After more than eight years of war, General George Washington was impatient to return home. The unpretentious and unfinished country house, its wood panels shaped and covered with a sandy white paint to resemble stone, was still without a completed cupola and weather vane. Eight square wooden pillars already fronted the portico overlooking the broad waters of what was then known as the Potowmack. Mount Vernon and the postwar improvements he wanted to make to it had rarely been out of Washington's thoughts since the shooting had stopped. He had lived on the property, purchased by his father as Little Hunting Creek Plantation in 1735, since he was three years old. At nineteen, in 1751, he had inherited it from his half-brother Lawrence.
Since May 4, 1775, Washington had been back only once, for a few days in October 1781, during the culminating Yorktown campaign. Nearly fifty-two, his once reddish hair was graying above a Roman profile weather-beaten by early exposure as a surveyor, planter, and frontier soldier and etched by smallpox at nineteen. He felt physically and emotionally drained. In the limbo between war and peace, his weight, on a solid six-foot-four frame, had burgeoned to 209 pounds. To his worshipers, military and civilian, to whom he symbolized the new United States, Washington embodied rocklike perseverance. He appeared even more majestic and larger than life late in 1783 than in his lean and anxious earlier years directing what seemed an unwinnable war.
Even then Washington had been a commanding figure. "You had prepared me to entertain a favorable opinion of him," Abigail Adams wrote to her husband early in the rebellion, "but I thought the one half was not told me." And she quoted to John Adams "those lines of Dryden,"
Mark his Majestik fabrick! He's a temple
Sacred by birth, and built by hands divine....
Late in 1783 the letters of the Abbé Robin, a chaplain with Count de Rochambeau's army at Yorktown, had been published, with much the same view of Washington's "tall and noble stature," that "perhaps the exterior of no man was ever better calculated to gratify these expectations [of greatness]...."
Since the shot heard 'round the world at Lexington had drawn him into the revolution, Washington had seen little of his plantation. Just before Yorktown, while preparing the siege of Lord Cornwallis's troops and hoping that the French forces he expected would not be outmaneuvered by a British fleet sailing from New York, he learned disquieting news. Fearing that British ships anchored in the Potomac below Mount Vernon were planning to burn the house, his distant cousin, Lund Washington, the resident manager of the home farm, went on board the enemy flagship to plead for the estate's safety. Assured that no harm would come to it, presumably as a result of a suitable ransom to which he agreed, he returned to Mount Vernon and arranged "as a present" to the British, he explained after the fact in a letter to the General, a consignment of sheep, hogs, and an abundant "supply of articles" including twenty slaves, flour from Washington's mill, and hams from his smokehouse. News of the shocking bribe also arrived through a courier from the Marquis de Lafayette, who was moving troops southward toward Yorktown.
It would have been "a less painful circumstance to me," Washington fumed to his cousin, "to have heard that in cause of your non-compliance with their request, they had burnt my house, and left my plantation in ruins. You should have behaved yourself as my representative, and reflected on the bad example of communicating with the Enemy." A "conflagration," he claimed, would have been better. Still, Mount Vernon had survived the embarrassing bargain, and -- with Christmas approaching -- Washington was now more anxious than ever to return.
On September 3, 1783, British negotiators in Paris had finally approved the treaty conceding American independence. News carried across the Atlantic by sail arrived frustratingly slowly. Nearly two months later, chafing in his dormant and depopulated headquarters, a two-story frame house at Rocky Hill, four miles from Princeton (formerly Princetown), New Jersey, Washington received confirmation that the "definitive" text of the treaty would be coming. The news was long expected, and long delayed, draining the event of any sense of elation. As early as March 25, word had come that the "preliminaries" to peace had been signed, but the back-and-forth of mutually acceptable language had to cross, and recross, both the Channel and an ocean.
In the interim, Sir Guy Carleton, British commander in New York and Long Island, the last major enclaves of enemy troops in the former colonies and home to resident and refugee royalists from Maine (then part of Massachusetts) to Georgia, had been slowly evacuating the area. The preliminary treaty articles had used the words "with all convenient speed" for the departures, but New York City and Long Island were being kept to guarantee an acceptable peace. Supplied from bases in Canada, the British also clung to seven isolated stockades on the American side of the Great Lakes, including Fort Niagara, Oswego, Presque Isle, Mackinaw, and the stockade at Detroit, intending to hold on to them until debts to be paid according to the treaty were duly settled. (The colonies were reluctant to make good, and it would be the mid-1790s before that happened.)
