The White House Razed

Today in History, June 28, 1862:

Union soldiers inadvertently burn the White House.  No, not that White House.  In fact, the Executive Mansion which housed the President wasn’t known by that name until 1902 when President Theodore Roosevelt renamed it.

Another difference between these “White Houses”, is that George Washington never resided in the Presidential Mansion along the Potomac.  His successor, John Adams was the first President to live there.

But he courted and married the widow Martha Custis at and near the White House on the Pamunkey River.

One of General Washington’s officers was Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee.  His son, Robert E. Lee, would marry Martha Custis-Washington’s granddaughter, Mary.

Together they would live in Arlington House, overlooking the Potomac…and the Executive Mansion.  When the Civil War began, Robert E. Lee chose to support “his country”, Virginia; which also meant the Confederacy.  As a result he and his family had to leave Arlington House and move to one of their more southern Virginia properties…the White House on the Pamunkey.

As the Union dead mounted, Union Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered the area around Arlington House to be used as a cemetery so that Lee could never again live there.  Today it is Arlington National Cemetery.

In 1862 during the Seven Day’s Battles, Union forces pushed the Confederates back past the Lee family’s new home at White House Landing, using it as a major supply base.

Before she fled further south from yet another home, Mary Lee left a message on the door of the residence, “Northern soldiers, who profess to reverence Washington, forbear to desecrate the house of his first married life, the property of his wife, now owned by her descendants.”

Union soldiers agreed.  General George McClellan ordered a guard to posted around the house to prevent looting or vandalism.

McClellan took a lot of heat from the press and DC for the protection of General Washington’s one-time home.  It should be used as a hospital for Union soldiers!  Even though it had but six rooms.

As was frequent in the Civil War, the lines moved back north after moving south.  And on this date in 1862 Confederates took White House Landing back.  As the Union Army fled, McClellan ordered all supplies and outbuildings burned to prevent their use by the Confederates…with the exception of the White House, it was to be spared.

As often happens in war, orders from the top rarely get carried out to the letter.  The White House was burned to the ground.

George Washington Knew How to Fight…And When Not to Fight…

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Today in History, April 22, 1793:

President George Washington issues a Proclamation of Neutrality, making it clear to the great powers of Europe, and France in particular, that the newly born United States would not participate in a war then sweeping the old countries.

[Philadelphia, 22 April 1793]

“Whereas it appears that a state of war exists between Austria, Prussia, Sardinia, Great-Britain, and the United Netherlands, of the one part, and France on the other, and the duty and interest of the United States require, that they should with sincerity and good faith adopt and pursue a conduct friendly and impartial toward the belligerent powers:

I have therefore thought fit by these presents to declare the disposition of the United States to observe the conduct aforesaid towards those powers respectively; and to exhort and warn the citizens of the United States carefully to avoid all acts and proceedings whatsover, which may in any manner tend to contravene such disposition.

And I do hereby also make known that whosoever of the citizens of the United States shall render himself liable to punishment or forfeiture under the law of nations, by committing, aiding or abetting hostilities against any of the said powers, or by carrying to any of them those articles, which are deemed contraband by the modern usage of nations, will not receive the protection of the United States, against such punishment or forfeiture: and further, that I have given instructions to those officers, to whom it belongs, to cause prosecutions to be instituted against all persons, who shall, within the cognizance of the courts of the United States, violate the Law of Nations, with respect to the powers at war, or any of them.

In testimony whereof I have caused the Seal of the United States of America to be affixed to these presents, and signed the same with my hand. Done at the city of Philadelphia, the twenty-second day of April, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three, and of the Independence of the United States of America the seventeenth.”

Go. WASHINGTON.

By the President.
Th: Jefferson.

The assertion of neutrality did not set well with many Americans, and certainly not with the French.  After all, powerful France had been instrumental in the winning of American independence, finalized in the Treaty of Paris only ten years previous in 1783.  Now France had been inspired to undergo their own Revolution, and expected America to reciprocate in support of her war with the other European nations.  French Edmond Genet was then in the United States, appealing directly to the people for support.  President Washington was none too pleased with Genet’s attempts to bypass the American Federal government in his efforts.
Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton debated the subject in the newspapers using aliases, Pacificus and Helivicus.
It wasn’t that President Washington and his cabinet were unfaithful to their first ally.  They were practical.  The French Revolution had taken on a different tone than the American Revolution, with the beheading of King Louis XVI.
Even more importantly, Washington knew America was not yet a world power.  The British did not yet entirely respect American sovereignty, despite the Treaty of Paris.  Washington new the nation needed decades to build it’s resources and to unify politically before playing a meaningful part in world affairs.
America is truly fortunate to have had the guidance and forethought of our Founding Fathers.  The nation would certainly have plenty of opportunities to return the favors France had provided…World War I, World War II most prominent.

