Everything has a history, even the celebration of holidays. Some people who visit eighteenth century historic sites at Christmas ask where the Christmas trees are. Trees are a nineteenth century thing. George Washington never put up a Christmas tree at Mount Vernon. (But he did bring in a camel to amuse his holiday guests!) Even Santa changes his look from time to time. I am fortunate to live in the Washington, D.C. area, abundant with history places of all shapes and sizes. Below are three of my favorite posts from Christmases past. From a tour of Mount Vernon’s basement and a surprise camel appearance, to Santa at a Civil War fort, and the spectacular beauty of the U.S. Botanic Garden, enjoy these musings on historic sites at the holidays.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all! I hope you’ve started dreaming about which history sites you could visit in 2023. I already have… I haven’t been to Charleston in a long time, a friend moved to a new town in Louisiana closer to two places I’ve always wanted to visit, Vicksburg and Natchez, my list is beginning.
Hurricane Ian cut a catastrophic path across Florida on September 28, 2022, causing at least 109 deaths and resulting in perhaps $47 billion in damage. But before its landfall near Fort Myers, the storm had also landed on Cuba, and it had already hit one of America’s most remote and pristine national parks.
Just one day before, on September 27, 2022, Ian passed directly over Dry Tortugas National Park, a cluster of seven islands located 68 miles west of Key West, Florida. The combined area of all seven islands is between 100 and 150 acres, but 99 percent of the park’s area is the protected ocean surrounding these islands, with extensive coral reefs that support seabirds and undersea wildlife.
In the midst of this tropical wonderland rises Fort Jefferson, surely one of the most remarkable structures within the National Park System. Constructed entirely of brick brought in by ship from Pensacola, the fort was begun in 1846, with construction continuing for 31 years before the Army abandoned the effort, still unfinished, in 1874. With 16 million bricks, and covering 16 acres, Fort Jefferson is the largest brick structure in the New World.
I had the pleasure of visiting the fort on November 5, 2020, during a visit to the Florida Keys. The Yankee Freedom, an authorized concessioner of the National Park Service, offers a daily catamaran trip from Key West to Fort Jefferson. As the fort came into view, visitors like me had to wonder why the Army built a vast fort on a remote island at such great expense. What were they trying to protect? Whom were they trying to intimidate? Was it worth the cost?
The answer, in part, is pirates.
After Spain sold Florida to the United States in 1820, coastal trade rapidly increased between the Atlantic Seaboard of the United States and New Orleans, the port near the mouth of Mississippi. And ships traveling that route were prevented from hugging the south coast of Florida by the Keys, a coral archipelago that extends 180 miles in a gentle arc into the Gulf of Mexico. En route from the U.S. East Coast to New Orleans, sailors stopped at the Dry Tortugas, the last of these Florida Keys. Spanish map-makers had even given these islets a name that indicated that food could be found there — tortugas means “turtles,” and green and loggerhead turtles still use the islands as a nesting place. (Unfortunately, there is no fresh water to be found, which is why later British cartographers added the adjective “dry” to Spanish maps.)
Challenges for 19th-century sailors along this route included tropical storms, invisible coral reefs, a lack of fresh water, and piracy.
In 1825 and 1826 a lighthouse was constructed on one of the Tortugas to aid in navigation. A few years later, in 1829, the survey ship Florida stopped in the islands and later reported that they offered a protected harbor that, if occupied by a hostile foreign power, would put U.S. shipping in deadly peril. On the other hand, if the U.S. military preemptively fortified the islands, U.S. commercial vessels would be protected, both from piracy and from even bigger potential problems like the Spanish navy.
In 1845, the Tortugas finally became a national military reservation, and construction of the fort, which would occupy almost the entirety of one of the seven islands, began the following year. Plans for the fort included a 13-acre parade ground surrounded by a hexagonal curtain wall with corner bastions.
Perhaps the most interesting part of my tour of Fort Jefferson was hearing about the great privations that both the construction crews and the soldiers endured during the 30 years that the fort was being built by both enslaved and free laborers. Water was always in short supply — even with innovative steam-powered condensers that provided up to 7,000 gallons of desalinated water per day. Disease was rampant, death was common.
