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Did George Washington ride sidesaddle?

Did George Washington ride sidesaddle?

A friend of a friend has just written that Washington, Lafayette and Jefferson all rode side saddle to ease the pain of their war injuries. Before I proceed to dismantle this person with extreme prejudice, I wanted to double check.

I can't find any record that Washington was wounded during the Revolutionary war, and I'm very skeptical that Jefferson, who never fought, was wounded. (Perhaps he fell during his flight from Williamsburg?)

Is anyone aware of any record of any of the founding fathers riding sidesaddle for any reason?

Update with a couple of notes:

  • The FOAF didn't specify a time period. From the context of the comments it sounded like she was referring to the post-revolutionary period. I'd be happy with evidence showing Washington (or the others) in a side saddle at any point in their lives, but I'd be happiest with the Revolutionary war period.

  • I'm aware that I have asked SE to prove a negative, and that I should eat some crow because I've criticized others for this in the past. Is there any evidence that Washington was either wounded, or suffered from some other ailment (e.g. arthritis, back / hip problems) that might have required him to ride sidesaddle? I'm aware that Washington was renown as a rider during the revolutionary war; are there contemporary accounts of his riding towards the end of his life?

  • I should eat more crow because I haven't documented my preliminary research. Some of it is in personal interviews with the historian of the International Side Saddle Organization. I've also searched for any evidence that Washington was wounded during the Revolutionary war - I found no indication of any serious wounds during his career. I see that Lafayette fought with a leg wound during the battle of Brandywine, but I haven't found any evidence that he rode sidesaddle. (Jefferson has no military career other than cowardly flight, so I'm going to exclude the possibility of war injuries for Jefferson).

  • Riding sidesaddle doesn't necessarily imply an injury to the bum. Sidesaddle can be a more comfortable seat as a result of back injuries. I'm not an authority on the subject but I understand it can also be more comfortable for people who suffer from scoliosis, and for certain leg injuries.

It appears that this was almost certainly not the case. Here are some of the things contemporaries said of Washington's horsemanship during the revolution:

"the best horseman of his age, and the most graceful figure that could be seen on horseback." - Thomas Jefferson

"a very excellent and bold horseman, leaping the highest fences, and going extremely quick, without standing upon his stirrups, bearing on the bridle, or letting his horse run wild." - Marquis de Chastellux

These feats are quite frankly physically impossible on a sidesaddle without use of something like a two-pommel sidesaddle, which was not invented until the 1830's.

The impact of the second pommel was revolutionary; the additional horn gave women both increased security and additional freedom of movement when riding sidesaddle, which allowed them to stay on at a gallop and even to jump fences

Additionally, if you check out the Wikipedia entry for Men on the sidesaddle lists some specialty cases where it might prove useful, but no mention whatsoever of someone as famous as a Washington or Jefferson. While that isn't evidence to the contrary, it is certainly the case that there's no evidence I could find supporting their use in places that really ought to have it.

I passed the question to the professional historians at Mt Vernon (Washington's home).

The Mt. Vernon research historian provided the following information, which I'll quote.

Interesting… I've been on the staff here at Mount Vernon for almost 34 years and have never heard anything about Washington riding sidesaddle.

I think what people might be thinking of is Washington's physical condition at the Battle of the Monongahela (aka Braddock's Defeat) on July 9, 1755. Then 23 years old, Washington had been suffering from pain, fever, and delirium since mid-June and was very weak. Here is how Washington biographer Douglas Southall Freeman described his condition on that day: "George's responsibility was neither for strategy nor for tactics but for being mounted and afield on the day of all days in his life of twenty-three yeas. His fever and pain were gone; but they had left him with his muscles so weakened that he did not know whether he could endure the jolt of a fast-moving horse. He determined to try it, and, to lessen his ordeal, he procured cushions and tied them into his saddle… " (From: Douglas Southall Freeman, George Washington: A Biography (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1948), 2:51-64; quote on page 2:64)

Many years after the battle, George Washington wrote this about himself at the start of the action that day: "… the first division approached the Monongahela 10 miles short of Fort Duquesne the 8th. of July; and which time and place having so far recovered from a severe fever and delirium from which he had been rescued by James's powder, administ[er]ed by the positive order of the Genl. as to travel in a covered Waggon [sic], he [Washington] joined him [Braddock] and the next day tho' much reduced and very weak mounted his horse on cushions, and attended as one of his aids [sic]." (From: The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, 39 volumes, edited by John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1931-1944), 29:42)

I have attached some information on horses & horsemanship at Mount Vernon, which contains a section on descriptions of Washington as a horseman, which may be helpful for your research.

Mt Vernon provided a supplemental reference that seems to be every time that Washington was mentioned with a horse. This is quite a large document and as such inappropriate for posting to SE.

Mt. Vernon granted permission to share the information, but I'm going to withold the researcher's name; unless she grants explicit permission, I'd rather err on the side of privacy.

George Washington takes command of Continental Army

On July 3, 1775, George Washington rides out in front of the American troops gathered at Cambridge common in Massachusetts and draws his sword, formally taking command of the Continental Army. Washington, a prominent Virginia planter and veteran of the French and Indian War, had been appointed commander in chief by the Continental Congress two weeks before. In agreeing to serve the American colonies in their war for independence, he declined to accept payment for his services beyond reimbursement of future expenses.

George Washington was born in 1732 to a farm family in Westmoreland County, Virginia. His first direct military experience came as a lieutenant colonel in the Virginia colonial militia in 1754, when he led a small expedition against the French in the Ohio River Valley on behalf of the governor of Virginia, beginning a fight that resulted in disastrous defeat for first Washington and then British General Edward Braddock. This launched the Seven Years War, but Washington resigned from his military post and returned to a planter’s life in Virginia, later taking a seat in Virginia’s House of Burgesses. During the next two decades, Washington openly opposed escalating British taxation and repression of the American colonies. In 1774, he represented Virginia at the Continental Congress.

After the American Revolution erupted in 1775, Washington was nominated to be commander in chief of the newly established Continental Army. Some in the Continental Congress opposed his appointment, thinking other candidates were better equipped for the post, but he was ultimately chosen because, as a Virginian, his leadership helped bind the southern colonies more closely to the rebellion in New England. Despite his inexperienced and poorly equipped army of civilian soldiers, General Washington led an effective war of harassment against British forces in America, while encouraging the intervention of the French into the conflict on behalf of the colonists. On October 19, 1781, with the surrender of British General Charles Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, General Washington defeated one of the most powerful nations on earth.

If one looks closely at Gilbert Stuart’s well-known portrait of George Washington, one observes an artificial bulging of the cheeks, as if they had been stuffed with cotton.

It has been reported that Stuart actually did use cotton to fill out the sunken cheeks of the illustrious sitter of this portrait, who at the time was wearing a set of ill-fitting dentures. In 1796), when the picture was painted, Washington was the proud possessor of two sets of these awkward and noisy contraptions, made of ivory. One of them had been manufactured by Paul Revere. Up to the Nineteenth Century dentistry in the modern sense was unknown. When something was wrong with a tooth, it was pulled out. So, at the age of 22, Washington had a toothache which was relieved by having the tooth pulled. This same radical treatment was used for every aching tooth over the years, and by the age of 57 he had hardly any teeth left and had to wear false teeth. Six years later his last surviving tooth was pulled.

In the portrait the head of Washington is covered with a white wig concealing the sparse remains of his own hair. It is reported that this hair had been reddish in his youth, turning, as he said, an early gray in the service of his country. The face of the President is covered with a rosy glaze in the picture. His real complexion was described by his contemporaries as sallow, a color that was even visible through the tan which the sun and wind had burned on his lace.

The painter also carefully retouched the pockmarks that deeply pitted Washington’s features. These blemishes Washington had acquired at the age of nineteen during an ill-fated journey to Barbados Island. He was at that time accompanying his brother and guardian, Lawrence, who was suffering from active tuberculosis of the lungs and was vainly looking for salvation in the balmy climate of the West Indies.

In his diary, Washington notes that he was “strongly attacked” by smallpox and was bedfast for three weeks. When he arose from his sickbed, he bore the marks of the disease and carried them to his grave.

In most portraits, the Father of His Country is shown as having a chest bulging with well deserved pride. The chest must have been tailor-made. Under the well-padded coat, Washington’s chest was Hat and somewhat hollow in the center, probably from early rickets. And the shoulders were not as broad as they appeared from the outside.

