General Washington Bids Farewell to His Officers

"Washington's Farewell to His Officers." Engraving by Phillibrown, from a painting by Alonzo Chappel.

He announced his retirement as commanding general of the army less than three weeks later, saving America from the fate of republics that turned to military dictatorship.

On this day in history, December 4:

General George Washington bid farewell to his victorious officers in the Continental Army at a private, elaborate “turtle feast” dinner at Fraunces Tavern in New York in 1783. The American Revolution was over. The United States was free.

However, Washington was sad about this last parting. Despite his best efforts, he knew that the men who had fought so long and hard with him would not receive what they deserved. As he entered the Long Room soon after 12 o‘clock, the small group of officers could see that their leader was in an emotional state. He walked over to the table to eat, but could not. He poured a glass of wine and motioned for them to drink.

“With a heart full of love and gratitude I now take leave of you,” Washington said in a faltering voice, his hand shaking and his lips trembling. “I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.”

After the officers drank some wine, he told them: “I cannot come to each of you, but shall feel obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand.” General Henry Knox, his chief of artillery, stepped forward. Washington took his hand and they hugged in silence. All the other officers, tears steaming down their faces, then came to the general to receive his blessing and move on. With tears in his eyes, he embraced each man.

“Patriotic Band of Brothers”

“Who, that was not a witness,” Washington said, “could imagine that the most violent local prejudices would cease so soon; and that men, who came from the different parts of the continent, strongly disposed by the habits of education to despise and quarrel with each other, would instantly become but one patriotic band of brothers?”

Washington walked across the room, raised his arm in a final farewell, and silently strode out of the tavern. Less than three weeks later, appearing before the Confederation Congress in Annapolis, Maryland, he gave official notice of his retirement as the commanding general of the Continental Army, saving America from the fate of many republics that turned to military dictatorship.

According to one French officer who had served under him, Washington was “a foe to ostentation and vainglory” who did not “seem to estimate himself at his true worth.”

History of Fraunces Tavern

New York’s Fraunces Tavern, where Washington bid farewell to his officders, played a significant role in the American Revolution. Built in 1719 as a home for a prominent, colonial leader, it was sold to Samuel Fraunces, a merchant of French West Indian descent, in 1762.

Fraunces converted the home into the Queen’s Head Tavern, which quickly became popular with the city’s elite. As the proprietor of the tavern, Fraunces was called “Black Sam.” Many historians believe this nickname, and the fact that he came from the West Indies, indicate that he was black. If true, he was one of the most prominent blacks involved in the revolutionary movement.

During the crisis of 1765, a British captain who tried to bring tea into New York was forced to apologize to the public at Fraunces Tavern. The patriots, dressed as Indians, just like the participants in the earlier tea party in Boston, then dumped his tea into the harbor. In 1768, some of these men established the first New York Chamber of Commerce at the tavern.

By 1774, the Sons of Liberty were using Fraunces Tavern as a meeting place to mobilize support for the revolution. In 1775, when the patriots commandeered the British cannons in Manhattan and fired on a boatload of British soldiers, the British retaliated by firing a 32-gun broadside and sent a cannonball through the tavern’s roof.

President Washington Returned to Fraunces Tavern

In 1789, Washington returned to Fraunces Tavern to celebrate his inauguration at New York’s Federal Hall as the first president of the United States. Samuel Fraunces had sold the tavern in 1785, and became Washington’s executive steward.

Fraunces Tavern’s patriotic significance continued when it was used for offices by the Continental Congress. With the adoption of the Constitution, it housed several new government agencies, including the departments of the treasury, foreign affairs, and war. These offices were vacated when the U.S. capital was moved from New York to Philadelphia in 1790.

Beginning in 1832, a series of ruinous fires seriously altered the tavern’s appearance and structure. In 1883, a group called the Sons of the Revolution was founded at the tavern. Seventeen years later, however, the owner threatened to demolish the historic site to make room for a parking lot.

After a long battle between New York City and the owner, the Sons of the Revolution bought the tavern in 1904. They restored the building and converted it into a museum in 1907. Fraunces Tavern, located at 54 Pearl Street, was designated a New York City Landmark in 1965 and, 12 years later, was made a Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.