The history books celebrate George Washington’s stature, military exploits, and his greatest accomplishment — uniting the country under a new government after the Revolutionary War. But they often fail to capture the extreme travel required of the man who, under pressure from peers and enemies and far away from his Virginia home, commanded the Continental Army. Washington worked from makeshift headquarters throughout Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York for almost nine years. In fact, the commander and his aides-de-camp often spent their lives on the road and around a single fireplace. The homes, tents, and taverns they stayed in became Washington’s headquarters. With the help of reinforcements from Philadelphia, daring combat orders, and strategic relocations of his troops, Washington saved the campaign, and ultimately, the new nation.
But, at the time, victory seemed elusive and obscure. During the summer of 1776, the American rebel force diminished from 19,000 men to 5,000 after a series of humiliating losses to the British military. British generals, empowered by their frequent victories, referred to Washington’s army as “a little paltry colonel of militia bandits.” The need to reverse this course amplified (as did the need for him to move and rally his troops). As Washington’s arduous itinerary grew, he wrote of his journeys in a letter to his cousin Lund Washington: “If I were to wish the bitterest curse to an enemy, I should put him in my stead.” And yet, his travel was necessary.
“He was the indispensable man,” says Glenn Marshall, town historian of New Windsor Village, NY. “He was the only person who had the ability to unite the northern and southern colonies. When Washington came around, people joined the cause.”
The commander spent cold overnights planning his military moves and dispatching orders. Although the frequency and type of accommodations of Washington’s travels wore him down, others framed his expanding itinerary as glamorous and, from a popular-culture perspective, humorous. Washington’s frequent-traveler miles inspired a comedy in the 1940s starring Jack Benny that enlisted the well-worn real-estate pitch that “George Washington Slept Here” for its title and plot.
Curated based on landmark battles, letters written in panic, and accounts of harrowing situations he faced, here is Reenact’s list of Washington’s most important overnights during his years as commander of the Continental Army.
1. Washington’s First Headquarters – July 2-15, 1775
Benjamin Wadsworth House, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Sixteen hundred soldiers lived on Harvard’s campus in the summer of 1775. Built in 1726, the Wadsworth House is the second-oldest building at Harvard, named after Benjamin Wadsworth (1670-1737), the first of several Harvard presidents to live there. At the onset of the American rebellion, Samuel Langdon, Harvard’s president for most of the Revolution, granted the house for Washington and his newly-formed Continental Army to use as its home base for a week. Realizing that he would need more time in Cambridge, Washington moved his men to the Longfellow House, Harvard Yard, and Massachusetts Hall, the oldest building on Harvard’s campus.
“As a college, we’d already been here for 140 years before the war even started,” says Tara Benedict, senior program director of Harvard’s Office of the University Marshal. “But the college itself actually picked up and relocated outside of Cambridge for a few months during the rebellion, just to get out of the way of all the craziness.”
As the war continued and the army headed south, things returned to normal on campus, and the headquarters once again became the university president’s house.
When You Go
After the Revolutionary War, the house underwent many renovations and transitions — from the president’s house, to a minister’s house, a dormitory, and now, the Office of the University Marshal. Harvard decorated the house’s parlor with 18th century furnishings and paint styles, and the original wooden floors remain. There is a plaque on the house commemorating the four enslaved Africans who worked at the house. For additional information, the National Park Service published an entire report about Washington’s time in Cambridge.
2. Ten Crucial Days – December 24, 1776
Thompson-Neely House, New Hope, Pennsylvania
Washington’s overnight stay at the home of Robert and Hannah Thompson, built in 1702, began as what is now referred to as the “Ten Crucial Days,” marking the Continental Army’s twin victories at Trenton and Princeton in the harsh winter of 1776. On the upper ford of the Delaware River, the house provided a discrete location for Washington to initiate his plan to cross the river on Christmas Night. The Thompson and Neely families tended to wounded soldiers, including future president James Monroe, while General Lord Stirling commanded American soldiers to fight off British troops attempting to cross the river.
The next night, Washington’s army crossed the icy Delaware River and won a Christmas victory against the Hessian army at Trenton that would change the trajectory of the war, as well as British leaders’ opinion of Washington.
When You Go
The Thompson-Neely House historic site is now part of Washington Crossing Historic Park in Pennsylvania. Guided tours are $6 per person and offered seven days a week, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Contact: (215) 493-4076
3. Take Me To The River – December 26 to 29, 1776
John and Hannah Harris’ House, Newtown, Pennsylvania
Directly after the Battle of Trenton, Washington and his aides regrouped in Newtown and made the decision to cross the Delaware in hope of another important victory at Princeton. An online record of the Harris family states that Washington “fell back on Newtown, where he had fixed his depot of supplies, because it was a central location, somewhat removed from the river, in a defensible country, and ease of access from all points of the country held by the American troops.” The record also notes that Washington gave the Harris family a parting gift of a teapot, which was treasured by the family and later melted into teaspoons by John Harris’ grandson.
As his army’s enlistment was coming to a close, Washington would pen a letter addressed to his soldiers, along with $10 in coins for each man who stayed: “You have done all I asked you to do and more. But your country is at stake, your wives, your houses, all that you hold dear.” Washington’s decision to re-cross the still-frozen Delaware with a battle-worn army was risky, but led to his victory at Princeton against his British adversary Lord Charles Cornwallis. Washington proved his bravery to the British, as well as his American doubters.
When You Go
This house is now a gas station, as the original building was demolished in 1863. But visitors can take a self-guided tour of historic Newtown using this map.
