Posts Tagged ‘George Washington’

Smallwood’s House is Now a Retreat for Us

Sunday, January 15th, 2017

Smallwood’s Retreat sounds like a battle maneuver, but it’s actually the name of the historic house in Charles County. We discovered the house while we were camping in a park named (not surprisingly) Smallwood after the original owner of the property. General William Smallwood was the highest ranking Maryland general during the Revolutionary War. I’d never heard of him.

Kate Dolan describes a visit to Smallwood's Retreat

We came across the red brick house while hiking the “Generals Walk” which was the only real trail in the park. (And when I say “hiking,” I’m making it sound more adventurous than it was, but when you walk two miles on a path that isn’t paved I think you get to call it “hiking” without cheating too badly.) Smallwood’s Retreat is not a large house, but the brickwork is quite handsome. It of course wasn’t open when we walked up. But we asked about it at the park office and were told it might be open on Sunday.

We didn’t get our hopes up. But on Sunday as we were hoisting the canoe onto the car, a member of the park staff drove up to our campsite. We immediately wondered what we’d done wrong. (Actually I didn’t wonder—I was thinking of the empty beer bottles in our screen tent. Maryland State parks don’t allow alcohol and I thought we were busted.) But it turns out we weren’t in trouble after all. (Well, now we will be since I just confessed to a crime.)Smallwood portrait 2 “Are you the ones who wanted to see the Smallwood House?” she asked. “I’ve been driving all over trying to find you. The house is open now.”

Well, that was unexpected service. So the canoe had to wait while we headed over to Smallwood’s Retreat.

General William Smallwood commanded the Maryland battalion during the Revolutionary War. Not long after the war ended, his neighbors elected him Congress and at the same time, the Maryland General Assembly offered him the position of governor. He took the latter job and served for three years before returning to his Retreat to manage his estate and help restore his church.

While he was pretty good at serving his country, he was not so good at managing his finances. Like many southern planters, he mortgaged future crops to fund the current year’s production on the plantation. When he died, he was so heavily in debt that his dwindling estate was sold to pay off the creditors.

Smallwood houseAnd I know this because the reenactor who gave us the tour of the small house also offered to give me a 30-page book on Smallwood when she saw that I was interested enough to ask questions.

What I thought was the most wonderful part of the tour was that at the end we learned that our guide was a collateral descendant of the general.

The other thing that struck me was the general’s portrait. While he was described by teen journalist Sally Wister as “tall…well made” with a “truly martial air,” I don’t think he considered himself attractive by any means. He ordered his portrait artist to “make me look more like George Washington,” the rock star of the day.

Compare this portrait to the one above. I think the artist succeeded in making Smallwood look like commanding officer

Compare this portrait to the one above. I think the artist succeeded in making Smallwood look like commanding officer

Smallwood’s Retreat was rebuilt from ruins in 1958 so the inside is only a conjecture as to layout of the rooms. I liked the “warming room,” which is not often seen in 18th C houses but probably existed in many of them as a place to reheat dishes brought in from the separate kitchen building. And the fact that Debbie Sharek, the woman posing for a picture in the warming room, is related to the original owner was probably the most charming feature of all.

The site advertises itself as being “40 minutes south of Washington,” but I think you’d have to drive in the middle of the night to make it there that fast. While it’s not worth driving hours to see, it was interesting and makes a good side trip while visiting other sites like Mallows Bay and Port Tobacco. Plus, the countryside is so quiet and removed from the congestion of DC that it feels like you’ve traveled to a truly distant place or even another time. Smallwood’s Retreat is still a retreat, but now it’s open to all.


If you enjoy visiting 18th Century sites and learning about colonial history, check out my book Restitution, which explores some of the feelings and activities associated with the beginning of the Revolution in Maryland. To learn more about the parking and camping options, visit


The 4th of July wasn’t much fun in 1776

Tuesday, June 28th, 2016

Americans are getting ready to celebrate the 4th of July with parties, food and fireworks.  This year marks the 240th anniversary of the signing of a document in which we declared ourselves to be an independent nation.  And we will  wave our flags and think that the 4th of July in 1776 must have been a pretty great day.