During the Civil War, the United States occupied Fort Jefferson to prevent it from falling to the Confederacy, and the fort became a prisoner of war camp. By late 1864, 583 soldiers and 882 prisoners lived there. But the following year, Fort Jefferson’s most infamous convicts arrived: Samuel Mudd, Edman Spangler, Samuel Arnold and Michael O’Laughlen, convicted co-conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Mudd, the doctor who treated John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg, attempted and failed to escape on a departing ship in September 1865. Two years later, after the prison’s regular doctor died during a yellow fever outbreak, Mudd took over the medical care at the fort. As a reward for his service during the crisis, he was assigned to a desk job at the fort until he was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson in March 1869.
Twenty years later, the Army abandoned the fort altogether, and it became a quarantine station and then a coaling station before being reactivated during the Spanish-American War. After 1906, the fort was once again abandoned until President Franklin Roosevelt declared it a national monument in 1935. In 1992, Dry Tortugas National Park was established.
Today the fort is inhabited by a few employees of the park service. One woman staffed the gift shop on the day I visited; she said that because of recent bad weather, she hadn’t any internet or cellular service for days and didn’t even know that our boat was going to be arriving that morning. Our ship provided a guide for the history of the fort, as well as snorkeling equipment for those who wanted to explore the reefs surrounding the island. We used the toilets on the ship and also ate lunch on board, or we took sack lunches out to one of the picnic tables near the fort’s entrance. There are no services provided at the fort itself.
On the way back to Key West, my fellow passengers and I discussed whether we could actually see ourselves living in this remote paradise, 70 miles by water from the nearest car, house, or store. Most said no.
Aerial photographs taken in the days after Hurricane Ian’s landfall indicate damage to Fort Jefferson’s piers and damage to vegetation within the parade ground, with extensive flooding. Predictably, the storm also altered the sandbars that surround the islands and uprooted trees everywhere. Seaplane charters from Key West are once again being allowed to land, but as of October 6, 2022, the Yankee Freedom had not yet resumed its trips.
Interstate 64 connects the present capital of Virginia, Richmond, and the former capital, Williamsburg. About midway between sits New Kent County. Tourists drive through it on their way to history sites and amusements in Williamsburg, or to the beach, but most don’t pay it any attention. George Washington enthusiasts know it as the county where Martha Washington lived with her first husband and the site of George and Martha’s wedding.
I wish more people knew about a fascinating person from New Kent who played an important role leading up to the siege of Yorktown and the Allied victory which brought the end of the American Revolution. James Lafayette’s story is both intriguing and unique – because he was an enslaved Virginian who served as a spy for General Lafayette.
James was born enslaved in the county, most likely in 1748, and served the Armistead family. He grew up in an enslaved community that surely dreamed about what life would be like as free people. He had no control over his daily life or his future. But sometime in 1781 he decided to seize an opportunity that would ultimately set his course toward freedom. He could have chosen to run to the British — they invaded Virginia in 1781 and many enslaved people decided to seek freedom with the British, a risky venture with no guarantee in the end. But he didn’t.
In early 1781 General George Washington sent Major General Lafayette to Virginia to capture the traitor Benedict Arnold who was then working for the British. Lafayette, was the young man who, at age nineteen, had come from France to help the American cause. But soon General Charles Cornwallis moved his troops into Virginia from the south and Lafayette had more to worry about. The British cavalry roamed the land, leaving a wake of destruction in their path and terrorizing the citizens of the state. Outnumbered, Lafayette could only monitor British activity and engage in small skirmishes. Lafayette needed to find a way to learn the British military’s next move. He needed eyes and ears in the British camp. No doubt General Washington, a person who recognized the value of strong intelligence, encouraged him to develop a spy network.
While history sources don’t reveal the exact moment, at some point in either spring or early summer 1781 Lafayette and James met, and Lafayette realized that using an enslaved man as a spy would provide him with vital information. And so began an interesting relationship of two people who were unlike each other. Lafayette was from a French noble family. He had inherited his title Marquis from his father who had died in battle against the British. Lafayette, one of the wealthiest men in France, was friends with the King and Queen of France.
