Chief of Interpretation Blog- May 2012

 For this month’s piece, I have decided to focus on George Washington’s early military experience as a member of the Virginia militia. It did not begin auspiciously. Although Washington had been able to persuade Governor Dinwiddie to entrust him with a mission to inform the French to vacate the Ohio country, his attempt to coerce the French into leaving did not succeed. On his return to Virginia, Washington was almost shot by a treacherous Indian guide and later almost drowned when he fell into a freezing river. Nonetheless, Washington’s courage and skills at observation were praised by Governor Dinwiddie who had Washington write a report of his actions. The governor also promoted Washington to Lieutenant Colonel and ordered him to raise and train militia to march to the Forks of the Ohio (modern-day Pittsburgh) and establish a fort.   

In April of 1754, Washington marched westward with 160 mostly raw recruits toward the French fort named Duquesne, which had been taken by a large force just days earlier. Washington’s commander, Joshua Fry followed with a small force of about 100 men. Combined the two forces would not be enough to defeat the French force and so they waited for reinforcements to arrive. In late-May, Washington heard that a French detachment was less than twenty miles away from his force and he decided to build a defensive outpost at a place called the Great Meadows. Here he waited until the night of May 27, 1754. On that night, having heard from Christopher Gist, his guide the year before, and his Indian ally, Half-King, that a small French force was located only seven miles away, Washington and 40 men along with about 30 Indian allies, marched through the night toward the encampment. Washington believed this force was hostile and determined to attack and defeat the enemy force. Early the next morning, Washington and Half King’s force surrounded the 35 Frenchmen who were in a low lying area surrounded by boulders. Washington claimed later the French had fired first after spotting his forces, but Washington had the advantage of firing from above and in a bloody fifteen minute long struggle, 10 Frenchmen were killed and 21 wounded before the French surrendered. It was here that things began to get murky. One of the Frenchmen was Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villers, the Sieur de Jumonville. The French later claimed that Jumonville was a diplomat who had come to demand the British evacuate the Ohio territory. Washington thought he was a spy. Either way, Jumonville was killed after the surrender; one account has him struck between the eyes by a tomahawk wielded by the Half King himself. Whatever truly occurred, things would now begin to go downhill for young George Washington.    

Jumonville Glen

 

With the murder of Jumonville, the French were eager for retribution. Washington ordered his men to build a stockade along with trenches and pointed stakes at the Great Meadows. He would dub this site Fort Necessity. As his troops were preparing for attack, Washington received shocking news that his commander, Joshua Fry, had fallen off his horse and died, leaving the 22 year-old Washington as commander of the Virginia Regiment. Young and immature, Washington would clash with colonial officers over rank and write a letter to Governor Dinwiddie complaining about pay, instead of focusing on the true problem at hand; the French. On July 3, the French arrived and immediately it became evident that Washington did not have experience in warfare. Fort Necessity had been sighted in a low lying area prone to flooding and had failed to cut down the trees close to the fort, giving the French a convenient shelter to fire behind. The battle took place in a steady downpour, flooding the trenches of the defenders and wetting the powder of Washington’s troops, making their weapons almost worthless. The British and colonial soldiers became easy targets for the French marksmen. Within twenty-four hours, it was all over; Washington had been thoroughly defeated, losing more than one-third of his entire force against less than 20 French casualties. In the wet conditions, the capitulation documents were blurry, and what Washington signed meant something different to the two sides. The document had been translated by Jacob Van Braam, a Dutchman who was supposed to be fluent in French but may not have known as much as he claimed. Washington thought he signed that the battle had taken place because of the death of Jumonville; the French, on the other hand, had written that Washington had assassinated Jumonville. The different word choices gave another victory to the French, as now Washington could be blamed for starting the French and Indian War. Sir Horace Walpole agreed; “The volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire.”George Washington had made many mistakes in his first campaign; a

Attacking when he should have been defending, sighting his fort in an indefensible area and alienating his own Indian allies, yet there were signs that Washington had what it took to be a good soldier. He was courageous, determined and bold, and even when surrounded at Fort Necessity, showed no fear. Washington made mistakes but he would learn from them. He would not repeat the same mistakes in future.

Fort Necessity National Battlefied is preserved by the National Park Service

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The Month of April & the First Executive

On the balcony of Federal Hall, in downtown New York City, George Washington took the oath of office-the first president under the United States Constitution to do so. The date was April 30, 1789. The last day of April culminated this first election.

(Federal Hall is now administered by the National Park Service, for details: www.nps.gov/feha)

In the beginning of the month—April 6—one month later than thought, the quorum was finally established in both chambers of Congress to count the electoral vote. Everyone seemed to know who was to become the first president, but after counting the ballots and tallying the numbers, this assumption became fact. He was placed first on all ballots and was unanimously elected.

