It was either the Fort Lyons Preservation Society guy that my Civil War discussion group met on a tour of the DC forts, or it was all the history things I follow on facebook posting things. Or quite possibly, Big Brother has caught on to my search history and offered notice of this event as a paid ad on Google. Whatever it was, I was given ample notice of a reenactment at Mount Vernon.
Colonial history was my first love, long before I ever met Col. Chamberlain of the 20th Maine. When I was young, this series of books called American Girl were popular (years before the company sold out to Mattel, btw). My favorite was Felicity and she lived in Colonial Williamsburg. She had a horse and the dress and red hair – everything I had wanted when I was that age. I read the Felicity books over and over again, but it never really went anywhere serious. (I did get to see Monticello, which was far cooler than I expected-can I say I love Jefferson?)
Anyway. The point is that I had to go to Mount Vernon. I went once in high school and again several years ago with my parents, but this was the first time I was there with a living historian encampment. Part of my desire to go was the rumor I heard that events like this were rare, that Mt. V authorities didn’t let reenactors camp out on the grounds often, and so I had to strike while the iron was hot. (In reality, this event is a yearly occurrence.)
I arrived at Mount Vernon with my trusty, bedraggled satchel full of History Day Trip things* and I squee’d at the first historical character I saw. He was young, dressed in a quality Continental officer’s uniform, and had a white rosette on his hat. Who else could he be but America’s favorite fighting Frenchman **??
From the very little solid facts that I know, Lafayette basically showed up in Washington’s camp with a letter of recommendation from Benjamin Franklin, that brilliant, lecherous old creep who had an uncanny 6th sense about a person’s innate abilities. Lafayette must have set off Franklin’s spidey senses, and the rest is history. Good thing for us, too, as Lafayette funded much of the RevWar out of his own pocket. I need to read more on this to make sure my facts are correct, but that’s the gist.
I took a tour through the house and the grounds. No photography was allowed inside the house and I, surprisingly, followed the mandate. The house was quite tastefully decorated. There were framed lithographs throughout and I assume they’re original to Washington’s time and illustrated things Washington wanted to be mindful of. But there were so many visitors that there wasn’t an opportunity to ask questions without holding up the line and flow of traffic.
Some random tidbits about the house: the exterior is actually made of wood, painted tan. One of the sitting rooms is painted a garish green color, which was quite fashionable for the time. The Washington bed is not long enough to fit all 6’3″ of George, unless he either slept across the diagonal, or slept sitting up, which people did back then, according to my brother. If he slept across the diagonal, Mrs. W would also have to sleep diagonally as well, unless she was so petite that maybe she was able to fit vertically? In the main foyer on the first floor hangs the key to the Bastille, which Lafayette brought to Washington after the whole Bastille thing during the French Revolution. It makes sense, as Washington is the symbol of liberte, equalite, fraternite, etc.
On the Mt.V grounds is a village of living historians who are employees of the estate and live out 18th century life, from smoking fish to herding sheep. One of the stations had the frame of a boat under construction, but I could tell by how the wood has aged that the boat will never get built. But of all the places on the estate, this place was where I could commune with Washington the best. He was an extremely meticulous farmer and kept all sorts of charts of crop rotation, weather patterns, seed usage. I would also bet money, without having read a single biography of him, that he was an introvert and would need to escape playing host to all the visiting statesmen and dignitaries. Where else would be the perfect retreat but his fields.
I paid my respects at his grave, which almost turned into a confession of the full list of my historical errors and misconceptions. Forgive me, Founding Father, for I have sinned … like that time I misattributed Stonewall Jackson’s dying words to Lee to score points in a drinking game. I mean, Washington is like the head Founding Father, right? Does that make him the like the pope of the FFs …?
Back at the encampment, I unexpectedly ran into several people I knew from the WW2 scene. I also talked to this woman with an artillery unit who said that her group was going to Canada for a reenactment next month, and that the Canadian border patrol had already been warned to expect people crossing over with old fashioned artillery in tow. The reenactors don’t even have to plan their travel to all cross at roughly the same time – the Canadian government already has it taken care of. I never expected to hear “customs” and “reenactment” used together.
The battle itself was ok. Maybe I was expecting it to be more like The Patriot. There was certainly a lot of powder burnt and I wish I had a real camera, a long lens, and press credentials to elbow my way to the front. The boom and pop of cannon and musket was pretty satisfying, as well as the smell of gunpowder. I took several minutes worth of video but it was on my phone and very poor quality. Perhaps the thing that rankled about the event was that here, on George Washington’s ancestral estate, in a battle commemorating no specific battle but those who fought for American freedom, the durned thing was scripted so the British won. I mean, yes Washington lost a lot of his battles. But he eventually started winning, right? Sigh. Is nothing sacred??
Side note: Mount Vernon just published their professional album of photos from the weekend. I highly recommend checking it out.
Thoughts on the reenactment: at the other ones I’ve attended, there’s usually an introductory piece, like the National Anthem before a sporting event. After the firing stops, someone usually plays Taps, all the “dead” get up and applause breaks out. I was both pleased and mildly disappointed neither of those happened here. RevWar existed before either Francis Scott Key or Taps, so I appreciated their historical accuracy. On the other hand, all the players are from a post-Taps era so an argument could be made for their inclusion. There was some sort of bugle/fife/drum thing before and after, but I did not recognize either tune. Upon reflection, Taps would have seemed out of place, so good on them for that.
I took a quick tour through the museum, checked out some artifacts, obeyed the “no photography” rule again, said goodbye to the people I knew, then drove home. Overall it was quite a satisfactory day that has ushered in some sort of colonial kick. Maybe I’ll actually go read a biography on George Washington now.
*History Day Trip things – hand sanitizer and kleenex in case of port-a-potty emergency, water, pencil, writing pad, pouch of nuts, sunscreen, chapstick, sunglasses, umbrella, bandaids for blisters, with enough room for my sweater in case I got warm
** No, I have not seen the currently trending Hamilton musical.