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Di Leo: George Washington: A Hero in Battle, a Role Model in Retirement 



Washington's farewell to his officers by Alonzo Chappel c 1866

By John F. Di Leo - 

Throughout the long War of Independence, Samuel Fraunces and his New York City tavern were closely tied to the Glorious Cause.  

Located behind enemy lines, as they say (NYC was occupied by the Redcoats for almost the entire war), Fraunces Tavern was a meeting place both for the British military and for loyalist society.  General Washington first dined there in April of 1776, before the British occupation, and he came to depend on Samuel Fraunces for both intelligence and supplies throughout the duration. 

So it was fitting that, finding himself in New York at war’s end, he should schedule a personally important event there. 

On December 4, 1783, a full two years after Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown, General George Washington called a final, farewell dinner with his officers, and said a tearful goodbye to the men who had fought alongside him for eight long years. 

It had been a long journey indeed.  When he was appointed Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, way back in May of 1775, his military experience was limited to having fought against French soldiers and their American Indian allies in the frontier, during the Seven Years War, almost 20 years earlier.   

Washington had spent the time in between as a planter, merchant, and legislator.  And he was up against the expert commanders of Great Britain, the most militarily powerful country on earth at the time – professional generals and admirals with an army and navy that dwarfed Washington’s. 

So General Washington designed a modified Fabian strategy, seeking impressive victories when he could get them, but largely, waiting out the British, building public support here while public support for the war in Britain gradually dwindled.   

Part of this strategy depended on intelligence; Washington built up a spy network, particularly in the Loyalist stronghold of New York. Quality intel from people as diverse as chef Samuel Fraunces, pretend loyalist printer James Rivington, haberdasher Hercules Mulligan, and the ladies of the Culper spy ring made it possible to turn the apparent negative of the British occupation of New York into a positive. Again and again as the war wore on, information from New York arrived in time to keep the Continental Army united, and that’s what kept our movement alive through the long war. 

Finally, in September, 1781 at Yorktown, we scored a huge victory, six and a half years after Washington took charge. It took two more years to negotiate a peace, but there they were, in New York again, as the end of 1783 approached, watching the last British ships sail out of New York’s harbors, the occupiers gone at last. 

In those long years, New York had changed. 

The occupiers had taken over businesses from patriots, putting loyalists in charge of breweries, taverns, and other shops for the duration.  Our nascent country’s courtrooms had to sort out ownership and profit questions among returning patriots and squatting loyalists, creating plenty of work for such attorneys as Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in the months and years following the British departure. 

Some civilians who were revealed to be loyalists were spurned and fled to England or Canada alongside the departing soldiers.  Some civilians who were revealed to have been patriot spies were finally able to be embraced and thanked in person, after years of having to hide their affiliation.  This was particularly difficult for double agents like James Rivington, who lost his loyalist clientele, but was distrusted by patriots unaware of his years of service to Washington’s spy network. Rivington lost his business and his fortune, and died in poverty. Not all of war’s casualties are on the battlefield. 

As General Washington watched the ships sail out of New York, between November 25 and December 4, he may have thought back on a similar departure, from the beginning of the war.  Washington had commanded the Continental Army at its beginning, keeping up appearances during the long Siege of Boston, when from April 1775 through March 1776, a largely unarmed army camped outside the city, hoping to scare the Redcoats into leaving, until Henry Knox finally delivered the Guns of Ticonderoga that enabled the Colonials to win the shocking Battle of Dorchester Heights.   

Then too, loyalist civilians and British regulars packed up their things and boarded ships, many to return to England forever.  But then, the soldiers and sailors planned to return, and fought a long war once they regrouped in Canadian ports and gathered reinforcements from the mother country. 

There would be no such return this time.   

George Washington and his officers had done the impossible. They had defeated the greatest power on earth, and were now, finally, driving out the last encampment of British power on our soil. This had to be a moment of incredible pride. 

The Continental Army had not done it alone, of course. There were state militias to help on the battlefield, diplomats who built alliances with Britain’s enemies abroad (especially the French), the polemicists like Hamilton and Paine who built up public support, the financial wizards like Robert Morris, Gouverneur Morris, and Haym Solomon who stretched meager finances for 8 hard years, the civilians who provided services and supplies to a shoestring army. There was a great deal of credit to go around. 

