Washington, Christmas and the Revolution
Address delivered by Dr. John C. Wakefield, immediate past Chaplain General,
to the Kings Mountain Chapter, SAR, Johnson City, Tenn., on Dec. 12, 2019
Fall 2020, Vol. 115, No. 2
Many Americans have read biographies of Washington. These books often describe him in heroic terms. Indeed, he was the great hero of the American Revolution and of the first years of the republic.
Remembering Christmases with the Washingtons allows us to honor them and to realize that they were human like the rest of us, and that they celebrated this great holiday like the rest of us. Let us focus on their social lives and exalt their honorable deeds at Christmas.
A celebration of Christmas would have been a relatively new matter to George and Martha Washington. Festive celebrations at that time of the year were frowned on by many Colonists. By 1773, however, a Colonist in Virginia would write, “When it grew to [sic] dark to dance … we conversed till half after six. Nothing is now to be heard of in conversation, but the Balls, the Fox-hunts, the fine entertainments, and the good fellowship, which are to be exhibited at the approaching Christmas.”
George Washington had much to celebrate at Christmastime during the Revolutionary War years. Before Christmas 1775, Congress established the American Navy, and King George III announced the closing of the American Colonies to all commerce and trade. Just before Christmas 1776, Congress learned that France’s support was forthcoming.
The Washingtons had a bittersweet and subdued Christmas. Washington and his troops had just defeated Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown in the last major battle of the Revolution, which was certainly a cause for celebration. The Washingtons had Christmas dinner at the home of a friend in Philadelphia. George Washington wrote, “Mrs.Washington is better than I could have expected after the heavy loss she met with,” referring to the death of Martha’s son, John Parke Custis. We honor the Washingtons, but they faced the same calamities we sometimes face. They were human, too.
Before Christmas, Washington received word that the peace treaty with Great Britain had been signed, and the American Revolution was officially over. He rode to Annapolis to meet with Congress and to surrender his commission. He purchased some Christmas presents for his return to Mount Vernon: a locket, three pocketbooks, three thimbles, three sashes, a dress cap, a hat, a whirligig, a fiddle and a gun. On that Christmas, Gen. Washington returned to civilian life.
On Christmas 1786, Martha Washington had made a “Yorkshire Christmas Pie” from her cookbook, a well-known and popular cookbook in England, which called for a bushel of flour. The directions said that the walls of these pies would need to be “well built.” The day after Christmas of that year, George Washington wrote to a friend that they had served “one pie yesterday on which all the company (and pretty numerous it was) [there were at least nine people present] were hardly able to make an impression.”
At Christmastime that year, Washington went fox hunting and otherwise spent quiet time with family and friends. On Christmas Eve, he worked. On Christmas Day, he gave 15 shillings to the servants.
Christmas for President Washington — 1789
The Washingtons had rented a home in New York and stayed there for Christmas. Again, Washington worked on Christmas Eve. He met for a time with Gen. Henry Knox, the Secretary of War. He then went to the Christmas Eve Service at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in New York. This church building, by the way, exists to this day. It is known as The Little Church that Stands because it remained when much larger buildings all around it were falling on 9/11. In the afternoon on Christmas Day, the Washingtons entertained visitors.
Back at Mount Vernon, the servants were given four days off at Christmas, a practice carried out by the Washingtons every year. We can be encouraged that they seem to have exhibited consideration to their servants.
Christmas for George Washington in Retirement — 1797
On Christmas 1797, George Washington worked on his accounts relating to the plantation. He wrote a letter to Thomas Law, the husband of Martha Washington’s granddaughter. At the end of the letter, he wrote, “We remain in status quo, and all unite in offering you and yours the compliments of the season; and the return of many, many more, and happy ones.”
Christmas for George Washington in Retirement — 1798
No young people were at Mount Vernon on Christmas 1798. George and Martha Washington would spend their final Christmas together, with no other visitors. At Christmastime, George Washington wrote a letter to George Washington Lafayette, announcing the upcoming marriage of Martha’s granddaughter, Nelly. The wedding was to take place on Feb. 22, George Washington’s 67th birthday.
George Washington lived through the year but died 11 days before Christmas 1799.
The Best of “Washingon, Christmas and the Revolution”
Notice some significant omissions in this article? How about the winter at Valley Forge and the Washington, Christmas and the Revolution continued Delaware River crossing — followed by Washington’s decisive victory at Trenton?
Washington led a ragtag army of 11,000 men to Valley Forge just before Christmas 1777. Their story is an incredible one of sickness and calamity, but also a Christmas story of survival, courage and victory. After that Christmas, George Washington and his men would reverse the course of the Revolution.
Washington’s first order of business at Valley Forge was to instruct the men to build log huts in which to pass the winter months. Twelve or more men lived in each of these 16-by-14-foot huts, with dirt floors, for the cold Pennsylvania winter. Sometimes, only a sheet was used across the doorway to keep out the cold weather. While the huts were being built, Washington refused to live anywhere except in his tent.
Picture the circumstances surrounding that encampment at Valley Forge. Washington was contending with Congress for provisions for the troops. He also was seeking Congress’ official control of the troops he was trying to lead, but Congress stripped Washington of some of his power over those troops. Washington was dealing with a series of recent losses in battle. The reports to Washington were increasingly bleak.
At Valley Forge, many men were suffering from malnutrition. They were weary from battles lost. This would not be a Christmas with family. This would not be a Christmas of parties, games and gifts. Washington was undoubtedly discouraged. Yet he continued his regular worship practice — an expression of hope over the discouragement during that Christmastime.
