We left early Wednesday morning. Our first destination was the National Rifle Association’s headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia (seven hours driving time), where we toured their firearms museum. If you are interested in firearms and firearms history, the museum is a worthwhile visit. I wouldn’t travel from afar just to see the museum. But if you are in the area, check it out.
This first picture shows my favorite gun. It dates from 1620 and was owned by John Alden, a cooper by trade, one of the original Mayflower Pilgrims, and a signer of the Mayflower Compact. Barely visible in the background is that famous painting by George H. Boughton, titled Pilgrims Going to Church. They carried their guns to church, as the picture shows. You can view the painting here.
Then we checked into a Comfort Inn about 15 minutes from George Washington’s Mount Vernon, which was our destination the next day. We were in the Washington DC suburbs, surrounded by so many developments with rows and rows of expensive townhouses, like this:
I am thankful that I do not live in such a place. People are crammed together. They have virtually no land, just a residential box to return to each day after work in the city. The traffic is terrible. There are, I suppose, millions of people who live in environments like this around the DC Metro area. I feel especially sorry for the children. There is NOTHING about this area that appeals to me except Mount Vernon. I have always wanted to go to George Washington’s home. He is one of my favorite people from American history. But, until this vacation, I have never traveled south of DC.
We were first in line at the locked gates to Mount Vernon on Thursday morning. As a result, we were invited inside before the busloads of government school kids behind us, and we raised the American flag over Mount Vernon that day. My son Robert did the actual flag raising, and he was given a certificate afterward. Here is a picture of Robert raising the flag:
We spent most of the day at Mount Vernon and it was a day well spent. On the drive down from New York, we all listened to David Barton’s CD titled “The Bulletproof George Washington.” James & Robert heard the remarkable story of Washington’s bravery as a young man during the French & Indian war, the highlight of which was at the Battle of Monongahela where 1,300 crack British troops under command of General Edward Braddock were massacred and routed by a lesser force of French & Indians. Braddock was killed. Washington, at 23 years old was fearless in battle and heroically managed to direct an orderly retreat. He had two horses shot out from under him and four bullets went through his coat.
Years later (before Washington became president) an indian chief who was fighting for the French at Monongahela spoke with Washington. He told of how he had directed his braves to shoot Washington. The chief himself fired more than a dozen times. He explained to Washington that his gun normally hit its mark on the first shot. The chief realized that “The Great Spirit” was protecting Washington and that no one could kill him that day.
Indeed, Washington attributed his survival that day to Providence. And then, years later, fighting for American independence against the British, there was the battle of Trenton. Against all odds, with an inferior colonial force, after being beaten down time after time, Washington decides to attack, and wins a decisive victory. He credits the victory to the hand of Providence.
Part of the Mount Vernon experience includes a state-of-the-art educational center with multimedia presentations that were very good, if not always entirely accurate. For example, some details of the Battle of Monongahela were not perfectly in line with David Barton’s account and other accounts I’ve read. Artifacts, like Washington’s sword from the French & Indian war were there, as well as a set of his false teeth.
One of the things I especially appreciated about the education center was the three life size models of Washington that were recently made after extensive forensic investigation into his facial features (one life mask was made of his face when he was 53 years old) and body size. The models show Washington at 19, 45, and 57 years of age.
The day we were there was absolutely beautiful. Robert and James and I, tired from so much walking, sat in Windsor chairs on the east front the house (there is no back to the house, only an east front and a west front), under the 90 ft-long piazza, looking over the Potomac River. The land on the other side is a wooded park in Maryland. So the view looks just as it did in Washington’s time. Here is a picture of what we saw:
That tree is a swamp chestnut that dates back to 1771. Washington’s farm bordered the Potomac and that was important for two reasons. First, it gave him a port for shipping his agricultural products to foreign markets . Second, it provided access for fishing, which was an important part of the Mount Vernon economy.
An interesting bit of history that we learned is that in the War of 1812, after the British destroyed the White House and every other government building in Washington DC (except the Patent Office), they sailed their ships down the Potomac and stopped in front of Mount Vernon. They could easily have destroyed it too. But, instead, they fired their cannon as a salute and sign of respect to Washington.
By the way, just before the British burned the White House in 1812, Dolly Madison saved one of the famous Gilbert Stewart paintings of George Washington. You can read a short letter Dolly wrote about this event At This Link (and I recommend that you do read it). Dolly Madison was a remarkable woman.
We took the usual tour of the inside of Mount Vernon and were able to look into the same dining room mirror that Washington himself looked into. We also saw he and Martha’s bedroom where he died in 1799, after a two-day illness. It is believed that he died of epiglottitis. It didn’t help that his doctors also bled five pints of blood out of him. A simple antibiotic would probably have saved Washington, but antibiotics had not been invented. An emergency tracheotomy would have made all the difference, but it was not a normal procedure at that time.
Washington was barely able to speak as he was dying. Martha was there as were three doctors and others. One doctor was James Craik, who had been with Washington through the French & Indian War and the terrible Battle of Monongahela, as well as the Revolutionary War. Washington’s last words are reported by his personal secretary, Tobias Lear, as follows:
”At about 10 o'clock, he (Washington) made several attempts to speak to me; at length he said, "I am just going. Have me decently buried, and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than three days after I am dead." I bowed assent, for I could not speak. He then looked at me again, and said, "Do you understand me?" I replied, "Yes."
"Tis well," he said.
Another interesting part of the visit was Washington’s Tomb. He designed a new family tomb because the original family tomb nearer to the Potomac was disintegrating. The new tomb was built to his specifications after his death. Above the tomb on the outside is a block of engraved granite that reads, “Within this sarcophagus rest the remains of Genl. George Washington." Looking into the tomb you see the marble sarcophagus where Washington rests. Next to it is Martha’s sarcophagus. Out of sight, behind a small door are the bodies of 25 more family members. The tomb is simple, sparse, and unremarkable except for an engraved slab of marble inset into the back wall. As per Washington’s plans, it is the only thing in the tomb that has any words on it and reads as follows:
John XI:VVVI Jesus said to her, I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die yet he shall live.
Suffice it to say that I could write a whole lot more, but you get the idea.... we had a great day at Mount Vernon.
In my next essay I will tell you about George Washington, the farmer. Thomas Jefferson gets a lot of attention for his agrarian ideals. But Washington was a farmer too. He was an innovative and entrepreneurial farmer and, unlike Jefferson, Washington was very successful. Aspiring farmers of today can learn from Washington's example.
Here s a final picture of James and Robert. They are in front of a big tree on the south side of the house, just outside the entrance to the basement. In addition to the usual house tour, we took a 45-minute "National Treasure" movie tour. I haven't seen the movie but my kids have. Part of it takes place in the basement of Mount Vernon. We got to see the house basement (normally off limits) and ended up down on the Potomac shoreline. It turns out there really are underground tunnels at Mount Vernon but, alas, they do not date from Washington's time. They are modern service tunnels that supply electrical, water and such to the house.
To read the next essay in this series, Click Here: George Washington The Farmer (Part 1)