A New Anecdote of Washington

This is an anecdote of General George Washington saving the family farm of Revolutionary War hero Col. Seth Warner after his premature death in 1784. Seth Warner was 6'3" and was elected the leader of the Green Mountain Boys which he founded with Ethan Allen and Remember Baker. This popular anecdote first published in Harper's Monthly in December 1864 was re-published many times during the Civil War. The author interviewed Seth Warner, the youngest child of the Colonel, in 1852. However, a letter from a noted historian in 1872 cast serious doubts on the believability of this anecdote.

On June 20, 2007, I found the grave of Israel Warner, the eldest child of Col. Seth Warner in the Big Woods Cemetery in Aurora, Illinois. Israel lived to be 93 years old, dying on January 22, 1862, probably one of the last 100 surviving Revolutionary War soldiers. During the Battle of Bennington, Col. Warner was 34 and his son Israel, who at galloping speed carried a key message from his father to the General, was only 9. The battle monument is 306 feet tall. Seth Warner's statue is next to it. The Battle of Bennington is still celebrated as a legal holiday in Vermont.

In 1789 at the time of this anecdote, Israel Warner was 21; his brother Seth, 12; and George Washington, 57.

In family correspondence, it was pointed out that George Washington wanted to keep his generosity secret. This apocryphal story is a perfect example, in all of its details, of the character and personality of George Washington described in Thomas Jefferson's evaluation of him.


A New Anecdote of Washington

Col. Warner Background

It is well known that Col. Seth Warner, of revolutionary memory, who with his noted regiment of Green Mountain Boys, as rear guard of St. Clair's retreating army, after the evacuation of of Ticonderoga, beat back a whole brigade of the hotly pursuing British, in the Battle of Hubbardtown, and thus saved, probably, that luckless General's entire forces, hurrying on just in front, from rout or capture -- who came down like a thunderbolt on the flushed foe in mid-battle at Bennington, and so secured the victory for the wavering and half-beaten Stark, and who finally was everywhere known as one of the best-looking, most heroic and accomplished military officers of the Continental Army -- that Col. Warner was an especial favorite of Gen. Washington.

The preliminary, however, is here introduced, less on account of any particular pertinency most of it may have to the subject than for the propose of explanation, and securing a readier appreciation and credence of the interesting personal anecdote which is about to be related, and which, it is confidently believed, has never before appeared in print.

Seth Warner, His Son

One son of Colonel Warner still survives, or was surviving a few years ago, an unpretending resident of Lower Canada, from which -- though then seventy-five year old, but very active, and in full possession of all his strong native faculties he came to the capital of Vermont with the object of petitioning the Legislature for compensation for some lands formerly granted to the heirs of Col. Warner, but unwittingly trenched upon by subsequent grants; and it was then and there that the writer of this reminiscence was introduced to him and held several very interesting conversations.

In one of these conversations, while speaking of the private affairs of his father, Col. Warner, he frankly said that the Colonel was very thoughtless about pecuniary matters; that he not only expended in the cause of the country, or aiding the needy families of his soldiers, all his available property, but contracting many debts, which finally compelled him, a short time before his death, to place a mortgage on his homestead, amounting at least to over nine hundred dollars, and causing the family a great deal of depression and uneasiness. But of this depressing load they were at length suddenly relieved in the occurrence of a most unexpected incident, and one which formed, as well it might, quite an era in their family history. But we will let Mr. Warner, whose Christian name, we believe, was that of his father, Seth, relate the memorable incident in question in his own language; which, by the aid of the minutes before us, we know we can repeat substantially, and we think very near literally, as he made use of it.

Israel Warner, His Son

'It was,' he said, 'in the month of September, 1789, the fall that Gen. Washington made his tour through the Eastern States. We had kept ourselves tolerably well posted about the progress of this tour, and heard that he was to be in New Haven or Hartford, Connecticut, somewhere near the time at which the event I am going to relate to you took place. But as either of these places was quite a number of miles from Woodbury, where we lived, we had no more idea of seeing him than the man in the moon. My elder brother, Israel Putnam Warner, then a man grown, and myself a lad of twelve or thirteen, we were both living with my mother at that time. And at the particular time of the day I refer to, Israel was in the yard, grooming father's old war horse, which he had been compelled to go with father through all his campaigns to take charge of; for the fiery and proud old fellow would never let anybody but his master, the Colonel, and his son Israel mount or come near him, though he had now got so much tamed down by old age that he would behave quite decently with me or anybody. I was in the house with mother, who happened to be unusually downcast that day, and was brooding over our family embarrassments, and just been saying:

Mrs. Warner, His Widow

"Oh, no, Seth, I can never pay, nor, with our means, hardly begin to pay, this dreadful mortgage. And, as I hear it is about to be foreclosed, we must now soon be driven from our pleasant home, where we have lived so long, and, until you father's death so happily. My husband, the Colonel, fought as well as the bravest of them, and did all he could, and more than his part, for the good cause, they are willing to allow; and I know very well that he wore himself out in the service, and was brought to a premature grave. And yet here is his family almost on the verge of beggary."

