Day 21: I Cannot Tell a Lie… (I spent too much in the gift shop)

15 Jul

Today did not turn out as I expected. That happens sometimes on CMRT. I try to plan to the best of my ability, but sometimes I bite off more than I can chew. In this case, I had to let go of something I really wanted to do. And I suppose I could feel disappointed about this, and I sort of do, but we had such a wonderful day, that it’s hard to be too disappointed. Today was Mount Vernon Day. I planned for us to spend a large portion of the day at Mount Vernon, but I had no idea they would be practically kicking us out at the end of the day! We spent a total of 7 hours at Mount Vernon today and still could have seen more of the estate! This meant that I did not get to visit the battlefield at Fredericksburg, of which I wanted to just sort of give a drive-by. More importantly, it meant that I did not get to visit Stonewall Jackson’s left arm. I won’t go into all of the details here, but Stonewall Jackson’s left arm was amputated a few days before his death. After facing friendly fire, doctors felt the only chance of saving his life lay in removing his damaged left arm. Because of his status as beloved general, his arm was given a proper Christian burial in a nearby family burial ground, instead of being added to the amputation pile at the field hospital. By the time he died several days later, his wife had arrived to be by his side. As they were preparing to ship his body back to Lexington, Virginia, they asked his wife if she wanted them to disinter his arm, so that his whole body could be buried together. She told them not to disturb a good Christian burial, and his left arm has laid in the cemetery of Ellwood Manor in Locust Grove, VA, ever since. I really wanted to go see the headstone (armstone?), but that will have to wait for another day.

I am so thankful that I spent time looking at the Mount Vernon website and pre-ordering our tickets. Not because crowds were particularly thick at around 10am on a Monday morning, but because there were so many options! I had opted for a 10:30am Mansion tour, followed by an 11:30am National Treasure tour, and the rental of 1 audio guide. I also sprung the $10 for a lovely, glossy guidebook. We breezed through the gates, and took a leisurely stroll through the gardens on our way to the mansion. I was chagrined to see that Mount Vernon was also under renovation! So much for the beautiful photo of the house on the approach. The front is almost entirely covered in scaffolding, as the wood has been stripped of paint. Sigh. But, after getting over my disappointment at not being able to take that quintessential Mount Vernon facade picture, I could see the benefit in getting to see the wood stripped down, and really get a close-up of how they are going to go about sand-painting the rusticated wood. Apparently at least 80% of the wood facing the house is original. Considering the disrepair it had been allowed to fall into before the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union picked it up in 1858, that number is shockingly high.

They have a very effective way of moving people through the mansion for tours. Groups of 20-25(?) are allowed in one room, or section, at a time. The spiel is given, you have a moment or two to look around, and then it’s off to the next room as another group is close on your heels. There is no photography allowed in the mansion itself, so it moves very smoothly. I did not at any time feel rushed during the tour. However I will say that the tour group size is maybe a little large, as you did have to kind of hang back to the back of the pack to make sure you got to look at everything since the space is fairly packed with people. The docents are very knowledgeable, so that adds a nice touch. I was surprised to see a rather famous portrait, painted by Charles Willson Peale, hanging in the front parlor. I knew for a fact that the original was hanging in Lee Chapel on the campus of Washington & Lee University! But I had forgotten that the university has since removed the two portraits of Washington and Lee dressed in their military garb. I remember, at the time I heard they were removing the portraits from Lee Chapel, wondering where they would put them. Turns out W&L loaned the Peale portrait of Washington to Mount Vernon. The one hanging in the mansion itself is a reproduction, but the original is now part of their museum display. It was strange later in the day to stand so close to that portrait, on eye-level, when I was used to it hanging in Lee Chapel for all those years. The mansion at Mount Vernon is actually a rather understated home, mostly bedrooms with just a few common areas. What, of course, makes it so astounding is its location. The views of the Potomac are divine, and I can see why the piazza on the back of the home was such a favored place.