My new book, The World Turned Upside Down: The Yorktown Victory That Won America’s Independence tells the story of the pivotal last conflict in the American Revolution and one of its main characters is James. Since the book is nonfiction, it took me a while to decide whether enough historical source material existed to include James’ story. Enslaved people and spies did not leave much evidence behind. James remains a mysterious person today, but several key documents tell us about him.
Lafayette mentioned him in correspondence to Washington, but not by name. Letters often got intercepted by the enemy. He refers to him as “a correspondent of mine,” and “this servant I have once mentioned.”
Despite holes in James’ story, we know he risked his life to serve as a spy and ended up working in the British camp. Upon war’s end, he was not granted his freedom, and ended up petitioning the Virginia legislature for freedom. Lafayette wrote a letter endorsing his manumission, stating James had served as his spy. He wrote: “This is to certify that the bearer by the name of James has done essential services to me while I had the honor to command in this state. His intelligences from the enemy’s camp were industriously collected and faithfully delivered.”
Three main questions loom large in James’ story: When did he start spying for Lafayette and who initiated it? Where was he during the siege of Yorktown and the surrender? What exactly was his role with General Cornwallis? Was he a double agent?
James did eventually gain his freedom from the state of Virginia. On January 9, 1787, the Speaker of the House signed a bill that stated: “Be it there enacted, that the said James, from and after passing of this act, enjoy as full freedom as if he had been born free.” When asked to select a surname, he chose Lafayette and would be known for the rest of his life as James Lafayette.
It is impossible with present evidence to determine the exact relationship between the two men. Clearly Lafayette felt strongly about James securing freedom and spoke out against the practice of slavery on numerous occasions. The General and James were destined to meet one more time. In 1824 Lafayette, then 67 years old, the last living French general of the American Revolution, embarked on a tour of the United States. During his visit to the Yorktown battlefield, the Richmond Enquirer reported that “a black man… who had rendered him service by way of information as a spy, for which he was liberated by the state, was recognized by Lafayette in the crowd, called to him by name and taken into his embrace.”
At some point in later life, James took a job at a grist mill and purchased 40 acres of land in New Kent County. He encountered an artist, John Blennerhasset Martin, in Richmond, who became fascinated with his story and painted the only known portrait of James. At that point he was about seventy-six years old and living a quiet life in New Kent County. Today the portrait is on display at the Valentine Museum in Richmond.
“It’s just a field, dad,” many a bored teenager has whined on a family trip to a battlefield. Battlefields require imagination to understand their significance and over the years, I know many National Park Service staff have struggled with how best to interpret a grassy landscape.
One field in Yorktown, Virginia, holds a special place in American history as a field not only of battle, but also of surrender. The siege of Yorktown in 1781 essentially ended the American Revolution and signified the birth of a new nation “conceived in liberty” as a future president would say while standing on a different battlefield (Gettysburg).
Today “surrender field” looks like an ordinary field of grass. On a beautiful day it is bucolic, lacking only a herd of peacefully grazing sheep. If we had the power to travel back in time to October 1781, the view would radically change. The air would be filled with cannon balls from approximately 73 cannons, including a nighttime display of red hot cannon balls flying through the air. It was anything but peaceful. The ferocity of the guns created an earsplitting pounding that could be heard many miles away. Around nineteen thousand people, more people than most cities in the thirteen colonies, had gathered to launch a siege on the British army in the small village of Yorktown. General George Washington, commander of the Continental army, and his ally, the French general Rochambeau, along with the French Admiral de Grasse, worked together to entrap British general Lord Charles Cornwallis and his troops. The French and American armies had marched five hundred miles from New York. With help from the French navy recently arrived to block the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay, they surprised the British and Germans and surrounded them.
Finally, at 10:00 a.m. on October 17, a lone British drummer boy appeared on the parapet and began beating a signal. Beside him stood a soldier waving a white handkerchief. No one could hear the drummer due to the pounding of the guns, but the handkerchief spoke volumes and one by one the cannons ceased firing. Cornwallis was surrendering at last.
