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Tour shows Mount Vernon’s role in Civil War

Washington’s estate sheltered soldiers from North, South

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A new tour of Mount Vernon is showing visitors how the Northern Virginia estate has a history beyond being home to George Washington, including a role in the Civil War.

Among the lesser-know facts is that the crumbling estate played host to thousands of soldiers from the North and South who were passing through to see the where the famous general once lived.

The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association was supposed to be overseeing improvements, Cheryl Holt, an interpreter with the "Mount Vernon in the Civil War" walking tour, said Sunday. But a year before the start of the Civil War — marked by the nearby Battle of Bull Run in 1861 — Ann Pamela Cunningham, who had been overseeing the work, returned home to South Carolina for a death in the family.

She left in charge her secretary, Sarah Tracy, a New Yorker and Northern sympathizer, and Upton Herbert, the plantation's superintendent and a Southerner.

They reasoned, Ms. Holt said, the estate was situated between the war's two sides so it would be an "island of neutrality."

Soldiers were asked to check their weapons and were offered blankets to wear around their shoulders to hide their uniforms.

Ms. Holt said troops from the both armies admired Washington because he was such a great soldier.

"They looked at and touched everything. Many of these guys had never been beyond miles of their homes," Ms. Holt told visitors as she stopping to dab away sweat with a replica U.S. flag handkerchief. "George Washington was the symbol of the country. He was the real, original superstar. After his death, his home became the symbol for America."

The tour will be offered on weekends through October as part of the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.

Ms. Holt said living on the so-called island had its advantages and disadvantages. Those inside Mount Vernon didn't know until much later about Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender April 9, 1865, or President Abraham Lincoln's assassination five days later.

In addition, the neutral status of the 8,000-acre estate indeed spared it from the "devastation" the Civil War inflicted on the surrounding countryside, but such historical accounts failed to tell the entire story, Ms. Holt said.

"Every field was burned, every wagon was burned," she said. "Everything was just decimated ... in contrast to an article that ran in a paper that talked about people coming to Mount Vernon and how beautiful it was and how it was untouched by war."

Eventually the plantation would be restored, and Ms. Tracy became Mrs. Herbert, as the two 30-somethings found love during the war.

Kathy Chelsen, an Alexandria resident and tour participant, said she could understand the concept of the island of neutrality because Mount Vernon is like "an oasis" of the 21st century.

"I've come here many times, and I liked coming to events but I also like to sit here," she said. "It's such a peaceful place."

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