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To commemorate the 240th anniversary of Washington taking command of the united colonies’ fledgling army, Mount Vernon’s annual George Washington Symposium will examine a number of fascinating topics associated with this critical point in history. Join leading historians, curators, and academics for an enlightening look at major influences on the first commander in chief’s life in 1775, from his experiences fighting in the French and Indian War, to the formation of the Continental Army. Explore how the General outfitted himself to lead, the books he read about the art of war, and how his steadfast companion in life became one of the cause’s endearing secret weapons.

Dates and Times


$175 for Friends of Mount Vernon and Neighborhood Friends

$200 general public


All programs take place in the Robert H. and Clarice Smith Auditorium located at the Mount Vernon Inn Complex. Receptions and book-signings take place in the same facility immediately following the lecture.

George Washington Goes to War


Friday, November 6

2:30 - 6:30 pm Symposium Registration

Participants are invited to register in the Vaughan Lobby of the Mount Vernon Inn Complex.

3:00 pm Welcome and Opening Remarks
3:15 pm “Hearing the bullets whistle”: Washington’s French and Indian War
Stephen Brumwell

George Washington in the uniform of a Virginia Regiment colonel.
George Washington in the uniform of a Virginia Regiment colonel.

A generation before he was chosen by Congress to lead the armed struggle against the British Empire, George Washington served a military apprenticeship fighting alongside the Redcoats against the French and their Native American allies. Between 1754 and 1758, in what became known as ‘The French and Indian War’, the young Washington knew both the elation of victory and the bitterness of defeat. His experience of a brutal and frustrating guerrilla conflict on the frontiers of Virginia and Pennsylvania not only introduced him to the harsh realities of warfare, but taught him lessons in leadership that would prove crucial to his command of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.

Stephen Brumwell is a British-born writer and historian living in Amsterdam. His books include Redcoats: The British Soldier and War in the Americas, 1755-63; White Devil: A True Story of War; Savagery and Vengeance in Colonial America; and George Washington: Gentleman Warrior, which won the 2013 George Washington Book Prize.

4:15 pm  Refreshment Break
4:30 pm The Other Home of Washington:
Recreating the General’s Revolutionary War Field Headquarters
R. Scott Stephenson

An early 20th-century post card view depicting Washington's headquarters tent.
An early 20th-century post card view depicting Washington's headquarters tent.

During the Revolutionary War, General Washington utilized a suite of canvas tents as his mobile field headquarters. Following Martha Washington’s death in 1802, Washington’s tents and military equipment passed to various branches of the Custis and Washington families, and elements are now scattered among many collections. Over the past five years, the Museum of the American Revolution has worked closely with colleagues from Mount Vernon, the National Museum of American History (Smithsonian), Yorktown Battlefield (Colonial National Historical Park), Winterthur Museum, and Colonial Williamsburg to inventory, document, and research the surviving objects. Through this interdisciplinary effort, it is now possible to reconstruct the appearance and functions of Washington’s headquarters tents and furnishings.

R. Scott Stephenson is Director of Collections and Interpretation at the Museum of the American Revolution, a new facility opening in Philadelphia in spring 2017. He is the author of Clash of Empires: The British, French and Indian War, 1754-1763, and project director for the First Oval Office Project.

5:30-7:00 pm Bowling Green Cocktail Reception, Mansion Tours, and Visit to Replica of George Washington’s Headquarters Tent
7:00 pm Dinner and Entertainment at the Mount Vernon Inn

Saturday, November 7

8:30 am  Continental Breakfast in the Vaughan Lobby
9:30 am The Theater of War:
George Washington's Revolutionary Style
Amanda Isaac

Travelling trunk, purchased in 1776, and used by George Washington to secure his wartime correspondence.
Travelling trunk, purchased in 1776, and used by George Washington to secure his wartime correspondence.

Battered and scarred, a few veterans of the Revolution survive today, remnants of George Washington’s uniforms and campaign equipment. From his folding field bed to his silver camp cups, these objects were witnesses to great events, practical necessities, and served as key props in a strategic image management campaign. Throughout the Revolutionary War, Washington used the language of material goods to conscientiously position himself as a distinctly republican leader of a noble and virtuous cause.

Amanda Isaac is an Associate Curator at Mount Vernon. She has worked closely with the Museum of the American Revolution and Colonial Williamsburg in the study and reproduction of several pieces of George Washington’s camp equipment, as a part of the First Oval Office project.

10:15 am “Discipline is the soul of an army”:
Professionalizing Revolution in the American War for Independence
Joe Stoltz

Washington awarding the first badges of merit at Newburgh, May 1783.
Washington awarding the first badges of merit at Newburgh, May 1783.

