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According to the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Mary Washington Monument, located on Washington Avenue in Fredericksburg, Virginia, is "the only monument in the United States erected to a woman by women." This final and permanent tribute to Mary Ball Washington (c. 1708-25 August 1789), wife of Captain Augustine Washington (1694-1743) and mother of General George Washington (1732-1799) – the first of six children – had tumultuous beginnings. In 1772, at the urging of her children, Mary Washington moved into the town of Fredericksburg where she could be closer to her daughter, Elizabeth "Betty" Washington Lewis (1733-1797). In the summer of 1789, her health was rapidly deteriorating as she suffered from breast cancer during her final years. Mary died on 25 August 1789 at about 82 years of age and three days later, was buried by Betty Lewis and her children near a rock outcropping previously known as "Oratory Rock" and today as "Meditation Rock." George was not present at the ceremony as the news of his mother's death had still not reached him. The burial site was located on the Kenmore plantation, the home of Fielding and Betty Lewis. Tradition says that this was her favourite retreat where she read her Bible and "prayed for the safety of her son and country during the dark days of the Revolution" as well as spent time with her grandchildren.
The mourning was general throughout the country and Members of Congress wore black crepe armbands "as for a distinguished official" for thirty days and passed a resolution to erect a monument on her grave. To that resolution General Washington responded in a note of thanks, adding: "I attribute all my success in life to the moral, intellectual and physical education which I received from my mother." Although Mary's grave had been marked by a memorial stone ordered by George Washington within months of her passing, there would be no permanent marker for some time. The Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834), French hero of the American Revolution and General Washington's close friend, had earlier visited Mary in her new home at Fredericksburg, but when he returned in 1825, he saw nothing but a little marble headstone in the middle of a cornfield marking her grave. An attempt to move her remains to Mount Vernon as well as to "place them within the walls of a Presbyterian Church to be erected for that purpose" stirred concerned local residents and others into action. As well, considering that Mary's original stone was so ravaged by souvenir hunters along with a strong appeal for a monument written by George Washington Parke Custis (1781-1857) – the grandson of Martha Washington and adopted father George Washington – a movement began to erect a more elaborate monument on Mary's final resting place. Accordingly in 1830, the residents of Fredericksburg had raised about two thousand dollars by subscription, when Thomas Goodwin (1770-1836), the Mayor of Fredericksburg received a letter dated 19 April 1831 from Silas Enoch Burrows (1794-1870), a wealthy merchant philanthropist of New York, stating that he had "...seen with the greatest interest, the efforts made by the citizens of Fredericksburg to erect a monument over the remains, and to rescue from oblivion, the sacred spot where reposes the great American mother: Mary the Mother of Washington" and offered to donate ten thousand dollars to finance the construction of a monument in her honour. Burrows also felt that "...the ashes should remain where they are..." and expressed to "let her sleep upon the bosom of her own mother earth where she selected her pillow, and let the willow of Mount Vernon, from the tomb of her son, be transplanted to wave through time over the mother's grave." Mr. Burrow's generous offer was accepted, and work commenced. An early design for the monument proposed a Greek temple surmounted by a bust of George Washington with an eagle soaring over his head. President Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) laid the cornerstone on 7 May 1833 with much pomp and circumstance in the presence of some members of his Cabinet – including the Secretary of War and the Attorney General, members of the clergy and relatives of Mrs. Washington, the architects and his assistants, Silas Burrows, the mayor and corporate authorities, naval and military officers, masonic societies, teachers and their pupils, citizens and strangers. President Jackson called Mary "this illustrious example of maternal devotion, and the bright reward of filial success." Following the ceremonies was "a barbecue in the old Virginia style" partaken by about five thousand persons.
