Wednesday, June 22 2022

“Washington slept here.”

It’s a cliché you see in cartoons and on a sign in at least one old inn in every colonial town from Boston to Charleston.

But on the second day of the American Battlefield Trust conference in Chantilly, Va., I walked where Washington walked, ate where he ate, visited where he went to church, walked through where he lived, and even saw where he died and where he is buried as the group I was with visited Alexandria, Virginia, then Mount Vernon.

We got off the bus in the Market Square in Old Town Alexandria, and learned from historians Mark Malloy and Phil Greenwalt, with Emerging Revolutionary War, a bit about the city’s beginnings. One of the people who helped create Alexandria was a young surveyor who first sketched the shoreline of the Potomac River where there was interest in establishing a city. This surveyor would later prepare two maps of what was to become the city.

I’m sure some of you are already ahead of me. The surveyor was a young George Washington.

From the Market Square, we walked to the Carlyle House, where two decisions were made that would influence the life of Washington.

The Franco-Indian War began in 1754, when an inexperienced 22-year-old Washington, commander of the Virginia militiamen, launched a surprise attack on what he thought was a French patrol. At the time of the attack, there was no declaration of war between England and France. To make matters worse, it wasn’t a patrol he attacked but a diplomatic mission, and the diplomat was killed.

The French launched their own attack in response to the murder of their diplomat and inflicted a crushing defeat on Washington at the Battle of Jumonville Glen.

In 1755, King George II sent General Edward Braddock with two regiments of British regulars to fight in the war that Washington had started. Before long, Alexandria was a center of military activity and Carlyle House was Braddock’s headquarters. It was there that Washington became Braddock’s aide-de-camp, cleaning the general’s uniform, running errands, delivering messages, whatever Braddock needed to do—all so that Washington could improve his military knowledge.

At Carlyle House, Braddock convened the governors of Virginia, Maryland, New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania to discuss his expedition plans to attack Fort Duquesne in present-day Pittsburgh. It was the first of two decisions that would impact Washington’s life. The second? Braddock advanced the idea that colonies should be taxed to pay for war.

On April 20, 1755, Braddock left Carlyle House and began his expedition. He never reached Fort Duquesne. On July 9, the French with their native allies surprised the British forces at the Monongahela River and Braddock was killed.

Amid the disaster, none of Braddock’s officers took command as the army was slaughtered around them. That’s when Washington got up and took command. Even though he had two downed horses under him, Washington rallied the troops and successfully extricated himself from the French trap with what was left of Braddock’s army.

For his actions, he was made Colonel Commandant of the Virginia Militia.

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The tax idea discussed at Carlyle House would play a part in Washington’s life at a later date.

From Carlyle House, we passed Wise’s Tavern, supposedly the place where Washington was first publicly introduced as President of the United States, and then passed the home of Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee.

Lee was one of Washington’s cavalry commanders during the revolution and played a major role in the fighting in the southern colonies. He was also a good friend of Washington and fiercely supported the general/president throughout his life.

It was Lee who wrote the words of Washington’s eulogy that we all know: “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.” But that’s not the full quote, the rest is: “He was unequaled in humble and endearing scenes of private life; pious, just, humane, temperate and sincere; uniform, dignified and authoritative, his example was as edifying around him as the effects of this example were lasting.

Lee was to be elected governor of Virginia. Lee County, Virginia is named after him and he was also the father of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate General.

From the Lee house, we went to the church, Christ Church to be exact. This is where Washington attended services.

We met Jane Baird, who gave us some of the history of the church. Initially, the pews were boxwood pews and a two-tiered pulpit was located on the north side of the sanctuary. In the mid-19th century stoves were installed at the rear of the church and the boxwood pews were converted into slips which are in use today. During a renovation later in this century, the original pulpit was replaced with the current wine glass pulpit.

Washington’s box is still there and had a small plaque marking it. However, he is not the only famous person to have attended church there. Robert E. Lee also attended church there, and his box is also marked. President Franklin Roosevelt, his wife, Eleanor, and Winston Churchill also attended.

It was approaching lunchtime, so we left the church and headed to Gadsby’s Tavern. It was here that Washington twice attended an annual “Birthnight Ball” held in his honor. I say twice because the schedule was changed early in Washington’s life. As a result, he had two birthdays and he celebrated both of them.

Washington frequently visited Gadsby’s tavern. In fact, he is one of five presidents who have eaten there. The others are John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. Jefferson even had his inaugural ball upstairs.

At one point, the tavern was supposed to be demolished, but the American Legion stepped in and saved it as a historic landmark. You can still eat there today.

I had beer battered cod with onion rings and potato wedges with banana bread pudding for dessert.

I seem to be running out of time and space so the afternoon trip to Mount Vernon will have to wait for a later date. Sorry about that.

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