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Washington’s Return To Duty Marked

July 4, 1998

MOUNT VERNON, Va. (AP) _ On July 4, 1798, George Washington was enjoying retirement, eager to spend his remaining days ``ruminating on past scenes and contemplating the future grandeur of this rising empire.″

Then, on the 22nd birthday of the nation’s independence, Washington, by then 66 years old, got the call to again command the Army.

This little-known footnote to history, triggered by worsening relations with France, was celebrated Saturday at Washington’s Mount Vernon estate on the Potomac River with speeches, a military band and Pentagon dignitaries.

Deputy Defense Secretary John J. Hamre said he was happy to commemorate ``the 200th anniversary of a forgotten event in history.″ He was joined by the vice chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and the Army’s chief of staff.

``The nation’s small army had fallen into disarray,″ Hamre related, forcing President John Adams to turn to Washington once again. The nation’s first president was asked ``to instill hope in the American people and caution our would-be adversaries.″

``Over the last 17 months of his life,″ Hamre continued, ``Washington developed the plans for the rebuilding of the army to defend the fragile little republic.″

So with the 200th anniversary of Washington’s recall to duty occurring this year, officials at Mount Vernon knew immediately they had a theme for Independence Day celebrations.

Word that Washington’s services again were needed came to the former president unofficially. A newspaper containing an article about the appointment found its way to Mount Vernon before Adams’ formal notification. It’s not clear who leaked the story.

France had been interfering with American shipping and the possibility of a French invasion loomed. America’s military had dwindled to 3,000 men and Adams on June 22 had broached Washington on the possibility of returning to command. And Washington was eager to help.

``I see, as you do, that clouds are gathering and that a storm may ensue,″ he wrote Secretary of War James McHenry. While having no desire ``to quit the tranquil walks of retirement and enter the boundless field of responsibility and trouble,″ Washington said he would find it difficult ``to remain an idle spectator under the plea of age or retirement.″

The crisis with France abated before Washington actually had to raise an army or lead his troops into battle. But his recall as ``Lieutenant General and Commander in Chief″ gave the father of his country the chance to show his patriotism _ and again exercise his political skills.

Almost immediately he found himself in the middle of a nasty domestic spat over who would be his second in command. He had demanded, as a condition to returning to duty, the right to choose his top officers, even though that would trample on the prerogative of the president.

On Sept. 25, 1798, Washington implied in a letter to Adams that he would resign _ in a very public way _ if his old friend and former treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, were not named second in command.

``Imagination could hardly conceive the chaos into which both political power and public opinion would have been thrown had the old hero carried out his angry threat. Adams had no choice but to surrender,″ wrote author James Thomas Flexner in ``Washington: The Indispensable Man.″

A big fan of military regalia, Washington ordered a uniform that included a blue coat with yellow buttons and gold epaulettes with three stars each, and a hat with a white plume. He left the order with Philadelphia’s leading tailor.

Martha Washington’s granddaughter, Nelly Custis, asked him to wear the new uniform at her wedding Feb. 22, 1799 _ also the general’s 67th birthday. But the uniform wasn’t completed in time, so he wore his old one.

He then hoped to get the uniform in time for July 4, but the tailor couldn’t find enough gold thread, so it was sent to Europe to be finished. Washington died Dec. 14, 1799, after becoming ill following a five-hour horseback ride around Mount Vernon in heavy rain and sleet.

The uniform still had not arrived.

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