Last week we saw an elaborate ceremony for a departing military administrator, so it seems appropriate to recall how Gen. George Washington bid farewell to his officer corps at the end of the Revolutionary War.
This description of the event at the Fraunces Tavern in New York comes from the memoir of Col. Benjamin Tallmadge, Washington's deputy for intelligence:
The time now drew near when the Commander-in-Chief intended to leave this part of the country for his beloved retreat at Mount Vernon. On Tuesday, the 4th of December, it was made known to the officers then in New York, that Gen. Washington intended to commence his journey on that day. At 12 o’clock the officers repaired to Francis' Tavern, in Pearl Street, where Gen. Washington had appointed to meet them, and to take his final leave of them.Of course, Washington came back to the national scene, first to chair the Constitutional Convention of 1787, then as President from 1789 to 1797, and finally as commander-in-chief during the “quasi-war” scare of 1798. But one of his greatest services to the U.S. of A. was to establish a tradition of bidding farewell to public posts when voluntary retirement from a position of unequaled power in a society was practically unknown.
We had been assembled but a few moments, when His Excellency entered the room. His emotion, too strong to be concealed, seemed to be reciprocated by every officer present. After partaking of a slight refreshment, in almost breathless silence, the General filled his glass with wine, and turning to the officers, he said, “With a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.”
After the officers had taken a glass of wine, Gen. Washington said: “I cannot come to each of you, but shall feel obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand.”
Gen. [Henry] Knox being nearest to him, turned to the Commander in Chief, who, suffused with tears, was incapable of utterance, but grasped his hand; when they embraced each other in silence. In the same affectionate manner, every officer in the room marched up to, kissed, and parted with his General-in-Chief.
Such a scene of sorrow and weeping I had never before witnessed, and hope I may never be called upon to witness again. It was indeed too affecting to be of long continuance—for tears of deep sensibility filled every eye—and the heart seemed so full, that it was ready to burst from its wonted abode. Not a word was uttered to break the solemn silence that prevailed, or to interrupt the tenderness of the interesting scene. The simple thought that we were then about to part from the man who had conducted us through a long and bloody war, and under whose conduct the glory and independence of our country had been achieved, and that we should see his face no more in this world, seemed to me utterly insupportable.
But the time of separation had come, and waving his hand to his grieving children around him, he left the room, and passing through a corps of light infantry who were paraded to receive him, he walked silently on to Whitehall, where a barge was waiting. We all followed in mournful silence to the wharf, where a prodigious crowd had assembled to witness the departure of the man who, under God, had been the great agent of establishing the glory and independence of these United States. As soon as he was seated, the barge put off into the river, and when he was out in the stream, our great and beloved General waived his hat, and bid us a silent adieu.
We paid him the same compliment, and then returned to the same hotel whence Gen. Washington had so recently departed.