Colonel Tobias Lear, his devoted secretary and faithful friend, immediately after the death of the general, took his bodily measurements for posterity. He recorded Washington’s shoulders as one foot nine inches across, which is average for a man of the unusual height of Washington. He measured six feet three and a half inches tall. If Washington was that tall at the age of 67, he must have been at least one inch taller at the prime of life.

Like Lincoln, with whom he had many physical characteristics in common, Washington was in his youth a champion wrestler and rail-splitter. It is a curious phenomenon that the two greatest Presidents of the United States were also physical giants. Even by present standards Washington and Lincoln would be considered as unusually tall men. They were more outstanding for their size/e in their own time, when the average man was considerably smaller.

In spite of great physical strength and endurance, Washington was subjected to a host of diseases in his lifetime. He suffered from at least ten attacks of serious illness which on several occasions brought him to the brink of death. The question is whether Washington had more than his share of sickness in a period of history when a number of diseases were taken for granted, diseases which modern science has virtually conquered and which we have almost forgotten.

In Washington’s world a great percentage of babies died from nutritional deficiencies and diarrhea. If they survived they were exposed to the prevalent epidemics of which the most contagious ones were most apt to be acquired in early childhood. A number of such diseases confer upon their victims, if they recover, a lasting, even lifelong immunity. Therefore they occur rarely in later life, and so were called children’s diseases. Among them were measles, scarlet fever, whooping cough and diphtheria. Before the introduction of vaccination, even smallpox was considered a children’s disease in many countries.

If a person in the Eighteenth Century survived the trial period of infancy and childhood, he had to run the gauntlet of a legion of other diseases waiting for him on his life’s path. He was forever threatened by the White Plague, tuberculosis, which was the number one killer of the time. Then there was always malaria lurking in the swamps, ever present the various strains of dysentery easily transmitted by uncooked food and drink, and the enteric fevers—typhoid and paratyphoid, harbored in human carriers and transmitted by food, drinking water and the ubiquitous flies. Ever threatening were the pneumonias of different types.

Uncontrolled by antiseptics were the septic bacterias, the staphylococci and streptococci, which had a field day feasting in every wound. Like other disease germs, these shock troops of death can also enter the body through microscopic channels through the apparently unbroken skin and mucous lining.

Doctors of Washington’s time were incapable of giving a scientific explanation of most disease phenomena. The medical concepts of the time were based upon a hodgepodge of ancient beliefs, timehonored traditions, and the doctrines formulated over the centuries by the accepted authorities of medicine.

Unknown was the science of bacteriology. The causes of most diseases were absolutely obscure, as were the pathways of their transmission. A contamination of the air by a miasma was blamed for the spread of the majority of diseases. The miasmas were thought to emanate from putrescent matter and from swamps, and to float in the air. Some diseases were believed to be transmitted by polluted water, a theory which came close to the truth in the case of typhoid.

No specific remedies against most infections were known, except for quinine which had been found effective against the rigors of malaria, as had mercury against the sores of syphilis.

In his last play, Le Malade Imaginaire , Molière wrote the lines, “Nearly all men die of their remedies and not of their illnesses.” The medical therapy of Washington’s time had changed very little in the hundred years since Molière. It still used the same murderous arsenal consisting mainly of bloodletting, purgatives, emetics, enemas and blistering.

In order to understand some of the theories and methods of pre-scientific medicine as it was still practiced in Washington’s time, we have to realize that the first concepts and practices of the healing art originated in magic and religion in ancient times. Beneath the surface the doctors took over from the medicine men some of their rituals, and rationalized them as therapeutic measures. The most dramatic of these was the ceremony of bloodletting which had been performed by savage tribes since prehistoric times. The object of this rite was either to let the bad demons escape with the flowing blood, or to appease the spirits and gods by the sacrifice of blood.

Superstitions and traditions die hard, especially when they take the disguise of reason. Medicine justified the practice of bleeding by adopting the popular belief that blood was the carrier of the impurities and poisons of disease, and that by the removal of “bad” blood, the formation of new healthy blood would be engendered.

At the time of Washington the average amount removed in one bloodletting was one pint. The more serious the illness, the more blood was taken. It was then unknown that the mean blood volume of a person measures not more than seven per cent of the body weight, which meant about fourteen pints for a man of Washington’s weight at the age of 67. It was believed that some glandular secretion in the body could replace the amount of drained blood within a few hours, instead of the weeks that are actually required.

Since the dawn of history people have used laxatives and emetics, in the majority of cases doing more harm than good by dehydrating and weakening the patient. Laxatives have killed thousands of victims suffering from appendicitis by distending an inflamed and brittle appendix. Enemas were somewhat less dangerous if used with discrimination, but repeated colonic flushings as practiced by the doctors of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries weakened and exhausted the patient and seriously strained his tired heart.

Another practice often used by colonial physicians was the raising of blisters on the skin. This was based on the belief that an inflammatory process could be “drawn” from the inside to the outside by counterirritation. As it was usually done with caustic concoctions, it often produced severe chemical burns and inflicted unnecessary pain on the sufferer.

Altogether, if we consider the primitive state of preventive and therapeutic medicine in Washington’s time, it is small wonder that few persons reached old age. In the case of Washington, we know that his grandfather died at 37, his father at 49, probably from infectious diseases on his maternal side we only know that his mother reached the age of 82.

From his mother, her first-born son George inherited not only his physical features but also his unusually strong constitution and powers of endurance. However, if we consider his medical history, we marvel that he ever reached the age of 67, when he succumbed to a streptococcic throat infection and to the medical mistreatment he received.

We do not know anything about the childhood diseases of Washington. From the diaries and letters of Washington and from the reports of his doctors and friends, we have an exact knowledge of the illnesses which attacked him after his sixteenth year. In his seventeenth year Washington was graduated from William and Mary College in Virginia as a public surveyor, a profession which he practiced for several years in Fairfax County. At that time great stretches of Virginia were dotted with swamps infested with malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Camping outdoors as a surveyor, Washington was promptly bitten by these malaria-carrying mosquitoes and suffered his first attack of malaria, called “ague.” During his later life Washington had repeated bouts of this intermittent fever.

We have already mentioned the severe case of smallpox which he contracted at nineteen during his sojourn at Barbados. This calamitous trip not only failed to cure the consumption of his brother, who died a few months later, but it brought George into close contact with the virulent tuberculosis bacilli as he nursed his brother, and they promptly invaded his body. Washington had barely returned to Mount Vernon, still weak from the smallpox, when the tubercular infection broke through the exhausted defenses of his system and manifested itself in the form of acute pleurisy. He recovered slowly and was in poor health many long months.

After two years the process must have been arrested, as Washington felt strong enough to enter military service. In October, 1753, he received a commission is major in the Virginia militia and was immediately ordered on a fruitless mission to the French commander of the Ohio Territory. During the next year he led a military expedition against the French at Fort Duquesne and was badly defeated. He had hardly returned when he was stricken with a severe attack of malaria.

In 1755 the English general, Edward Braddock, arrived in Virginia with several battalions of English troops. Braddock asked Washington to join his expedition against the French and Indians. The campaign had not progressed far when Washington fell ill with a febrile disease, apparently of the influenza type. He describes the experience in his diary in these words:

On the day before the battle of Monongahela Washington rose from his sickbed, still weak and barely able to sit on his horse. The battle itself, as every schoolboy knows, was a complete disaster. Braddock was killed, his troops were routed, and Washington managed to extricate the remainder of the detachment after two horses had been killed under him and his uniform pierced by four balls. He returned to Mount Vernon and wrote to one of his half brothers: “I am not able were I ever so willing, to meet you in town for I assure you that it is with some difficulty and much fatigue that I visit my plantations in the Neck so much has a sickness of five weeks duration reduced me.” Two years later Washington contracted a severe type of dysentery accompanied with high lever and deep prostration which lasted for several months. Recovery was so slow and tedious that Washington became depressed and worried about his condition.

In the meantime the English government had sent a new general, John Forbes, with considerable reinforcements for a new campaign against the French and Indians in the Ohio Basin. The tonic of excitement invigorated Washington enough to accompany the English general as the commander of the advance guard. Washington had the great satisfaction that this, the third attempt to defeat the French in which he had participated, was successful. Fort Duquesne was taken and renamed Fort Pitt, later Pittsburgh.

After this campaign Washington resigned his commission, returned, and in January, 1759, married the widow, Martha Custis. Apparently marriage had a beneficial influence on Washington’s health. No sickness is reported in his diaries until 1761 when he had another attack which he believed to be malaria, though it may have been typhoid fever. He was bedfast for several weeks with pain and great prostration. Barely recovered, he had a relapse of fever which made him once more despondent and fearful that he was very near his “last gasp.”

