Having been for so many of those defining moments of the new nation, a constant guide, sacrificing tirelessly of himself as a member of the First and Second Continental Congress, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, delegate and president of the Constitutional Convention, the first President of these United States, there perhaps had to be a thought by many that even as George Washington retired, even as he once more removed himself public life he would always be there, ready to return when the struggling nation needed him, much like he had when the Articles of Confederation did not prove enough for the Republic. Yet within two years of leaving the Presidency he was gone.
At dawn on December 26th, 1799 sixteen cannons would begin their bursts in Philadelphia, the national capital. They would volley every half an hour after as the Republic laid this giant of a man to rest. At noon soldiers began firing minute guns, they would continue for an hour. A mounted Trumpeter led the processional as two Marines wearing black scarves would escort an empty casket drawn by a horse with no rider. Two troops of horses would carry flags of mourning as they, with senior officers of the Infantry, Calvary and Artillery would follow. There had been a simpler funeral, one perhaps more reflective of Washington’s humbler nature, at his beloved Mount Vernon on the 18th of December. Here his body was laid to its final rest. But now the nation, that nation he gave so much of himself to, that nation that he had dedicated so much of his life in service to, needed to mourn the loss of its greatest hero, taken at 67 years of age. The bells tolled and the guns fired as fifes, wind instruments and muffled drums haunted the “Solemn and August Pageantry” with George Fredrick Handel’s Dead March. Only the second national funeral the nation had held the Casket was taken from Legislative Hall to the German Church, Zion Lutheran, the largest place of worship in the city, where Episcopal Bishop William White, once the Chaplain of the Continental Congress, presided. So revered was General George Washington that, when word of his December 14th death reached the British the colors of the Royal Navy were lowered to half-mast. In France a ten day requiem was ordered by Napoleon to mourn the death of this great man. In a Eulogy Commissioned by Congress and delivered on that grim 26th, Henry Lee III, Light-Horse Harry Lee, former Governor of Virginia, and one time member of the Continental Congress, who served closely under Washington during the War and was present at the surrender of Lord Cornwallis, a man counted as a dear, personal friend and protégé of General Washington, would reflect, “To the memory of the Man, first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life. Pious, just, humane, temperate and sincere—uniform, dignified and commanding—his example was as edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example lasting.”