Two days later a long column of British soldiers marched out from Yorktown, between two lines, one American, one French, and lay down their arms. Surrender field today is a grassy field preserved for future generations. On October 19, 1781, thousands of civilians came to witness the surrender. The event has been depicted by numerous artists, including John Trumbull’s famous painting located high up in the Capitol rotunda, and a less well-known painting by a French artist, Louis Van Blarenberghe, completed for King Louis XVI. Both portray the moment of great elation for the Americans and French and the great humiliation for the British and their hired Hessians. All of the big names were there… Washington, Lafayette, Hamilton, except the vanquished Cornwallis who feigned illness.
While the British still maintained troops in three other areas of the American states (New York City, Charleston, and Savannah), the will for war was rapidly waning across the ocean and the winds of public opinion began to shift. Yorktown would be the last major conflict of the American Revolution, and while a big victory at the time, no one knew it would be a harbinger of a new world order — in time.
My new book for ages 10-14, The World Turned Upside Down, tells the story of the siege of Yorktown. As part of the story’s broader context, it includes the fascinating relationship between the Americans and the French and the story of the secret march to Yorktown. The incredible story ends at Yorktown, but has many beginnings and colorful characters. The young 19 year-old French nobleman Lafayette, so caught up in the passion for the American cause of freedom that he defied the orders of his king and fled France. The enslaved man, James, who ended up serving as a spy in the British camp for Lafayette. And even the French general Rochambeau who was planning his retirement when he was suddenly sent to America. And George Washington, in some ways the most unlikely commander in chief who had never led an army into battle.
My hope is that the book will inspire many family trips to Yorktown and its readers will not complain that “it’s just a field.”
It’s coming soon! My next book, The World Turned Upside Down: The Yorktown Victory That Won America’s Independence, will be published on April 12 and I’m planning several upcoming posts to focus on the Yorktown story. If you’ve never visited Yorktown, Virginia, put it on your list of great American historic sites. The Siege of Yorktown was undoubtedly a pivotal moment in American history.
Yesterday I filmed a video about the book with my friend, Kelli. She teaches 7th grade English at a local public school in Virginia. She’s also a fellow writer, we met in a local writers group. Kelli asked me a lot of great questions and I can’t wait to share the final video. Here are a few of the highlights.
Where did the idea come from? Readers always want to know where book ideas originate. In this case, I saw a cover story about James Lafayette in a history magazine. I was curious about this person from the past who I’d never heard of… an enslaved who served as a spy? What a fascinating combination. James became a spy for General Lafayette during the summer leading up to Yorktown in 1781. His life is mysterious, but his story is documented in several state records and his portrait, painted from life, is on display at the Valentine Museum in Richmond.
Kelli asked me what the book is about. The theme is freedom, but the various characters define freedom in different ways. For James, it means personal freedom. For General George Washington and other patriot leaders it means freedom for a people to govern themselves. One of the book’s storylines describes the challenges that enslaved people faced in seeking freedom. The British offered freedom and many enslaved people equated the red coat and the Union Jack flag with freedom, but in reality formerly enslaved people faced great uncertainty if they ran to the British. There was no guarantee of freedom.
Kelli pointed to a passage from the book and asked how I can write so vividly about an event, in this case Jack Jouett riding up the steep hillside at Monticello to warn Thomas Jefferson that the British were on their way to capture him. I said because I’ve visited Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s preserved house, many times and when I’m writing, I can picture it. Readers of this blog know how much value I place on seeing the sites where history happened.
Kelli also asked me why a middle school student would want to read the book. Valid question. My answer: Because it tells an important story in American history, but also because it contains great stories about spies, and who doesn’t like spies? My favorite primary source document in the book is a letter that General George Washington wrote to his dentist in Philadelphia requesting tools to care for his teeth. The letter was intercepted by the British. Since both sides were known to add fake dispatches in their mail to trick the enemy, the British had to first authenticate the letter. After they decided it was real correspondence, they analyzed it and decided it meant that Washington wasn’t planning to head south from New York anytime soon. He was staying north and would most likely attack New York City, occupied by the British.
