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Protecting Mount Vernon During the Civil War

Wed, 01/18/2006

The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association gained possession of Mount Vernon on February 22, 1860, at a time when sectionalism threatened the union and cast a pall over the nation. Despite the tense political climate, Ann Pamela Cunningham and her secretary, Miss Sarah Tracy of New York, moved in to begin the process of preservation. The house was completely empty with the exception of the key to the Bastille, which had been given as a gift by Lafayette, a globe in Washington’s study, and a bust by Jean-Antoine Houdon, a French sculptor who created the masterpiece from a mask made of Washington’s face.

Just a few months after settling into Mount Vernon, Cunningham was forced to return to her home in South Carolina due to the death of her father. Sarah Tracy remained at Mount Vernon with Upton Herbert, the superintendent selected at the suggestion of the Washingtons, and a handful of workmen and servants. Little did they know of the drama and adventure that would soon envelop their stoic little staff.

Keeping Mount Vernon Safe

In April of 1861 war broke out, affecting every aspect of life for the residents of Mount Vernon and preventing Cunningham from returning for six years. Just a few weeks into the war, Union troops stormed nearby Alexandria and moved within four miles of Mount Vernon. Confederate forces were almost as close to the south. According to legend, the cannon at the battle of Bull Run actually rattled the windows of the Mansion, and individual rifle shots could be distinguished during the confrontation at Aquia Creek.

Understandably, Ann Pamela Cunningham was insistent that George Washington’s estate be sheltered. She persuaded Sarah Tracy to stay at Mount Vernon, believing that “. . . the presence of ladies there would be its greatest protection, even from the unruly.” Herbert also agreed to stay, although Tracy wrote that he felt conflicted at refusing the command of several companies and not joining his brothers in the Confederate Army.

Even though Tracy wrote to Cunningham, “This war news has completely unnerved me,” she showed no fear when it came to securing Mount Vernon, sending a letter to the National Intelligencer to contradict the newspaper’s claim that Washington’s remains had been removed since the start of the war:

“Never, since first laid in this, his chosen resting place, have the remains of our Great Father reposed more quietly and peacefully than now, when all the outer world is distracted by warlike thoughts and deeds. And the public, the owners of this noble possession, need fear no molestation of this one national spot belonging alike to North and South. Over it there can be no dispute! No individual or individuals has the right, and surely none can have the inclination, to disturb this sacred deposit.”

Tracy followed through on her goal to keep Mount Vernon a “national spot” free from armed conflict. She first demanded an audience with General Winfield Scott in Washington, who agreed to forbid his soldiers from entering the Mount Vernon grounds under arms. Tracy garnered a similar pledge regarding Confederate troops from the governor of Virginia. Still, Tracy was constantly forced to meet with both armies to remind them of the agreements when officers were replaced with men new to the region.

Surviving the War

Tracy also had to request special passes that would allow her to pass through military encampments simply to make ends meet. She raised cabbages on the estate, drove a wagonload to market in the nation’s capital and Alexandria, and then returned with much-needed meat, salt, and pepper. Tracy frequently made these trips on her own, especially when it became evident that Herbert, a Virginian, would be in danger when crossing Union barricades.

Simply providing enough food for the table was a full-time occupation, and the continuing restoration of the house was all but abandoned when workmen had to be discharged after the Association could not pay them. Funds had dwindled severely because within weeks of the start of the war, the federal government seized both the Alexandria and Mount Vernon boats for use in the Union’s efforts. With roads blocked and the boats seized, there was no way for visitors to come to Mount Vernon, and the procurement of regular, much-needed revenue essentially ceased.

Soldiers encamped around Mount Vernon were the only visitors Tracy and Upton entertained, and the two caretakers found themselves often occupied with showing them around. Typically, the soldiers were gracious guests, as reported by Tracy in a May 1861 letter to Ann Pamela Cunningham:

“Mr. Herbert told the Captain of the Company of soldiers stationed near here your wishes with regard to their not coming here in uniform or armed. They have behaved very well about it. Many of them come from a great distance and have never been here, and have no clothes but their uniforms. They borrow shawls and cover up their buttons and leave their arms outside the enclosures, and never come but two or three at a time. That is as much as can be asked of them.”

Some soldiers even paid the admission fee of twenty-five cents, although Tracy noted, “ . . . of course the soldiers plead poverty – many with truth.”

There were times, however, when bands of soldiers did not adhere to the Association’s wishes. But Tracy always stood firm. In one instance, large groups of soldiers “refused to stack their arms, but were for over an hour straggling all over the place without any order, their guns in their hands. The Colonel said that if the men were to lay down their arms, we must have an order to that effect from General Scott.” Tracy recorded that she went directly to Colonel Townsend who relayed her concerns to General Scott. “He said I should have all I wanted. I received a pass and a written order, signed by General Scott, to show any of his officers who do not wish to obey our regulations.”

As the war dragged on, the boat was reinstated for a time, and in 1864 the Association’s itemized revenue amounted to $348.03, including slightly more than $230 from visitors, who never paid more than twenty-five cents each. Sales of potatoes, peaches, pears, tomatoes, cabbages, hay, photographs of Mount Vernon, and handmade bricks made up the rest. Ever careful with the Association’s money, Tracy reported that expenses for the same year totaled $243.30.

Taking Risks

Tracy handled a much larger sum of money on one particular delivery to Washington. On September 13, 1861, John Augustine Washington III, a member of General Robert E. Lee’s staff, was killed in a skirmish in West Virginia. Federal officers had learned that a large part of the money the Association had paid to assume ownership of Mount Vernon was left in the hands of an Alexandria banker, and the Union had every intention of confiscating the funds as enemy property. The banker tipped off Tracy of the officers’ plans. She took the cash, tucked it snuggly at the bottom of her egg basket during one of her regular runs to deliver fresh eggs, and hurried to Washington, D.C. to the bank of George W. Riggs, who served as treasurer of the Association. While Riggs counted out the eggs he wanted, Tracy rented a safe deposit box for the cash.

A few months later, Union officers forbade Tracy from crossing into Washington, saying that General George B. McClellan had deemed her pass null and void. When told that only President Lincoln could overrule McClellan’s order, Tracy skirted a blockade, talked her way into the White House, and convinced the president himself to write a note to the general kindly requesting an exemption to his orders. As Gerald Johnson noted, “with what astonished amusement the ungainly giant must have looked down upon this bit of femininity who had burst in upon him bristling with indignation against his field commander, and demanding that he order the United States Army to stand aside while she passed with her groceries.” Not only did Tracy receive a new pass, General McClellan offered to send a boat with provisions to Mount Vernon, which he did a few days later.

Sarah Tracy faced serious obstacles in her quest to keep Mount Vernon safe from harm. Fortunately, she wrote about many of her adventures in regular letters she loyally penned to keep the Association informed of events. Details of her crossing army lines and convincing officers to let her pass or escort her to the next company of soldiers are inspiring. It is because of Tracy and Herbert that George Washington’s house remained unscathed, keeping the spirit of George Washington alive, even during the darkest of hours. In addition to the happy ending for Mount Vernon, there is a happy ending to the story of Sarah Tracy and Upton Herbert. The couple wed in 1872 after they both resigned their posts at Mount Vernon.