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The Spirit of Mount Vernon

By Katie Lebert, Communications Assistant
December 21, 2015

“No one in the Association receives any salary whatsoever. Their sole reward is having preserved Mount Vernon, ‘sacred to the memory of the Father of his Country.’

“In proof of the appreciation of the sacredness of the spot is the fact that during the [Civil] War no act of vandalism was committed there by either side. … The members of contending armies on approaching its precincts sounded a truce, and, stacking arms outside, trod the hallowed ground with reverent feet.”1

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Mount Vernon, November 2015. Photo by Research Editor Alicia K. Anderson.

At a time of the year when reflection is unavoidable, I am consistently drawn back to the story of the early years of Mount Vernon’s preservation. To me, this story is a testament to the strength of American determination, and a reminder of the beliefs and qualities that bind us together.

In 1853, Ann Pamela Cunningham was traveling by way of the Potomac to her South Carolina home. Standing on the deck of the ship, “the custom of vessels in tolling a bell as they passed Mt. Vernon” alerted her to the property and its present condition.2 In a letter to her daughter following her voyage, Ms. Cunningham noted in distress that the home was in ruin and desolation, but believed that the women of the country could repair Mount Vernon.3

Ms. Cunningham began to commit herself to the action of cultivating a charitable women’s group interested in acquiring, restoring, and preserving Mount Vernon. The first obstacle to that aim, however, proved difficult. The current owner of the estate, John Augustine Washington III, intended only to sell the property to either the United State or Virginia.4

Unruffled, Ms. Cunningham continued to advocate for such a group, and by 1858, had established an impressive community of women interested in repairing and preserving Washington’s home: the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union.

Feeling hopeful, especially following the defeat of the Virginia bill intended for the purchase of Mount Vernon, the Ladies again reached out to John Augustine Washington III in March 1858.5 Finally, they entered into contract for purchase of the property. Though the contract stipulated they meet the full $200,000 within four years, the Ladies did it in half the time; they had acquired the mansion and 200 acres of land, including the tombs, gardens, and wharf, by early 1860.6

But in the fall of that year, the death of Ann Pamela Cunningham’s father forced her return to South Carolina. Just a few months later, the Civil War broke out among the states. Though she had been a leader of the acquisition and restoration of Mount Vernon, Ms. Cunningham would neither see nor directly attend to Mount Vernon for another six years.7

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George and Martha Washington’s tomb Washington Tomb|JSquish|CC BY-SA

The guardianship of the estate soon fell upon Mr. Upton Herbert, a close friend of John Augustine Washington III and resident of the area, and Ms. Sarah Tracy, the personal secretary to Ann Pamela Cunningham and secretary to the Ladies’ Association.8 Though at times the presence of a skirmish and the sound of gunshots were but four miles away, under their guardianship, “not a single soldier had entered the grounds there on any pretext whatsoever.”9 Once again, it seemed that Mount Vernon had overcome the impossible.

By welcoming both Union and Confederate soldiers rather than posting sentries, the home of the man “first in war, first in peace, and first in the heart of his countrymen” had become a place of respite and reunion for all. Indeed, “men in blue and men in gray met fraternally before the tomb of the Father of their divided country.”10

One of Ms. Sarah Tracy’s letters, written during the war, confirms how preservation and union had more than one meaning at Mount Vernon. After nursing a young lieutenant to health over a period of four days, she notes:

“He was a very agreeable and gentleman-like young fellow and seemed so grateful for what we had done for him. I shall long remember his tone and manner in reply to me when he said it was useless for him to attempt to thank me, for he had no words. I told him we had only done as we would wish others to do for those we loved who were separated from us, and all I asked was that if he found any poor fellow sick or suffering he would think of me, and do what he could for him.

“He replied, with full eyes, ‘So help me God, I will.’”11

The peace, tranquility, and trust shared throughout that instance and in the years of war that followed shed some light on the pull to Mount Vernon that George seemed to always feel, and the spirit to which the Ladies’ so tenaciously sought to return.

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The view from the Mount Vernon piazza, November 2015. Photo by Research Editor Alicia K. Anderson.

 

Notes

1. Thomas Nelson Page, History and Preservation of Mount Vernon, 47-48.

2. Frank B. Lord, Romantic Road to Mount Vernon, 145.

3. Elswyth Thane, Mount Vernon is Ours, 16.

4. Ibid., 17.

5. Mary V. Thompson, The Mount Vernon Ladies Association:150 Years of Restoring George Washington’s Home, “The Early Years of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association,” 119.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid., 123

8. Ibid.

9. Muir, Presence of a Lady, 57.

10. Paul Wilstach, Mount Vernon, 262.

11. Muir, Presence of a Lady, 60.