The book is filled with over 60 images, mostly color, of fascinating primary sources like the dentist letter. They include French and British maps, portraits, and the famous John Trumbull image of the surrender at Yorktown located in the US Capitol rotunda, and a little known image of the surrender painted for the French court.
Thanks, Kelli, for talking with me. Look for the video soon on my website, timgrove.net.
For my latest author news, follow my author page on Facebook @timgroveauthor.
Hi everyone. I’ve been writing fewer blog posts recently because I’ve been busy with several book projects. And, because I wasn’t visiting historic sites during Covid — since so many were closed. (Was just at Mount Vernon last week, but I’ve written many posts about MV. Do a search, you’ll see!)
Anyway, I’m excited to share that my next book, about a historic site, will be out April 12, 2022. Here’s the cover. If it looks like my current book, Star-Spangled, that’s because the design complements that book. Both are about pivotal points in American History.
Here’s a past post about Yorktown, but it appears I need to start writing a few more. Look for them leading up to publication in April.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Tangier Island since it has been in news stories about global warming. The tiny dot of land in the Chesapeake Bay, approximately 12 miles from the mainland, is only 4 feet above sea level. Its area has been eroding over the decades (67% reduction!) and today it is only 1.5 miles by 1.5 miles or so, an easy 15-minute drive around the perimeter on a golf cart!
The British commander in the Chesapeake, Rear Admiral George Cockburn, had been instructed to: “Find and get possession of some convenient island or point within the Chesapeake… which might serve as a place of refuge for the negro slaves from the surrounding shores.”
Cochrane’s proclamation, Library of Congress
His superior, Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, had issued a proclamation in April 1814 announcing that escaped slaves were welcome with the British and promised them freedom and resettlement and, for fit, young men, an option of military service. This was not a humanitarian mission, they saw an opportunity to bolster their fighting forces. They formed the Colonial Marines, a regiment that would see battle at Washington, D.C., Baltimore and other sites. Four Colonial Marines were killed during the Battle of Baltimore.
Cockburn built a fort named for his flagship and the ancient name for England, Fort Albion. The community eventually included barracks, a church, a hospital, and houses with gardens. It became a temporary home for almost one thousand former enslaved people.
While I’d read that the site of Fort Albion is under water, I was curious to see the community and to find out if there are tangible remnants of the story. The island’s human history began with native groups, specifically the Pocomoke Indians. Its European history began with the arrival of Captain John Smith in 1608, a year after Jamestown was settled. The first settlers came around 1686. Many of today’s inhabitants trace their roots to settlers from the Cornwall region in England. Their distinct dialect fascinates linguists and is unlike anything I’d ever heard. I’ve walked across Cornwall, but it’s not quite the same accent as I heard there.
A small museum on the island does tell the story of the British occupation. I’m not sure how many settlers were on the island in 1814, but the British made themselves at home and built shelters for the refugees who escaped from the surrounding plantations. From Tangier, the Colonial Marines participated in a number of military engagements and impressed the British military leaders, who had low expectations at the start. With the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in 1815, the War of 1812 officially ended and the British evacuated the island, taking along the many refugees, who they sent to other British colonies such as Nova Scotia and Bermuda. Many of the Colonial Marines and their families ended up in Trinidad, where they settled into agricultural communities in their former divisions. They proudly identified as Americans and called themselves the “Merikans.”
Today, Tangier continues to scrape its existence from the surrounding bay, with industry focused on oysters and crabs. While there is nothing to see from the War of 1812 chapter in its history, the island is worth a visit to get a glimpse of a culture that has survived for hundreds of years in this remote post in middle of the glimmering bay.
It’s not every day a history site in the United States gets to celebrate a 400th anniversary. (for perspective, 2026 marks the 250th birthday of the US) This year was supposed to be the big 400th commemoration of Plymouth, Massachusetts and the Pilgrims, the second permanent English settlement in what is now the United States (after Jamestown, Virginia 1607). Then the pandemic came and stole most if not all of the large events that were planned.
The Pilgrims loom large in America’s historical consciousness. Their story has become a foundation stone of our nation’s origin story. Obviously, Plymouth’s association with a national holiday has something to do with its notoriety. Love it or loathe it, the Pilgrim story is part of America’s past.