'Tears here started in mother's eyes, which so touched me that I rose and went and looked out of the window, when, to my surprise, I saw entering the yard, two well-mounted stranger gentlemen, whom, from something about their general appearance I took to be old military officers of pretty high rank -- or at least one of them, who was large, and had a very commanding look. Having significantly beckoned mother to my side, she eagerly gazed out at the newcomers a moment in silence, when she suddenly gave a start, and, with with an excited air, exclaimed:

General Washington Arrives

"Seth! Just take notice of that noble looking one! Why, he looks ever so much like the picture I once saw of -----. But no; that surely can't be!"

"Well, at any rate, he must be a man of some consequence; for see! brother Israel, who acts as if he knew him, is swinging his hat from his head clear away at arm's length, and bowing lower than he would to a king! Israel is quite too stiff necked to do that for, any common man. But they are beginning to talk; I will just open the door here a little mite, and perhaps we may hear what they are saying."

'I did so, and the first words I distinguished were those of the personage who had so attracted our attention, and who, addressing my brother, and pointing to the horse, by the side of which he was standing, asked:'

General Washington and Israel

"Is not that the horse Colonel Warner used to ride in the war?'

"It is, your Excellency,' replied Israel, again bowing low and very respectfully.

"Ah, yes I thought so,' resumed the former, turning to his companion, or attaché, and pointing to the old war steed with that interest with which he was known ever to regard fine horses, 'I thought it could be no other. Just glance at his leading points -- shapely head, arched neck, deep chest, haunches, and limbs. I have seen Colonel Warner riding him on parade, when I noted him as a rare animal, and thought that the rider, taken together -- for Warner was a model of a figure, and several inches taller than I am -- made a military appearance second to none in the Continental army. But my business is with your mother, my young friend, and I will, if you will take charge of my horse a few minutes, go in at once to see her.'

General Washington and Mrs. Warner

'Hearing this announcement, mother and I hastily retreated to our former seats, and with the curiosity and excitement which what we had witnessed naturally raised in us, silently awaited the entry of the expected visitors. We had been thus seated but two or three minutes before he came in, and bowing graciously to my mother, said:

"I take this to be Mistress Warner, the widow of my much esteemed friend, the late Colonel Warner, of the Continental army?'

"It is , sir," she replied tremulously.

"Will you permit me to introduce myself to you, madam?' he resumed, with that winning sort of dignity I had noticed in him from the first; 'I am General Washington. And after my arrival in this section of the country, a few days ago, I made, -- and I hope you will pardon me the liberty I took with your private affairs -- I made some inquiries about you and situation of your family; when learning to my deep regret, that your late husband, in consequence of his long continued absence from his home and business while in the service of his country, and his subsequent shattered health, resulting from the hardships of war, left you laboring under pecuniary embarrassments, I was prompted to come and see you."

"I had little dreamed of such an honor and such a kindness, General,' she responded, nearly overpowered by her emotions, and the imposing presence of her august visitor.

The Mortgage

"There is a mortgage," he rejoined, without responding in any way to her last remarks, "a rather heavy mortgage on your homestead."

"I am sorry," she replied sadly, "very sorry to be compelled to say there is; a much heavier one than I can ever pay."

"So I had ascertained,' he proceeded; ' and I have also, before coming here, been at the pains of ascertaining the exact amount now due, and required to cancel this, to you, doubtless, ruinous encumbrance, and I propose now to leave with you the sum of money you will need for effecting that desirable object.'

The Question

'Does the money come from Government, sir!' she asked doubtfully, and with a look that seemed to say, 'If it does, then all right.'

'Washington looked at her, and hesitated a little at first, but soon, while taking up the valise he had brought in with him, slowly responded:

'In one sense it does, I may say, madam, if you have delicacies on the subject. I am in receipt of a liberal yearly salary from Government, from which it is discretionary with me to impart aid sometimes to deserving objects; and I certainly know of none more so than one which will relieve the family of so meritorious an officer as your late self-sacrificed husband.'

The Count

'Without waiting for any rejoinder to these remarks, he opened his valise and took from it a bag of silver money, and deliberately proceeded to draw out and count from it till he had reached the sum of nine hundred and some odd dollars, which afterwards proved to be precisely the sum demanded in principal, interest, and fees, for the discharge of the mortgage on our place. He then, after returning the money to the bag, and setting it aside for the purpose he had designated, and taking the hand of my mother, who seemed inclined to remonstrate, but could not force the words for it from her quivering lips, tenderly, but with an air that seemed to forbid any attempt at refusal, said to her:

'Accept it, don't hesitate to accept it -- take it and get the mortgage discharged at once, and then all your immediately pressing anxieties will be relieved, and soon you will find those brighter days the God of the widow has kept in store for you. And now, as my time is quite limited, it only remains for me to say, as I do most sincerely and kindly, Heaven bless you, dear madam, Heaven bless you! Farewell!'

Seth Warner Concludes

'I was present during the whole of this interview between Gen. Washington and my mother, heard every word they both said, and saw all the money counted down on the table and feel confident that I have neither taken from nor added to anything that there took place.

'On leaving the house, Washington immediately mounted his horse and rode away, leaving us quite unable for a while to realize this unexpected visit and the still more unexpected benediction of the illustrious visitor.'

As Mr. Warner was ascertained to have been a man of integrity and of an unbroken memory, there need be but little doubt respecting the truth and authenticity of the above related incident, which, while it involves testimony highly honorable to the heroic leader of the Green Mountain Boys, furnishes a new and beautiful character of Washington.