Norfolk In By-Gone Days: President Washington's Funeral
By the Rev. W.H.T. Squires, D.D.
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The Father of His Country was born February 11, 1732, which became February 22, when Parliament of Great Britain reformed the calendar, and brought legal time into correct relation to the sun, by throwing eleven days out of the legal calender, after September 3, 1751. George Washington was born to a strenuous life. As a child the death of his father forced him to do the work of a man. And to the day of his death his life was one continuous exertion. He passed to his eternal reward on December 14, 1799, at the age of 67. His natal home was Wakefield, in Westmoreland county, situated on a high bluff overlooking the Potomac. He died at his home, Mt. Vernon, which also overlooks the Potomac from a high bluff, in Fairfax county, and in the garden of which he sleeps well.
When Norfolk heard the news of Washington's death the citizens determined to hold a memorial service, February 22, 1800, but the service, as held, differed materially from many memorial services with which we are all familiar. The committee which arranged the exercises for February 22, decided to hold a funeral, and that it was to be realistic, a funeral which lacked only the body of the great man in whose honor the exercises would be held. It was indeed realistic, perhaps too much so. Times change with the passing years and that which would be considered good taste in 1800 would likely be painful to many in 1944.
We have drawn the picture from the reports published by the Norfolk Herald, which described the service in detail:
"At an early hour, Saturday, February 22, the old Revolutionary drummer, George Fritz, a patriot who lost an ege in the service of his country, made the rounds of the borough with his spirit-stirring drum to remind the citizens that the memorial service was to be held that day." As there were only 6,962 persons in the little town, half of whom, only, were white people, we do not think that any one would be apt to forget the occasion.
Captain Lugg's Company posted a cannon "at the foot of Market Square" and they fired a gun every minute, beginning at 9 a. m., and not missing a minute until the procession had returned to the other end of Market Square, after the church service - approximately five hours. Market Square is no Commercial Place, and the cannon was planted at Water street, and the procession began and ended at the site of the present Confederate monument.
Soldiers from Forts Norfolk and Nelson, and workers from the Navy Yard came to town, and had the honor of leading the procession. Behind them the militia of the borough followed. They were the Norfolk Cavalry under Capt. John Nivison; the Norfolk Volunteers, Capt. Moses Myers; Norfolk Light Infantry, Capt. Samuel Smith; Norfolk Artillery, Capt. P. Lugg, and the Ancient Artillery under Capt. W. P. Pollard. It is our presumption, with no authority to offer, that the Anicient Artillery were veterans who had served in the Revolution some 20 years before. Major Ford, the commanding officer at Fort Nelson, and, as we judge, the senior officer in the whole profession, was master of ceremonies for the occasion.
Precisely at noon the procession moved eastward on Main from Market Square, in the order above, after which a bier, with a coffin laid upon it, followed the men in uniform and the Navy Yard workers. It was attended by the pallbearers marching on either side, and they were" the most prominent men in the town," although their names and their number are not given in the report.
Behind the bier the Masons marched "in their respective orders," then such officers of the United States Navy as were then in this port, and last of all, such gentlemen and other citizens of Norfolk, Portsmouth, and vicinity as wished to march in the procession.
Those who carried arms reversed them and the drums were muffled. The band played the Dead March, and when the procession turned at Church street and reached the brick walls of Borough Church, now St. Paul's, they formed in two lines, each facing the other, until the bier and coffin had passed between them into the sacred edifice. The troops then followed into the church, or so many as might gain entrance.
Major Ford has stationed sentries at the church doors, early in the morning, with strict orders that no one was to be admitted to the church "except the ladies," until the procession arrived. We are quite sure that the men who marched found the church filled to capacity when they arrived, although the faithful reporter does not so state.
The invocation was said by Rev. James Whitehead, rector of Christ church, after which Dr. John K. Read, the mayor, who was elected June 24, 1799, and served for one year, delivered an eloquent eulogy on Washington. Then Thomas Blanchard, a "fine classic writer, ripe scholar and gifted poet" read an Ode on the Death of Washington, which he had composed for the funeral. The Ode was reprinted, after fifty years, in W. S. Forrest's History of Norfolk. It is an excellent production wothy of the occasion. It is 73 lines written in heroic, blank verse. After Blanchard read the Ode a gentleman named Hiort, of whose identity we can give no information, delivered an eloquent address.
The service in the sanctuary ended, the coffin was carried to the church yard, while the band played a dirge, and commited to the grave, over which three volleys were fired; and, when the grave was covered, taps were sounded.
The procession then reformed and returned to the corner of Main and Market Square, where they were disbanded but on the march hither the band struck up the President's March, a lively martial air, quite the reverse of the muffled notes and dirge they had recently played.
The weather for that February Saturday was described as "perfect." The flags of all ships and in the two towns flew at half mast and a "greater concourse of people was never before seen in Norfolk. Major Ford conducted the services with regularity and order, and the whole occasion did credit to those who conducted it with becoming solemnity, order and decorum."