George Washington’s farewell orders to his troops at the end of the Revolutionary War reflected on what it would mean to be the citizens of a new country. “He said it was a miracle, such a diverse group of men from different colonies coming together. They didn’t always know, trust, or like each other, and were from different walks of life, but they came together to form the greatest army in the world at that time in history,” says Lisa Flick, curator and site director at Rockingham in Kingston, where Washington arrived on August 23, 1783, to be part of the Continental Congress’s proceedings in Princeton.
When Washington arrived, he found Princeton booked up and Margaret Berrien, who owned the estate during the late 18th century, agreed to rent Rockingham, which was up for sale, to Washington and his staff for a short term although at that time rentals in Princeton usually went for a year. Washington left on November 10 to return to his troops.
In his farewell orders Washington urged his soldiers, as they returned to their private lives, to maintain both their camaraderie and sense of service to their country. He also emphasized that the country they would be part of was a new one. “It would not be a kingdom any longer,” Flick says he told them. “It would be a government of the people.” She estimates that Washington penned these orders between October 18 and October 30, 1783.
To commemorate this short but significant period, Rockingham will host a two-day “visit” by Washington, his aides-de-camp, his dragoons, and a fife-and-drum band on Saturday and Sunday, August 23 and 24. A similar event will take place on Saturday and Sunday, November 8 and 9, marking his final days at Rockingham.
Despite his message to his troops about service to their new country, Washington himself had decided to return to Mount Vernon after spending eight long years away from home, with only short breaks. “He makes this bold statement,” says Flick, “that shocks many people throughout the world — that he will be resigning his commission and going back to being a private citizen.”
Whereas historical precedent may have dictated otherwise, Washington did not want to take a leadership role at that moment even though he had led what amounted to a revolution. “The fact that he gave this up to go home is astonishing to most people,” says Flick. “Even some of his officers said he should be king of this new country.” His departure, explains Flick, was also an important political statement — that with the war at an end, the military becomes secondary to the government and that no military dictatorship would ensue, as some people feared.
When appointed as commander of the Revolutionary Army, Washington had already served as a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses and as a colonel in the French and Indian War. In the war against Britain, he started off making blunders that first year, exacerbated by the limits of the untrained and outnumbered Continental Army and local militias and his own inexperience in command. The British army was professional, considered by many to be the greatest in the world, and the ragtag revolutionaries were often on the retreat. Things improved when Washington adopted an attack and retreat approach, learned during the French and Indian War. This approach made use of the American terrain, which did not suit war in the European open-field-of-battle sense, but worked well for the Continental Army, used to traveling through woods and swamps with ease. This strategy was employed with the goals of creating more time to increase support for the patriots’ cause and outlasting the British, whose supply lines extended across the Atlantic Ocean. At the same time the Congress was looking for support from other countries, and eventually France sided with the revolutionaries.
The hostilities finally ended in April, 1783, even though the official surrender had been in the fall of 1781. While Washington resided at Rockingham, he waited anxiously for the Treaty of Paris to be officially signed and at the same time was frustrated with how little Congress was doing to ensure compensation for his soldiers. But Congress was weak, says Flick, and didn’t have the power to raise sufficient funds through taxes to adequately pay the soldiers. As an alternative to monetary payment, Washington suggested giving the soldiers land on the Western frontier.
Washington was also pushing Congress to make a decision about whether to maintain a standing army or disband the soldiers, and if the decision was to disband, to set up a timeline for discharge. Finally, on October 18, the Congress made what is called the Thanksgiving Proclamation, discharging the soldiers at the end of November.
Once Washington finished composing his farewell orders, he sent them to the remains of his army at Newburgh, near West Point, on October 30, and to newspapers in Philadelphia on November 2 for publication.
Word finally came on October 31 that the peace treaty had been signed on September 3 and on that same day Congress received the first foreign ambassador to the United States — from the Netherlands. Congress ended its session on November 4, after which Washington packed up his belongings and sent them to Mount Vernon, returning on November to New York to keep an eye on the evacuation of the British Army from New York City, where it had been since 1776. In December he made his way home, stopping at the Congress in Annapolis to formally resign his commission. He arrived at home in time for Christmas Eve.
Of course Washington did eventually return to public service, out of a strong sense of duty to his country. Although reluctant to leave Mount Vernon, says Flick, he agreed to lead the constitutional convention in 1787 after succumbing to arguments that he was the only person everybody would listen to.
