Visiting Mount Vernon

As I wrote in my previous blog essay (Indulging in an Extravagance), my two sons and I went on a Man’s Vacation that included early American history, guns, agrarian culture, and an old-growth forest. In short, we went to Virginia. Now we are back home. It was a good trip. I will tell you a little about it now and more in the days ahead.

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)


Anna said...

If I had known you were in Alexandria, I would have pointed you towards the out-of-the-way little things that make a vacation memorable. I lived in Old Town for a while working as a nanny.

Herrick Kimball said...

veiled glory-

I'll keep that in mind if we ever go back. But we were only there a day. Early the next morning we headed further south, into the countryside, as I'll be writing about soon.

Anonymous said...

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.

When we travelled the country four years ago, I think that marble slap was the high point. I've read (and heard, perhaps) David Barton's and similar accounts of Washington's life. I've also read that Washington and the other Founders were diests. No diest quotes John 11 at his grave. It's gracious of God to preserve hard evidence of His graciousnes, and the faithfulness of many of our fathers.


Anonymous said...

Begging your pardon, let's try "marble slab" and "deist."

finger- and mind-challenged

brierrabbit said...

I just kept wondering how many people had sat on that porch looking out at that swamp chestnut. What would they have seen? What important people landed their boats near it? All those centuries of waiting. Too bad trees can't talk. What stories it could tell. Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Civil War, World War 1, etc. All that time in the same place. The sad thing to me, is if the country had took a different path that it did. Following an Agrarian path, instead of an Industrial Age, such views across rivers and farms, etc, might have been our inheritance, instead of the views of sprawl we ended up with.

Bill Peck said...

In awe of that tree Herrick...thanks for sharing!


Anonymous said...

Herrick -

What a trip! Full of memory-making, my favorite thing! My husband and son usually turn up their noses at what they call "Mommy" stuff. When we travel, I want to be entertained, yes, but I want to learn about the area, what history there is, what happened long ago that shaped the current landscape, and of course, if anything notable as far as the country's history occurred, then I'm "on" that with great determination, and so they make fun of me lots. Usually, though, they end up enjoying it too - like when I insisted on stopping in Savannah, Georgia on our way to Universal Studios. They grumbled and griped, but when we got there, they just couldn't get enough of it! My husband even attempted to change our reservations so we could stay another day! That wasn't possible, so we vowed to return, and I can't wait. The next time we head south I want to go to St. Augustine, one of the oldest cities in America (might be THE oldest). Nick is studying it now in history, and is very interested in it, so hope we get to do it. I also want to go to Franklin, Tennessee which is only three hours from here, to see a Civil War cemetery that I read about in a book recently. Anyway, your trip sounds so fascinating, and I'm with everyone else - the tree and the river view are where I would have had my "ooh and aah" moments. If only they could talk, as someone said! I'd be right there on the "National Treasure" tour too, because I saw and loved that movie. I'm just a history buff at heart, as well as an agrarian wannabe! (big sigh here) Your boys are lucky to have shared this trip with you.

Carla Hays

Tracy said...

I absolutely LOVED our visit to Mount Vernon a few years back - better than anything else we saw in the D.C. area.

Now, from your blog, I see we should have visited Monticello, as well. I'm sorry I missed that, and will have to add it to my list of things to do someday!