A fascinating article in the November/December 2020 issue of Yankee magazine asks the question, Do the Pilgrims Still Matter? The Pilgrim story has been simplified and commercialized (to some degree) and interpreted in many ways over the years. The Pilgrims have been cast in the role of everything from shining saints to brave adventurers and even villains (they did carry disease). Anniversary commemorations are rooted in time and must navigate the shifting attitudes and changing perceptions of the day. The article mentions an old photograph of the Mayflower II reproduction ship arriving in Plymouth harbor in 1957, with thousands on shore cheering. The ship was recently refurbished and restored and event organizers were hoping for another crowd of thousands to welcome it back to Plymouth. Would thousands have showed up this year had a large event taken place?
The article describes the 300th celebration in 1920 with its pageant of 1400 actors, a script written by Robert Frost, and music contributed by the country’s top composers. Apparently Plymouth Rock even got a speaking role. Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge (who would become Vice President the following year and then President) gave a speech filled with lofty rhetoric. We don’t really do pageants in the 21st century. And today some people get a bit uncomfortable with several of the key storylines of the complex narrative: religion and multiculturalism. Because no matter how you spin the story, the Pilgrims were seeking freedom of worship and there was a clash of cultures despite the peaceful depiction of a thanksgiving meal. Yet Plymouth remains an important story that we need to discuss – going beyond a local history story, enduring as a national story. Depending upon which historians you read, the Pilgrim narrative has had major impact on American history in various ways.
Plimoth Plantation, a recreated Pilgrim town, was founded in 1947 to tell the story of both the Pilgrims and their native neighbors, the Wampanoags. It has remained dedicated to that mission. This past summer, the governing organization announced a new name: It is now the Plimoth Patuxet Museums (Patuxet is the Wampanoag name for the Plymouth area). I last visited several years ago and below is a post I wrote about the visit. I highly recommend a visit if you plan a trip to the Plymouth area.
Both Plymouth and Jamestown are complicated stories of cultural exchange and attempts at cultural understanding. The interpretations of them have changed and that’s a good thing. More about my thoughts on changing history.
History is changing… as it always has. Some of you cry, “Revisionist history!” Others argue, “History cannot change, it’s what happened.” The facts don’t usually change, an event happened at a certain place, on a certain date (though even these can be disputed). But it’s a historian’s job to look at the historical evidence and draw conclusions – to create an interpretation of that evidence. If two people look at the same evidence, it’s probable their conclusions will be somewhat different. The evidence doesn’t always agree (think witnesses at the scene of a car accident). If two people look at different evidence about the same event, it’s highly likely their conclusions will be different. Does that make one interpretation right and one wrong? If the historian can show her sources and it’s clear she made a solid argument based on her evidence, then it’s a valid interpretation.
Sometimes brand-new evidence surfaces after many years. Someone finds a stash of old letters in an attic written by or about someone famous – recent examples include Elizabeth Cady Stanton and William Clark (of Lewis and Clark). This allows historians to add more to the story. In the case of Clark, the letters written to his brother, reveal more information about York, his enslaved man and member of the westward expedition.
A historic site can tell many stories about its topic. But someone must decide which stories it will tell. In decades past, these stories tended to focus on famous men (and a few women), usually white, who were decision makers and leaders. In the 1960s, social history became popular, telling the stories of the underrepresented, the everyday people, including African American history and labor history and women’s history.
Today, history practitioners, those people who decide what stories are told at historic sites, are making much more effort to be inclusive and tell the stories of everyone connected to a site. The history of slavery has presented a challenge, but gradually the leaders of historic sites are realizing that the story of everyone who lived at a site should be told. If enslaved people lived there, their story is important. Of course, the tension comes with the power of the story and the acknowledgement that some people don’t want to learn difficult stories. Slavery is no doubt a very tough topic. But history should be about telling the truth and grappling with it.