But still, General Washington knew – as a citizen soldier – that the nation owed a debt of gratitude to its men in the field, from enlisted man to officer, that it could never repay.  Washington had been unsuccessful in getting Congress to find a way to pay them what was owed thus far, and it would take another ten years and great effort for his team to get that job done. 

So it was with more than the usual level of bittersweet feelings that the General, aged before his time by bearing such burdens on his shoulders, held this final dinner at Fraunces Tavern on December 4. 

It is said that, when the last British ship passed out of sight, General Washington and his officers filed into Fraunces Tavern in single file, gathering in the meeting room for a final, tear-filled meeting. 

For eight years, these men had seen him as the model of stoic leadership.  He lived in the same miserable winter quarters at Valley Forge as his soldiers; he cheered them up with confident reports in his General Orders; he maintained discipline with a ramrod bearing and a permanent look of seriousness. 

But on this occasion, the war won, his long exile from his beloved home finally at an end, he broke down. He had decided to formally resign his commission in front of the Confederation Congress later that month, but this was not yet widely known. Most assumed he would remain in the public eye as leader of a much-reduced peacetime military, or take public office as a legislator again. Few dreamed that he would, like Cincinattus, truly retire completely to his farm, though it had been his plan all along. 

At Fraunces Tavern that December, General Washington gave no long speech.  After the men tried to eat and drink, the General signaled for everyone to pour a glass for a toast, and he stood up to address them. 

“With a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your later days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.”   

(source: “George Washington” by Willard Sterne Randall, 1997) 

Then he met each officer with a personal moment, a handshake or embrace, and brief word of farewell. 

From the first hug with his protégé Henry Knox, the tears started to flow. These were aides and commanders, many of whom had been with him from the beginning of the war. Many had risen from volunteer to general through their own ability and General Washington’s guidance.  All of them knew how critical General Washington had been to America. 

What they did not know, of course – what even the General himself did not know – was that his service was not in fact at an end.  America had no head of state at the time (the president under the Articles of Confederation was more a Speaker of the House than a head of state), so there was no such post for anyone to imagine George Washington accepting for his next role.  While we know that a 1787 Constitutional Convention would call him back from retirement to preside, and we know that a new government would result that would call him to eight more years of service from 1789 through 1797, none of that could be foreseen at the time. 

The General truly meant to retire all along, and so he did.  He and his loyal wife Martha, who had stayed with him in those miserable winter quarters every year through the war, were finally packing up their household and heading back to Mount Vernon, intending to be home for good, by the new year.   

There were more dinners to follow, including a huge one at Annapolis before his formal resignation to congress. There were parades along the Washingtons’ return route, as a grateful nation thanked him for the service that, truly, nobody else on earth could possibly have accomplished. 

But this dinner at Fraunces Tavern is the one we remember.  The juxtaposition of departing Redcoats and retiring Colonists, the touching farewells of tough military men who had stood strong in battle after battle, the beautiful moment of freedom in a city finally released from occupation… it’s a powerful image, and a reminder of what our Founding Fathers worked for, so long and so hard, over two centuries ago. 

The American War of Independence was the culmination of the Scottish Enlightenment, the delivery of a promise of liberty that required a new world in which to take root.  

The United States were to be the pinnacle of Western Civilization, setting the highest standards of any nation in history, and electing statesmen committed to the highest principles. 

And George Washington, businessman and commander, was first among them, not only in government service, but in retirement as well.  There was no finer private citizen than this man of wisdom, courage, and honor. 

Copyright 2020 John F. Di Leo  

John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based transportation professional, writer and actor.   A former county chairman of the Milwaukee County Republican Party, his columns have been found in Illinois Review since 2009.  As an actor, he will next be seen on stage this weekend, in the world premiere of Eileen Mitchell’s new comedy, “Pillow Fight,” in an online-only 3:00pm CST matinee hosted by Barrington’s White House. 

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Photo:  Shown is the 1866 commemoration of the dinner at Fraunces Tavern, "Washington's Farewell to His Officers" by Alonzo Chappel.


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  1. George Washington was a remarkable leader. He not only defeated the colossal Britain but essentially founded the Presidency.The appelation “Father of the country” is truly appropriate Yet always wondered if he truly found peace and contentment after his incredible achievements. Do old generals live peacefully long after the young soldiers they led died in battle or suffered horrendous wounds? It should be noted that Washington did support his estate by distilling whiskey during his relatively brief retirement after his public service.