This Day in History: George Washington’s final farewell to the Army
On this day in 1783, George Washington says his final goodbye to a group of officers at Fraunces Tavern in New York.
New York had served as the British headquarters throughout the long years of the American Revolution. It was the last city to be evacuated when the war was over! On November 25, however, the British finally left, and George Washington entered the city.
Despite the celebrations and elaborate dinners that ensued over the course of the next week, the British hadn’t entirely left the area. Some lingered on boats nearby. Others were still on Staten and Long Islands. They were waiting for the weather to clear sufficiently for a voyage across the Atlantic, and they were waiting for sufficient transports. Even as the celebrations continued, Washington waited for this final departure.
One of his biographers explains: “Not an hour would Washington remain in New York, as Commander-in-Chief, beyond the time all danger of a clash of arms had ended.”
On December 1, British Sir Guy Carleton wrote to Washington: “Wind and weather permitting, I hope that the Embarkation of such of his Majesty’s Troops as yet remain on Long Island and Staten Island may be completed [by December 4].”
Surely Washington was thrilled to receive the letter! He was always aching to return to his beloved Mount Vernon. A farewell to his officers was scheduled for noon on December 4 at Fraunces Tavern.
The meeting was not exceptionally large, with fewer than 30 officers gathered. Importantly, the head of Washington’s secret Culper Spy Ring, Benjamin Tallmadge, was in the room that day. He later wrote of the experience:
“We had been assembled but a few moments, when His Excellency entered the room. His emotion, too strong to be concealed, seemed to be reciprocated by every officer present. After partaking of a slight refreshment, in almost breathless silence, the General filled his glass with wine, and turning to the officers, he said: ‘With a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.’” He concluded, “I cannot come to each of you, but shall feel obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand.”
Historian Thomas Fleming has offered an alternative explanation for the strong emotions that day: There had been a fair amount of dispute regarding soldiers’ pay in recent months. Was Washington simply upset that he’d failed to get more for his men? Was he leaving on a note of regret?
Either way, the tears apparently flowed freely after Washington’s short speech. Henry Knox was the closest to Washington. Tallmadge again reports that Washington “suffused in tears, was incapable of utterance, but grasped [Knox’s] hand; when they embraced each other in silence. In the same affectionate manner, every officer in the room marched up to, kissed, and parted with his General-in-Chief.”
After this solemn farewell, Washington went down to the wharf where a barge was waiting for him. He was leaving the city, but he would soon appear before the Continental Congress to resign his commission.
The war was over. Our independence was won.
Benjamin Tallmadge, Memoir of Col. Benjamin Tallmadge (1858)
C. Brian Kelly, Best Little Stories from the American Revolution (2011)
Documents of the Senate of the State of New York (1904) (Vol. 5)
Douglas Southall Freeman, George Washington, a Biography, Vol. V: Victory with the Help of France (1952)
Edward G. Lengel, General George Washington: A Military Life (2005)
Stanley Weintraub, General Washington's Christmas Farewell: A Mount Vernon Homecoming, 1783 (2003)
Thomas Fleming, Why Washington Wept (Dec. 4, 2007)