Fearing violence from returning patriots, some New York Tories had fled as early as April, mostly to Nova Scotia. While flotillas from England, Canada, and the Caribbean were assembling to evacuate further thousands of unhappy British soldiers and sympathizers, Congress began authorizing the discharge of Continental troops anxious to return home before the onset of winter. Delegates were eager to comply. The former colonies preferred having no standing army to paying for one.
Congress had overseen the war, and now the peace, almost without money and without the authority to coerce it from the states or its citizens. States retained sovereign powers; Congress under the Articles of Confederation, ratified seven months before Yorktown, was little more than a discussion group. Only South Carolina had paid its full 1782 quota to the federal treasury by July 1783 and had furnished that contribution "in kind" rather than in coin -- supplies for the former army in the south, now disbanding at Charleston. Virginia had contributed half its quota; Rhode Island had paid a fourth, Pennsylvania a fifth, Connecticut and New Jersey each a seventh, Massachusetts an eighth, New York and Maryland a twentieth, New Hampshire less than 1 percent. North Carolina, Delaware, and Georgia had paid in nothing at all. Nevertheless, Washington would feel compelled to praise the states for their support of the war for their own independence. He could do little else.
From Newburgh, his New York headquarters on the Hudson during the early summer, he kept messages going to Virginia about readying Mount Vernon for its owner's return, deploring the loss of rents from defecting tenants and ordering supplies "for my Negroes." To his brother, John Augustine Washington, the General confided, "I wait here with much impatience, the arrival of the Definitive Treaty; this event will put a period not only to my Military Service, but also to my public life; as the remainder of my natural one shall be spent in that kind of ease and repose which a man enjoys that is free from the load of public cares, and subject to no other Controul than that of his own judgment, and a proper conduct for the walk of private Life." Yet he worried also about "the Affairs of this Continent" being "conducted by thirteen distinct Sovereignties." As commander in chief of the armed forces of the former colonies and their only unifying symbol, he wanted to see "competent powers for all general purposes" vested "in the Sovereignty of the United States" to prevent "Anarchy and Confusion." Effective with the peace treaty, he hoped that the nation, if it were one, would "set out right," for his "Army in the Field" could no longer unite the states. That army now hardly existed.
The only civilian balance to the Congress was the group of governors of the states, for whom Washington was often the only unifying contact. Few communicated with each other. At one point there had been serious talk of "the necessity of appointing General Washington sole dictator of America" to stop the drift into disintegration. Evading such gossip, the General drafted a circular letter to the governors maintaining that only in real union could America become a great and happy nation: "With our fate," he prophesied, "will the destiny of unborn Millions be involved." He had to keep both the disunited states and the discontented army together as they waited for the formal acknowledgment of definitive peace. Things could fall apart -- even the treaty itself.
At West Point in mid-November, making his intentions to resign public, Washington had added to Congress's instructions for dismissal of most troops his own "Farewell Orders to the Armies of the United States," lauding his men for their endurance of hardship, even "hunger and nakedness." He urged each soldier to recollect "the uncommon scenes in which he has been called to Act no inglorious part, and the astonishing events of which he has been a witness, events which have seldom if ever before taken place on the stage of human action, nor can they probably happen again. For who has before seen a disciplined Army form'd at once from such raw materials?" Closing his "benediction" with the long-anticipated announcement that he was also about "to retire from the service," he wrote in the third person, "The Curtain of seperation will soon be drawn, and the military scene to him will be closed for ever." Rather than covertly promoting himself for some other role, he intended that to mean all public office. In England, when the letter was read, months later, at a crowded London coffeehouse, "every hearer," it was reported, "was full of the writer's praises; the composition was said to be equal to anything of antient or modern date." Washington seemed above human ambition.
His British counterpart Sir Guy Carleton had tried earlier to relinquish his own awkward command. The peace ministry in London had ordered Carleton to send part of his army (and possibly Sir Guy himself) to the West Indies, to defend the sugar islands against the French. Resisting what he thought was a no-win assignment likely to be personally costly, he claimed to be busy curbing corruption in the command he had inherited from Sir Henry Clinton, as well as negotiating with Washington for months on exchanging prisoners of war.