Flick caught the history bug from her mother, a kindergarten teacher who was also a history buff, and the family used to visit historical venues like Williamsburg — “cultural vacations,” Flick likes to call them. She grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Her father worked for RCA, and her stepfather was a high school teacher of social studies and history.
She earned a bachelor of arts in European history from the University of Pennsylvania in 1984 and a master of arts in American history from the College of William and Mary in 1987. She also did an apprenticeship at Colonial Williamsburg in historical archeology, and when she graduated, spent the summer in France on an archeological trip.
Flick got her first job in history a year later at James Buchanan’s Wheatland in her hometown of Lancaster, where she stayed for almost five years. In 1993 she came to work for the State of New Jersey, and has spent time at three different sites, first the 19th-century Batsto Village, then Allaire Village, and since October, 2006, Rockingham.
At Rockingham, she says she has learned more about the man behind the portrait. “So many people think of Washington as the icon on dollar bills, on statues, and on paintings,” she says, “a smiling, white-haired man.” Some people think of him as a somber, ill-humored man, but the reason he didn’t smile much, says Flick, was his ill-fitting dentures. Made either from a person’s own teeth or from hippopotamus tusks, the dentures were usually uncomfortable. “At that time dentistry was not an art form,” Flick says.
Washington’s avocations, she says, meshed well with his position in Virginia society. He had hunting dogs and loved fox hunting; he enjoyed playing cards and gambling; and he was a sought-after dance partner. “He loved to dance and was considered one of the finest in the Virginia colony and even in the country, and he was well-versed in the social graces,” says Flick, adding that his best friend was the wealthiest man in Virginia, the landowner George Fairfax.
Washington was also a very ambitious man, says Flick. When he was in Congress before the war broke out, he would wear his uniform even though he had not been in military service since the French and Indian War ended a decade or so before. Perhaps this also indicated a bit of vanity, as did the fact that he did not let people know that he wore glasses.
Washington also had a bad temper, which he usually kept under wraps, says Flick, although he did use it to good effect during the Battle of Monmouth, berating General Lee publicly for retreating when he shouldn’t have.
According to Flick, George and Martha also had a very strong relationship. Although they did not marry for love, they became good companions and supported and respected each other. Martha had been a wealthy widow with two very young children who was looking for someone to protect her and provide for her family; she also needed a person she could trust with her money.
The couple never had children of their own, but they raised Martha’s son and daughter and then adopted her son’s two children after he died of camp fever around the Battle of Yorktown. Having gambled a lot, he had left his family in debt and without an estate.
If you missed George Washington and his entourage arriving at Rockingham the first time, the two-day event on August 23 and 24 will celebrate his arrival. Washington will be portrayed by Gregory Fisher of Virginia, who will arrive on horseback on Saturday, August 23, at 11 a.m. With him will be several aides-de-camp — handpicked men who assisted him with paperwork, communications, and prisoner interrogations — and von Heer’s provost corps, mounted dragoons who served as an early form of military police, who will engage in various military activities.
With Washington will be two fifers and a drummer who will offer ongoing musical fare. During the revolution, music and drum beats would signal maneuvers during battles, help keep the beat during marching, and accompany inspections.
At his arrival Washington will be greeted by Mrs. Berrien, who will turn over the use of the house to him.
An advance guard of soldiers will precede Washington, and guests can come as early as 10 a.m. to see them encamped on the grounds. Washington will greet the public and make brief remarks in front of the house, explaining what brought him to Rockingham and sharing thoughts about what will happen while he is there.
Refreshments served to public will include cookies and cakes of the period. On both Saturday and Sunday, General Washington and his accompanying officers will have dinner in the middle of the afternoon — dinner time in 1783 — under a marquee and discourse on the events of the day. The public is invited to observe, but not to eat. Afterwards Washington will be in residence in the house’s upstairs study, where people can visit and speak with him, remembering of course that “for him, it is all 1783,” says Flick.
Receiving the Commander in Chief, Saturday, August 23, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, August 24, noon to 4 p.m., Historic Rockingham, 84 Laurel Avenue, Route 603, Kingston. General Washington arrives, just as he did 225 years ago. Various activities throughout the weekend. $5 donation. Pictorial postmark, a sketch of Rockingham, offered. 609-683-7132 or www.rockingham.net.