“I die hard; but I am not afraid to go.” – George Washington’s Final Battle

George Washington died on December 14, 1799.  On December 12, 1799, the celebrated Revolutionary War general and former president rode around his beloved Virginia plantation, Mount Vernon.  Despite the fact it was snowing and sleeting, Washington spent five hours in the winter weather.  Washington had survived much worse winters before, and gave little thought to this particular storm, even as he sat for dinner that evening with snow still clinging to his hair.  Later that night however, he began to show signs of a sore throat.  The next day, he went out again in the miserable weather to mark some trees that needed to be cut down.  On the night of December 13, the sore throat had gotten worse.  He stayed up that night reading the newspaper with his wife, Martha, and his personal secretary, Tobias Lear.  As he headed to bed, Lear suggested he take some medicine for his cold.  Washington declined, saying he would “let it go as it came.”[1]

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In this highly romanticized painting done in 1851, painter Junius Brutus Stearns depicts the final moments of Washington’s life. (Wikimedia Commons)

Around 3 or 4 in the morning, Washington awoke with a fever and his throat even more tender.  Martha was worried and wanted to go alert Tobias Lear, but Washington was afraid the cold air would harm Martha and decided to wait until the enslaved handmaid Caroline came into the room to start a fire at 7 in the morning.  At that time, Lear was alerted and he immediately called for doctors to come to Mount Vernon.

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Tobias Lear (Washington’s personal secretary), left a detailed account of the final illness of Washington and was with him when he died.  Later in life he tragically committed suicide and is buried at Historic Congressional Cemetery in Washington, DC. (NYPL)

Three doctors would attend to the General in his final illness: Dr. Gustavus Brown, Dr. Elisha Cullen Dick, and Washington’s personal physician and good friend: Dr. James Craik.  The three physicians, using the medical knowledge they had at the time, did everything they could to try and heal Washington, but nothing seemed to work.  They tried to administer a mixture of molasses, butter and vinegar which he couldn’t swallow.  He was given an enema which resulted in an evacuation of his bowels.  Throughout the day, the doctors (with the consent of Washington) performed four blood lettings.  At the time, it was thought that sicknesses were caused from an imbalance of four different ‘humors’ in the body (phlegm, blood, black bile, and yellow bile), and by bleeding a patient, they would be healed.  Of course, instead of healing Washington, this only weakened him.  Over ten hours, the physicians took out about five pints of blood (nearly half of the blood in his body).  The room reeked of “blood and stench and sweat.”[2]

Over the years different modern doctors have tried and diagnose the illness that had stricken Washington. It is likely he was suffering from acute epiglottitis caused by virulent bacteria.  Epiglottitis is when the “epiglottis — a small cartilage “lid” that covers your windpipe — swells, blocking the flow of air into your lungs.”[3] In effect, Washington was slowly suffocating to death.

As the day turned to night, Washington realized he was going and began to prepare for his death.  He had his wife bring him two wills from his desk and ordered one of them to be burned.  He asked Tobias Lear to ensure all his papers be organized and secured through the extreme agony he was in.

During this difficult ordeal, he noticed his enslaved servant Christopher Sheels had been standing in the room all day and Washington directed him to sit down.  Throughout the night, in the room with Washington was his wife Martha at the foot of the bed, Tobias Lear, Christopher Sheels, the three doctors, the house keeper Eleanor Forbes and three enslaved women (Molly, Caroline, and Charlotte).

As the night wore on, Washington begged the doctors to “let me go off quietly.”  Washington looked at his friend Dr. Craik and said “Doctor, I die hard; but I am not afraid to go.”[1] Dr. Dick suggested to the other doctors that they attempt a new procedure, a tracheotomy (cutting a hole in his throat so he could breathe). The others viewed this as too dangerous and rejected the proposal.

As Washington felt himself going he made one last request to Tobias Lear.  He asked that they wait three days after his death before they bury him.  Washington was fearful of being accidentally buried alive.  After Lear acknowledged this request, Washington uttered his last words: “’Tis Well.”

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The room and bed where Washington died as it looks today. (Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)

Around 10 o’clock that evening Washington checked his pulse on his wrist.  Shortly thereafter his hand fell to his side and “he expired without a struggle or sigh.”  Martha, after asking if he was gone, said “Tis well, All is now over, I shall soon follow him! I have no more trials to pass through!”[1] Martha, who had survived the deaths of her parents, all four of her children, and now her second husband, would never sleep in the room again.  She died a little more than two years later in 1802.

It was a profoundly distressing and sad time, not only for Washington’s close friends and family who mourned his passing, but for the young nation, who had lost the great unifier of its time.  Though gone, the legacy he left was one of courage, honor and virtue.  He would be eulogized by his fellow Virginian Light Horse Harry Lee two weeks later as “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”[4]

Edwin Apotheosis

“The Apotheosis of Washington” is an engraving from the year 1800 depicts Washington being lifted from Mount Vernon to Heaven, where Richard Montgomery and Jospeh Warren welcome him.

The bed on which Washington had died would eventually end up at Arlington House, the home of Martha Washington’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis.  His grandson (and Robert E. Lee’s son) George Washington Custis Lee donated the bed to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association in 1908.  Today, you can see the bed he died on in the very room where he died at Mount Vernon.

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This drawing by Benson Lossing depicts the Washington bed at Arlington House.

In 1999, to mark the 200th anniversary of Washington’s death a full reenactment of his funeral was staged at Mount Vernon, which I attended.

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A scene from the reenactment of Washington’s funeral in 1999. (CSPAN)

In 2015, Mount Vernon did an incredible and very moving living history program centered around the story of Washington’s death with evening candlelight tours of the mansion led by costumed interpreters who portrayed many of the people who were there that night.  It concluded with a replica of Washington’s coffin laid out in the New Room and a grieving Martha Washington.  This was followed by a walk to the Old Tomb where he was initially buried and ended at Washington’s New Tomb where a wreath was laid by his sarcophagus.

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The author (at right) at Washington’s tomb for the Mount Vernon Mourns program. (Author photo)

This year (2018) you can go on a special guided tour of the mansion focused on Washington’s death.  Though this is a subject very sad and morose (especially during the holiday season), it is an extremely important one.  This event was one of the most important and well recorded events that occurred at Mount Vernon, and it summed up the character of the man.  This was the final battle General Washington engaged in, and he showed the world that he died as he lived: courageous to the bitter end.

Outside of the sources cited here, I highly recommend to get a minute by minute look at Washington’s death as well as a more comprehensive view of how Washington viewed death and the interestingly lack of religious ceremony, I suggest you check out the following two books by Dr. Peter R. Henriques:

Henriques, Peter R.  He Died as He Lived: The Death of George Washington. Mount Vernon, VA: Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, 2000.

Henriques, Peter R. Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Wahsington.  Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2006.

[1] Lear, Tobias.  Account of Washington’s Death, Diary Entry, December 14, 1799.

https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-04-02-0406-0002

[2] Smith, Richard Norton.  Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993. pg. 353.

[3] Mayo Clinic, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/epiglottitis/symptoms-causes/syc-20372227

[4]://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/georgewashington/education/materials/Transcript-Funeral.pdf

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