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Father of a Fractured Country

What a sight it must have been, to be sitting on the riverside porch of Mount Vernon late in March 1862, watching Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac glide by in a massive armada of 389 ships bound for Fort Monroe. Many of the 122,000 soldiers onboard surged to the railings to pay homage to George Washington when they floated past his home. “As we passed Mount Vernon,” Captain Francis A. Donaldson of the 118th Pennsylvania remembered, the men became silent and stood uncovered, while the band played the Star Spangled Banner, Hail Columbia and other stirring and patriotic airs.”

Southern troops had equal reverence for the first president and the Revolutionary War era. When Robert E. Lee’s wife was hurriedly evacuating Arlington House in May 1861, Lee told her that “The Mount Vernon plate and pictures ought to be secured.” Fortunately, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, founded in 1853, had taken over the dilapidated mansion in February 1860 and worked tirelessly to protect it—though its members couldn’t be everywhere at once. Union soldier Robert Knox Sneden recalled watching a comrade take a brass screw off a harpsichord at Mount Vernon. As for Sneden, he claimed that the only thing he himself took was “leaves to press for mementoes” and some “large acorns.”

Washington would likely have forgiven Sneden for taking those trifling souvenirs. It’s hard to say, however, what he or the other Founding Fathers would have thought about the storm that splintered the nation they had formed.


Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.