Mount Vernon Ladies' Association
Learn more about the first national historic preservation organization who have worked to preserve Washington's home for over 150 years.
Just three years after purchasing the Mount Vernon estate, the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association was faced with the monumental challenge of safeguarding George Washington's iconic home as the Civil War raged around it.
After the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States in the fall of 1860, the country slid deeper into a sectional crisis that made armed conflict between the north and the south look inevitable. On April 12, 1861, Confederate artillery opened fire on Fort Sumter, in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, signaling the start of the Civil War.
When the war began, Ann Pamela Cunningham, the founder of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association and its first Regent, was at home in South Carolina managing her family's plantation after the death of her father. Unable to return due to the start of the war and her own health issues, Cunningham entrusted the Mansion to her secretary, Sarah Tracy of Troy, New York. Tracy was assisted by Upton Herbert, a Virginian and longtime friend of the Washington family, who was recommended for service as Resident Superintendent of the property by John Augustine Washington III, the last Washington to own Mount Vernon. In addition to Tracy, her friend and chaperone, Mary McMakin, there were also free African-American employees working at the estate, including Emily the cook, Priscilla the chambermaid, Frances, a maid, and George, the coachman and general assistant.
Ann Pamela Cunningham, 1861
George Washington's legacy was revered by soldiers fighting on both sides of the Civil War. Those fighting for the Confederacy viewed him as a native son of Virginia, which formally voted to secede from the United States in a referendum held on May 23, 1861. Soldiers fighting for the Union viewed Washington as the father of the country they were fighting to preserve.
Ann Pamela Cunningham understood Mount Vernon's unique position in this time of crisis. Even members of the Association were divided by their loyalties, but Mount Vernon remained neutral territory, where the ideals of Washington could be celebrated by all. Cunningham had very specific desires regarding the way soldiers would be allowed to visit. These wishes were conveyed to nearby troops as illustrated in a letter written by Sarah Tracy on May 2, 1861. Tracy reported that "...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."
On July 31, 1861, General Winfield Scott, commanding general of the United States army, issued General Order 13, which erroneously indicated that Confederate forces had damaged the tomb and final resting place of George Washington. Working quickly, Sarah Tracy wrote a letter to a local paper that "The officers of the Mount Vernon Association are pained to see, in your issue of today, an order from Lieutenant-General Scott containing a statement which they fear will lead to much trouble and misunderstanding,-General Scott having been misinformed as to the facts....Since the occupation of Alexandria by Federal troops, not a single soldier from the Southern Army has visited Mount Vernon."
It has been the prayer of every patriot that the tramp and din of Civil War might at least spare the precincts within which repose the remains of the Father of this Country, but this pious hope is disappointed. Mount Vernon, so recently consecrated to the Immortal Washington by the Ladies of America, has been overrun by bands of rebels, who having trampled under foot the Consitution of the United States, the ark of our freedom and prosperity, are prepared to tramp on the ashes of him to whom we are all mainly indebted for these mighty blessings.
Should the operations of our war take the United States troops in that direction, the General Officer does not doubt that every man will approach with due reverence, and leave undisturbed, not only the Tomb, but also the house, groves and walks which were so loved by the best and greatest of men.
Sarah Tracy to Mrs. Comegys, 1861
On May 24, 1861, Union troops invaded and occupied Alexandria, Virginia, just nine miles north of the Mount Vernon estate. Confederate patrols and pickets were posted just a few miles south, in the vicinity of Pohick Church. Following these developments, Mount Vernon was firmly between lines of Confederate and Union soldiers, which would have a tremendous impact on the safety and security of Washington's home and those taking care of it.
Thankfully, the varied backgrounds of the staff members living on the estate allowed them to navigate the no-man's land in a variety of ways. As a northerner, Sarah Tracy was able to negotiate with officials in Washington when it was necessary to secure the passes needed to travel into Alexandria for supplies. While Upton Herbert was advised not to go into Alexandria, his status as a Virginian meant that he could negotiate with Confederate forces. Earlier in May, Herbert wrote to Miss Cunningham saying that "I had the honor of receiving your letter on the 12th inst. All of your suggestions, in regard to the preservation and protection of Mount Vernon, shall be attended to....If you have sufficient confidence in my judgment in the matter, I think I can influence the soldiers of the Confederate Army, by stating to them your wishes, in regard to their visiting at Mount Vernon: but as it is your wish, I will see Colonel Terrett, who commands the troops in this vicinity, also."
Sarah Tracy to Mrs. Comegys, July 22, 1861
After a series of skirmishes in Northern Virginia, the first major battle of the Civil War took place on July 21, 1861, near Bull Run, roughly 25 miles away from Mount Vernon.
Even at some distance from the estate, cannon could clearly be heard. As Sarah Tracy recalled, "We have as yet only flying rumors, but fearful must have been the destruction of life. I never imagined anything so terrible. I could not think, could not read, could hardly pray, every sense and faculty seemed concentrated in my hearing! I tremble at the idea of those who saw their last sunrise yesterday morning. It has come - the climax of this war! God forgive the instigators!"
In the spring of 1862, Union Major General George B. McClellan used the Potomac River to transport his massive army down the Chesapeake Bay, then up the James and York rivers in hopes of attacking Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy.