Of course, not everyone has left a decent amount of evidence that reveals their story. And some kinds of historical evidence can be easier to study than others, or to verify. In the past, historians have placed emphasis on the written word, documentary evidence. But for various reasons, not all cultures leave documents. Each type of source, whether photographs, maps, artifacts, oral histories, or documents has strengths and weaknesses, all have internal biases.
If you’ve been visiting a favorite historic site (maybe one near where you live) over many years, no doubt you’ve noticed the stories it tells have changed. Maybe a little, maybe a lot, but reinterpretation has been called the lifeblood of historical understanding. It’s normal.
I find the study of history endlessly fascinating because there isn’t only one way to look at history!
Recently I experienced what I call a magical moment at a history site. I haven’t been to any historic sites since March, thanks to the pandemic. I was happy to hear that Mount Vernon, George Washington’s restored home near Alexandria, is open again. So, a friend and I braved the blazing heat of a Virginia August. I live near the estate and have visited many times both professionally and personally. Normally, I avoid the site like the plague in summer because it’s jam-packed with tourists from all over the world. This year, the travelers are staying home. Seeking a new walking location, my friend and I decided that a walk at Mount Vernon would be a nice change of scenery. I’m writing a middle grade book on the battle of Yorktown and, no surprise, Washington is a main character. So, I saw an opportunity to soak in the environment of one of my characters.
Sadly, the place was very empty. We strolled by the mansion, commenting on the cream color. “I thought it was white,” my friend said. “I did, too,” I said. Two questioning historians wanted some answers. (and here they are) We ambled past the outbuildings, by the lazy sheep, down to the wharf. Even the wide Potomac River was relatively empty of watercraft for a summer day. I had been on that very water that same morning, in a kayak. It was my first time seeing Mount Vernon from the water. I sat there awed by the commanding location of the red and white house. This is the view anyone arriving by water would see, including the British warship that arrived in spring, 1781, threatening to burn the house. Washington’s cousin was serving as caretaker and the General had warned him not to negotiate with the British. He did anyway, causing great embarrassment to Washington, and a letter of rebuke from Lafayette to Washington. The British ship left with 17 enslaved people from the property who were escaping bondage.
The cotton is high at Mount Vernon.
We moved through the Pioneer Farm. I checked to see if the staff had planted cotton. Yes, the plants were in bloom and very healthy. I showed my friend the 16-sided threshing barn. We looked at the slave cabin and tried to imagine how a large family could live in the space. We stopped by the Washingtons’ tomb (noting that the inscription above the entrance says General, not President. Interesting). We next paid respects at the slave memorial, inscribed with the words Faith, Hope, Love, and the burial ground. We noted how terminology has changed from an original marker placed in 1929 — “faithful colored servants?”
It was nearing closing time, but as we headed away from the mansion, I suggested we sit for a minute on the piazza. Most people who visit Mount Vernon never forget the sweeping view the spot offers. The piazza, a two-story porch, was designed by Washington and is the one of the house’s most striking architectural features. In the 18th century, it was rare to see such a grand facade on a private residence. The piazza provided additional living space during warmer weather and most likely the Washingtons ate many meals overlooking the spectacular river view, enjoying breezes off the water. Thankfully, the viewshed has been preserved (not without a few battles over the years). As we settled into the highback chairs, we suddenly realized that not another person was visible. We had the view to ourselves. My imagination was free to picture the Washington children playing on the lawn, French general Rochambeau admiring the view, or the Marquis de Lafayette laughing with Washington. Might George Washington suddenly come through the doors from the house and greet us? Had we slipped through a time portal?
I visit historic sites to learn something new, but I also go to experience the power of place. With imagination, preserved places can transport you back in time. Mount Vernon was not the site of a major historical event. It was a private refuge for a very public and influential person who wrestled with weighty decisions. Today, it provides insight into his character, his passions, his soul. It also helps us to see that, like every human on Earth, he was a complex person.
The heat was finally getting to me. Much as we didn’t want to leave, the air conditioning was luring me away. As we walked to the exit, I recalled another magical moment at Mount Vernon a few years back — a climb to the cupola to look out on a snowy landscape. That day, two history colleagues and I had enjoyed a private walking tour of the property in the falling snow. It was another moment that remains etched in my memory. The power of place, indeed.