There is no mention of any disabling sickness for the next six years, then he suffered another attack of dysentery. This was followed by the longest period of freedom from illness that Washington ever enjoyed, and which included the long years of the Revolutionary War.

If one scans the diaries of Washington, one is astonished by his gloomy outlook each time he was stricken by serious illness, and his readiness to anticipate a fatal outcome. Washington’s apprehensions were well founded. Of his nine brothers, half brothers and sisters, two died in infancy, the other seven between the ages of thirteen and 64. George survived them all, as well as his two adopted children. How could he expect to outlive all his close relatives with the exception of his wile, Martha?

Sickness affects different people in different ways. Long periods of disease accompanied by disability, pain and danger, such as Washington had to endure, exert a profound influence in molding a character. They are times of trial which soften the weak and temper the strong. Long periods of physical disability gave Washington the time to find himself and his ideal. Self-control and patience are masks which are acquired by long and painful practice in suppressing the natural outbursts of emotion and impatience. The sickbed is the best school in which to learn patience.

It can be assumed that other qualities which the mature Washington exhibited, his courage and unyielding determination, were also conditioned by his medical history. A man who has repeatedly faced death when attacked by unknown diseases, encounters with a feeling of relief enemies whom he can see and understand. And Washington’s singleness of purpose may have derived its force from the store of energy dammed up by the frustrations of sickness.

We have no record that Washington was ever incapacitated all during the Revolutionary War. Even at Valley Forge there was not a day when Washington was not at his post. The continuous strain of his responsibility and the consciousness of his mission kept on stimulating his adrenal glands, raising his normal powers of endurance, resistance and immunity. Destiny kept alive and well the only man of his time who could lead the American Revolution to victory.

Washington remained free of any disabling disease until 1786. Then, following the conclusion of the war and his election to the Presidency, came a letdown and he fell ill once more with “ague and fever.” He was treated by Dr. James Craik, who had been his physician for the preceding 32 years and had become his close personal friend.

In 1786 Dr. Craik for the first time employed “the bark” on Washington for malaria with excellent results. “The bark” meant the bark of the Chinchona tree which had been used for 140 years against malaria in South America and southern Europe. It was given in the form of a powder, decoction or extract, and was one of the first specific remedies employed for any disease.

In the first year of his Presidency there developed what the doctors called “a malignant carbuncle” on Washington’s left hip, probably of staphylococcic origin. For several weeks he was desperately sick and septic. He was cared for by Dr. Samuel Bard, a wellknown New York physician, who watched over the patient for many days and nights.

Finally Dr. Bard summoned all his courage, incised the carbuncle and drained the pus, with immediate improvement. Washington was confined to the house for nearly six weeks. When he was able to go out, his coach had to be reconstructed to enable him to lie at full length.

In 1789 Washington went on an official visit to New England. In the outskirts of Boston he was delayed a considerable time in rain and stormy weather because the city and state authorities were unable to settle a dispute as to the etiquette of receiving the Chief of State, for which there was no precedent. As a result, Washington developed a bad cold with some inflammation of the eyes. Following this visit, an epidemic: of respiratory infections spread through the city, and the die-hard Loyalists of Boston promptly named it “The Washington Influenza.”

As the result of colds and the large doses of quinine taken for his malaria, Washington’s hearing noticeably deteriorated during the last decade of his life. The deafness made it difficult for him to carry on conversations at public affairs, and increased his native diffidence. Therefore he acquired a reputation of being cold and aloof in society.

Like every person with normal vision, after reaching middle age Washington had to wear glasses for reading. In those days, the wearing of glasses was just as unfashionable as has been the wearing of hearing aids up to quite recently. People were ashamed to wear glasses, considering them a humiliating disfigurement like a clubfoot or hunchback. Washington used his reading glasses only in the privacy of his family and among intimate friends.

In 1790 the Federal Government was removed from New York to Philadelphia. In the spring of the same year Washington was taken with an attack of pneumonia followed by a relapse which almost proved fatal. He wrote: “I have already within less than a year had two severe attacks, the last worse than the first. A third probably will put me to sleep with my fathers.”

There is no doubt that the responsibility and the nervous strain connected with the Presidency were a great drain on the physical strength and stamina of Washington, as on all other Presidents since. Sixty-five years old, sick, and tired of public service, he declined to be nominated for a third term and retired to the privacy of Mount Vernon in the spring of 1797. He was allowed only two and a half years of well-deserved rest at his beloved Mount Vernon. In 1798 his old nemesis, malaria, recurred and responded only tardily to “the bark.”

On the day of December 12, 1799, as was his custom, Washington was riding about his farm from 10 A.M. until 3 P.M. The weather on this day was bad rain, hail and snow falling alternately, driven by an icy wind. Washington was a stickler for punctuality in all his activities, including his meal hours. On this December day in 1799, Washington was late for dinner. Served promptly at three o’clock, the meal was on the table when he entered the house. Colonel Lear, his faithful friend and secretary, observed that the neck of the general appeared wet and that snow was sticking to his hair, but Washington refused to change his clothes and sat down to the dinner.

The next day he complained of a cold and sore throat and did not go out as usual in the morning. In spite of his cold he went outside in the afternoon to mark some trees which he wanted cut down. In the evening a severe hoarseness developed, but he made light of it. Upon retiring, Colonel Lear suggested that the general take something for his cold, but Washington answered, “No, you know I never take anything for a cold let it go as it came.”

On the following day at three o’clock in the morning Washington told Martha that he was very unwell, that he had the ague. He could scarcely speak and breathed with difficulty. Martha begged him to let her awaken the servants and fetch him a home remedy. But Washington sternly refused to let her get up for fear she, too, would catch a cold.

At daybreak a servant came and lighted the fire. Soon Colonel Lear arrived and found the general voiceless, hardly able to utter an audible sound. A loathsome mixture of molasses, vinegar and butter was offered to Washington but he could not swallow a drop. As he tried harder to get it down, he started to cough convulsively, and almost suffocated. Rawlins, the overseer of the farm, was sent for with Washington’s request to bleed him.

The overseer had acquired his surgical acumen in the practice of veterinary medicine. He took a pint of blood from Washington, but there was no relief. Colonel Lear next applied “sal volatile,” the menthol-vapor rub of the time, to the throat of the sick man, rubbing it gently with his hand, upon which the patient complained that his throat was very sore. A piece of flannel saturated with the same evil-smelling salve was wound around his neck, and the feet bathed in warm water, all to no avail.

About eight o’clock Washington got up for two hours, but obtained no relief from the changed position. Dr. Craik arrived shortly after nine o’clock. He applied a blister of Spanish flies (derived from dried and powdered blister beetles) to the throat, took some more blood, and prescribed a gargle of vinegar and sage tea. He also ordered vinegar and hot water for steam inhalation. In attempting to use the gargle, the patient almost choked and regurgitated the liquid. At eleven o’clock the bleeding was repeated but the difficulty in swallowing and breathing did not improve. In the meantime Dr. Gustave Richard Brown, of Port Tobacco, and Dr. EIisha Cullen Dick, of Alexandria, had been summoned as consultants.

Both consultants arrived around three o’clock and sat down at the bedside of the patient. The clinical diagnostic methods of percussion and auscultation, tapping the chest and listening to the breath sounds, were not yet practiced at that time. Neither is there any record that the interior of the throat of Washington was ever inspected by the attending physicians. A diagnosis was arrived at by watching the patient and observing his external symptoms. The three doctors attending Washington saw their patient struggle for breath, each inspiration producing a shrill, harsh sound as the air was painfully sucked in through the obstructed air passage. His skin was blue and the nostrils dilated and contracted with the effort of breathing. In addition to this, the patient had great difficulty in swallowing.

The first diagnosis thought of was quinsy, which means “peritonsillar abscess.” Later on the diagnosis was changed to “cyanche trachealis,” an indefinite medical term of the time for a severe sore throat involving the voice box, in which the inflammatory swelling of the vocal chords encroaches upon the breathing space. Dr. Brown suggested using the standard treatment for this condition namely, to resort to a more copious bleeding. The young American doctor, Dick, objected. He argued, “He needs all his strength—bleeding will diminish it.” He was overruled by his two senior colleagues who were supported by the good soldier, Washington. A whole quart of blood was taken this time and it was observed that the blood came “slow and thick,” the effect of dehydration.

To add insult to injury, the laxative, calomel, and the emetic, tartar, were administered, weakening the patient still further. About half past four Washington gave instructions about his will, and about five o’clock he tried to sit up, but was too weak to remain upright for more than half an hour. In the course of the afternoon he appeared in great distress and pain, and frequently changed his position in bed, struggling for breath.

