Old Presbyterian Meeting House

George Washington’s Funerals: Historic Commemorations at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House in Alexandria

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. His funerals and the historic commemorations held at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House in Alexandria, Virginia, marked solemn events that allowed the country to mourn its departed leader. 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.

Artist rendering of the first Meeting House built in 1775 and burned in 1835 after being hit by lighting.

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.

The restored 1837 sanctuary of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), is a vibrant congregation boasting around 1000 members. This gathering recently marked a significant milestone, commemorating its 250th Anniversary in 2022.

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), & Member of Old Presbyterian Meeting House. (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]

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By David

As a public historian, I am dedicated to preserving and sharing the rich history of Alexandria, Virginia, and the surrounding region. With a deep passion for bringing the past to life, I serve my community in this meaningful role.

Before this, I enjoyed a fulfilling career as a businessman and entrepreneur. Now retired, I have found a new sense of purpose in my work as a public historian.

Since 2015, I have had the privilege of serving as the Superintendent of the historic Presbyterian Cemetery and Columbarium, located within the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex in Alexandria. This cemetery holds a special place in my family's history, as it was started in the early 1800s by the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, a historic congregation dating back to 1772 that is situated one mile east in the heart of Old Town. The cemetery is the final resting place of my parents, and the Meeting House is where I have worshipped for over 60 years.

As a public historian, I am thrilled to lead tours of the Wilkes Street Cemetery, which has thirteen cemeteries in a complex with over 35,000 interments. It is considered the most historic cluster of cemeteries in the United States. These sacred grounds offer a fascinating glimpse into the story of Alexandria and its people. I also enjoy guiding tours of nearby Civil War battlefields, combining my passion for history with the compelling narratives of those who fought and fell on these hallowed grounds, bringing their stories to life. I primarily lead tours of Harpers Ferry, South Mountain, and the Antietam Battlefields, along with tracing the footsteps of those involved in the Assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in April 1865. I am also a licensed tour guide in Washington, D.C.

To further engage the community, I manage a blog focused on Alexandria's cemeteries, where the many souls buried across the city are memorialized. I am also an active Board Member of the Alexandria Historical Society and the Lee-Fendall House Museum.

Whether you are a resident or a visitor to the area, I invite you to explore Alexandria's rich history by joining one of my cemetery or battlefield tours, reading my blog, or connecting with me on social media. It is my sincere pleasure to bring the city's captivating past to life and serve my community meaningfully.

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