Famous diarist of the Civil War, Elisha Hunt Rhodes of the 2nd Rhode Island Regiment, recalled that on the morning of March 26, 1862, his unit marched “through Washington to the Sixth Street wharf [and] embarked on the side wheel steamer John Brooks. The 36th New York Volunteers are on the same boat. Our streamer sailed down the Potomac and joined the fleet at Alexandria. I should think that there were one hundred vessels in sight.” The next day, while still onboard the John Brooks, Rhodes noted that “we passed Mount Vernon, and our band played ‘Washington’s March.’”
Viewing the flotilla in the river, local resident Anne Frobel, wrote that “...the Potomac River…as far as we could see was one solid mass of white canvas—You could only get a glimpse of the water here and there so thickly were the vessels...packed together...."
Troops under the command of Union General Ambrose Burnside would pass by Mount Vernon late in the fall of 1862 on their way to defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg, and the Battle of Chancellorsville, fought just 40 miles from Mount Vernon in the spring of 1863, would be one of the worst Union defeats of the Civil War. Although 1864 and 1865 would see the war's front line shift further south, closer and closer to Richmond, Confederate cavalry raids and skirmishes in the area around Mount Vernon continued, and were commonplace throughout the war.
Sarah Tracy to Ann Pamela Cunningham, April 30, 1861
19th-century maps show a network of roads that linked Mount Vernon to Alexandria and other area communities. Although the clean, orderly lines of these maps give the impression of easily traversed roadways, consider that even main roads at this time were narrow, stump-filled roadbeds that could be impassable after periods of prolonged rain. An 1844 visitor’s comments relate what would have been an all too common occurrence when he noted that “the road leading to the Mansion house, probably half a mile distant, is in such neglected condition, that after several attempts to proceed in the carriage, we left the vehicle and continued on foot.”
In 1850, John Augustine Washington III, George Washington’s great-grandnephew, ended the decades-long ban on steamboat traffic to Mount Vernon. The Washington Republican noted this monumental change of events, along with the restrictions related “to the exclusion of a bar, and whatever else may lead to disorder or any species of impropriety,” under which this access would be allowed. Now, visitors could reach the tomb, the focal point for many early visits to the estate, in roughly ninety minutes compared to a three-to-four hour trip from Alexandria.
By 1853, the success of its initial ventures led to regularly established trips by the Thomas Collyer, which landed at Mount Vernon on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays after leaving from the 7th Street Wharf in Washington. The increased availability of ready access to the estate led to increased visitation. In order to improve the infrastructure for visitors, what became known as the “Washington, Alexandria, and Mount Vernon Steamboat Company” constructed a new, plank walkway that led to the tomb.
By the time the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association took possession of the estate, the condition of the existing wharf was such that a new structure had to be built in order to accommodate the increasing number of guests arriving by steamboat. Extending nearly 200 feet into the Potomac, the new wharf was designed by prominent engineer Montgomery C. Meigs and completed in 1860. The construction of this new wharf helped the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association establish an important new revenue stream that was soon curtailed by the events of the Civil War, when the Federal government seized riverboats like the John Brooks and the Thomas Collyer for use as troop transports.
Sarah Tracy to Mrs. Comegys, 1861
After their occupation of Alexandria in May of 1861, Federal troops attempted to confiscate the money paid to John Augustine Washington III by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. After searching both the Burke and Herbert Bank, where the funds were originally deposited, and twice searching the home of Mr. Burke, the money was not found.
Mr. Burke had carefully hidden the money and bonds in his home, before requesting that Sarah Tracy do a "great favor for the Washington family." Miss Tracy, with the money hidden in a basket of eggs, passed through the Union army lines and into the District of Columbia, where the money was safely deposited in the Riggs Bank to be held for the Washington family.
Sarah Tracy to Mrs Ritchie, January 22, 1864
When the war began, visitation to Mount Vernon ebbed and flowed. In one letter to Ann Pamela Cunningham, dated July 15, 1861, Sarah Tracy noted "...occasional visits by troops, but we do not make much money. Today, officers called and gave me $6.50. Very little keeps us going." Even when soldiers did arrive, there was no guarantee they would be able to pay the 25-cent admission fee.
When boat traffic to Mount Vernon stopped following the Second Battle of Bull Run, in August 1862, the estate lost its main source of income. Flowers were raised for bouquets that were sold to guests, coffee beans were fashioned into bracelets, even bricks were made on the estate to be sold in Alexandria.
Following the war, Sarah Tracy recounted these troubles and remembered how difficult it was "...to make both ends meet. To contrive that peas, beans, cabbage, and flowers shall pay for rakes and hoes; flowers and photographs shall pay a gardener; that bricks shall pay for little odds and ends of plastering, bricklaying, etc., and when these fall short, and the corn has failed, or been stolen from the fields as it was last year, and feed is to be bought, to contrive where we can pinch out the means to foot the bill. Mr. Herbert is very good at managing these things."
When the war finally came to a close, life at Mount Vernon began to return to normal, including regular visits by the steamships that had been the key to Mount Vernon's survival. By April 1866, just one year after the end of the war, increased river traffic was almost too much for Miss Tracy, who wrote that "after next week the trips will be tri-weekly. Of course we personally dread it. Every day will be 'Boat Day' or 'The Day Before!'"
Rebecca Baird, Archivist of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, discusses how the fledgling organization managed George Washington's estate during the perilous time of the American Civil War.