Soldier’s Return


After the fighting—after Trenton, Valley Forge, Monmouth, and Yorktown—after all tlie sleeplessness and the care, George Washington longed to return to the reassuring routine of his beloved Mount Vernon. This dream of return came true just before Christinas of 1783; already past fifty, the General looked forward to spending ltis remaining years at liis favorite occupation, that of a Virginia country gentleman. He had plans to expand and embellish his ancestral home, to improve his land, and to put in order his neglected financial affairs. He also relislied the thought of again riding for pleasure, of limiting with his dogs, of merely silting on his veranda and watching the familiar Potomac floiu placidly to the sea. The General was, in fact, full of those hopes and those longings which have occupied the thoughts of all returning soldiers. It is this period of Washington’s life thai the noted biographer and historian James Thomas Flexner treats of in the narrative that follows. This is the first of six articles which will appear in AMERICAN HERITAGE ; subsequent installments will cover Washington’s return to national life, his inauguration, the political and social aspects of his Presidency, and his retirement and death. The series is taken from the final volume of Mr. Flexner’s three-volume study of Washington, now in work. Like the first two volinnes, George Washington: The Forge of Experience and George Washington in the American Revolution , it will be published, by Little, Brown.

—The Editors

George Washington remembered that when he woke up in the silent mornings his mind would instantly become a whirlpool of grievous things. Urgency was upon him as it had been daily for his eight years as Commander in Chief: the need to clothe thousands of naked men, fill empty bellies, procure gunpowder, write and persuade Congress; the need to build defenses, place cannon, withstand attack with inadequate forces. He had to march, explore strange countrysides, interrogate spies and prisoners. How could he find some way to defeat a stronger enemy, some miraculous way to achieve what seemed past the power and will of an emerging nation: victory that would end this interminable war and establish the independence of the United States?

Then, as his long body thrashed around in an oddly comfortable bed, a strange realixation Hooded over him. Although engulfed in darkness, for this was winter and he always woke early, Washington became aware that outside the windowpanes there stretched not a military camp but the peaceful countryside of his childhood memories. The sighing ho heard was the wind in his own trees, and out there the Potomac, his ancestral river, pulsed gently under the bluff on which stood his beloved house, Mount Vernon. He was ama/cd to find that the war was over, that he was home, that he “was no longer a public Man, or had anything’ to do with public transactions.” At such moments, so Washington remembered, he felt as I conceive a wearied Traveller must … who, after treading many a painful step, with a heavy burden on his shoulders, is eased … and from his House top is looking back, and tracing with a grateful eye the Meanders by which lie escaped the quicksands and Mires which lay in his way; and into which none but the All-powerful guide, and great disposer of human Events could have prevented his falling.

The General had brought home with him to Mount Vernon a priceless acquisition, the very jewel he had longed fur in Ins most ambitious dreams. Ever since he had become familiar as a youth with the Stoic philosophy, he had considered that the greatest reward any man could earn was the confidence, affection, and gratitude of his countrymen. Jt had been to win tins boon that, refusing pay and spurning opportunities to grasp further power, he had faithfully served his fellow citizens as military commander year after unbroken year. Now the labor was over; this admiration, this love, this gratitude were his to enjoy, as a man would turn a many-faceted crystal quietly in his hands.

Washington’s brightest personal hope had been, as he dreamed by the campfhcs, to merge this achievement, in memory and in reality, with the delights of the peaceful walks he had inherited from his ancestors and had himself happily pursued. All was to be contained within those magic acres which his dear dead half-brother Lawrence, who had willed them to him, had named Mount Vernon.

Here, fashioned Iiuni wood on land which his grandfather had purchased in 1674, was tanKihlc continuity, the past moving with beauty into the present. When his own prosperity had increased, Washington had not, as his neighbor George Mason had, torn down his ancestral house and erected a new elegant structure according to a plan bought from a professional architect. The center of Mount Vcrnon rested on seventeenth-century foundations. The room where on domestic evenings George sat with Martha while her grandchildren prattled was the same cramped space he had himself prattled in as a child. Placing furniture was difficult because the first builder had parsimoniously erected the fireplaces in the corners of the rooms so that one outside chimney could serve a pair. Washington had not altered this clumsiness, although one of these antique hearths was now surrounded wilh a marble construction of the greatest elegance and modern taste, which had been sent to the Hero of Liberty by a European admirer.