Valley Forge was also the setting for one of the most touching and encouraging incidents involving Christmas, Washington and the American Revolution. We allow Isaac Potts, a pacifist Quaker who lived nearby, to relay the event:
“It was the most distressing time of the war. All were giving up the ship but that great and good man. In [the woods near my home], I heard a plaintive sound of a man in prayer. I tied my horse to a sapling and went quietly into the woods, and to my astonishment, I saw the great George Washington on his knees alone, with his sword on one side and his cocked hat on the other.
“He was at prayer to the God of the Armies, beseeching to interpose with his Divine aid, as it was a crisis, and the cause of the country, of humanity and the world. Such a prayer I never heard from the lips of man. I left him alone, praying. I went home and told my wife I saw a sight and heard today what I never saw or heard before. We never thought a man could be a soldier and a Christian, but if there is one in the world, it is Washington.”
Despite his prayers, Washington soon wrote to the president of the Continental Congress, seeking to resign his post as Commanding General. “I am convinced beyond a doubt,” he wrote, “that unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place, this Army must inevitably be reduced to one or other of these three things. Starve — dissolve — or disperse, to obtain sustenance in the best manner one can. Rest assured, sir, this is not an exaggerated picture, and that I have abundant reasons to support what I say.”
Christmas can bring out the humanity, discouragement and hope in us, just as it does with George Washington as our model.
Washington did have plenty of cause to be discouraged as he wrote that letter. Many of his troops had gone home to care for their families and their crops. The winter was inflicting severe conditions on his remaining men, but Washington, hearing conversation outside his tent, went out to hear the talk. In multiple conversations, he heard good cheer from the men. The men often greeted his approach with, “Long live the United States!” or, “Hail to our Chief!” Washington asked these men if they had not had enough. One lieutenant said, “Having come this far, we can but go the rest of the distance.” Washington returned to his tent and was heartened to see that some men had placed holly and cedar above the doorway. Washington walked to the fire outside his tent and burned his letter of resignation. He said to his men, “May God relieve your sufferings if the Congress will not. And a good Christmas to you!” Washington celebrated that Christmas by the light of the courage and determination from his men.
The severity of the Valley Forge winter was not lightened, but the hearts of those men were indeed lifted. With the help of Baron Von Steuben,Washington retrained those men into a strong fighting unit.
There is also the other great story of “Washington, Christmas and the Revolution.” On Christmas 1776, Washington embarked on the most critical journey of the war. He took 2,400 American troops across the frigid Delaware River, and those troops surprised the British and Hessians at Trenton, N.J. The enemy surrendered after an hour of fighting; one thousand of them were taken prisoner. Only six Continental soldiers were wounded (including future President James Monroe). Trenton was taken for the United States at Christmas.
Washington and his troops went on to Princeton and another victory in battle. He established his winter encampment at Morristown, N.J. During this harsh winter, he saw his troop numbers diminish to about a thousand men. The enlistment periods had expired for many soldiers, and they wanted to get home. By spring, new enlistments had increased the numbers again to about 9,000.
A recent author, Mark Alexander, has said, “… our first national Christmases tell the tale of the Revolutionary War’s ebb and flow. The so-called Christmas Campaign successes of 1776 at Trenton and Princeton were presaged by General George Washington’s writings of December 18.”
“If every nerve is not strained to recruit the New Army with all possible Expedition,” Washington wrote, “I think the game is pretty near up. No Man I believe ever had a greater choice of difficulties & less the means of extricating himself than I have — However under a full perswation [sic] of the justice of our cause, I cannot but think the prospect will brighten.”
It was exactly one year after these great victories — on Christmas 1777 — that the Army retreated to Valley Forge. Their footsteps that Christmas — some men without shoes, many without adequate shoes — were marked by blood in the ice and snow. Washington’s discouragement was clear as he wrote, “A character to lose — an estate to forfeit — the inestimable blessing of liberty at stake — and a life devoted, must be my excuse” for retaining these soldiers.
He said it was “much easier to draw up remonstrances in a comfortable room by a good fire- side, than to occupy a cold, bleak hill, and sleep under frost and snow, without clothes or blankets.” Still, soldiers trudged on at Valley Forge — and we will never forget them. We owe to these soldiers the joys of Christmas today, because they endured adversity in their Christmas of long ago.
Finally, another Christmas — that of 1783 — saw the resignation of Gen. Washington as leader of the Army. Washington had planned since late November of that year to tender his resignation. He had just received notice of signing the treaty with England — the treaty that officially ended the war.
In December, Washington would need to accept the transfer of power in New York City. He would need to bid farewell to his men and to resign his commission to Congress. He had planned to carry out all of these objectives in time to reach Mount Vernon by Christmas. It would be his first Christmas at Mount Vernon since the war began.
He could have retained his commission. Some would have made him king; they had that much regard for him. Control of the new government was probably his for the taking. Instead, he chose to resign and get to Mount Vernon by Christmas.
That same spirit of humility was exhibited later, after being prevailed upon to serve as president, and he chose to step down after two terms. That same spirit and strong leadership caused even King George III to call him “the greatest character of the age.”
So Washington made his way home for Christmas of 1783. In New York, at Fraunces Tavern, he bade farewell to his troops. Firsthand reports stated there was not a dry eye in the crowd. Then, Washington went on to report to Congress, giving a moving speech of resignation.
Finally, the great leader entered the walls of his home — Mount Vernon — on Christmas Eve, 1783. He was undoubtedly intent on sharing a quiet and restful Christmas with family, just as we crave a peaceful Christmas with family and friends.
Today, we engage in the freedoms of this great country in our houses of worship, homes, schools and communities — all during the Christmas season — because of the outstanding leadership of this man and his soldiers. The great holiday that brought us the Prince of Peace, we enjoy by the peace achieved by George Washington and the soldiers of the American Revolution.