As a last resort Dr. Dick suggested the use of a new, revolutionary method, the only one available which could have saved the patient from slow suffocation caused by the obstruction of the larynx, “tracheotomy”—the surgical cutting of an opening into the windpipe below the point of obstruction. In a communication several years later Dr. Dick reasoned, “I proposed to perforate the trachea as means of prolonging life and of affording time for the removal of the obstruction to respiration in the larynx which manifestly threatened immediate dissolution.”

The older colleagues refused to take a chance on their illustrious patient by using such an unproved and daring procedure, which, in the annals of medicine, had been employed in only a few instances up to this time with success. The urgent entreaties of Dr. Dick were in vain. Instead of it, the polypragmatic senior physicians continued their futile measures by applying blisters and cataplasms of wheat bran to the legs and feet of the dying patient. The process of gradual suffocation progressed inexorably until about ten minutes before the general expired, when the breathing became easier. The exhausted heart stopped beating between ten and eleven o’clock on the evening of December 14, 1799.

From the first, Washington as usual had been exceedingly pessimistic about his illness. He had made up his mind that he was going to die and did what he could to dissuade his doctors from making special efforts for him, and begged them to let him die in peace.

“I find I am going,” he whispered to Colonel Lear. “My breath cannot last long. I believed from the first that the disorder would prove fatal.” And a little later he repeated the same conviction to Dr. Craik: “Doctor, I die hard, but I am not afraid to go.” And later when Dr. Brown came into the room: “I feel myself going I thank you for your attention but I pray you to take no trouble for me. Let me go quietly. I cannot last long.”

The exact diagnosis of George Washington’s last sickness is still a matter of dispute among medical historians. The most convincing study was made by Dr. W. A. Wells of Washington, D. C., in 1927. Up to that time it was believed that Washington had died from diphtheria, corresponding to the diagnosis of “croup,” which Dr. Dick had suggested in retrospect. A final diagnosis cannot be made with certainty, as no clinical description of the appearance of the inflammatory process has been given, and bacteriological confirmation of a diagnosis was unknown. In spite of this lack of evidence, Dr. Wells concluded from all the known data that Washington died from a streptococcic laryngitis, an inflammatory swelling of the larynx and the vocal chords caused by a strain of virulent streptococci. We are unable to estimate how much the treatment with depleting venesections and dehydrating cathartics and emetics contributed to the fatal outcome.

George Washington’s Agonizing End

On December 12, 1799, the weather was bone-chilling cold and alternating between rain, snow and sleet, according to Thompson, but Washington went ahead with his daily routine. He returned home a little later than usual, so his dinner guests had already arrived. Not wanting to be rude, Washington didn’t change out of his wet clothes. The next day, despite heavy snowfall and persistent cold, Washington trudged out again to assess improvements to Mount Vernon. That evening, Washington began to experience chest congestion.

In the early hours of December 14, he woke up Martha. He had a sore throat and was having trouble breathing. Dr. James Craik, Washington’s physician for more than 40 years, was sent for. As they awaited Craik, Washington was bled𠅊 medical treatment common at the time that likely did more harm than good.

George Washington on his deathbed surrounded by family and friends in 1799.

Photo12/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Over the course of the day, two additional doctors were sent for. They tried everything: bleeding him multiple times, giving him herbal teas and an enema. Washington nearly choked to death when the doctors had him drink a concoction of molasses butter and vinegar. Craik also applied a toxic tonic to Washington’s inflamed throat to cause it to further blister (another misguided 𠇌ure” at the time).

They believed all of these remedies would draw the � humours” out of his blood, but nothing worked. The man known as the �ther of our country” died sometime between 10 and 11 p.m. that evening.

According to Ron Chernow’s Washington, the former president was afraid of being buried alive. He requested on his deathbed that he not be put in the vault until at least three days after he died, and those wishes were honored. He was laid to rest at Mount Vernon on December 18, 1799 at the age of 67.


As the nation’s first president, Washington set the example for other presidents. He worked out how the nation would negotiate treaties with other countries. He decided how the president would select and get advice from cabinet members. He also established the practice of giving a regular State of the Union speech, a yearly update on how the country is doing. He appointed federal judges and established basic government services such as banks. As president, he also worked hard to keep the new country out of wars with Native Americans and European nations.

Nelson (Horse)

Thomas Jefferson once referred to George Washington as "the best horseman of his age, and the most graceful figure that could be seen on horseback." 1 This assertion was supported by Washington's friend, the Marquis de Chastellux, a French national who came to know Washington during the Revolution. Chastellux observed that Washington "is a very excellent and bold horseman, leaping the highest fences, and going extremely quick, without standing upon his stirrups, bearing on the bridle, or letting his horse run wild." 2

Both as a Virginia planter and as a military man, Washington had innumerable opportunities to perfect his horsemanship. Of the many horses that Washington owned, one of his favorites was a horse he called "Nelson," who is said to have "carried the General almost always during the war [American Revolution]." 3 Described as a "splendid charger," the animal stood sixteen hands high, and was a light sorrel or chestnut (reddish-brown) in color, with white face and legs. 4

The horse who would become known as Nelson was born around 1763 and would have been a mature fifteen years old by the time he and George Washington met. 5 In 1778, Thomas Nelson of Virginia, learned that Washington was having trouble finding a replacement for a horse he had been riding. As a result, Nelson sent the horse to General Washington in New York as a gift. Washington, in turn, then named the horse for his generous friend. 6

One contemporary explained that Washington preferred to ride Nelson during the war over his other horse, Blueskin, because Nelson was less skittish during cannon fire and the startling sounds of battle. 7 In addition, Washington chose to ride Nelson on the day the British army under the direction of Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia in 1781. 8

Four years later after returning to civilian life, Washington made a list of the livestock living at the Mount Vernon plantation. In this document, Washington described Nelson as a "Riding Horse," though he appears to have been harkening back to the aging animal's previous service. 9 According to two sources, Nelson was no longer ridden after the war, but lived out his days at the stable and paddock at the Mansion House Farm as something of a pampered celebrity. Only two years after the close of the war, a foreign visitor commented that Nelson and Blueskin "feed away at their ease for their past services." 10

Washington's affection for the horse was reciprocated. It was reported that George Washington would walk around the grounds of the estate, where he would stop at Nelson's paddock, "when the old war-horse would run, neighing, to the fence, proud to be caressed by the great master's hands." 11 Nelson died at Mount Vernon "many years after the Revolution, at a very advanced age." 12 His death was reported to George Washington during the Christmas season of 1790, when the old horse would have been twenty-seven years old. 13

Mary V. Thompson
Research Historian
Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens

1. "Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Walter Jones, 2 January 1814," quoted in William Alfred Bryan, George Washington in American Literature, 1775-1865 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1952), 49.

2. Marquis de Chastellux, Travels in North America in the Years 1780, 1781 and 1782, Vol. 1, ed. Howard C. Rice, Jr. (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 1963), 111.

3. Robert Hunter, Jr., "An Account of a Visit Made to Washington at Mount Vernon, by an English Gentleman, in 1785," The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography (1893), 80.

4. George Washington Parke Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, By His Adopted Son, George Washington Parke Custis, With a Memoir of the Author, By His Daughter, ed. Benson J. Lossing (New York: Derby & Jackson, 1860), 249.

6. The Diaries of George Washington, Vol. 4, eds. Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia, 1978), 234n.

9. George Washington, "18 November 1785," The Diaries of George Washington, Vol. 4, 232.

10. Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, 249 Hunter, 80.

13. "Weekly Report, 25 December 1790," Mount Vernon Weekly Reports, April 19, 1789-Sept. 17, 1791 (photostat, PS-11, Mount Vernon Ladies' Association).

Myth #1: He chopped down a cherry tree.

Young George Washington confessing to cutting down a cherry tree.

Archive Photos/Getty Images

In undoubtedly the most famous story about Washington’s boyhood, he received a hatchet for a gift, and used it to hack at a cherry tree. When his father, Augustine, asked him who chopped down the tree, young George confessed, earning a hug and the fatherly praise that his honesty was worth more than 1,000 such trees.

In reality, no evidence exists to suggest the nature of Washington’s relationship with Augustine, who died when he was 11, and the story was invented by Mason Locke Weems, one of Washington’s first biographers. A minister-turned-itinerant bookseller, “Parson” Weems published The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington in 1800, a year after the great man’s death the cherry tree story didn’t appear until the fifth edition came out in 1806. Weems’s biography benefited from its focus on Washington’s private side (particularly his close bond with his father) rather than his well-known public career, and became a huge bestseller read by generations of American schoolchildren.

