In the annals of history, there are figures whose contributions often go unnoticed, overshadowed by more prominent individuals or events. Sarah Scott Tracy and Ann Pamela Cunningham are two such figures whose tireless efforts played a vital role in preserving a piece of American heritage during one of the nation’s most tumultuous times – the Civil War era. In this blog post, we delve into the lives and remarkable achievements of these unsung heroes, exploring their roles in safeguarding a national treasure and illuminating a lesser-known facet of American history.
Sarah Scott Tracy’s Journey
Born in Troy, NY, in 1820, Sarah Scott Tracy’s life took a transformative turn when she attended the Troy Seminary, known today as the Emma Willard School. After graduating, she embarked on a journey that led her to become a governess and eventually the secretary to Ann Pamela Cunningham.
Ann Pamela Cunningham’s Vision
Ann Pamela Cunningham, born in South Carolina in 1816, is best remembered as the founder of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association. Established in 1853, this association marked the inception of America’s first historic preservation movement. Under Cunningham’s leadership, Mount Vernon, George Washington’s iconic estate, was opened to the public, allowing people to connect with the nation’s history firsthand.
The Restoration Efforts
Tracy played an instrumental role in Cunningham’s preservation efforts. Tracy’s involvement extended to fundraising and overseeing the initial restoration projects at Mount Vernon. Her dedication and meticulous attention to detail shone through as she undertook tasks like selecting carpets and oilcloth for the estate.
Mount Vernon during Turbulent Times
As the Civil War loomed and national tensions escalated, Ann Pamela Cunningham temporarily left Mount Vernon to tend to her family property. During her absence, Tracy, along with Upton Herbert, the first Superintendent of Mount Vernon, took on the responsibility of safeguarding the estate’s grounds.
Maintaining Neutrality and Protection
Tracy’s unwavering dedication to preserving Mount Vernon led her to meet with Union General Winfield Scott and the Virginia governor. She negotiated pledges to prevent armed soldiers from entering the estate’s grounds, thus keeping Mount Vernon neutral. Her role extended to meeting with both Union and Confederate officers as they rotated in and out, reinforcing the preservation policies.
Tracy faced myriad challenges during the war, from procuring passes to travel through military encampments to ensuring the estate’s mail service continued. Her efforts even included selling vegetables grown on the estate to sustain the staff. Her determination to preserve the property remained steadfast, despite obstacles.
A Brave Journey: Delivering Hidden Treasure
One of the most captivating stories surrounding Tracy involves her daring journey to protect a substantial sum of money. The Mount Vernon Ladies Association had purchased the estate and surrounding land, but when Union troops sought to confiscate the funds after John Augustine Washington III’s death, Tracy stepped in. Concealing the money within her basket of eggs, she navigated through 75,000 Union soldiers, successfully safeguarding the funds at Riggs Bank in Washington, DC.
Legacy and Final Resting Place
Sarah Scott Tracy’s devotion to Mount Vernon endured until her retirement in 1867. She married Upton Herbert in 1872, and the couple settled at Bleak House, Herbert’s Virginia estate. Unfortunately, Bleak House was destroyed by fire in 1885, erasing many letters from the Civil War era. Tracy passed away in 1896, followed by Herbert in 1906. Their tombstone inscription aptly captures their spirit of service and dedication to others.
The Commemorative Resting Place in Ivy Hill Cemetery
Upton Herbert’s connection to the Burke and Herbert families, founders of the Burke and Herbert Bank, and their involvement in Ivy Hill Cemetery offers insight into the final resting place of Tracy and Herbert. This cemetery, established in 1856, holds a significant place in Alexandria’s history. Ivy Hill’s grounds serve as the eternal resting place for individuals who shaped the town’s destiny and left an indelible mark on its legacy.
Sarah Scott Tracy and Ann Pamela Cunningham may not have been widely recognized during their lifetimes, but their contributions to preserving Mount Vernon during the Civil War era deserve acknowledgment and praise. Through their determination, resourcefulness, and dedication, they ensured that this piece of American history would endure for generations to come. As we reflect on their stories, we gain a deeper appreciation for the unsung heroes who shaped our nation’s heritage.
Sources of Information
Muir, D. T. (1993). Mount Vernon: The Civil War Years. The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.
Boundary Stones – WETA. (2023, June 2). A House Undivided: Sarah Tracy’s Mount Vernon During the Civil War.
Civil War Talk. (n.d.). A Tuesday Tea with Sarah Tracy at Mount Vernon. [Link]
Johnson, G. W. (1991). Mount Vernon: The Story of a Shrine. The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.
Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. (n.d.). Past Directors: Upton Herbert. [Link].