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Woman's Tenacity Saves Mount Vernon

While sectional strife was tearing the country apart, Sarah Tracy left her New York home for Virginia to take on the task of preserving the home of George Washington. In May 1861 while the North and South raced headlong into an armed conflict, Tracy was persuaded to stay at Mount Vernon. For four years during the nation’s darkest hours of the Civil War, Tracy protected Mount Vernon from destruction. Mount Vernon was in a poor state, having been vacant for years. Despite this, Mount Vernon was still a national treasure. Washington had been buried at his beloved Mount Vernon and Tracy feared what would happen to the home and Washington’s remains if left unattended. Ann Pamela Cunningham, who had been forced to return to South Carolina and remained there until the end of the war, asked Tracy to stay at Mount Vernon, thinking that “. . . the presence of ladies there would be the greatest protection, even from the unruly.” While news of the pending war worried her, Tracy agreed to stay. She was joined by superintendant Upton Herbert and a handful of workmen and servants. Eventually, the workmen were discharged because of an inability to pay them. One of Tracy’s first chores was to put an end to rumors that ran like wild fire concerning Mount Vernon. Southerners were afraid the Union army would try to occupy Mount Vernon just as they had done with Arlington. Meanwhile, the Washington paper, the National Intelligencer reported that Washington’s body had been removed. In a letter to the paper, Tracy wrote, “Never, since first laid in this, his chosen resting place, have the remains of our Great Father reposed more quietly and peacefully than now, when all the outer world is distracted by warlike thoughts and deeds. And the public, the owners of this noble possession, need fear no molestation of this national spot belonging alike to North and South. Over it there can be no dispute.”To insure that Mount Vernon remained safe and free from armed conflict, Tracy demanded a meeting with General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, who agreed to forbid Union soldiers from entering Mount Vernon grounds under arms. Similarly, Virginia governor John Letcher pledged southern troops would also observe her rules. While Tracy worked hard to keep conflict away from Mount Vernon, the surrounding area had numerous soldiers from North and South as well as battles. During First Manassas, the Mount Vernon windows shook from cannon fire from the fighting. Occasionally, Tracy had to remind soldiers of her agreement with Scott and Letcher but most respected her wishes. Many soldiers, from North and South, walked to Mount Vernon from their camps, asking to tour the home of the nation’s revered first president. Most of the soldiers stacked their arms outside the estate grounds before entering. Tracy preferred the soldiers dress in civilian clothes instead of wearing the uniforms of two warring nations. A number of the soldiers only had their uniforms. They would cover their uniforms with shawls in honor of Tracy’s request. Tracy and Herbert conducted tours to groups of three. Some soldiers even paid the twenty-five cent fee to tour Mount Vernon while others claimed to have no money.Tracy raised vegetables on the Mount Vernon estate which she sold at markets in Washington and nearby Alexandria, Va. To get to these markets, Tracy had to get special passes that would allow her to pass through military picket lines and encampments. From her vegetables sales, Tracy returned to Mount Vernon with much-needed meat and supplies. In the fall of 1861, Scott had stepped down as general-in-chief with Major General George B. McClellan assuming the rank. Initially, McClellan deemed Tracy’s pass null and void and she was no longer allowed to pass through Union lines to Washington. Not to be deterred, Tracy slipped through a Union blockade and talked her way into the White House where she met President Abraham Lincoln. The determined Tracy convinced Lincoln to countermand McClellan’s order and she received a new pass, allowing her to pass through the Union army with her groceries and supplies. Sensing that Tracy knew people in high places, McClellan offered to send a boat with provisions to Mount Vernon. Tracy remained at Mount Vernon throughout the Civil War, keeping a journal of her experiences during that time. Tracy left Mount Vernon in 1867 while Herbert remained a year longer. In 1872, Tracy and Herbert were married.