This is the second of a three-part series running on Patch in honor of Women's History Month. Check back next Friday for the final installment of Patch's series about the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association.
When the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association purchased Mount Vernon in February 1860, the nation was in political turmoil.
Sectionalism threatened the union and cast a pall over the nation. Despite that, Mount Vernon Ladies' Association founder Ann Pamela Cunningham and her secretary, New Yorker Sarah Tracy, moved into Mount Vernon in order to start the process of preservation. The mansion was completely empty with the exception of a few items: a globe in Washington’s study, a key to the Bastille, and a bust by French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon.
A few months later, Cunningham was forced to leave Mount Vernon due to the death of her father. She returned to South Carolina, while Tracy remained at Mount Vernon with superintendent Upton Herbert and a few workmen and servants.
In April 1861, the Civil War began, affecting every aspect of life for the residents of Mount Vernon and keeping Cunningham from returning for six years.
Cunningham persuaded Tracy to remain at Mount Vernon during the Civil War, believing that “…the presence of ladies there would be its greatest protection, even from the unruly.” Herbert also agreed to stay with Tracy instead of joining the Confederate Army.
Although Tracy wrote to Cunningham, “This war news has completely unnerved me,” she was fearless when it came to securing Mount Vernon, sending a letter to the National Intelligencer to contradict the newspaper’s claim that Washington’s remains had been removed since the start of the war:
“Never, since first laid in this, his chosen resting place, have the remains of our Great Father reposed more quietly and peacefully than now, when all the outer world is distracted by warlike thoughts and deeds. And the public, the owners of this noble possession, need fear no molestation of this one national spot belonging alike to North and South. Over it there can be no dispute! No individual or individuals has the right, and surely none can have the inclination, to disturb this sacred deposit.”
Tracy also demanded an audience with General Winfield Scott in Washington, who agreed to forbid his soldiers from entering the grounds under arms. She also received a similar pledge regarding Confederate troops from the Virginia governor. Tracy had to meet with both armies as officers were replaced in order to remind them of the policies she helped set.
Of course there were times that soldiers strayed from the association’s policies, but Tracy always stood firm. Once, large groups of soldiers “refused to stack their arms, but were for over an hour straggling all over the place without any order, their guns in their hands. The Colonel said that if the men were to lay down their arms, we must have an order to that effect from General Scott.” Tracy recorded that she went directly to Colonel Townsend who relayed her concerns to General Scott. “He said I should have all I wanted. I received a pass and a written order, signed by General Scott, to show any of his officers who do not wish to obey our regulations.”
During the Civil War, visitation plummeted because visitors did not have a convenient way to see the Estate due to the government’s seizure of both the Alexandria and Mount Vernon boats for the Union’s efforts. Roads were also blocked. In 1864 the Association’s itemized revenue amounted to $348.03, including slightly more than $230 from visitors who never paid more than 25 cents each. Sales of potatoes, peaches, pears, tomatoes, cabbages, hay, photographs of Mount Vernon, and handmade bricks made up the rest. Tracy was frugal with the Association’s money, and reported that expenses for the same year totaled $243.30.
Although Tracy faced considerable obstacles in her quest to protect the Estate, she was successful in her mission. Tracy penned detailed accounts of crossing army lines and convinced officers to allow her to pass or escort her to the next company of soldiers. Her efforts lend themselves to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association legacy of historic preservation and strength. There was a happy ending to the story of Sarah Tracy and Upton Herbert—the couple wed in 1872, after resigning their posts at Mount Vernon.