But it wasn’t. The delegates in Philadelphia actually signed the Declaration of Independence on July 2, but the news didn’t reach George Washington and his army in New York City until July 6. Unfortunately, the British navy had arrived a week before that, throwing the city into a panic.Kate Dolan writes about the 4th of July in 1776  So many ships arrived in such a short period of time that one Pennsylvania soldier said their masts looked like trees in a forest.  The streets of the city were jammed with families trying to leave while militia members from surrounding regions were trying to come to join in the city’s defense.

George Washington could not have been resting easy. Only a few weeks before, he’d learned of a loyalist plot to assassinate him and his officers when the British fleet arrived in New York.  Those arrested for involvement in the plot included the city’s mayor and two members of his Life Guard.  Alarm guns fired frequently in the city, perhaps reminding him that just five of the 120 British ships at anchor carried more firepower than all of the American guns along the shore. And they carried 10,000 troops, with thousands more expected daily.

The announcement that the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence did inspire celebrations in the streets and at least one officer reported that he and his cohorts spent the afternoon “merrily.” And it must have been reassuring to know that the governing members of the colonies were now publicly committed to a course of action that would be punished as treason if they failed. It was all or nothing, and they were all in it together.  As Benjamin Franklin famously summed it up, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Washington received a copy of the Declaration  on July 8 and had it read aloud in the city at 6 p.m. the next evening. Afterwards, swarms of people marched out to tear down a giant statue of King George III, hack off the statue’s head, cut off his nose and mount what was left of the head on a spike in front of a tavern.  Lead from the statue would  later be melted down into musket balls.

But the celebrations didn’t last long. Within three days, British ships brazenly sailed up the Hudson River and while American gun crews fired furiously all day, the ships suffered no harm and the only casualties were six Americans killed when their cannon blew up due to their own mismanagement.  More ships followed, and soon the British had a comfortable base on Staten Island.

To the British, the Declaration of Independence was a joke. The British admiral’s secretary said the document revealed “the villainy and the madness of these deluded people.”

Ships and troops continued to arrive throughout the summer until the end of August when the British attacked and defeated Washington’s army in the largest battle fought on North American soil up to that time. While Washington and his men were able to elude capture, they suffered a series of defeats and were chased out of New York.

Seven years of brutal fighing would follow before the Treaty of Paris ended the war in 1783.

So this year when we wave our flags and head out to parties to celebrate our nation, let’s be glad that “bombs bursting in air” above us are decorative amusements and not weapons designed to destroy. And let’s drink a toast to our forefathers who were willing to set aside their differences to “hang together.” We could use a little of that right now.


Much of the information in this article comes from 1776 by David McCullough.

How the Founding Fathers Got Drunk Part III: Apples

Sunday, March 1st, 2015

Today we usually think of apple cider as a wholesome children’s drink, but for most of the past thousand years, cider often contained as much alcohol as beer.  Thanks to wild yeast present in the air, the natural sugar in apple juice begins to ferment (turn to alcohol) within a few days after the juice is pressed from the apples and it will continue to ferment until something (such as cold temperature) is introduced to stop the  process.Kate Dolan explores the history of hard cider  Before the days of widespread refrigeration, sweet or non-alcoholic apple cider had a very short shelf life.  But hard cider would last long enough to bottle and store for a year or more.

Evidence suggests that the English were turning the juice of crab apples sweetened with honey into intoxicating beverages even before the Norman conquerors brought over sweeter apple varieties from France and forced the natives to grow them.  (more…)

How the Founding Fathers Got Drunk Part II:  Beer  

Saturday, January 24th, 2015

Actually, the title of this article is misleading because the article explains how the Founding Fathers couldn’t possibly get drunk on the beer they brewed. Most of them, anyway. That’s because most of them brewed “small beer.”

