George Washington, following a very short illness, died on December 14, 1799. Following is an eyewitness account by his adopted son, George Washington Parke Custis:
Twenty-eight years have passed since an interesting group were assembled in the death room, and witnessed the last hours of Washington. So keen and unsparing hath been the scythe of time, that of all those who watched over the patriarch's couch, on the thirteenth and fourteenth of December, 1799, but a single person age survives.
On the morning of the thirteenth, the general was engaged in making some improvements in the front of Mount Vernon. As was usual with him, he carried his own compass, noted his observations, and marked out the ground. The day became rainy, with sleet, and the improver remained so long exposed to the inclemency of the weather as to be considerably wetted before his return to the house. About one o'clock he was seized with chilliness and nausea, but having changed his clothes, he sat down to his in-door work - there being no moment of his time for which he had not provided an appropriate employment.
At night on joining his family circle, the general complained of a slight indisposition, and after a single cup of tea, repaired to his library, where he remained writing until between eleven and twelve o'clock. Mrs. Washington retired about the usual family hour, but becoming alarmed at not hearing the accustomed sound of the library door as it closed for the night, and gave signal for rest in the well-regulated mansion, she rose again, and continued sitting up, in much anxiety and suspense. At length the well-known step was heard on the stair, and upon the general's entering his chamber, the lady chided him for staying up so late, knowing him to be unwell, to which Washington made this memorably reply: "I came so soon as my business was accomplished. You well know that through a long life, it has been my unvaried rule, never to put off till the morrow the duties which should be performed to-day."
Having first covered the fire with care, the man of mighty labors sought repose; but it came not, as it long had been wont to do, to comfort and restore after the many and earnest occupations of the well-spent day. The night was passed in feverish restlessness and pain.
"Tired nature's sweet restorer, balmy sleep," was destined no more to visit his couch; yet the manly sufferer uttered no complaint, would permit no one to be disturbed in their rest, on his account, and it was only at daybreak he would consent that the overseer might be called in, and bleeding resorted to.
A vein was opened, but no relief afforded. Couriers were despatched to Dr. Craik, the family, and Drs. Dick and Brown, the consulting physicians, all of whom came with speed.
The proper remedies were administered, but without producing their healing effects; while the patient, yielding to the anxious looks of all around him, waived his usual objections to medicines, and took those which were prescribed without hesitation or remark. The medical gentlemen spared not their skill, and all the resources of their art were exhausted in unwearied endeavors to preserve this noblest work of nature.
The night approached—the last night of Washington. The weather became severely cold while the group gathered nearer to the couch of the sufferer, watching with intense anxiety for the slightest dawning of hope. He spoke but little. To the respectful and affectionate inquiries of an old family servant, as she smoothed down his pillow, how he felt himself, he answered, "I am very ill." To Dr. Craik, his earliest companion-in-arms, longest tried and bosom friend, he observed, "I am dying, sir - but am not afraid to die." To Mrs. Washington he said, “Go to my desk, and in the private drawer you will find two papers - bring them to me." They were brought. He continued - "These are my Wills - preserve this one and burn the other," which was accordingly done. Calling to Colonel Lear, he directed - "Let my corpse be kept for the usual period of three days."
The custom of keeping the dead for the scriptural period of three days, is derived from remote antiquity, and arose, not from fear of premature interment, as in more modern times, but from motives of veneration toward the deceased; for "the better enabling the relatives and friends to assemble from a distance, to perform the funeral rites; for the pious watchings of the corpse; and for many sad, yet endearing ceremonies with which we delight to pay our last duties to the remains of those we loved.
The patient bore his acute sufferings with fortitude and perfect resignation to the Divine will, while as the night advanced it became evident that he was sinking, and he seemed fully aware that "his hour was nigh." He inquired the time, and was answered a few minutes to ten. He spoke no more - the hand of death was upon him, and he was conscious that "his hour was come." With surprising self-possession he prepared to die. Composing his form at length, and folding his arms on his bosom, without a sigh, without a groan, the Father of his Country died. No pang or struggle told when the noble spirit took its noiseless flight; while so tranquil appeared the manly features in the repose of death, that some moments had passed ere those around could believe that the patriarch was no more.
It may be asked, Why was the ministry of religion wanting to shed its peaceful and benign lustre upon the last hours of Washington? Why was he, to whom the observances of sacred things were ever primary duties throughout life, without their consolations in his last moments? We answer, circumstances did not permit. It was but for a little while that the disease assumed so threatening a character as to forbid the encouragement of hope; yet, to stay that summons which none may refuse, to give still farther length of days to him whose “time-honored life" was so dear to mankind, prayer was not wanting to the throne of Grace. Close to the couch of the sufferer, resting her head upon that ancient book, with which she had been wont to hold pious communion a portion of every day, for more than half a century, was the venerable consort, absorbed in silent prayer, and from which she only arose when the mourning group prepared to lead her from the chamber of the dead. Such were the last hours of Washington.
Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, George Washington Parke Custis, 1860.
Photo: George Washington on his Deathbed, by Junius Brutus Stearns, 1851.
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