Christ Church Cemetery

General John Mason: the Man Behind the Star-Spangled Banner and Other Remarkable Connections

John Mason. Image from Our Town 1749 – 1865 Likenesses of This Place & Its People Taken from Life by Artists Known and Unknown. The Alexandria Association. 1956. Artist Thomas Sully1801.

General John Mason played a crucial role in the creation of the US National Anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He sent Francis Scott Key on a mission during the War of 1812, where Key witnessed the British attack on Fort McHenry. Inspired by the flag still flying after the bombardment, Key wrote the poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” later set to music as the national anthem. In 1931, it was officially adopted as such. General Mason also significantly contributed to Washington, D.C., and operated a ferry service connecting critical areas. The Mason family had ties to various important figures and events in American history, with members buried in different cemeteries.

Mason, son of George Mason IV, was a prominent figure in Georgetown, D.C. He owned a summer house on Mason’s Island, now Theodore Roosevelt Island, located on the Virginia side of the Potomac River.

General Mason’s contributions extended to operating a ferry service from his island, connecting critical areas, and building a road that would later become part of US Route 1.

At the ferry landing on Mason’s Island, Washington, D.C., Guards examined a pass during the American Civil War—image from the Library of Congress.

Marriage and Family

The Mason family has a rich and complex history with ties to various significant figures and events in American history. Here is a summary of the information about the children of George and Ann Mason:

  1. John Mason Jr. (1797 – 1859): Buried in Christ Church.
  2. James Murray Mason (Nov 1798 – 28 Apr 1871): Buried in Christ Church. He wrote The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act and was involved in The Trent Affiar, which nearly caused a war between Great Britain and the United States at the start of the American Civil War.
  3. Sarah Maria Mason (born September 11, 1800, died July 29, 1890): Married Samual Cooper and is buried at Christ Church. Samuel Cooper was the highest-ranking Confederate General during the Civil War.
  4. Virginia Mason (born on October 12, 1802, passed away on January 21, 1838): Initially buried in the burial ground of Georgetown Presbyterian Church, she was eventually relocated to Arlington National Cemetery.
  5. Murray Mason (Jan 4, 1808 – 11 Jan 1875): A Captain in the Confederate Navy, buried in Christ Church.
  6. Maynadier Mason (Jan 4, 1808 – Apr 1865): The burial place is unknown.
  7. Catherine Eilbeck Mason: The burial place is unknown.
  8. Eilbeck Mason: Buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
  9. Anna Maria Mason (born on February 26th, 1811, passed away on November 3rd, 1898), also known as “Nannie”: Married Sydney Smith Lee, the older brother of Robert E. Lee. Both of them are laid to rest at Christ Church.
  10. Joel Barlow Mason (June 9, 1813 – 1861): The burial place is unknown.

It is evident that the Mason family played significant roles in various aspects of American history, and their final resting places are scattered across different cemeteries, some of which are known, while others remain unknown.

Mason was the first commanding General of the District of Columbia National Guard – then called the militia – from 1802 to 1811. His official rank was Brigadier General. During the War of 1812, he was the Commissioner General of Prisoners.

On August 24, 1814, when the British took control of Washington, Mason courageously helped President Madison and other officials escape to Virginia and sent 120 British prisoners – many of whom claimed to be deserters to Frederick, Maryland.

Mason’s role in the creation of “The Star-Spangled Banner

General John Mason also played a crucial role in the mission leading to the creation of the US National Anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Following the British invasion of Washington, D.C., on August 24, 1814, a severe storm, possibly a derecho, hit the city the next day. The storm caused significant damage, but it also extinguished the fires set by the British, ultimately saving Washington.

After the devastating storms wreaked havoc and claimed the lives of numerous soldiers, the British forces retreated to their ships in Benedict, Maryland. However, amid the chaos and destruction, some of the soldiers took advantage of the situation and started looting houses in the area.

However, they were fully aware of the risks confronting the British soldiers. Fearing retaliation, they strategically decided to safeguard themselves and the soldiers they had apprehended. They decided to transport the captured soldiers to a jail approximately nine miles away in Queen Anne’s County.