However, four years later, little progress had been made. While the base of the monument was built with the Doric columns in place, the shaft laid on the ground ready to be elevated, when for unknown reasons the work was suddenly abandoned. During the Civil War, the monument was riddled by bullets and battered by cannonading as the result of fighting in the area in December 1862, May 1863, and May 1864. With the death of Silas Burrows in 1870 as well as that of Rufus Hill, a stone mason and the contractor, the monument lay derelict and in pieces for almost sixty years. In 1874, with the country approaching the centennial of the Declaration of Independence, the House of Representatives considered the "practicability of finishing the Washington Monument" and upon examination by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, it reported that the monument was "an irreparable ruin" and recommended "that the base be rebuilt entirely of cut stone, that the present facing be used for infilling or else be erected in another spot as a memento." Despite bringing forward a bill in the House of Representatives by Charles Pelham (1835-1908) for the necessary sum to restore the monument, it failed to pass. A subsequent attempt was made in 1886, this time by John Warwick Daniel (1842-1910) of Virginia in getting a bill appropriating sufficient funds; while it succeeded through the Senate of the 49th Congress, it failed to reach the House of Representatives. It was on 2 March 1889, while the 50th Congress was still in session that an ad of The Washington Post announced that "The Grave of Mary the Mother of General George Washington, to be sold at public auction". The sale of Mary Washington's grave and the twelve acres around it caused local and national outrage which led to the formation of the Mary Washington Monument Association of Fredericksburg on 8 November 1889, the National Mary Washington Memorial Association on 22 February 1890 and the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) on 11 October 1890. All of these women's associations shared the same goal: "to save Mary's grave and secure a monument to her memory." At the National Society DAR's first meeting, Founder Mary Desha introduced a resolution to support the completion of such a monument and encouraged "every patriot to send in a contribution large or small for this purpose." The two later associations established in 1890 united to turn plans into reality and raised eleven thousand dollars for the project. Although conflicts arose within the two groups whether the monument should be restored or abandoned for a new one, Fredericksburg citizens conceded that the monument was too damaged and agreed for a new design.
In December 1892, the contract for the monument was signed between the National Mary Washington Memorial Association and William John Crawford (1856-1926) of John Crawford & Son, Buffalo, New York as they were was chosen to design the second obelisk which was to resemble the Washington monument in the nation's capital. A new cornerstone was laid on 21 October 1893 by the Mary Washington Monument Association of Fredericksburg and the completed monument was officially dedicated nearly seven months later, on 10 May 1894 by President Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) in the presence of a distinguished gathering including Mary Washington's descendants, his Vice President, many of his Cabinet, the Chief Justice of the United States, the Governor of Virginia, the Mayor of Fredericksburg, representation from the various women's associations and thousands of citizens. In his address, the President said "While these exercises cannot fail to inspire us anew with reverence for American motherhood, we will remember that we are here to do honor to the woman who gave to our nation its greatest and best citizen, and that we have the privilege of participating in the dedication of a monument erected by the women of our land in loving and enduring testimony to the virtues of the mother of Washington. Let us be proud today that the nobility of this woman exacted from a distinguished foreigner the admission: If such are the matrons of America, she may well boast of illustrious sons and that La Lafayette, who had fought with her son for American independence, declared after he had received her blessing: 'I have seen the only Roman matron living at this day'." With a shaft of fifty-one and a half feet high and a total height of fifty five feet, it is an obelisk of Vermont granite with the simple words "MARY / THE MOTHER OF / WASHINGTON" in raised lettering on the pedestal's frontispiece with the words "ERECTED / BY HER / COUNTRY-WOMEN" engraved at its rear. The material of the old monument was broken up and placed in the foundation of the new one, with the exception of the fluted columns that remained unbroken which were donated to various institutions.
This monument in honor of "the Mother of the Father of His Country" remains significant today as it was the first monument in the United States funded and built by women for a woman. Following a rift that developed in the 1960s between the Mary Washington Monument Association of Fredericksburg and the National Mary Washington Memorial Association related to the level of care of the monument and grounds, the two associations reached a compromised whereby in a ceremony on 26 June 1966, they officially transferred ownership to the city of Fredericksburg with oversight and maintenance provided by the George Washington Foundation and the Garden Club of Virginia. Having completed their missions, the two women's associations subsequently dissolved.
On this day, 25 August 2021, we commemorate the 232nd anniversary of the death of Mary Ball Washington and mark more than 127 years since the unveiling of the present monument marking her grave at Fredericksburg, Virginia.
André M. Levesque