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In Washington's Footsteps

by Kathryn Boughton

When George Washington was given command of the Continental Army in 1775, he had to write a delicate letter home, telling his wife what he had done.

What he had done, exactly, was to accept a command—then considered traitorous and now patriotic—that put his life and all of their property in danger. He knew she wouldn’t like it. “I am now set down to write you on a subject which fills me with inexpressible concern,” he started, “and this concern is greatly aggravated and Increased, when I reflect upon the uneasiness I know it will give you.”

He assured her that he had done everything in his power to avoid this honor. He had not; in an early form of subliminal advertising he had stuffed his middle-aged body into his 30-year-old uniform from the French and Indian War and was the only man in the Congressional chamber in military garb.

He promised Martha he would be home in a matter of months. He would not. It would be six years before he revisited Mount Vernon and then for only the briefest of visits. In all, George spent eight years on the road, nearly 3,000 days and nights. No wonder, so many places claim, “George Washington slept (stopped, ate, passed through) here.”

In all, Washington’s travels took him as far north as Maine and as far south as South Carolina. He visited Connecticut frequently and was not unknown in Litchfield County. Here, four sites can claim a Washington association and one town, Washington, was named in his honor. (Lee MA was named for another Revolutionary luminary—Charles Lee—but it is unclear why its denizens chose to name their town for an eccentric, slovenly, foul-mouthed general who was ultimately court martialed and cashiered out of service.)

So, what brought Washington to Litchfield County? Usually, he was going somewhere else. The County had yet to gain its reputation as the place to go for the weekend, but it did have other allures for the commander-in-chief, not the least was its role as the Provision State, providing food and munitions for the army. Important in this role was the town of Litchfield, a hotbed of sedition located at a crossroads between important Connecticut towns and the strategic military posts in the Hudson River Valley.

Patriots used the town as a critical supply depot for military stores and munitions. The town had produced Governor Oliver Wolcott, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and was where Benjamin Franklin’s Tory son, New Jersey Governor William Franklin, was imprisoned. It would, after the war, be the home of Washington’s spymaster, Benjamin Tallmadge, who lived on North Street.

Litchfield’s most unusual role in the Revolutionary War was played by its women and children. In 1776, the Sons of Liberty pulled down the equestrian statue of King George III on Bowling Green in New York City. The pieces were sent on to Litchfield, where many of the town’s women and children cast them into 42,000 bullets in the orchard behind Wolcott’s South Street home.

Washington spent at least one night in the town, date unknown. As was his custom, he avoided any appearance of political favoritism by staying in a public house, Sheldon’s Tavern, built in 1760 for Elisha Sheldon. Washington is said to have slept in the northeast bedroom. The house exists today, but Washington probably would not recognize it. It was expanded and restyled during the Colonial Revival.

Overall, at least twenty historical markers located in Connecticut lay claim to having George Washington “pause,” “sleep,” “visit” or “travel through.”

In 1775 he passed through Connecticut on his trip from Philadelphia to assume leadership of patriot troops gathered outside Boston to resist British tyranny. In 1780 he made a secret journey from his headquarters in New Jersey to Hartford to meet with the patriots’ new allies, the French—perhaps this was the occasion of his visit to Litchfield and in 1781 Washington moved through the region on his way to Newport RI to confer with the French.

Late Friday, March 2, 1781, he was in Dover, stopping for the night at the Morehouse Tavern, but Saturday saw him up early and making his way toward Kent, where he would cross the Housatonic on the then-uncovered bridge kept by Jacob Bull.

Records are not clear as to what happened when Washington and his military family crossed the river. Some sources say Bull was reconstructing the bridge and not all the planks had been secured. Washington's aide, Tench Tilghman, notes in his memoranda of expenses for this journey that $215 was paid for "Getting a horse out of Bulls Falls." Some have argued that this apparently substantial sum indicates it was actually Washington’s horse that went off the bridge and into the icy river, but by 1781 Continental current was so devalued—167½ Continental paper dollars equaled one dollar in metal coins—so it would be wrong to assume that it was a particularly valuable horse that needed to be fished out of the river. Still, it was important enough to Washington to bill its retrieval to the government, so it could have been his own mount.

Just a little down the road in Gaylordsville, is the site of the old white oak that for centuries was honored the council site for Washington, Lafayette and twenty-two officers in September 1780. The group was on its way to Hartford, having left New Jersey three days before, and had just taken lunch with Deacon Benjamin Gaylord. The tree, carefully tended by the DAR, lived on long after its illustrious visitors, finally crashing to the ground in 2003, aged about 300.

It was not the only tree to shade the commander and chief in Litchfield County. In New Preston, a hamlet of Washington, the Cogswell maple—said in 1938 to be the largest of its species in Connecticut—cooled the tavern owned by Squire William Cogswell. Some sources say Washington slept there, but his diary entry of May 25, 1781 mentions only that he “Breakfasted at Squire Cogswell’s.”

His breakfast with Cogswell makes sense considering the innkeepers’ long Revolutionary history. In 1774, Cogswell was appointed to the Connecticut Committee of Correspondence, tasked with communicating all information regarding British war movements. In December 1775, he served on the Committee of Inspection and Correspondence. Having joined the Connecticut Militia as an ensign at the start of the war, Cogswell participated in the retreat from Long Island in August 1776, was promoted to captain under Washington and marched with his company to repel the invasion of New Haven July 5, 1779. In May 1781, just as Washington was progressing through Connecticut, Cogswell was promoted to major in the 13th Regiment of the Connecticut Militia.

Cogswell Tavern is still extant, maintained as a private residence.

The peripatetic George Washington finally went home in 1783. Anyone who travels professionally for a living can appreciate his sense of relief as he settled back into the routine of a gentleman farmer, but, alas, his idyll was all too short. In 1789 he was on the road again, moving to New York City where he reluctantly assumed mythological status as the man who was “first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen” as our first president.