Unfortunately, the British authorities discovered what had transpired, and in retribution, they swiftly arrested Dr. William Beanes. He was subsequently imprisoned on the British flagship, the H.M.S. Tonnant.

Dr. Beanes had influential friends, including Richard West, who sought help from his brother-in-law, Francis Scott Key. Key requested permission from President James Madison to visit the British fleet under a flag of truce and negotiate Beanes’ release. General John Mason officially appointed Key to join John Skinner, the American prisoner-of-war agent, on the mission.

Key and Skinner set out on a small American boat and encountered the British fleet near the meeting point of the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. The British commander, General Robert Ross, agreed to release Beanes after learning that the Americans were treating wounded British soldiers humanely. During their time with the British, Key and Skinner overheard the enemy’s plans to attack Baltimore as retribution for the actions of American Navy Captain David Porter during the Battle of the White House Landing.

Above the White House Battery flew a flag emblazoned with a “FREE TRADE & SAILOR’S RIGHTS” Sketch by William Bainbridge Hoff, Naval Historical Center

While negotiating Beane’s release, Key and Skinner had a unique opportunity to witness crucial British preparations and movements that would prove vital in the upcoming Battle of Baltimore, with a particular focus on Fort McHenry.

To prevent them from revealing the British attack plans after Beanes was released by Ross, the three were held captive on a truce ship, which remained attached to a British vessel during the battle. Throughout September 13 to 14, Key was a firsthand observer of the relentless bombardment that Fort McHenry endured.

Despite the intense onslaught, when the smoke eventually cleared, Key was filled with awe as he beheld the American flag still proudly flying over the fort. This powerful and inspiring sight moved him deeply, prompting him to craft a poem, cleverly parodying the popular song “To Anacreon in Heaven.”

Titled “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” the poem swiftly gained popularity as it spread throughout Baltimore. Within just thirty days, its name was changed to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and it became an adored and cherished patriotic anthem among the American people.

As the years passed, “The Star-Spangled Banner” continued to capture the hearts of the nation, growing in popularity until finally, in 1931, it was officially declared the national anthem of the United States, serving as a powerful symbol of the nation’s unwavering resilience and deep-rooted patriotism.

Francis Scott Key standing on the truce ship the morning of September 14, 184, with right arm stretched out toward the United States flag flying over Fort McHenry, Baltimore, Maryland—image from the Library of Congress.

Mason’s Success as a Merchant

After the conclusion of the War of 1812, General John Mason pursued successful endeavors as a merchant and banker. In 1815, he acquired a foundry in Georgetown and managed its operations until his passing. Additionally, Mason was appointed as a director of the Potomac Company, an organization involved in improving navigation on the Potomac River to facilitate commerce and transportation.

As he continued to play an active role in public life, in 1842, Mason was named a Vestryman at Christ Church, a position of importance within the church’s leadership and administration.

During the Marquis de Lafayette’s visit to Alexandria on October 17, 1824, General Mason was one of the dignitaries who accompanied Lafayette on the steamship Petersburg, along with numerous other citizens of Alexandria, on its journey to visit Washington’s tomb at Mount Vernon.

Mason’s family had a significant historical connection, and he demonstrated his appreciation for this heritage in 1844. He made a generous contribution to the State Library in Richmond, now known as the Library of Virginia, by donating the first copy of the Bill of Rights. This document was authored by his father, George Mason IV, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and an influential figure in the development of American constitutional principles.

Throughout his life, General John Mason made notable contributions to both the private sector and public service, leaving a lasting impact on commerce, governance, and historical preservation. His legacy endures through his involvement in various ventures and his dedication to preserving the historical artifacts of the nation’s founding era.

After selling Mason’s Island in 1833, General John Mason moved to Clermont, a farm located in Cameron Valley, west of Alexandria. He resided there until his passing in 1849. However, during the last years of his life, Mason faced health challenges, being disabled by strokes he suffered, starting in 1846.

Following Mason’s death, the property of Clermont underwent a series of unfortunate events. The house was sold to French Forrest, a respected U.S. Navy officer. However, when the American Civil War broke out, Forrest decided to join the Confederate Navy, leaving the property behind.