While many Americans retain a romantic affection for the image of untrained militias carrying out a guerrilla war as the key to success in the American War for Independence, George Washington himself rarely exhibited a fondness for these part time soldiers or a belief that such tactics would deliver ultimate victory. The Continental Army’s leadership consistently sought to create a vocationally competent military force based on long-term service, and the ability to conduct conventional military operations. This lecture will explore the efforts of Washington and other officers to establish doctrinal standards consistent with European best practices, adapted to the North American environment, and appropriate for use in a republic’s military force.

Joe Stoltz is the Digital Scholarship Librarian at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington. He holds a Ph.D. in History from Texas Christian University, has worked extensively with the U.S. Army Center of Military History, and taught at the United States Military Academy.

11:00 am  Refreshment Break
11:15 am  Martha Washington Goes to War
Patricia Brady

Martha Washington as she appeared in 1772, by Charles Willson Peale.
Martha Washington as she appeared in 1772, by Charles Willson Peale.

When George Washington took command of the fledgling American army in 1775, neither he nor his wife dreamed that it would be more than eight years before he could resign his commission. A man who found his greatest pleasure in his “domestic enjoyments,” Washington was obliged to remain with the army without any leave. So in October 1775, the general asked Martha Washington to come to headquarters. From then on, she traveled north every year to join her husband everywhere from Cambridge to Newburgh, including the horrors of Morristown and Valley Forge, eventually spending a total of five years with the army. Dr. Brady will discuss Martha Washington’s role in support of Washington and the army and her contributions to the American victory.

Patricia Brady is a social and cultural historian who was director of publications at the Historic New Orleans Collection before her retirement. She is the author of Martha Washington: An American Life; George Washington’s Beautiful Nelly; Nelly Custis Lewis’s Housekeeping Book; and “George Washington and His Family,” in A Companion to George Washington.

12:00 –1:30 pm Lunch at Mount Vernon Inn
1:30 pm George Washington’s Field Library
Kevin J. Hayes

A pull-out illustration from a title in Washington's library, on the subject of warfare.
A pull-out illustration from a title in Washington's library, on the subject of warfare.

George Washington had an excellent military library, a fact that military historians have sometimes neglected. This talk will survey the military books Washington owned. He did not buy military books for curiosity’s sake: he bought them for practical reasons. In times of war, he expanded his collection, but otherwise he added few additional books to his military library. During the Revolutionary War, he kept his library with him, even having a portable bookcase made to contain his field library, which he could consult whenever he wished during the war. Washington has often been called a military genius, but his was a genius supplemented by careful study.

Kevin J. Hayes, Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Central Oklahoma, is the author of several books concerning the intellectual history of early America, including The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson; The Mind of a Patriot: Patrick Henry and the World of Ideas; and The Library of William Byrd of Westover; for which he received the Virginia Library History Award.

2:15 pm  Novel Warrants:
George Washington, Books on War, and the Winning of Independence
Ira Gruber

The bookcase in Washington's study.
The bookcase in Washington's study.

When the Revolutionary War began, British and American commanders shared a bibliography on war. They were especially dependent on French books advocating a prudential art of war—sieges and maneuvers rather than climactic battles. No one was sure how such ideas might affect the revolutionary war to come—how these theories might fit within the strategic plans of opposing governments or the preferences of individual commanders including George Washington and his British counterparts. How then did this French art of war shape the actions of governments and generals from one campaign to another and, ultimately, the winning of American Independence?

Ira Gruber is Harris Masterson, Jr., Professor Emeritus of History, at Rice University, where he taught early American and military history from 1966 to 2009. His books include The Howe Brothers and the American Revolution; and Books and the British Army in the Age of the American Revolution.

3:00 pm Refreshment break
3:15 pm Soldiering, Citizenship, and Manhood: The First Continental Army
Ricardo A. Herrera

A 19th-century engraving entitled, "Washington Taking Command of the American Army."
A 19th-century engraving entitled, "Washington Taking Command of the American Army."

On June 14, 1775 the Second Continental Congress adopted as the Continental Army, the New England militia that had besieged Boston following the fighting at Lexington and Concord that April. The militiamen and volunteers who later joined the Continental Army in 1775 and 1776 did so for any number of reasons, including adventure, patriotism, or proving their manhood. When they wrote about their service, however, they revealed a deep and abiding connection between soldiering, citizenship, and manhood. While the Continental Army was an instrument of policy, its soldiers and thus the army reflected the broader idealized beliefs and values of colonial American society. Through their soldiering, these Americans demonstrated their beliefs about themselves as members of American society.

Ricardo A. Herrera is Associate Professor of Military History at the School of Advanced Military Studies, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He is the author of For Liberty and the Republic: The American Citizen as Soldier, 1775-1861.

4:00 pm   Symposium Adjourns