A Nation Mourns
The passing of a great figure often marks a pivotal moment in history, and George Washington’s departure on December 14, 1799, was no exception. In a surprising turn of events, he succumbed to a brief two-day illness, leaving behind a nation in mourning. During his ailment, he received care from physicians who were not only well-known but also associated with the Meeting House congregation in Alexandria. The trio included James Craik, Elisha Cullen Dick, and William Brown, who tended to him during those final days.
The U.S. House of Representatives Speaks
The news of Washington’s departure reverberated even to the distant capital of the federal government in Philadelphia. Here, the U.S. House of Representatives eloquently expressed the nation’s loss, stating with heavy hearts, “Our Washington is no more!” These words resonated across the young nation, encapsulating the profound impact of Washington’s legacy.
Laying George Washington to Rest at Mount Vernon
On December 18, 1799, four days after his passing, George Washington’s final resting place was established at Mount Vernon. Many mourners from Alexandria embarked upon the journey to this solemn ground. Setting out early, they traversed over nine miles to pay their respects. The interment ceremony, meticulously arranged by Alexandria’s Masonic Lodge No. 22, commenced at three o’clock in the afternoon and extended its poignant proceedings until the sun dipped below the horizon.
A Solemn Commemorative Service
The commemorative service embodied honor and remembrance, with numerous congregation members participating actively. Prominent figures, including Reverends James Muir and William Maffitt, Dr. James Craik, and the bearer of the bier, George Wise, joined the gathering. Dennis Ramsay held a place of honor as an honorary pallbearer, while military units led by Robert Young and William Harper added a sense of solemnity. The involvement of Richard Hamilton, orchestrating cannon volleys from a schooner on the Potomac River, encapsulated the moment’s gravity. Remarkably, even individuals not directly tied to the Meeting House, such as Charles Little, Philip B. Marsteller, Henry Piercy, and Charles Simms, contributed as honorary pallbearers, underscoring the unity of the community during this time of remembrance.
A Series of Public Commemorations
On Friday, December 27, the initial instance of what would eventually evolve into five public commemorations for the late Washington occurred in Alexandria. This event unfolded at the Meeting House and coincided with the local Masonic lodge’s scheduled observance of St. John the Apostle Day. Notably, the celebration of St. John’s Day constituted one of the two annual public services organized by the local Masons to raise funds for those in need.
Continuing the Commemorative Journey
In the days that followed, the commemorations unfolded further. On December 29th, a Sunday marked by reflection, the second and third memorial gatherings occurred. Reverend Thomas Davis and Reverend James Muir led services that paid homage to the departed leader. Interestingly, the walking conditions led to the rescheduling of one of the services, resulting in both being conducted at the Meeting House—a testament to the adaptability of the community in times of remembrance.
Honoring the Memory with Solemnity
January 5, 1800, witnessed the fourth commemorative gathering. The Meeting House, once again, served as the backdrop for this solemn event, marking the passage of time since Washington’s departure.
A Grand Finale: Commemorating George Washington’s Birth Anniversary
The journey of commemorating George Washington culminated in a grand event on February 22, 1800, the first birth anniversary after his passing. Designated a National Day of Mourning by President John Adams, it was a day to reflect, remember, and pay respects. Alexandria’s observance of this day began with a salute of sixteen rounds fired by the town’s artillerymen, a symbolic gesture of honor. The event included a poignant procession through the streets, a journey that encapsulated the reverence of the occasion.
At the Meeting House, the commemorative ceremony took on a poignant form. With introductory music and an anthem, the proceedings began with solemnity. Reverend Thomas Davis initiated the event with the opening prayer, followed by Reverend James Muir’s discourse and Dr. Elisha Cullen Dick’s eulogy. Reverend William Maffitt brought the event to a close with a final prayer. The ceremony’s end saw a procession of attendees returning to the town square, echoing the unity and sense of remembrance that characterized the event.
Carrying On the Legacy
Today, the legacy of George Washington lives on in Alexandria’s traditions. The nation’s longest-running and largest George Washington Birthday parade, held during each President’s Day Holiday, maintains a connection to these historic events. As the parade route passes by the Meeting House, it serves as a tangible link to the past—a reminder of the unity, reverence, and commemoration that have endured through the ages.
Sources of Information
Moore, G. M. (1949). *Seaport in Virginia George Washington’s Alexandria*. Richmond, VA: Garrett and Massie, Incorporated.
Powell, M. G. (2000). *The History of Old Alexandria, VA, from July 13, 1749 – May 24, 1861* (W. E. Pippenger, Index). Westminster, MD: Willow Bend Books.
Dahmann, D. C. (Archivist), & Old Presbyterian Meeting House member. (2022). *The roster of Historic Congregational Members of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House* [Manuscript].
*Old Presbyterian Meeting House’s Visitor’s Guide to Alexandria’s Historic Old Presbyterian Meeting House*. (Trifold pamphlet).
The Presbyterian Meeting House. (n.d.). *Church history*. Retrieved from [URL]