As a result of Forrest’s absence and his failure to pay property taxes in person, the authorities confiscated the house. Subsequently, the building was repurposed and used as a hospital for Contrabands, which referred to escaped slaves and freed African Americans who sought refuge behind Union lines during the war.

During this time, smallpox posed a significant concern, and the house was used to treat those affected by the disease. Tragically, in 1865, while attempting to decontaminate the house by burning beds and furniture, a fire broke out, leading to its destruction.

The grand residence of General John Mason at Clermont suffered an unfortunate fate, being destroyed by fire and lost to history. However, its significance lies in its association with Mason, a notable figure who played essential roles in the early history of the United States and the War of 1812. Despite the house’s destruction, his contributions to the nation’s history endure. Today, a Fairfax County elementary school bearing the same name stands near the site of the original house.

Clermont Plantation was located in Cameron Valley, just west of Alexandria. Image courtesy of Fairfax County Schools 

Maon’s death and burial in Christ Church Cemetery

After General John Mason passed away in 1849, he was laid to rest in the family plot located in Christ Church Cemetery. The cemetery in Alexandria, Virginia, served as the final resting place for the Mason family members, including General Mason himself. Here, surrounded by his family’s memory, General Mason found his eternal rest, leaving behind a legacy that would be remembered for his contributions to the early history of the United States and his crucial role in the events leading to the creation of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

John Mason’s obelisk in Christ Church Cemetery
Clermont, Fairfax County
April 4, 1766
March 19, 1849
wife of JOHN MASON
of Clermont, Virginia
born Oct. 13, 1776
Died Nov. 29, 1857

Sources of Information

Ward, R. D. (1881). General Lafayette in Virginia in 1824 and 1825: An account of his triumphant progress through the state. Richmond, VA.

The Alexandria Association. (1956). Our Town 1749 – 1865. At Gadsby’s Tavern, Alexandria, Virginia. The Dietz Printing Company.

Lord, W. (1972). The Dawn’s Early Light. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. New York.

Pippenger, W. E. (1992). Tombstone Inscriptions of Alexandria, VA (Volume 3). Family Line Publications.

Vogel, S. (2013). Through the Perilous Fight. Random House, LLC. New York.

O’Neill, P. L. (2014). “To Annoy or Destroy the Enemy”: The Battle of the White House after the Burning of Washington. Burke, VA.

HistoryNet. Article title: David Porter. HistoryNet. URL: []. Accessed August 2022.

National Weather Service. Paragraph title: August 25, 1814 Tornado. National Weather Service URL [National Weather Service]. Accessed in August 2022.

Colonial Music Institute. George Washington’s Mount Vernon Acquires the Colonial Music Institute. URL:[ Colonial Music Institute]. Accessed in 2022.

Fairfax County Schools. Clermont Elementary School. URL:[link]. Accessed in 2022.

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By David

Hello. With a passion for bringing history to life, I serve my community as a public historian and cemetery superintendent. My journey has led me to own businesses, conduct Civil War battlefield tours and research Alexandria’s cemeteries.

Since 2015, I have had the privilege of serving as Superintendent of the historic Presbyterian Cemetery and Columbarium, located within Alexandria's Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex. The Presbyterian Cemetery has close ties to the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, situated one mile east, where my family has worshipped for two generations. My parents are laid to rest in this cemetery, which holds a special place in my heart.

Most weekends, you can find me leading tours of the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex, where thirteen cemeteries are located, with over 35,000 buried. Considered one of the most historic cluster of cemeteries in the United States, I weave my enthusiasm for teaching with the stories of those interred there. I also manage a blog focused on all the cemeteries in Alexandria where the many souls buried across the city are memorialized.

In addition, I'm an active Board Member of both the Alexandria Historical Society and Lee-Fendall House Museum. As part of the Northern Virginia Cemetery Consortium, I diligently preserve endangered burial sites throughout the region.

If Alexandria’s history captivates you, I invite you to join one of my cemetery tours, read my blog on memorializing souls buried across the city’s cemeteries, or connect with me on social media. I find joy and purpose in bringing Alexandria’s rich past to life and serving my community.

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