As George Washington took that first oath and moved on to the first inaugural speech in United States history, one wonders if in his mind, his thoughts stretched back through his life. Possibly he thought of his childhood and how much his life had covered. What had happened since he took his first steps 57 years ago and how much of a part he had played in those changing circumstances. Were the expectations of his mother and late father, fulfilled? However, what was going through the subconscious of our first president can only be conjectured and all historians have to go on is what he wrote in his diary entry.

But, there is one thing we don’t need conjecture to figure out; the first steps that began the long walk to first executive began here at his birthplace. Come follow.

George Washington Statue at Federal Hall NM

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Snowdrop Flowers

The snowdrop flower is nature’s gift to those longing for the birth of spring.  At George Washington Birthplace National Monument, snowdrops are currently exhibiting a vivid bloom winning the admiration of visitors strolling through the Park’s historic area.

Snowdrops are a member of the amaryllis family and grow throughout much of Europe but are often associated with England.  These perennials are not native to Virginia but to the European subcontinent.  They were possibly imported from the British Isles, as they would have gained popularity in English gardens by the time the first colonist arrived and certainly by the time John Washington emigrated from England in the mid 17th century.  This makes the snowdrops a fitting plant because when George Washington was born on this property, colonists often brought items from England to remind them of home and having flower bulbs willing to bloom in the depths of winter brought a double encouragement to its planter.

Honey bees make an early appearance to pollinate the snowdrops further disguising the truth that winter’s grip is still strong.  Brown oak leaves from last autumn grace the snowdrop fields and are slowly decomposing to provide the soil with the nutrition the oak trees have been busy taking from it.  Leafless trees uncover the truth which the snowdrops’ perennial bloom works so hard to conceal.

Winter’s midday sun casts shadows from the historic Memorial House over the snowdrop fields also help reveal the snowdrops’ deception that spring has not quite arrived.   The Memorial House that looks over the snowdrops was not here when George Washington was born; rather the house was built by the Wakefield Association to honor the 200th birthday of the father of our country in 1932.  Today, this Georgian style mansion stands as a legacy of our first president and the many patriots who subordinated self-interest to the benefit of many generations yet to be born.

The actual house of George Washington’s birth burned down on Christmas Day in 1779 but visitors can easily identify the house’s foundation outline.  On the day the house burned, General George Washington had long since moved away and was camped at Morristown, New Jersey, struggling to feed and clothe the severely depleted Continental Army and prepare them to face in the following spring the mightiest military power then known.

We do not know if George Washington ever had an opportunity to gaze on the snowdrop blooms or even perhaps arrange a boy’s version of a bouquet for an appreciative mother.  Nevertheless, we can only imagine the Washington family finding encouragement from blooms occurring in the depths of winter while reminding them of their ancestral country.

The snowdrops’ bloom seems to tease us for spring’s warm sun and the explosion of colors promised by Virginia’s tidewater soil.  In its time, winter will yield to the warmth of spring and the snowdrops must then acquiesce to traditional spring flowers.  In the meantime, if you are searching for a sign of spring, you need look no further than the birthplace of George Washington.

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Spring

No matter how cold or snowy the winter is, spring always follows. To a farmer, like George Washington, who once stated Bad seed is a robbery of the worst kind: for your pocket-book not only suffers by it, but your preparations are lost and a season passes away unimproved,” the coming of spring was important.

George Washington used every season to its full advantage in terms of improving his farm. Being ready to put that first crop in within the first days of spring was paramount.   As he once expressed, “I would rather be on my farm than be emperor of the world.” He made sure that planting in spring would go according to a specific schedule. A copy of his seven year plan of crop rotation and utilization of the different fields at Mount Vernon is shown below:

George Washington's Crop and Field Rotation Plan at Mount Vernon

Here at George Washington Birthplace National Monument, we also look for signs of the coming spring. They can come in many forms. For our naturalists, the return of different

Ranger Chris holding a Spotted Salamander

species, including the spotted salamander is a definitive sign of warmer spring weather. For those who work on the farm, it’s the abundance of new life; piglets, calves and lambs. For others, it’s the blooming of flowers and the return of the rich color in our trees, plants, and bushes around the park. There are many ways to celebrate the arrival of spring.

This year as we celebrate our 80th anniversary as a park and the 280th birthday of George Washington we invite you to come for a visit and take a walk in the footsteps of this “Founding Father.” What will be your first sign of spring?

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Chief of Interpretation Blog

As a military historian, I am drawn most to George Washington, the soldier. Historians have long argued about Washington’s talents as a commander, but there are few who don’t realize the major role that he played in holding the Revolution together. In my mind, without George Washington heading the Continental Army, the war would have ended entirely differently.