Kate Dolan tries English porter

Porter – George Washington’s favorite beer

Small beer didn’t come in short glasses and it didn’t have anything to do with people being shorter in “the old days.”After all,  George Washington was six-two.  And though small beer was lower in alcohol content and therefore lower in calories, small beer was not brewed because the Founding Fathers wanted that  “tastes great, less filling” alternative.

George Washington and others brewed small beer as a common household drink for servants, children, and anyone who was thirsty. It was a safe alternative to water which may or may not have been contaminated.  And it wasn’t the alcohol that killed the germs, it was the process of boiling the water. Most small beer probably had little more than 1% alcohol content.

Washington’s recipe for small beer, written in his diary while he was serving in the Virginia Militia, is probably the most famous. After boiling hops in water for three hours, the brewer adds three gallons of molasses and then some yeast. And that’s it. Doesn’t sound much like beer as we know it.

And that’s because it isn’t.

Beer is typically made from malted barley or wheat, water and hops. But barley did not initially grow well in American soil, malted grains were not plentiful in the American colonies and the process of malting was not something easily accomplished on the kitchen table at home. So Americans made beer out of other things unless they could afford to import barley or set up a malthouse.  A malthouse is a facility for malting grain, which has to be dried, soaked, sprouted and quickly dried again before it can be used to brew beer. Incidentally, Samuel Adams, who has his pictures on more varieties of beer than all other colonial Americans combined, was made a partner in his father’s malthouse after he used up all the money he’d been given to start his own business. There’s no evidence that he actually brewed beer.

Kate Dolan enjoys Beer Street

In 1751, William Hogarth produced his “Beer Street” print to encourage people to stay healthy by drinking more beer. It makes sense when you realize that the campaign was directed to a population that swilling gin at an alarming rate. Beer has less alcohol and is a good source of several nutrients. “Breakfast in a can” as we used to say in college.

Washington may have brewed beer, but as noted earlier, it was used more like Gatorade than Budweiser. However, our first president ordered great quantities of beer for Mount Vernon from Philadelphia and was especially fond of a porter made by English immigrant Robert Hare. He typically ordered “a gross” of bottles at a time which is equal to twelve cases. When he became president, his staff started ordering three gross at a time for Washington to enjoy while Congress was in recess. Porter is a very dark, rich beer made from brown malt. It was marketed in various strengths from “plain” to “stout.” The “stout” variety remains popular today in beers such as Guiness, but most brewers today use a black malt rather than a brown malt that was used in Washington’s time.

Thomas Jefferson was also fond of beer but he took his interest further. In his retirement years, he planned and built a malthouse and brewhouse at Monticello. Not surprisingly, he researched and experimented extensively. The resulting ale he produced was good enough that his friends and neighbors were soon begging for “the recipe.” But he claimed somewhat disdainfully that he used no recipe and doubted that anyone could learn to malt and brew just by reading about it. He did offer to let his friends send a servant to watch the brewing process and return as needed “to perfect himself.”

Because beer was so difficult to brew well at home and expensive to import, many early Americans turned to a “lower class,” easier alternative: hard cider. And that’s what we will look at next.

It’s now time for me to do some taste test-research… (See the photo above. “Deep Six” porter by Heavy Seas Brewery. Research is a demanding business.)


Really Bad Table Manners

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

My new story “Change of Address” features some terrible table manners and that inspired me to research the whole concept of manners and how they change. So for the rest of the month, Living History will feature articles on bad manners, starting with the medieval banquet.Kate Dolan's dog shows interest in the bones at the table

Just how realistic is the classic depiction of a medieval banquet where burly men sit at the table belching, scratching themselves in rude places and throwing bones to the dogs on the floor? Probably pretty accurate if you subscribe to the theory that society doesn’t come up with a prohibition until someone’s already done the thing being prohibited —and gotten away with it. A wildly popular etiquette manual published in 1530 admonishes those sitting at a banquet to “not throw bones or similar left-overs under the table to litter the floor, or toss them onto the table cloth, or replace them in the serving dish.” If you have to tell people not to do it, someone was doing it. (more…)