Saving Washington’s Mount Vernon

One of Mobile's grand dames of yesteryear played an integral role in preserving the home of our founding father, an effort that continues today.

Images courtesy the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

The sun streaks through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the reading room at the George Washington Presidential Library at Mount Vernon in Virginia. Washington’s meticulously restored mansion is a short walk away, presiding over the same Potomac River view since 1734.

The library’s reading room is encircled by the busts of six founding fathers — Madison, Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Hamilton and Franklin — peering over the shoulders of visiting research scholars. Just feet away, protected by security badge access and surveillance cameras, is the library’s special collections — 2,800 rare books and 130 linear feet of manuscript collections that document the lives of George and Martha Washington, related families and the history of Mount Vernon. The heart of the collection, known as the Rare Books Suite, contains over 100 books from Washington’s personal library.

But today, Washington isn’t the focus of my research — at least not directly. On the table before me sits a stack of manila folders, each one containing a different handwritten letter. The folder on top is labeled in pencil:

“Octavia LeVert to Edward Everett.”

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Mount Vernon is Ours

December 12, 1799, was a typical day for George Washington. He climbed into the saddle and began the usual inspection of his vast five-farm estate, over 8,000 acres of Virginia farmland. 

He’d known this land and the home that sits on it his entire life. Since inheriting the property from his older half-brother 38 years earlier, Washington had both added to its acreage and greatly expanded the wooden home overlooking the Potomac River. 

Mount Vernon, his pride and joy, was the epicenter of his happiness. The consistent heartache of Washington’s life was that his service to his country as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, then as his country’s first president, kept him from home for so many years. While president, Washington lamented in a letter, “I can truly say I had rather be at Mount Vernon with a friend or two about me than to be attended at the seat of government by the officers of state and the representatives of every power in Europe.”

As Washington inspected his farms that winter day, just two years after retiring from the presidency, the weather shifted from a light snow to hail and then to rain. Upon his return to the mansion, it was suggested that he change out of his wet riding clothes before dinner, but the punctual general wouldn’t hear it. He chose to remain in his damp attire.

The following day, despite a sore throat and three inches of fresh snow on the ground, Washington spent the afternoon marking trees to be removed from the property. “He had a hoarseness, which increased in the evening,” his secretary Tobias Lear later wrote, “but he made light of it.”

That night, however, Washington awoke in great discomfort. He was struggling to breathe. Several doctors were called. After a long day of 18th-century “treatments” (bleedings which likely further weakened the patient), Washington succumbed to a severe throat infection.

Over the next 50 years, ownership of Mount Vernon descended through the Washington family — and the condition of the once-great estate descended with it. By the 1850s, John Augustine Washington III (President Washington’s great-grandnephew) found that, despite his efforts, the burden of maintaining the home and property had become too great.

Around that time, a woman named Louisa Bird Cunningham was traveling on the Potomac River and passed by Mount Vernon. Struck by its haggard appearance and fearing that it would soon be lost for lack of upkeep, Cunningham wrote a letter to her daughter Ann Pamela Cunningham, a 37-year-old from rural South Carolina. In the letter, she commented that if the men of the United States would not save the home of its greatest citizen, perhaps it should be the responsibility of the women. 

These words galvanized her daughter into action. Writing into newspapers, the younger Cunningham challenged first the women of the South, and later the women of the entire country, to save the home of George Washington. After convincing John Augustine Washington III to sell the property, Cunningham and the organization she founded, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA), set out to raise $200,000, or $5.7 million today, to purchase the mansion and the 200 acres that remained. 

But to do so, she needed women of influence, stature and renown, able to use social and political connections to raise money for this noble cause. 

Mobile’s Octavia LeVert was one such woman.

Clockwise from left This 1855 photograph shows the mansion’s dilapidated state before its purchase by the MVLA. Ship masts can be seen supporting a sagging piazza. The reading room of the George Washington Presidential Library at Mount Vernon. Octavia LeVert, by unknown artist, 1867. Image courtesy wikicommons. This painting, completed between 1787-1792 by Edward Savage, is the earliest known eyewitness view of the house and grounds at Mount Vernon. 

Octavia Walton LeVert

In 1810, 11 years after Washington’s death, Octavia Celestia Valentine Walton was born outside of Augusta, Georgia. 

In retrospect, it’s clear that Octavia was predisposed to patriotism: Her grandfather, George Walton, Sr., was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. According to biographer Frances Gibson Satterfield, Octavia’s grandmother “taught Octavia American history at the age her contemporaries were listening to fairy tales. She made it so interesting and exciting that she planted the seeds for Octavia’s lifelong love of her country and her firm conviction that her grandfather was a national hero.”

When Octavia’s father was appointed Florida’s first territorial secretary in 1821, the family relocated to Pensacola. The young girl had a quick, vivacious mind, and in Pensacola’s chivalric Naval society, she absorbed the finer points of drawing-room elegance.

When she made her official entrance into society in Washington, D.C., she was a sensation. It was also during this visit that she became acquainted with some of the greatest politicians of the age. As time would show, Octavia had a knack for collecting admirers everywhere she went; her pen pals included Henry Clay, Edgar Allan Poe, Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard and Washington Irving (who once pronounced her “such a woman as occurs but once in the course of an empire”).