Carleton now had only about five hundred surviving Americans, while Washington, after Yorktown, held some twelve thousand British, German, and loyalist prisoners. Congress was demanding #200,000 from the British to defray their upkeep before releasing them. With the British government unwilling to accept Carleton's resignation (he was needed in New York to complete the evacuation), he had written to Washington that he was baffled by the Congress's stubbornness about release of the prisoners and could only assume that the Americans wanted "to bring the war to the last extremities of rage." His understanding was that warring nations, on signing peace agreements, exchanged prisoners, and he knew that his side had already returned naval captives from England although he had not freed any held in New York. "It has not been usual, I think, since the barbarous ages to use any menaces, however obscure, towards prisoners and still less to practice towards them any acts of barbarity....There is an easy and honourable way for Congress to diminish the burthen which our prisoners occasion." That way was for them to "be now delivered up." Carleton had no idea how broke the Confederation Congress was, and why it sought a captivity fee. Money was desperately needed, but the delegates could not agree on how to raise it.
Sir Guy's prisoners of war, if officers, were billeted thriftily in private homes in Flatbush or consigned for security to the city's Provost Prison. The ranks were treated wretchedly, although occasionally permitted visitors (if they could manage the distances) who could bring them food and clothes. Encounters could not have been pleasant. Until March 1782 the British considered captured Americans as rebels rather than prisoners of war and confined them to rotting bottoms anchored off Wallabout Bay on the Brooklyn side of the harbor opposite Crown Point. Twenty such vessels had once been needed. The Jersey, a dismantled sixty-four-gun ship reduced to bare masts, had been known to inmates until its collapse into the mudflats in May 1783 as "hell afloat."
On other hulks in New York harbor, men without local relatives and friends lived in the clothes in which they were captured and suffered from typhus, dysentery, and scurvy. Often the worms in their rations were the most solid food they were served. Every morning all prisoners were aroused with the unchanged cry, "Rebels, turn out your dead!" There were always more dead. Thousands were buried in shallow pits at the water's edge, where the tides soon washed out their bones. Years later, on April 6, 1808, thirteen hogsheads (each the equivalent of sixty-three gallons) of remains, all that the tides had not taken, were interred in a vault adjacent to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Almost as many soldiers had died in British captivity (about seven thousand) as had been killed in action.
On March 17, 1783, Carleton had learned that Sir Charles Grey was to succeed him, but only an announcement arrived, not Grey himself. A month later Sir Guy discovered that Grey would not be coming after all. Carleton was to continue with the thankless task of withdrawing the remaining forces in America, as well as all loyalists willing to leave. At the Charleston garrison, the lieutenant governor, Alexander Leslie, had been beset by pleas from South Carolina loyalists that they take their slaves with them. Carleton warned that only slaves boarded with written confirmation of their purchase, or who were legally to be set free, could be transported with their owners, as otherwise, as chattels, they could be considered stolen property. New York had not been thought of as a slave-holding colony, but its human property was only less visible than the southern variety. There were also about two thousand former slaves within the British lines who by General Clinton's proclamation had been promised their freedom from their former masters for loyalty to the royalist cause. Carleton could not relinquish them to servitude.
Shortages of shipping also delayed the departures. To bring the initial 39,000 troops to New York in July 1776, the largest military force ever landed anywhere by the British to that time, had taken 427 transports loaded with men and supplies, even with bales of forage for horses, and fifty-two accompanying warships. Reembarking the occupiers over many months had required at least as many sailings, as frantic sympathizers by the thousands (29,244 from New York to Nova Scotia alone), along with their goods, were also promised accommodation. Carleton's orders to departing loyalists were that if they were not ready to be mustered for boarding when their vessels were ready, they would be "precluded from passages at government's expense."
Rancor against the Americans, who had never attempted to retake New York by force, was an unforeseen obstacle. Just before Yorktown, Washington had contrived a deception on the New Jersey shore opposite Staten Island to make the British under Sir Henry Clinton wary of an assault on New York City, in an attempt to keep enemy forces from sailing southward to bolster Earl Cornwallis. Leaving only two thousand men, attempting to look like more, opposite New York, Washington had marched the rest of his dwindling army southward toward Virginia -- the first time in seven years that he visited Mount Vernon.
The British had captured an American courier with thirteen letters, one from Washington to Lafayette, suggesting that the French fleet might not be able to arrive in time to assist in pinning Earl Cornwallis down in Virginia. Sir Henry Clinton's deputy, General James Robertson, assumed that New York City might be attacked while Washington delayed an expected assault at Yorktown. It could all have been clever Washingtonian disinformation. All that British troops in the city knew was that they had never been realistically besieged. Bitter at their uselessness beyond panoply and parades, they were leaving after years of firing hardly a shot in anger. A loyalist versifier, the Reverend Jonathan Odell, had even boasted in a couplet,
Back to his mountains Washington may trot:
He take this city[?] -- yes, when ice is hot.