George Washington and the 1793 Yellow Fever Epidemic

The year 1793 was one of the worst in history for the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It had been one of hottest and driest that folks in Philadelphia could ever remember. The dirty river stank unbearably, and the city was infested with swarms of flies and mosquitoes. Death laid its hand upon the city, making itself known first at the Arch Street Wharf. 1793 Yellow Fever Epidemic

On August 19th, the plague that raged within the city was diagnosed by one of its doctors as yellow fever. For one hundred days and nights, the city was seized with the horrors of this plague. At this point, Philadelphia was the largest seaport in our young nation and was also its capitol. Both trade and the federal government were paralyzed. Many sought to leave the city, and those who remained were forced to care for the dead and dying. In the early weeks of the plague, victims were dying at a rate of seventeen a day, then twenty, and then forty. Not knowing the cause of the disease, doctors and citizens alike resorted to the use of ludicrous preventatives. But more died. 1793 Yellow Fever Epidemic

As the yellow fever epidemic of 1793 was laying its cold hand upon America’s temporary capitol of Philadelphia, plans for the development of the new capital city of Washington were being realized. Before the United States Capitol was used by the Senate or House of Representatives, it was used as a church—or perhaps more accurately as churches. In his plans for America’s new capital, Peter L’Enfant chose Jenkins Hill as the site for the Capitol building, and on September 18, 1793, President Washington laid the cornerstone for the new Capitol of Washington. But in Philadelphia where Congress under the new United States Constitution had temporarily convened, a yellow fever epidemic was raging, claiming the lives of nearly 5,000 people between August 1 and November 9.

Three leaders labored vigorously to stem the tide of death in Philadelphia, one white and two black men. The first was Founding Father, Dr. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence and Surgeon General of the American Revolutionary Army. Dr. Rush was the most well-known physician in America at the time and a deeply committed evangelical Christian. Educated at Princeton and imbued with Calvinism, Dr. Rush became a Methodist in his theology after having read John Fletcher’s Checks to Antinomianism. In his autobiography, Dr. Rush noted he had been raised and educated under the Calvinistic Westminster Confession, then observed…

I then read for the first time Fletcher’s controversy with the Calvinists, in favor of the universality of the atonement. This prepared my mind to admit the doctrine of universal salvation, which was then preached in our city by the Rev. Mr. Winchester. It embraced and reconciled my ancient Calvinistical and my newly adopted Arminian principles. [1]

Two other men were of great assistance in fighting the epidemic—both of whom were Christian ministers. Two black ministers and their parishioners were part of the massive effort to minister to the sick and dying of Philadelphia. Richard Allen (February 14, 1760 – March 26, 1831) was the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), the first independent black denomination in the United States. Born into slavery in Delaware, Richard and two of his siblings began to attend the local Methodist Society, which welcomed both slaves and free blacks. At the age of seventeen, Richard joined the Methodists, and in 1780, purchased his freedom. In 1784, Richard was licensed as a Methodist preacher at the Christmas Conference that established American Methodists as a separate denomination under the leadership of Francis Asbury and Dr. Thomas Coke. Also present at the Christmas Conference was Harry Hosier, traveling companion of Asbury the state of Indiana takes its nickname from Harry Hosier (see our article, Harry Hosier: Preacher Gives Indiana Its Nickname). In 1786, Richard became a preacher at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but in time, began the African Methodist Episcopal Church, where free blacks and slaves could worship without racial oppression.

Absalom Jones (November 7, 1746 – February 13, 1818) was the second black minister who offered extensive care to the sick and dying of the 1793 Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic. Like Allen, Absalom Jones was also born into slavery in Delaware. Taken to Philadelphia by his owner, Absalom married an enslaved woman of a neighbor in 1770 the ceremony was performed by the first chaplain of the Continental Congress, Episcopal minister, Rev. Jacob Duché—remembered for his first prayer at the opening of the First Continental Congress. In 1778, Absalom purchased his wife’s freedom, thereby also freeing their children. In 1784, Absalom’s owner manumitted him, providing for his freedom. Three years after receiving his freedom, Absalom and Richard Allen established the Free African Society in Philadelphia, a mutual aid society for African Americans of the city.

Absalom became a lay minister at the interracial congregation of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church of Philadelphia, where Richard Allen also was a minister. But in 1792, Absalom and Richard were told they could not be seated or kneel on the first floor but had to be segregated from other members by sitting against the wall or in the gallery or balcony. After prayer, Richard, Absalom, and most of the church’s black members walked out. Absalom united with the Episcopal Church to found the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, the first black church in Philadelphia which opened its doors on July 17, 1794. Absalom was ordained a deacon in 1795 and a priest in 1802.

The year after they left St. George’s Methodist Church, Richard and Absalom united with Dr. Rush in an effort to minister to those struck by the yellow fever epidemic. During the 1742 yellow fever epidemic in Charleston, South Carolina, Dr. John Lining had been led to believe African slaves appeared to be affected at lower rates than whites. Relying on Dr. Lining’s observance, Dr. Rush assumed that blacks possessed a higher natural immunity and wrote a letter to the newspapers of Philadelphia under the pseudonym “Anthony Benezet,” a Quaker who had provided schooling for blacks. In his letter, Dr. Rush suggested that blacks possessed grater immunity and solicited them to offer their services to attend the sick. Richard and Absalom immediately responded and organized nurses to assist in the effort. However, Dr. Lining’s observation and Dr. Rush’s reliance upon it proved false in Philadelphia, with blacks succumbing to the epidemic in proportionate numbers to whites.

On September 26th, ninety-six victims succumbed to the ravages of the plague. That number increased until October 11th, when 119 died in one day. Gravediggers worked around the clock. In fear, family members fled from each other, concerned that loved ones would communicate the fever to them. By mid-October, the mortality rate peaked when autumn’s frosts began, bringing the epidemic to an end in November. Nearly one-tenth of the population of Philadelphia had succumbed to the fever. President Washington, along with his family, remained in Virginia, but there was no one to advise him.

With the onset of autumn, the plague began to recede. The frost came and began its work of killing the disease carrying mosquitoes. Though the specter of death receded with the advance of winter, its presence was still deeply felt. Those citizens who survived were so numbed by the loss of so many family and friends that it left them unable to pick up their lives.

In this state, the city of Philadelphia remained until early November. On the morning of November 11th, a lone figure began to make its way into the city. From behind curtains, citizens peered through their windows at the solitary gentleman that was breaking the silence of the town. Mounted upon a great white horse, the tall man slowly made his way through the city, slightly bowing at any sign of life that peered out at him from drawn shades or cracks in doorways. But this man was no stranger to the citizens of the nation’s capital. From homes, gaunt figures began to appear, window sashes thrown open as muffled voices were once again heard in the streets, as this figure breathed hope in the citizens of Philadelphia. That morning, by his very presence, George Washington gave new life to the corpse of Philadelphia, just as he had assisted in the birthing of a young nation.

More than two centuries ago, the Father of America broke the clutch of death and bondage that gripped the city of Philadelphia, simply by riding down the forsaken streets of the town that was then the nation’s capital. The very presence of George Washington was sufficient to revive the spirit of the city of Philadelphia and the hope of a fledgling nation. But more than two millennia ago, Jesus Christ promised his followers that his Father attended the funeral of every sparrow and arrayed the lilies of the field in opulent apparel, and if the Father cared so much about those things that quickly perish, how much more the Father cares about those who seek His highest willingness (Matthew 6:25-34). Living in a fallen world, we take comfort and encouragement from the presence of heroes and heroines, but how much more the followers of Jesus Christ should take real comfort from the One who has promised, “I will never leave you, nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).