As the family traveled further along the East Coast, one society reporter concluded, “No queen could have met with a more enthusiastic reception.”

After her family moved to Mobile, Octavia married physician Henry Strachey LeVert, and the couple moved into an opulent house on Government Street. It was here that Octavia began, according to biographer Paula Lenor Webb, “one of the most well-known and fashionable salons in the South, a salon that became known throughout the world.”

A Call to Action

While traveling through Europe in 1855 (an experience that would make it into the pages of her successful book “Souvenirs of Travel”), Octavia visited the home of Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto in Ferrara, Italy. She later described, “As I remarked the watchful attention bestowed upon this house, I thought of Mount Vernon, the home of our Washington. Why should not that sacred spot be the object of a love as unceasing? It should indeed be the nation’s property — a Mecca, where pilgrims from all the vast regions between the Atlantic and the Pacific shores might come, and there, as at a holy altar, swear a new oath of faithfulness to the Union that his patriotism created and preserved.”

Edward Everett, a well-known politician and orator who traveled America speaking on behalf of the Mount Vernon Fund, is credited with recruiting Octavia to the cause of Mount Vernon. She took to the task with gusto, writing to a friend, “There is a charming feeling awakened here, and I am proud and glad that I have been the means of arousing the patriotic feeling of the people.”

In her book “Such a Woman: The Life of Madame Octavia
Walton LeVert,” Paula Webb writes, “Fundraising was a new venture for this lady who grew up in a wealthy society, with most of her needs fulfilled. It seemed Octavia wanted to try to bring in funding for Mount Vernon on her merit, and when she received the first donation of a thousand dollars, she was thrilled. Octavia continued her efforts by holding various balls and parties at her salon.” 

In late 1857, Octavia traveled to Boston to promote her book and to raise money for Mount Vernon. The next year, she was officially appointed the MVLA’s Vice Regent for Alabama. Cunningham organized the MVLA to be comprised entirely of women, with the Regent, or chairwoman of the board, selected from its membership. Vice regents are elected as members, with never more than one Mount Vernon Lady representing a given state at the same time. Even today, the organization, led by
Regent Margaret Hartman Nichols and 23 vice regents, thrives under this same women-led structure.

Octavia’s fundraising success made her giddy with excitement. In February 1858, she wrote to Mrs. S.L. Pellet, secretary of the MVLA, that she had successfully raised $5,000 in donations. “Ah! Dear Mrs. Pellet. I have no words to tell you how I have labored and toiled night and day in the noble cause. I have done all myself unaided and alone. Women to whom I appealed had no time from dressing and visiting to give me help. They deal me a wild enthusiast, but surely and resolutely I continued on, and success has rewarded me.”

Octavia went so far as to devote a portion of her income from “Souvenirs of Travel” for the MVLA. In response, an Augusta newspaper pronounced, “This noble, large-hearted woman, who has proven herself so worthy of her great ancestors, is toiling incessantly to swell applications in every social avenue. She has addressed glowing appeals to societies, and to the men of influence; has gone to the stores of merchants, to the offices of cotton brokers, and asked them in the name of their great father, to give something from the store of wealth to secure his home and grave.”

In October 1858, Octavia had the chance to see the home of Washington for herself, writing, “Deeply was I grieved to behold the state of neglect into which this sacred spot has fallen. There is no excuse for Mr. [John Augustine] Washington for this utter neglect of the house and grounds. He was absent or I should have told him so.”

The MVLA’s campaign was astonishingly successful, and by June 1860, the Ladies officially took possession of Washington’s home. 

Now, 163 years after the MVLA officially took ownership of Mount Vernon, the mansion has been meticulously restored to its appearance in 1799, the year of Washington’s death.

A Living Legacy

The following years would test the resolve of the nascent MVLA, but America’s first national preservation society proved resilient — even in the face of a civil war. Today, Mount Vernon is one of the nation’s most visited historic sites and is considered a pioneer in the field of historic preservation.

The Civil War proved more detrimental for Octavia LeVert. Never a strong supporter of secession, Octavia roused the suspicion of her fellow Mobilians — especially when she hosted occupying Union soldiers in her home following the capture of Mobile. Having lost her husband in 1864, Octavia found her fortune dwindling alongside her stature in Mobile society. She left the city for good and died in Augusta, Georgia, in 1877, forced to rely on the charity of family.

But today, Octavia’s legacy lives on at Mount Vernon — even beyond the archived letters containing her fundraising giddiness. Since Octavia’s tenure as Alabama’s vice regent, seven other women have held that distinction, though only two have come from the Port City: Mobile’s Vaughan Morrissette served as vice regent for Alabama and, from 1993 to 1996, served as the Association’s Regent. Mobile’s Laura Peebles Rutherford has served as Alabama’s vice regent since 2005.

“Representing Alabama in the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and sharing Washington’s legacy with the world is an unbelievable privilege,” Rutherford says. “To do so in the footsteps of Mobile’s own Octavia LeVert, whose early efforts were so vital in the purchasing of Washington’s home, makes that privilege all the more profound.”

Previously a senior writer for Mobile Bay Magazine, Breck Pappas is now the digital content creator at George Washington’s Mount Vernon in Alexandria, Virginia.

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