This month is the anniversary of Washington’s first major victory of the American Revolution; the forced evacuation of British forces from the city of Boston in March 1776. Washington had not been present at the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775 or the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775, having assumed command on July 3 of that year. His army consisted mostly of New Englanders; men from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York who at first did not take to the austere, grave Virginian. Washington was equally slow to warm to the New Englanders, railing against what he called their “dirty, mercenary spirit.” Other troubles, ranging from a shortage of muskets for the soldiers to expired terms of service for many regiments, left the army woefully under strength. Coupled with the demoralizing news from Canada in the early days of 1776, it appeared as if Washington and the Continental Army would never succeed in anything.

A bold endeavor, however, would soon provide Washington an opportunity to restore badly needed morale for his troops. Henry Knox, the former Boston bookseller and artillery student, had gone to captured Fort Ticonderoga in order to obtain heavy artillery that Washington’s army was seriously lacking. The determined Knox, with his intrepid soldiers hauled more than 50 cannon and mortars from upstate New York through steep grades and heavy snows to arrive in Boston in late February. With these guns now in hand, Washington ordered the guns to be placed on Dorchester Heights, an unoccupied high ground overlooking Boston. On the night of March 4, 1776, a work detail of 1,200 men supported by a covering force of 800 soldiers dragged a train of more than 300 ox carts filled with fortification materials up to the top of the heights. When dawn broke, two small forts sat atop Dorchester Heights with 50 artillery pieces staring down at the British forces inside the city. General William Howe, the commander of the British troops at Boston reputedly remarked about the Americans, “They completed more work in a night than my army could complete in a month.” Howe recognized that with artillery commanding the heights above the city that resistance could be very costly for the British. On March 17, 1776, 11,000 British soldiers and approximately 1,200 loyalists boarded ships and left Boston Harbor. Boston would remain in American hands for the remainder of the war.

George Washington had won a key victory; a victory due to his determination and perseverance. It would be the only victory he would have for quite some time. 1776 would not be a great year for George Washington and the Continental Army as they would lose New York and be chased all the way across the state of New Jersey to the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River. But that is a tale for another time…

 

Today Washington’s Headquarters during the Siege of Boston is preserved as part of Longfellow-Washington Headquarters National Historic Site (www.nps.gov/long). Follow the link for more information and to walk in the footsteps 0f George Washington during this pivotal moment in American History!

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Morning at Popes Creek

Two hundred and eighty years ago this month, a first boy child was born to a young wife—the second spouse of a middling farmer—at a place along Popes Creek in Virginia’s Northern Neck. Today I stood on that ground and watched a rosy sunrise spread color across lightly rippling waters as honking geese stirred to greet a chilly winter morning. The scene unfolding before me was much as it appeared three centuries ago and I tried to imagine in the quiet dawning of the day the first thoughts of this colonial woman. What did she see as she stared into the face of her healthy infant? Would that morning’s auspicious sunrise, or later that year as the child took his first bold steps outside the kitchen door, suggest to the young mother that her son–this one life–would change the world? That is doubtful. Her days, like the days of all the people living at Popes Creek would have been so filled with work securing food, water, heat, and clothing that dreaming of a glorious future for her first son seems unlikely. On February 22 we celebrate the birthday of “the Father of our Country”—George Washington. He is remembered as a god-like figure whose likeness can be found world-wide. But his beginnings were here at Popes Creek.

The National Park Service has preserved this place so that you can stand and walk in his first footsteps, and in this inspiring scene, take a moment to imagine a glorious future.

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Welcome to George Washington Birthplace NM Blog!

 

Welcome to the Official George Washington Birthplace National Monument blog, one of your national parks and America’s Best Ideas! The purpose of this blog is to create a forum for you; our visitors, friends, fellow NPS employees, and/or interested internet browsers. The blog is a place to learn more about the natural, cultural, historical, and the community of national park staff and others here at George Washington Birthplace National Monument!

As the National Park Service moves toward a century of serving the American public in 2016, there is a “Call to Action” to focuses in on improve the connection between people and parks. One of the ways to achieve this goal is by going digital. A birthplace blog is a step in that direction as we share information on our park as a classroom with outdoor recreation opportunities in a culturally rich landscape. We hope the blog gives you a sense of the park’s pulse. We are all stewards of these national treasures and it is up to all of us to keep your national parks shining examples of what is best about this country and its people.

The blog will have a new entry every other Tuesday and will follow a certain pattern. The next entry, which we will call our first official blog, will be on a natural feature of the park. The following blog will cover a cultural/historical entry and then a topic connecting to the greater National Park Service. So, keep checking back for new and interesting information. Each entry is a call to visit us, or a park nearby, to make a discovery of your own!

George Washington took his first steps here in 1732 and we hope this blog marks the beginning of your “Walk with Washington.”

 

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