment did not necessarily ensure a slave would be content. Our guide recounted the story of Washington’s slave Hercules. He was definitely a favored slave–had a velvet coat and a gold tipped cane, and even travelled with the family to Philadelphia. Yet, at the first chance he got, he ran away. I wonder what happened to him. George Washington’s attitude towards slavery also seems to have changed. He and Martha both grew up with slaves; in fact, George was a slave owner at the age of eleven when his father died. It was all he had ever known, so the idea that it was wrong was a foreign concept to him.
Arch under which Robert and Mary Lee got married

Arch under which Robert and Mary Lee got married

Yet, his ideas changed from believing it was wrong to tear families apart to believing it was wrong to sell slaves. He did not tackle the issue of slavery in the white house because of how tenuous the relationship between the states already was, and how firmly the southern states had fought against abolishment in the Continental Congress meetings. He did not want to risk tearing out new country apart. However, in his will, he freed his slaves, which was no small task at the time. His wife, however, did not free hers. Part of that was that her slaves were part of the estate, and freeing them would be the equivalent of giving away the family silver in economic terms of the time. Definitely an interesting tour.

Next, we headed to Arlington. Since Arlington has been under construction the last few times I have visited, I was thrilled to see it up and running–and that they allow you to photograph inside! Here, we heard the beautiful love story of Robert E. Lee and Mary Custis Lee. Robert and Mary had been childhood play mates and teenage friends. He eventually came courting, and apparently asked her to marry him when she reached in the cookie jar for a cookie, and he reached in and took her hand. Her father was initially against their marriage, but with his wife and his daughter in favor of it, he gave in. Robert and Mary were married under the middle arch. He was at West Point at the time, so the couple took up residence there.

Kennedy Memorial and View of Arlington

Kennedy Memorial and View of Arlington

She hated it, and when they returned to Arlington for leave, when his leave was up, he went back, and she stayed. When several weeks past and she still hadn’t returned, a concerned Lee wrote her mother a letter stating, “I seem to have misplaced my wife…” He soon got the news of the reason she had stayed: she was pregnant. While he was away, she also got violently ill and came very close to dying. This close shave made Lee decide Arlington would be their permanent home so she could be cared for while he was away. Mary Lee is an exceptional woman in her own right. A firm proponent of gradual emancipation, Mary taught all of her slave women to read, write, and sew so they would be prepared to support themselves when slavery ended. But, forced to leave Arlington when the war broke out so that she would not worry her husband, she only returned to Arlington once after the war. The Union army had intentionally buried the dead in her rose garden, which boasted eleven varieties of roses. Lee himself would never return.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Having completed our time at the house, we headed down to the Kennedy Memorial (The eternal flame) and the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Watching the guard there is a solemn moment indeed. Everything he does is in counts of 21. Twenty-one steps down, turn, wait 21 seconds, twenty-one steps back, repeat. The number twenty-one was chosen for it’s representation of the twenty-one gun salute–the highest miliary honors given a soldier. For me, it is another reminder of the countless stories we have yet to learn and may never know.

Confederate Memorial

Confederate Memorial

We finished off our trip with a trip to the Confederate Memorial and then a visit to my father’s grave. I am blessed beyond measure by his military service and the fact that he is buried at Arlington, a place I so dearly love. Spending the day with such great men who had such real struggles was a vivid reminder of all we have overcome and a call to continue to fight against the evils around us.