Born into a well-to-do Virginia family in Bridges Creek near Fredericksburg in 1732 [O.S. 1731], Washington was schooled locally until the age of 15. His father's sudden death occurred when Washington was just a mere eleven years old. This eliminated the possibility of schooling in England, and his mother rejected attempts to place him in the Royal Navy. [1] Thanks to the connection by marriage of his half-brother Lawrence to the wealthy Fairfax family, Washington was appointed surveyor of Culpeper County in 1749 he was just 17 years old. Washington's brother had purchased an interest in the Ohio Company, a land acquisition and settlement company whose objective was the settlement of Virginia's frontier areas, including the Ohio Country, territory north and west of the Ohio River. [2] Its investors also included Virginia's Royal Governor, Robert Dinwiddie, who appointed Washington a major in the provincial militia in February 1753. [3] [4]

The Ohio Country was occupied by a variety of Indian tribes that were nominally under the political control of the Iroquois Confederacy based in what is now northwestern New York. [5] The area was also the subject of several conflicting claims by British and French colonies. The British provinces of Virginia and Pennsylvania both claimed the area, and traders from Pennsylvania had been trading with the Indians at least since the early 1740s. [6] In 1752, representatives of the Ohio Company reached an agreement with the local Indian leaders allowing the construction of a fort and a small settlement at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers (present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), and for the establishment of some settlements south of the Ohio River. [7] The French were alarmed by these developments, and in 1753 began the construction of a series of fortifications in the uppermost headwaters of the Ohio River (near present-day Erie, Pennsylvania), intending to extend the line of forts downriver and deny British traders and settlers access to the territory. [8] When news of this reached Virginia, Governor Dinwiddie sought advice from the British government in London. He received orders to send a messenger to the French, reiterating British claims and demanding that they stop construction of their forts and quit the territory. [9]

Governor Dinwiddie chose Major Washington, then 21 years old, for the trek into the Ohio Country to assess the French military situation, and to deliver the British demands. [10] He was a good choice despite his youth because he was familiar with the frontier from survey work, had good health, and both government and Ohio Company leaders trusted Washington. Although he had no frontier warfare experience, neither did most other Virginians. [11] Washington departed from Williamsburg at the end of October 1753. In Fredericksburg, he picked up Jacob Van Braam, a family friend who spoke French, before heading into the Virginia highlands. There he was joined by Christopher Gist, an Ohio Company agent who was familiar with the territory, and a few backwoodsmen to assist with expedition logistics. [12] When the expedition arrived at the site of the proposed fort, Washington noted that the site was well chosen, having "the entire Command of the Monongahela". [12]

The expedition then proceeded on to Logstown, a large Indian settlement a short way down the Ohio River. After parleying with the Indians, the Mingo "Half King" Tanacharison and three of his men agreed to accompany the British expedition to meet with the French. Washington also learned that many of the Ohio tribes were as unhappy about the British plans for settling the area as they were about the French plans to fortify it. Leaving Logstown on November 30, [13] they arrived at Fort Machault on December 4. The commander there, Captain Philippe-Thomas de Joncaire, directed Washington to his superior officer, stationed at Fort LeBoeuf, further north. [14] While dining with Joncaire, Washington learned of French intentions to "take possession of the Ohio". [15]

Washington's party reached Fort LeBoeuf on December 11, in the middle of a raging snowstorm. [13] The French commander, Captain Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre, received them with hospitality however, in response to Dinwiddie's demands, he pointed out that the letter was more properly addressed to his superior, New France's governor the Marquis Duquesne. [16] The letter Legardeur drafted in response to Dinwiddie's was clear and to the point: "as to the summons you send me to retire, I do not think myself obliged to obey it." [16] Washington took careful notes of the military arrangements at both forts before departing on December 16. [16] He was somewhat concerned by the fact that Tanacharison and his men remained behind for further discussions with the French he wrote, "I saw that every stratagem which the most fruitful brain could invent, was practiced to win Half King to their interest". [17] He returned to Williamsburg after a month of difficult travel. [16] Dinwiddie had Washington's account of the expedition widely distributed to emphasize the French threat. It was printed on both sides of the Atlantic, giving Washington an international reputation. [18]

While Washington was returning from this expedition, Dinwiddie sent men from the Ohio Company (who were also commissioned into the provincial militia) under William Trent to begin construction of the company's fort. In February, with Tanacharison's blessing, Trent and his men began construction of the fort at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers. [19] Legardeur's successor at Venango, Claude-Pierre Pécaudy de Contrecœur, led a force of about 500 men Canadiens and Indians (rumors reaching Trent's men put its size at 1,000) to dislodge them. On April 16, they arrived at the forks the next day, Trent's force of 36 men, led by Ensign Edward Ward in Trent's absence, agreed to leave the site, [20] over the vociferous objections of Tanacharison. The French then began construction of Fort Duquesne. [21]

Washington, upon his return to Williamsburg, was commissioned a Lieutenant Colonel in the newly created Virginia Regiment, and ordered by Dinwiddie to raise a force to assist in the completion of Trent's fort. [22] Dinwiddie's orders were to "act on the [defensive], but in Case any Attempts are made to obstruct the Works or interrupt our [settlements] by any Persons whatsoever, You are to restrain all such Offenders, & in Case of resistance to make Prisoners of or kill and destroy them." [23] Historian Fred Anderson describes Dinwiddie's instructions, which were issued without the knowledge or direction of the British government, as "an invitation to start a war." [23] Washington was ordered to gather up as many supplies and paid volunteers as he could along the way. By the time he left for the frontier on April 2, he had recruited fewer than 160 men. [24] Moving quickly and without artillery, his force marched north and west, picking up additional militia companies along the way. On April 19, outside Winchester, Virginia, Washington received word that a large French force was descending the Allegheny. On reaching Wills Creek he met part of Trent's company, who, in addition to confirming the arrival of the French, brought a supportive message from Tanacharison. [25] To keep Tanacharison's support, Washington decided to advance rather than turning back. However, road-building went slowly, and by the end of May Washington's company had reached a place known as the Great Meadows (now in Fayette County, Pennsylvania), about 37 miles (60 km) south of the forks. There he began construction of a small fort and awaited further news or instructions. [26]

On May 23, Contrecœur, now in command at Fort Duquesne, sent Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville with 35 Canadiens to see if Washington had entered French territory, and with a summons to order Washington's troops out this summons was similar in nature to the one Washington had delivered to them in 1753. [27] On May 27, Washington was told by Christopher Gist that a French party numbering about 50 was in the area. In response, Washington sent 75 men with Gist to find them. [28] That evening, Washington received a message from Tanacharison, informing him that he had found the Canadien camp and that the two of them should meet. Although he had just sent another group in pursuit of the French, Washington went with a detachment of 40 men to meet with Tanacharison. The Mingo leader had with him 12 warriors, two of whom were boys. After discussing the matter, the two leaders agreed to attack the Canadiens. [29]

Washington and Tanacharison then ambushed Jumonville's party, sneaking up and surrounding the French camp. Some were still asleep, others preparing breakfast when without warning, Washington gave the order to fire. Those who escaped the volley scrambled for their weapons but were swiftly overwhelmed. Ten of the French, including Jumonville, were killed, one was wounded, and all but one (who escaped warning the French commander at Fort Duquesne) of the rest were taken, prisoner. [30]

The exact circumstances of Jumonville's death are disputed. Contrecœur claimed that Jumonville and most of the other wounded French were massacred in cold blood by British musket fire after having surrendered [30] Washington claimed in his account that Jumonville was killed, but did not give any details. [31] Other accounts claimed that Tanacharison tomahawked Jumonville while he (Jumonville) was reading the summons. [32] When the British left the battlefield to return to their camp at Great Meadows, they did not bury any of the French dead. [30]

Washington then finished building Fort Necessity at the Great Meadows, anticipating a French counterattack. The fort, completed June 2, was not much more than a wooden stockade 7 feet (2.1 m) high and about 50 feet (15 m) in diameter surrounded by a ditch. It was so poorly sited (surrounded by higher hills and woods providing cover to the enemy) that Tanacharison tried to point out its defects. Washington dismissed these concerns, convinced the fort could withstand "the attack of 500 Indians." [33] Over the next month, his force grew by 200 men from Virginia and an independent company of 100 British regulars that had marched up from South Carolina, while he continued to build the road toward the forks. [34] The arriving Virginians brought congratulations from Governor Dinwiddie on his success at Jumonville Glen, and word that Washington had been promoted to colonel, owing to the death of Colonel Joshua Fry in a fall from his horse. [35]

While the road-building went on, Washington pressed Tanacharison for more Indian support. However, the Half King seemed to have lost confidence in the British cause, and he and his followers soon abandoned the British camp. This complete loss of Indian support prompted Washington to withdraw his work crews back to Fort Necessity. [36] Not long afterward, a force of 700 French and Indians surrounded the fort, and Washington was soon compelled to surrender. The surrender document that Washington signed prevented his men from returning to the Ohio Country for one year, and included an admission that Jumonville had been "assassinated". [37] (The document was written in French, which Washington could not read, and may have been poorly translated for him.) [38] Because the French claimed that Jumonville's party had been on a diplomatic (rather than military) mission, the "Jumonville affair" became an international incident, and the military escalation that followed blossomed into the global Seven Years' War. [39] [40] Although most Virginians were not particularly critical, there was rumbling about Washington's actions in other quarters. One New Yorker wrote that Washington acted rashly and that he was "too ambitious of acquiring all the honor", while London commentators dismissed the failure casually, citing a lack of colonial military experience. [41] Governor Dinwiddie was publicly supportive of Washington, but criticized him privately, noting that some of the Virginia Regiment's problems originated in a "want of proper Command". [42] Dinwiddie assigned command of a follow-up expedition (that never actually reached the Ohio Country) to North Carolina militia colonel James Innes. In another step that may have been calculated to clip the young colonel's wings, Dinwiddie reorganized the Virginia Regiment into separate companies, with no ranks above captain Washington resigned rather than accept a demotion. [42]