Sir Guy did not want patriot reprisals against his departing ships. Learning of incidents perpetrated by angry evacuees, soldier and civilian, who resented premature resettlement, he warned about the consequences. On October 27, as "General and Commander-in-Chief of all his Majesty's forces, within the Colonies lying on the Atlantic Ocean, from Nova-Scotia to West Florida, inclusive," he had issued, with Rear Admiral Robert Digby, who would embark with him, a proclamation warning violators,
Having received information that an outrage has lately been committed upon an American vessel, in the harbour of this city, by seizing and destroying her colours, in a riotous and disorderly manner, which behaviour is not only a breach of the peace of the city, but has a mischievous tendency to prolong the animosities, which it is the design of the provisional articles [of peace] to assuage and extinguish.
This is therefore to warn all persons whatever from offering any insult to the colours of any sovereign nation within this harbour, under penalty of being severely punished....
Because a withdrawal was inevitably a time for breakdowns in discipline, Sir Guy combined, in his declaration, a pragmatic respect for orderliness and for goodwill. While acknowledging defeat, he also made it publicly clear to royalists that the supplanting authority, whether they liked it or not, was already a legal entity.
Demonstrating further good faith, Carleton apprehended New Yorkers who were counterfeiting and passing William Morris's notes. One was a printer, formerly of Waterbury, Connecticut, ironically surnamed Poor, "taken with all his types," who had "counterfeit money of every kind, nearly two hogsheads; the greatest part were 15 dollars notes, poorly executed." Another was a former American army chaplain, William May, and three others were "refugees" from American territory, Sylvester Mason, Lemuel Nichols, and Dennis Flin. Sir Guy promised to send them into the custody of General Washington. Carleton also forbade royalist refugees from demolishing buildings in order to carry off "any stone, brick or frame" to future new habitations abroad.
While hinting to London for a peerage rewarding his complex and prolonged efforts, as he had only a mere knighthood, Carleton advised that a "wise and mild" government in Canada would contribute to keeping its newly arriving colonists loyal and could be a model for what he cynically expected would be a discontented future America. He suggested that the cabinet might want to prolong a settlement until the infant republic collapsed in intrastate dissension and Americans realized "the consequences of their own folly." But the successor to the failed wartime government of Lord North preferred to be permanently and speedily rid of the impossible Americans -- impossible even to themselves, as Carleton realized.
The Articles of Confederation for the former colonies appeared unworkable. In 1783, only one man represented all the disunited states to their people -- George Washington. The classics-educated elite in England had often bestowed Roman epithets on their former cousins, the enemy, and before the Cincinnatus tag gained currency, even the sympathetic Sir Horace Walpole had wryly referred to the commander in chief as "Caius Manlius Washingtonius Americanus, the dictator." Caius, tribune of the plebs, considered by the Roman ruling class a dangerous subversive, had led a band of freedmen and slaves. Washington, the modern Caius Manlius, was attempting the seemingly impossible feat of backing away from dictatorship while keeping the newly freed Americans together as a nation.
Copyright © 2003 by Stanley Weintraub
A Mount Vernon Homecoming, 1783
General Washington's Christmas Farewell
A Mount Vernon Homecoming, 1783
In late November 1783 when Washington finally received formal notice of the signing of a peace treaty with England he had little more than a month to accept the transfer of power from British troops in New York; to bid farewell to his troops; and to resign his commission to Congress if he hoped to make it to Mount Vernon for Christmas. He could have remained in charge of the army and become a virtual king to the Americans who loved him. Control of the newly forming government was his to take -- yet he chose to resign. It was that decision, coupled with his later decision to step down from the presidency after two terms, that rendered him "the greatest character of the age" (according to none other than King George III).
Washington's homeward journey is one of the most moving and inspiring stories from his great and eventful life. When he bade farewell to his troops at Fraunces Tavern in New York City there were no dry eyes. When he reached Congress and gave a retirement speech, it cemented his greatness more fully than had his victory over the British. When he made it to Mount Vernon, finally, on Christmas Eve, it could not have been a happier homecoming.
General Washington's Christmas Farewell is a deeply moving Christmas story as well as a great American story.
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