John Augustine Washington III was the great-grand nephew of George Washington and the last private owner of Mount Vernon. The fourth of five children, he was born on May 3, 1821 to John Augustine Washington II and Jane Charlotte Blackburn Washington. John Augustine spent his young childhood at his parents’ Blakeley plantation near present day Charles Town, West Virginia, but after the deaths of Bushrod Washington and his wife Julia in 1829, the Mount Vernon estate became the possession of Bushrod’s nephew, John Augustine Washington II. As the son of a wealthy Virginia planter, John Augustine enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle at Mount Vernon, developing interests in politics, hunting, and agriculture. After John Augustine II passed away in June 1832, the estate was left to his widow Jane Charlotte, who vowed to maintain the estate to the best of her ability without involving her children’s inheritances. While John Augustine Washington III preferred his more aristocratic pastimes, Jane insisted that he attend college after his father’s death. He graduated from the University of Virginia in 1840, returning to Mount Vernon in September 1841 with a proposition to manage the plantation for his mother. She agreed, loaning him twenty-two slaves and contracting his employment for five hundred dollars per year for seven years.1
As the oldest living male heir, John Augustine Washington III positioned himself to take possession of Mount Vernon from his mother. While she did not pass away until 1855, she gave John Augustine the proverbial keys to the kingdom, granting him full autonomy to run the plantation as he saw fit. However, John Augustine quickly realized that the deteriorating Mount Vernon estate was a far cry from the profitable plantation that his great-great uncle George Washington once presided over. His primary means of income came from wheat and potato production, woodcutting, selling slaves and outsourcing slave labor, collecting land rents, and his herring operation on the Potomac River. However soil degradation, poor harvests, temperamental weather, and the devastation of crops by insects and pests limited his agricultural returns. While he managed to slow Mount Vernon’s financial decline, these endeavors were not enough to stop the downward spiral. In addition to facing these hardships, John Augustine also experienced constant interruptions by sightseers, many of whom wanted to meet the living descendent of General George Washington, see the mansion, and ask questions about Washington’s life.2
These visitors were considered a nuisance to John Augustine’s family, and their presence slowed plantation work for slaves, overseers, and hired farm laborers. Initially John Augustine followed the precedential policies of his mother, father, and uncle Bushrod, publishing trespassing notices around the property, requesting letters of introduction to enter the mansion, and denying the landing of steamboats on the Potomac River. But with his lands yielding such little profit, John Augustine decided to embrace this historical tourism, implementing business strategies to extract money from the thousands of visitors who journeyed to the home of George Washington. In order to bring more people to the estate, he entered into a contract with the proprietors of the Thomas Collyer to permit their steamboat to dock directly at Mount Vernon. He also promoted and invested in the construction of the Alexandria, Mount Vernon and Accotink Turnpike Road, which was designed to make travel easier to Mount Vernon over land. As more visitors descended upon the grounds, he instructed slaves and laborers to sell bouquets of flowers, fruit, milk, and hand-carved canes to tourists. Beyond the property boundaries, he went into business with James Crutchett, who purchased timber from the estate and manufactured wooden Washington trinkets near the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad depot in the nation’s capital. While John Augustine Washington capitalized on the American fascination with George Washington, these sales were not substantial enough to convince him to retain Mount Vernon. He attempted to sell the property to both the federal government and the state of Virginia, but both bodies were deeply mired in sectional and political partisanship. Convinced that neither would meet his terms, he agreed to sell 200 acres of the Mount Vernon estate, which included the mansion, outlying buildings, and the family tomb to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA) in 1858 for $200,000.3
John Augustine and his family vacated Mount Vernon for their new home Waveland plantation in February 1860. About a year later the state of Virginia called for a convention to debate the issue of secession, and in April 1861, Virginia delegates responded to the firing on Fort Sumter by voting in favor of leaving the Union. John Augustine joined the Confederate Army as a lieutenant colonel, and he served as aide-de-camp to his relative by marriage, General Robert E. Lee. In September 1861, John Augustine was killed during a reconnaissance mission at the Battle of Cheat Mountain by a Union bushwhacker. In a letter to John’s teenage daughter Louisa, Lee painfully informed her that her father “fell in the cause to which he had devoted all his energies, and which his noble heart was earnestly enlisted.” The two men had shared many conversations and moments together as tent mates, and Lee admired his unflinching “devotion to Almighty God,” assuring Louisa that “He is now safely in Heaven.” John Augustine was buried in the Zion Episcopal Churchyard in Charles Town, West Virginia, one of several Washington family members who fought and died for Southern independence.4
1. John Augustine Washington Farm Book, 16 September 1841, Fred W. Smith National Library; John Augustine Washington Diary, 15 September 1842, Washington Library; John Augustine Washington III to Jane Charlotte Washington, 9 May 1839, University of Virginia Library Archives; Richmond Enquirer, 22 June 1832; Salem Gazette, 26 June 1832; The Will of John A. Washington, 8 July 1830, Washington Library; Jane Charlotte Washington to Elizabeth Rankin, 4 January 1833, Washington Library.
2. The Sun, 1 July 1843; The Daily Picayune, 8 July 1843; Trumpet and Universalist Magazine, 8 July 1843; 16, 3.
3. John Augustine Washington Diary, 9 May 1842, Washington Library; John Augustine Washington Diary, 6 April 1843, Washington Library; John Augustine Washington Diary, 3 December 1843, Washington Library; John Augustine Washington III Farm book March 1850-March 1852, 23 October 1850; 27 September 1850; 19 November 1850; 21 December 1850; 25 February 1851; 28 February 1851; 19 March 1851; Washington Library; John Augustine Washington III Farm book March 1850-March 1852, 21 October 1850; 17 December 1850; 6 January 1851, Washington Library; John Augustine Washington III Farm book December 1853-March 1854, 27 December 1853-March 1854; Acts of the General Assembly of Virginia: Passed in 1855-56, in the Eightieth Year of the Commonwealth (Richmond, VA: William F. Ritchie, 1856), 127-128; “The Mount Vernon Gem,” John Augustine Washington III, James Crutchett, and William Magruder, 12 November 1856, Broadsides, Virginia Historical Society; Scott Casper, Sarah Johnson’s Mount Vernon: The Forgotten History of an American Shrine (New York: Hill and Wang Press, 2008), 73-74; Paul Wilstach, Mount Vernon: Washington’s Home and the Nation’s Shrine (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1916), 277-282.
4. Robert E. Lee to Louisa Washington, 16 September 1861, Washington Library, The Correspondence of John Augustine Washington 1844-1861.