In 1755, as part of the British military escalation, Major General Edward Braddock arrived in North America with a force of British Army regulars to head a major effort against the French in the Ohio Country. Washington wanted to serve on the expedition, but refused to do so as a provincial officer, since he would be outranked by even junior officers in the regular army establishment. [43] (Washington was said to "[bubble] with fury when British regular officers expressed their disdain of provincial officers and soldiers", and at the realization that British officers were always senior to colonials regardless of rank.) [44] Through negotiations mediated by Governor Dinwiddie, Washington was offered an unpaid volunteer position as one of Braddock's aides. [45] Washington accepted, writing to Braddock's principal aide, Captain Robert Orme, "I wish for nothing more earnestly, than to attain a small degree of knowledge in the Military Art", and that the position would provide him "a good opportunity . of forming an acquaintance which may be serviceable hereafter, if I can find it worth while pushing my Fortune in the Military way." [46]

When Braddock's regulars arrived in Alexandria, Washington spent much time there, observing infantry drills and other internal workings of the army, [47] and even copied Braddock's orders to absorb the style in which they were written. [45] The expedition finally marched off in April 1755, and made extremely slow progress along the road Washington had cut in 1754, owing to the heavy artillery and long baggage train. Braddock and his entourage arrived at Fort Cumberland on May 10. [48] From there the progress slowed even further as the army made its way to the Monongahela River. Washington fell ill with dysentery en route, and only rejoined the column on July 8, when it was nearing the Monongahela. [45] [49]

The next day, after Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Gage's light infantry had crossed the Monongahela about 10 miles (16 km) from Fort Duquesne, they stumbled into a French and Indian force that had been sent to locate them. [49] Both sides were surprised, but the French and Indians quickly organized themselves and made a vicious onslaught against the British. [50] Gage's men, and the work crews they were guarding, turned and fled in a panic, right into the arriving column of regulars, which included Braddock and his entourage. [51] The discipline of the British regulars broke down, and a panicked retreat began, with the French and Indians firing at them from the cover of the surrounding woods. Braddock lost several horses, and eventually went down with a mortal wound. Washington was one of the few of Braddock's aides to emerge relatively unscathed, despite being significantly involved in the fighting. He had two horses shot out from under him, and four bullets pierced his coat. He sustained no injuries and showed coolness under fire. [52] Braddock, who had been loaded onto a wagon in a makeshift litter, ordered Washington to ride back to fetch the remainder of the army that was working its way up from the Great Meadows. [53] The battered remnants of Braddock's force eventually returned to Fort Cumberland, where Washington wrote letters harshly critical of the event. To Governor Dinwiddie he reported that, although the British officers fought well, their "cowardly Dogs of soldiers" did not. [54] The Virginians, he said, acquitted themselves well: they "behaved like Men, and died like Soldiers." [54] His reports burnished the reputation of the Virginia Regiment, and Washington was lauded as the "hero of Monongahela" for his work organizing the retreat. [54] [55] Dinwiddie was also forced to acknowledge Washington's "gallant Behav[io]r", and the Virginia House of Burgesses reorganized the colony's defenses with Washington as colonel of a 1,200 strong regiment. [56]

Governor Dinwiddie had designated Fort Cumberland the regimental headquarters, even though it was located in Maryland. Washington learned that it was commanded by Captain John Dagworthy, who led a company of Maryland militia but also held a royal commission and would thus outrank him. [57] After a brief visit to Fort Cumberland in September 1755, Washington left, and chose to base himself at Winchester instead. [58] He then embarked on recruiting expeditions to fill out the regiment, traveling often to Williamsburg. There, he complained bitterly to Dinwiddie about serving under Dagworthy. When Dagworthy refused to let the Virginians draw supplies from Fort Cumberland (which, despite its location, had been paid for and provisioned by Virginia), Dinwiddie came to agree with Washington. He wrote to Massachusetts Governor William Shirley, who was acting as commander in chief after Braddock's death, requesting royal commissions for Washington and other Virginia officers. When Shirley did not respond in a timely manner, Dinwiddie authorized Washington to travel to Boston to renew the request in person. Washington spent some time visiting in all of the major towns on the way, [a] but his mission was ultimately only partially successful. [60] After receiving Washington, Shirley issued a decree that Virginia's officers outranked Dagworthy and other British officers of lower rank. [61]

In his first year in command of the Virginia Regiment, Washington shaped the unit into one of the best provincial military units in the colonies. He rigorously enforced military discipline, often punishing transgressions with the lash, but also sometimes hanging those convicted of serious offenses like desertion. [61] The latter was a particular problem: many of the recruits were either foreigners or from Virginia's lower classes, and had little at stake in the conflict. [62] He developed detailed guidelines for frontier warfare, was personally responsible for organizing the supply and equipment of the regiment, and even designed the regimental uniforms. [61] He was also a voracious reader of military treatises of all sorts, from Julius Caesar's Commentaries to recent British training manuals. [63] Despite all of his work, Virginia's frontier was ravaged by raiding parties, and he lost one third of his men in eighteen months. [64] Washington's relationship with Dinwiddie deteriorated again over these difficulties and ongoing complaints about pay that was inadequate compared to British regimental standards. [65]

In 1757 Washington renewed attempts to cultivate relations in the army in the hopes of getting a commission. He wrote flattering letters to the new commander in chief, the Earl of Loudoun, and even named one of Virginia's frontier forts after him. However, Loudoun was only in command for one year, and was recalled after a failed expedition against Fortress Louisbourg. [66] Later in the year, Washington again suffered a serious bout of dysentery he was bedridden for much of the winter of 1757–58, and even suggested to the Virginia Burgesses that he be replaced since he could not properly do his duty as colonel of the regiment. [67]

The failures of British military policy in 1757 led to a change of government in London, with William Pitt coming firmly into control of Britain's global war effort. [68] Pitt decided to focus a large number of resources on the war in North America, and three major expeditions were planned. One of these, under the command of Brigadier General John Forbes, was assigned to move against the French in the Ohio Country, with its first major goal the capture of Fort Duquesne. [69] Forbes was to lead an army of 2,000 regulars augmented by 5,000 provincials raised from Pennsylvania southward. [70]

Diplomacy and military politics Edit

The Virginia Burgesses voted to raise a second regiment of 1,000 men in addition to Washington's, both of which would participate in the Forbes expedition under Washington's overall command. [71] Forbes was apparently already aware of Washington's reputation, writing that he was "a good and knowing Officer in the Back Country." [71] Washington, as he had with other army commanders, hoped for notice and sponsorship, and asked General John Stanwix to "[m]ention me in favorable terms to General Forbes." [72] Forbes ordered the Virginia troops to gather at Winchester while the army began cutting a new road from Carlisle, Pennsylvania toward Fort Duquesne. Based in part on advice from Washington, Forbes spent much of the spring and summer negotiating with the Ohio Indians for their support. [71] A preliminary agreement was reached in August in which many of those Indians, led by chief Teedyuscung, agreed to abandon their alliance with the French. [73] Washington and his troops were first given the task of improving the road between Fort Frederick and Fort Cumberland, and did not join with the main army at Fort Bedford until late summer. [74]

At this point Forbes was faced with a choice of routes. He could cut a new road directly across western Pennsylvania, or he could go south and pick up Braddock's route. Washington extensively lobbied Forbes and other British officers to use Braddock's route, which would have been more advantageous to Virginia interests. [75] Forbes and others took a dim view of this activity, suspecting personal and provincial financial motivation. In response to a letter in which Washington bemoaned "our Enterprize [is] Ruind", and blamed Colonel Henry Bouquet for his advocacy of the Pennsylvania route, Forbes angrily wrote, "I am now at the bottom, of their Scheme against this new road" and chastized Washington, writing that his heavy-handed advocacy "was a shame for any officer to be Concerned in." [76] Forbes ultimately chose the Pennsylvania route for pragmatic military reasons: the army, was expected to occupy and hold Fort Duquesne, and would require a reliable supply route, and the Pennsylvania route was superior for this purpose. [77] However, as the expedition pushed west and Forbes learned that the last ridge to cross would prove particularly difficult, he granted that Washington and other advocates of the Virginia route may have been correct in their assessment of the chosen route's problems. [78]

