By George Noga
I am reprising from last year America’s first and greatest Christmas story, yet one known only to a very few. It is deeply moving and uniquely American. It reveals much of the man and the fledgling nation.
What transpired between late November and Christmas Eve 1783 could not have happened anywhere but America. It shaped our republic in ways being felt today and cemented Washington as the greatest man of his era. In an age filled with hollow hyperbole, A Mount Vernon Christmas is an authentic feel-good classic to be shared with the entire family.
Prequel: December 25, 1776 – Crossing the Delaware
On Christmas Day 1776 Washington was desperate; that year had been the darkest in American history. He had just endured a succession of military disasters. The morale of his remaining army, starving and freezing, was low; hundreds desert during the night. He is down to 2,400 troops. At least one-third have no shoes and wrap their feet in burlap during the all night march, leaving a trail of blood in the snow as a sudden and fierce northeast storm engulfs his Continentals. It all has come to this; facing impossible odds the American revolution is down to one last desperate throw of the dice.
“The reflection upon my situation and that of this army produces many an uneasy hour when all around me are wrapped in sleep. Few people know the predicament we are in.” ~ George Washington 1776
Although Washington leads one of the most successful surprise attacks in history, it only buys time. Still to come is the desperate winter of 1777-1778 at Valley Forge. Indeed, every winter and Christmas until 1783 was to be the same story of hunger, cold and privation. In late November of that year Washington received word that the peace treaty ending the war had been signed. Only then could he resign his commission and return home to Mount Vernon.
A Mt. Vernon Christmas: November 17 to December 24, 1783
As soon as Washington learned of the treaty, he wanted very much to return home to Mount Vernon for Christmas. Except for a few days enroute to Yorktown, he had been away for about eight years. However, he had less than six weeks, many duties to perform and many miles to travel. This is the story of his incredible 38 day Christmas journey.
Quelling Revolt of Officers
Just before learning of the peace treaty, Washington dealt with a rebellion while quartered in Newburgh, New York. Washington called a meeting, gave a short speech and then reached for a letter from Congress in his pocket to read aloud. He gazed upon it and fumbled with it without speaking. He then took a pair of reading glasses from his pocket which none had seen him wear.
He said, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.” This moved everyone to tears as they realized the sacrifices Washington had made; the rebellion died instantly.
Farewell Orders to the Troops
On November 17th Washington issued his “Farewell Orders”. He lauded his troops for their extreme hardship and urged them never to forget the extraordinary events to which they bore witness. He closed by announcing his retirement from service stating, “The curtain of separation will soon be drawn . . . and closed forever” meaning for all future offices.
Instead of using such an opportunity to promote himself, he appeared above all human ambition. When his remarks reached King George III, he called Washington “the greatest man of his age”.
New York and Fraunces Tavern
Washington, arriving in New York from Newburgh via West Point on November 21st, believed it necessary to reoccupy New York but had to wait for the British to evacuate. While there he made sure Tories who had secretly assisted the American cause were shielded from retribution. He also protected the British withdrawal to prevent untoward actions.
Everywhere Washington was greeted as a hero with cheering and enthusiastic crowds; nearly every home had a drawing or lithograph of him displayed in the window. Receptions and dinners were held nightly in his honor.
On December 4 Washington hosted a farewell reception for his officers at Fraunces Tavern. He realized the inadequacy of any formal address and did not trust his emotions to read one. When all the glasses were filled, Washington offered a toast, “With a heart filled with love and gratitude, I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish your later days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.”
Following the toast, blinded by tears and voice faltering, Washington continued, “I cannot come to each of you but shall be obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand.” Each officer came forward suffused with tears and unable to utter an intelligible word.
Philadelphia, Wilmington and Enroute to Annapolis
From December 5-18 Washington’s journey took him to Philadelphia where he spent several days and then onward, via Wilmington, toward Annapolis, where Congress was sitting. At every stop and all along his route (throughout his entire journey) citizens gathered to pay tribute. Always courteous, the general accepted every proffered hand and returned every greeting.
America never before had and never again will experience such an emotional outpouring for one man. Every citizen understood he conducted them through a long and bloody war that achieved glory and independence for their country. All knew viscerally there never again would be such a moment or such a man.
Annapolis and Returning His Commission
Washington arrived in Annapolis, then the Capitol and seat of Congress, on December 19. From December 20-22 he was feted endlessly at lavish dinners and balls always preceded with 13 toasts followed by 13 cannon shots.
On December 23 there was a special session of Congress to honor Washington and to accept his resignation. Attendance overflowed the facilities with people everywhere.
He closed his address by stating, “I retire from the great theatre of action and . . . here offer my commission and take my leave of all the employments of public life.” Then he withdrew from his coat pocket the parchment given to him in 1775 that was his appointment as Commander-in-Chief and ceremoniously returned it. Some consider it the most significant address ever delivered in civil society.
Christmas in Mount Vernon and Post Script
Immediately after returning his commission, Washington set out for Mount Vernon, still hoping to arrive in time for Christmas. It was so late on the 23rd and the days so short, he got only as far as Bladensburgh, Maryland before retiring for the night.
The next morning, Christmas Eve, he rode to the Potomac River, crossed with a ferry to Alexandria and rode the final miles. It already was dark when he approached Mount Vernon. About a mile away he could see its many green-shuttered windows – now all ablaze with candles; it was, after all, Christmas Eve.
Much of the material is sourced from one of the best books I have read, “General Washington’s Christmas Farewell – A Mount Vernon Homecoming 1783” by Stanley Weintraub. The 174 page book is readily available.
As hard as I tried, this summary is woefully inadequate to describe the events of November 17 to December 24, 1783 and the true character of George Washington. I beseech anyone with young children or grandchildren to read it to them in installments over the holidays. I can think of no better gift you can bestow than to expose young minds to the extraordinary character of George Washington.
In Vernon’s groves you shun the throne,
Admired by kings, but seen by none.