During the fall of 1783, 51-year-old General George Washington wanted nothing so much as to spend the upcoming Christmas at his Mount Vernon home. The Revolutionary War was all but over. Once the British evacuated New York and the peace treaty was signed in Paris, Washington could head for Annapolis to resign his commission as commander in chief. Only then would he ride home.
For the first time in eight and one-half years, Washington found time for relaxation while awaiting the peace treaty. As two-thirds of the Continental Army had already been sent home, he seized the chance to spend two weeks exploring upstate New York. He also had his aides pack his 28 volumes of wartime correspondence into trunks to send home by wagon.
On September 3, representatives of both the United States and King George III of Britain signed the Treaty of Paris, ending the American Revolution. The news reached Washington two months later, on November 1. To his chagrin, he then had to beg Congress for back pay for his departing officers from depleted federal coffers.
Finally, he was able to begin his series of farewells. With wife Martha, Washington addressed the soldiers still in New York, thanking them for fighting for their common cause. According to Lady Washington, some soldiers wept openly as the army disbanded.
The New Yorkers were psyched for a boisterous celebration, but the British were tarrying. Before the last redcoats sailed away from lower Manhattan on November 23, they greased the flagpole to delay the raising of the American flag. Then the roar of the cannon signaled the approach of Washington and New York Gov. George Clinton, both on horseback, and an escort of light dragoons — cavalry — riding into New York City in triumph.
By early December, Washington had sent Martha home to Mount Vernon by coach with a promise to join her for Christmas. On December 4, he bade an emotional farewell to a band of his longtime officers. Casting aside his normal reserve, Washington kissed and embraced each man, tears streaming.
Receptions, routs, balls — and shopping, of course — crowded Washington’s eight days in New York. Cheering crowds slowed his progress as he left the city and traveled southward, making stops in New Jersey and Philadelphia.
Next it was on to Annapolis, the temporary seat of Congress at the time.
Abuzz with anticipation, Annapolis was well prepared for the historic visit. On December 19, traveling via the stagecoach road that has since been renamed Generals Highway (Md. Rt. 178) to commemorate this historic visit, Washington approached. At the outskirts of the city, he was greeted by a delegation of dignitaries who accompanied him to Mann’s Tavern. Congress planned to fete Washington with a celebratory dinner and ball on December 22. The following day, he would submit his resignation before Congress in a public ceremony.
Several hundred people attended the dinner and the exuberant ball. One, James Tilton, wrote that Washington danced every set, so that each lady present might “get a touch of him.”
Shortly before noon on December 23, Washington arrived at the State House, resplendent in the blue and buff uniform of a Continental Army officer. From his seat on the dais, he looked out over an audience of 20 legislators. The outside doors opened, and in streamed the public. The men took seats on the first floor as ladies — then not permitted on the Senate floor — filled the galleries.
At noon, Washington rose from his chair and read his prepared speech, his voice and hands trembling with emotion. Concluding his remarks, he handed his commission to Thomas Mifflin, president of the Congress. Mifflin in turn commended Washington for “conducting the great military conflict with wisdom and fortitude.”
Finally, Washington shook hands with each member of Congress, effectively taking his “leave of all the employments of public life.”
Exiting the State House, Washington made a speedy getaway, thanks to the horse and attendants waiting outside. A small delegation escorted him to the South River ferry, which crossed to Londontown in present-day Edgewater. He and aides David Humphreys and Benjamin Walker plus Billy Lee, an enslaved person in Washington’s ownership, dined at Londontown. Washington and Lee continued to Mount Vernon, traveling via the Patuxent ferry to spend the night at Queen Anne in Prince George’s County.
On the following day — Christmas Eve — the pair finally ferried across the Potomac to complete their journey of well over 50 miles. Shortly before midnight, Lady Washington, close kin and servants welcomed the Master of Mount Vernon into their intimate family Christmas.
“The scene,” Washington wrote a few days later, “is at last closed.”