Advance on Fort Duquesne Edit

In early September, troops under Henry Bouquet's command began construction of a fort near present-day Loyalhanna Township that eventually came to be known as Fort Ligonier. [79] Bouquet was handling the forward activities of the expedition because Forbes was sick with dysentery. [80] On September 11, Bouquet authorized Major James Grant to lead a reconnaissance in force to investigate the strength of Fort Duquesne's defenses. Grant took this opportunity to launch an assault on the fort, and was decisively beaten and taken prisoner along with one third of his 800-strong detachment. [81] Although Washington was not involved, men from his regiment acquitted themselves well in the debacle 62 of them died in the battle, and others were among the prisoners. [82] The French at Fort Duquesne, whose supply line had been cut by the British victory in the August Battle of Fort Frontenac, made an unsuccessful attack against Fort Ligonier in the hopes of either stopping the expedition or at least acquiring some of its supplies. [83]

On November 12, in response to rumors that the French had sent out a raiding force, Forbes sent out a detachment of the Virginia regiment to investigate reports of a French raiding expedition. When sounds of gunfire reached the British camp, Forbes sent a second detachment. Primary sources are unclear on which detachment Washington led the other was led by Lieutenant Colonel George Mercer. In the dimming light of early evening and the haze of musket smoke the two detachments mistook each other for the enemy the friendly fire incident resulted in 40 casualties. Washington claimed to have interceded, "knocking up with his sword the presented pieces", but Captain Thomas Bullitt, the only other officer to leave an account, held Washington responsible for the incident, noting that his opinion was shared by "several of the officers." [84] The incident appeared to leave an emotional scar on Washington, who did not speak or write of it for many years. [84]

A beneficial result of the incident was that several prisoners were taken Forbes learned from them that Fort Duquesne was about to be abandoned. [85] This prompted Forbes to accelerate the expedition's advance, and it was soon in a position of strength about 10 miles (16 km) from Fort Duquesne. On November 23 they heard a large explosion from the direction of the fort its commander, François-Marie Le Marchand de Lignery, had blown it up. [86] Forbes assigned Washington command of one of the brigades that advanced to find the smoking remains of the French fort the next day. [87] General Forbes, still weak from illness, only briefly visited the site. He completed the return trip to Philadelphia in a litter, and died in March 1759. [88] Washington was back home in Virginia by the end of December the expedition was his last military activity of the war. [89]

Upon his return to Williamsburg, Washington, to the surprise of many, tendered his resignation from the Virginia militia. [88] Many of his officers showered him with praise, including the critical Captain Thomas Bullitt. Washington was lauded for his "punctual Obervance" of his duties, the "Frankness, Sincerity, and a certain Openness of Soul", and the "mutual Regard that has always subsisted between you and your Officers." [90] Biographer James Ferling characterizes as their highest tribute the statements that Washington "heightened our natural Emulation, and our Desire to excel" and "In you we place the most implicit confidence." [90]

Although Washington never gained the commission in the British army he yearned for, in these years the young man gained valuable military, political, and leadership skills, [91] and received significant public exposure in the colonies and abroad. [18] [92] He closely observed British military tactics, gaining a keen insight into their strengths and weaknesses that proved invaluable during the Revolution. He demonstrated his toughness and courage in the most difficult situations, including disasters and retreats. He developed a command presence—given his size, strength, stamina, and bravery in battle, he appeared to soldiers to be a natural leader and they followed him without question. [93] [94] Washington gained connections because of his popularity, which would serve him well later in the Revolution. His involvement in the war, given the circumstances, was just enough for him to be able to craft his own idea of what a leader looked like. Washington learned to organize, train, and drill, and discipline his companies and regiments. From his observations, readings and conversations with professional officers, he learned the basics of battlefield tactics, as well as a good understanding of problems of organization and logistics. [95] Historian Ron Chernow argues that his frustrations in dealing with government officials during this conflict led him to advocate the advantages of a strong national government and a vigorous executive agency that could get results [96] other historians tend to ascribe Washington's position on government to his later American Revolutionary War service. [97] His dealings also gave him the diplomatic skills necessary to negotiate with officials at the local and provincial levels. [96] He developed a very negative idea of the value of militia, who seemed too unreliable, too undisciplined, and too short-term compared to regulars. [98] On the other hand, his experience was limited to command of about 1,000 men, and came only in remote frontier conditions that were far removed from the urban situations he faced during the revolution at Boston, New York, Trenton and Philadelphia. [99]

On January 6, 1759, Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, a wealthy Virginia widow. [100] He had already won election to the Virginia House of Burgesses during the summer of 1758. [101] For the next 16 years he lived the life of a Virginia plantation owner and politician. [102] As tensions rose between the British parliament and the colonies, he gradually adopted positions in opposition to the parliament's policies. [103] When the American Revolutionary War broke out in April 1775, Washington arrived at the Second Continental Congress in a military uniform, and was chosen as Commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. [104] After leading American forces to victory, he chaired the Constitutional Convention that drafted the United States Constitution, and was then elected the first President of the United States, serving two terms. [105] He briefly saw additional military service during a threatened war with France in 1798, and died in December 1799. [106] He is widely recognized as the "Father of his country". [107]

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Washington also found his way to Hartford, CT staying at the home of Colonel Jeremiah Wadsworth on June 30, 1775. (See photo.) Washington was on his way to Cambridge, Mass to assume command of the Continental Army. The house is long gone, but the marker was placed on the north side of the Wadsworth Atheneum by the Connecticut chapter of the DAR in 1932 on the occasion of the 200 th anniversary of Washington's birth. The plaque also notes that the first President stopped there while on his presidential tour of the states in 1789. Additionally, French allies Lafayette and Rochambeau also met with Colonel Wadsworth there as well—quite a historically significant place!

New London County has at least two places where George Washington visited: Norwich and New London itself. The famous Leffingwell Inn at Norwich, built by Steven Backus circa 1675, claims to have hosted Washington during the Revolutionary War. At the time it was owned by Christopher Leffingwell, a deputy commissar to the Continental Army.

George Washington stayed in New London at least twice, according to historian Frances Manwaring Caulkins in her 1852 History of New London. As a colonel in the French and Indian War, Washington traveled on horseback to Boston through New London in February-March 1756. According to Caulkins, he stayed at the now defunct Red Lion Inn there both to and from Boston. While commander of the Continental Army, Washington stayed again in New London 20 years later on April 9, 1776. This time he stayed at the Shaw Mansion, which is still standing, having survived Benedict Arnold's burning of New London in 1781. The general was traveling from Boston to New York at the time of his stay with Captain Nathaniel Shaw. (See photo.)

Washington also spent a night in Ridgebury, CT during the war. He stayed at the tavern of Ensign Samuel Keeler on September 19, 1780. The Ridgebury Congregational Church now occupies the site where Washington once stayed. A historical marker has been placed upon the spot where he stayed. Another place that claims to have provided sleeping quarters for the father of our country is Sheldon's Tavern on North Street in Litchfield however, no specific date is given for the stay.

Fairfield County also lays claim to George's presence there. The town of Fairfield claims that President Washington stayed there at the Sun Tavern on the evening of October 16, 1789. Greenwich also has erected a commemorative marker for Washington. (See photo.) At the corner of Route 1 and Maple Avenue in Greenwich one can find an historical marker denoting a place where Washington did not sleep but "paused." The marker reads as follows:

Paused here on the Post Road near this church, on October 16, 1789 and afterward wrote in his diary, "the superb landscape which is to be seen from the meeting house is a rich regalia".
In Commemoration
Of this historic incident, this tablet has been placed here by friends in this church, October 16, 1932, in this Washington Bicentennial Year

Finally, picturesque Washington, CT tucked away in the far northwest corner of Connecticut—surprise!—gets its name from our "Cinncinnatus of the West*." The inscription on the town's marker reads in part: "The present town was incorporated in 1779, being named in honor of General George Washington, who traveled through this area several times during his wartime journeys and breakfasted with his staff at Squire Cogswell's tavern in New Preston on Friday, May 25, 1781."

Overall, there are at least twenty historical markers located in Connecticut that lay claim to having George Washington "pause" there, "sleep" there, "visit" there or "travel through" there. These markers cover a period from 1756-1789 and reflect the three most important roles that the man who was "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen" played: colonel in the French and Indian War, general in the Revolutionary War, and the first President of the United States.

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