Revolutionary Irish

Today in History, March 17: 1780 – “The General directs that all fatigue and working parties cease for to-morrow the SEVENTEENTH instant,” read the orders, “a day held in particular regard by the people of [Ireland].”

General George Washington’s Army was bedded down amidst 6 foot snow drifts, suffering through the worst winter on record…even worse than Valley Forge.

Recently the Irish, who were also in rebellion against the Crown, had declared themselves AMERICANS in solidarity with the American colonists that were fighting for their independence.

At least a quarter of Washington’s army was Irish…and a vast majority of his commanders shared that distinction. So GW decided that St. Patrick’s Day…(not Christmas, nor Easter)…would be a day of rest and celebration for his army.

The Real “First” World War?

Today in History, February 10: 1763 –

“The Seven Years War”, or as it was known in the colonies, “The French and Indian War” ends with the Treaty of Paris. Britain and France had been battling for years in America, Europe, India and on the high seas over their competing imperial interests. Spain had taken sides with France. Both Britain and France had their allies in what could be considered a World War.

After several British victories on land and at sea, and after several of France’s allies had signed separate peace treaties, France and Spain finally came to the table. France gave up several of her holdings including in Canada, America and India.

The Spanish received the Louisiana Territory, the British received Spanish Florida.

Probably the most important issues for the American colonies however, are these: Many Americans, such as George Washington, gained extensive military experience fighting the French and their Indian allies during the war. And when Americans decided less than two decades later to fight for their independence from the British Crown, the French had a grudge to settle; it wasn’t that difficult for Ben Franklin to convince France to come in on the side of the Colonials. French Naval might was pivotal to the American victory.

Electoral College

Today in History, January 7, 1789 –

The states first elected their Electoral College electors, who would elect George Washington as the first President. The Electoral College was established so that less populated states would not be left without a say in the choice of the Chief Executive.

If the President was elected by popular vote, the states with the highest population would always made the decision. This was of great concern to the more rural, less populated states.

The system has been tested several times throughout our history, and surely will be again.

George Washington Setting Standards

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Today in History, December 23: 1783 – “The Greatest character of the age” – King George III of England describing George Washington. American General of the Armies and Commander in Chief George Washington, resigns his commission at the Maryland Statehouse in Annapolis. He had waited until the English armies that he had helped vanquish had, at length, removed themselves from New York. He was in a position to rule the youthful nation. The move giving up so much power shocked Europeans. Washington went home to Mt. Vernon, but of course was not done. In 1787 he accepted the Presidency of the Constitutional Convention, and in ’89 the Presidency of the United States. He set the standard for future generations by relinquishing the power he held, and then later by limiting himself to only two terms as President.

And Good Riddance!

Today in History, December 13: 1776 – This is one of those “God knows what you need more than you do” stories. When the Continental Congress chose George Washington as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, they bypassed an extremely experienced and competent alternative; Gen. Charles Lee…

Charles Lee has served as an officer in the British Army, serving with distinction in the French and Indian War. Lee never forgave the perceived slight.

In the fall of 1776, Washington and the army he commanded had fled in horrible conditions across New Jersey and were holed up at the Delaware River, bedraggled, barely clothed, starving, and facing a vastly superior force of British regulars. What was worse was that many of Washington’s soldier’s enlistments were up soon, and few were likely to stay.

Washington sent repeated messages to Lee encouraging him bring his well rested army to the Delaware. Lee, satisfied to see Washington fail, hesitated, delayed and finally responded slowly. On this day in 1776 he left his Army and went with a small guard contingent to look for female companionship at a local tavern.

Loyalists to the crown were often informing the British of Colonial movements. Two days later Lee was caught in his bedclothes as he relaxed in the tavern where he had partaken of his chosen prostitutes. British Col. Banastre Tarleton and his troops raided the tavern and captured Lee, who was the Colonial’s most experienced Officer; many had called for him to lead the Army rather than Washington.

The British were exhilarated at having captured Lee, the Americans were demoralized. Washington, however, was privately relieved. Now the army that had been commanded by Lee could be utilized by more loyal officers to continue the fight.