I am a sucker for a behind the scenes tour. One of the ones offered at Mount Vernon is the National Treasure tour. If you haven’t seen National Treasure: Book of Secrets, part of the movie involves Nicholas Cage’s character, Ben Gates, “kidnapping” the president from his birthday party, which is being held at Mount Vernon. Clearly, some of this was shot on location at Mount Vernon. And this behind the scenes tour takes you into the basement of Mount Vernon, which figures prominently in a pivotal scene of the movie. Apparently they shot over 50 hours on the back lawn and down at the waterfront wharf, but only slightly less than 4 minutes of that footage makes it into the movie! As for the basement? They didn’t even film it at Mount Vernon. They recreated it on a soundstage, because there was concern that filming in situ would damage the basement. But it’s probably just as well, seeing as there is no secret tunnel leading out of the Mount Vernon basement.  But what they do have down there is graffiti. During the Civil War the Ladies who own Mount Vernon spoke to generals from both the North and the South, reminding them that Mount Vernon was hallowed ground, and getting assurances from both sides that they would leave Mount Vernon alone. And they did. But the Union army was encamped fairly nearby and some Union soldiers did come to visit the house and grounds. A few of them carved their initials into the plaster and brickwork down in the basement, and it is preserved there today.

As gorgeous as the grounds are, and it was super fun to walk around with Avery as she played the Agent 711 game about spying during the Revolutionary War, it was also roasting hot in the sun. (I’m really not looking forward, weather-wise, to our return to FL!) We happily proceeded into the Museum and Education Center. I was not prepared for how long we would want to spend there. They have such a beautifully curated exhibit entitled “Lives Bound Together,” about the lives of the enslaved people at Mount Vernon. There is a very interesting story about how they came to own so many slaves (Martha brought more than 80 slaves to the marriage as part of the Custis estate), and the problems of freeing them (Washington freed many with his will, but did not have legal authority to free those belonging to the Custis estate). It is in this exhibit that the W&L portrait is hung. But the museum that sucked us in for hours was the Education Center and their “Discovering the Real George Washington.” So many interactive displays, videos, and information. There is a wonderful 4D movie experience about his time in the Revolutionary War. And perhaps the most fun for the kids were the Be Washington interactive scenarios ( – interactive scenarios where you are asked to listen to advisors and make decisions based on situations in which George Washington did have to make decisions. I only played the Newburgh Conspiracy, but I think the girls played all 4 available scenarios. It was also amazing to view George Washington’s dentures. His literal teeth. Or, well, not his teeth, but the ones he had in his mouth. They were made out of human teeth (it is conjectured based on accounting records showing he paid several slaves for their teeth, that those might have been for him) and cow teeth. Weirdly gross, but incredibly fascinating object! But I think for me the most important thing I learned is that I had confused his horses! I thought that the white charger he is often depicted upon was Nelson, but that isn’t true! The white horse was one of his favorites named Blueskin. He certainly made a striking, and very powerfully presidential, mount. But the horse he rode most often into battle was his beloved Nelson, who was actually a chestnut stallion. My mind is blown!

It was slightly after 5pm before we left the grounds of Mount Vernon and I still don’t feel like I have completed my visit. I could easily go back to Mount Vernon for another visit, and still stay several hours. But it was time to move on, even if we weren’t going to be making any more history stops for the day. Several days ago my van started alerting me that it might be getting time for service. Meanwhile I’ve been watching the Oil percentage on my van drop from 15% tp 10% to 5% over the course of just a few days. A little troubled that it seems to be burning oil so quickly, but even though this past week has been relatively light, travel wise, I certainly have been putting her through her paces this summer. I decided that since we had dipped so low on the percentages, that maybe it would behoove me to just visit a Jiffy Lube for a quick oil change before attempting to travel almost 600 miles in one day. Luckily, there was one in Alexandria very near Mount Vernon and we were able to get that taken care of with relative speed and ease. It definitely has given Beau and I a greater sense of comfort, since we’re the ones in the front seat, staring at the warning lights!

Tomorrow is the final day of CMRT 2019. It is likely going to be brutal. If all goes well it will be around 8 hours of straight driving – obviously longer than that in terms of travel time since we will be making stops. I am hoping for strong Aleve and some flowing traffic that will allow for periodic use of the cruise control. Hard to believe it is almost over. But I cannot tell a lie… I am ready to sleep in my own bed again.



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© 2010 Krista Lindsey Willim