4. Where Souls Were Tried – December 19, 1777-June 18, 1778
Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, Isaac Potts House
A year after the “Ten Critical Days,” Washington and his men pitched their tents west of Philadelphia at Valley Forge, where they could defend themselves against British attacks from the east. Still, 2,000 men died at the Valley Forge encampment from the freezing temperatures, malnourishment, and disease. Washington and his wife, Martha, stayed in the home of Mr. Isaac Potts — a five-room, single-family house ill-prepared for the 20 soldiers in Washington’s staff who lodged there.
But this is also where Washington began training his army using a single combat manual, created by Baron Von Steuben. Warren L. Bingham, author of George Washington’s 1791 Southern Tour, says, “Despite myriad challenges, Washington nonetheless managed to hold some semblance of an army together.” Those who survived the terrible winter became better trained for battle and more organized under Washington’s leadership.
Visiting: The Valley Forge encampment is now a historical national park, open from 7:00 a.m. to dark (30 minutes after sunset) all year. Washington’s Headquarters is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Contact: (610) 783-1099
5. A Place of Deliverance – April 9, 1781
Colonel Thomas Ellison’s House, New Windsor Village, NY
From Colonel Thomas Ellison’s house on the Hudson River, Washington penned an anxious letter to his aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens, who was in Paris negotiating terms of the French-American alliance: “We are at the end of our tether,” Washington wrote, “and now or never our deliverance must come.” That deliverance came in the form of silver and the promise of a $10 million loan from the French.
Washington would stay at the Ellison house for months at a time, according to letters dated from 1779 to 1781, the years just before the end of the war. Glenn Marshall, the New Windsor town historian, says Washington used this headquarters to plan for the Battle at Stony Point in 1779, and the final American victory at Yorktown in 1781. “Washington wasn’t just sitting here,” Marshall says. “He spent a quite a bit of time here retrofitting artillery and writing letters.”
The house was right on the Hudson river, and filled with smoke from the multiple fireplaces they needed to keep warm. “There were a lot of people crammed into that oddball house,” Marshall says. “Washington had a very hectic life and a lot on his shoulders. It helped to have his entourage nearby, known as his ‘Headquarters Family,’ and visits from his wife Martha.”
Still, Washington’s impatience intensified as he was stuck in the little house on the Hudson, which provoked his infamous falling out with his aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton (yes, that Hamilton). As the story goes, in February of 1781 Washington called on Hamilton to have a word with him at the top of the stairs. Hamilton ran into Lafayette on his way to the house, delaying his meeting an extra 10 minutes, and Washington was enraged. The two exchanged 18th-century insults, Hamilton stormed out, and resigned as aide-de-camp in April.
When You Go
The original Ellison house was demolished by 1852, and is now the Knox’s Headquarters State Historic Site.
Contact: (845) 561-5498
6. Where the Heart Resides – September 9-13, 1781
Mount Vernon, Virginia
Washington simply adored Mount Vernon, situated on 5,000 acres of land granted to his great-grandfather by colonial governor Lord Culpeper in 1674. Washington once wrote of his house, plantation, and gardens, “No estate in United America is more pleasantly situated than this. It lies in a high, dry and healthy Country… on one of the finest Rivers in the world.”
Washington’s half-brother, Lawrence, named the estate after British Admiral Edward Vernon, his commander. Lawrence died in 1752, and when his widow died nine years later, George became the owner of the humble four-room house. In 1759, Washington married Martha, a wealthy widow and mother of two. After the wedding, he decided to expand the house, but the full renovations wouldn’t be completed until he returned home from the war on Christmas Eve 1783.
During the war, when his cousin Lund watched over the estate, Washington grew homesick for his land and his family. In a 1775 letter from Philadelphia sent home to Martha, Washington wrote, “I retain an unalterable affection for you, which neither time [nor] distance can change.”
Ever the stoic statesman, Washington set aside his feelings of homesickness and longing for his beloved wife, understanding that his duty was with his troops. However, Washington did spend some time at Mount Vernon in September of 1781, when he and French general, Marchal Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau (Rochambeau for short) planned their attack against Cornwallis’ troops at Yorktown.
When You Go
Over 1 million visitors travel to Mount Vernon annually. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., year round.
Contact: (703) 780-2000
7. War’s End – June 1, 1791
George Washington was elected as the first President of the United States after the colonist’s victory over the British in the Revolutionary war. But even though those long, strenuous nights tried his resolve, his willingness to travel just about anywhere proved so valuable, he continued the practice after taking office. Washington’s 1791 Southern Tour after the war’s end continues to inform how we see the history of our nation.
Warren L. Bingham, author of George Washington’s 1791 Southern Tour, describes the 1,900-mile, three and a half-month journey through Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia as remarkable, but physically and emotionally demanding on the 59-year-old chief executive. Prior to his Southern Tour, Washington had never traveled south of Virginia.
“During the Southern Tour, which was essentially a means for Washington to ‘see and be seen’ in his effort to promote the Constitution and federal government, he especially enjoyed seeing some of the southern battlefields of the Revolution,” Bingham says.
Washington spent the night of June 1 at the courthouse, near present-day Greensboro, and studied the site where the brutal Battle of Guilford Courthouse had taken place nearly a decade prior. The British technically won the battle, fought between American General Nathanael Greene and British General Cornwallis’ forces. But the British suffered so many casualties and lost control of so much inland territory that the victory really belonged the rebels’. The battle was considered the turning point of the war, and signaled the beginning of the end of the British control.
Contact: (336) 288-1776
Cover photo courtesy of Gavin Ashworth, Mount Vernon.