George Washington’s Christmas Eve Homecoming

On December 23, 1783, George Washington, the victorious commander of the Continental Army, resigned his commission and gave up his power. The only historic precedent to this action was in the days of ancient Rome when the Roman hero Cincinnatus who turned his sword into a plowshare and became a farmer. Washington was quickly hailed as the American Cincinnatus and esteemed as the greatest man of his age by his contemporaries. John Marshall, the future Supreme Court Justice, wrote from Richmond, Virginia that “at length the military career of the greatest man on earth is closed.”

The ceremony for his resignation occurred at the Maryland State House in Annapolis, where the Continental Congress was then meeting. Following his resignation at noon on the 23rd, Washington, now a private citizen, was eager to get to his home, Mount Vernon, less than 50 miles away.

Throughout the war, Washington had longed to return to his beloved Mount Vernon. He had left in the spring of 1775 and was away for more than six years. He returned, briefly, in 1781 on his way to and from the Siege of Yorktown. Other than those brief stays, by the end of 1783, Washington had spent more than eight years away from his beloved home Mount Vernon. His first desire as a private citizen was to get there as fast as he could. He hoped to live out his days on his plantation, under his “own vine and fig tree.”

He rode out of Annapolis accompanied by a few of his aides in the afternoon of the 23rd and made it halfway to Virginia before it became too dark, and he and his party stopped at a tavern for the night. The next morning, he continued his journey towards the Potomac. He crossed a ferry below Alexandria and made it to the house before dark, as snow began to fall on the ground. At Mount Vernon was his wife, Martha, who had traveled to be with Washington and his army at every winter encampment of the Revolutionary War.

Washington simply wrote a few days later on December 28, 1783 that “I arrived at my seat the day before Christmas, having previously divested myself of my official character—I am now a private Citizen on the banks of the Potomack . . .”

A fanciful lithograph of George Washington returning to Mount Vernon on Christmas Eve, 1783. (Library of Congress)

Having spent the Christmas of 1776 preparing an attack on Hessians at Trenton, and the past eight Christmases at various winter encampments (including Valley Forge), the Christmas of 1783 would have been among the happiest in his life. He wrote that “The scene is at last closed — I feel myself eased of a load of public care — I hope to spend the remainder of my days in cultivating the Affections of good Men, and in the practice of the domestic Virtues.” However, Washington would be called by his countrymen again to serve in building of a new nation. Although, he preferred the quiet walks of private life, he never would forgot his duty to his country.

To learn more about the eventful month of December 1783, including his farewell to his officers at Fraunces Tavern, his resignation and his homecoming, check out General Washington’s Christmas Farewell by Stanley Weintraub.

Merry Christmas from all of us at Emerging Revolutionary War!

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