The Fatal News: Washington’s Death Mourned at Fort Niagara

George Washington died on December 14, 1799 at age 67 after a two day illness. He was buried in a simple family vault at Mount Vernon.  Settlements throughout the young United States marked his passing by conducting their own funeral processions. Many of these involved local military units and masonic organizations and exhibited as much pomp and ceremony as the real funeral at Mount Vernon.

On December 21, President John Adams ordered funeral honors to be paid to Washington at the general stations of the Army. These orders stipulated that sixteen guns were to be fired at daybreak, in quick succession, and thereafter one gun every half hour until sunset. During the day, troops were to form a funeral procession, and a spot was to be selected representing that of the interment. During the procession, guns were to be fired every minute. Inspector General Alexander Hamilton passed along the following instructions:

The bier will be received by the troops formed in line presenting their arms…the procession will begin [with] officers, drums and colors. The troops march by platoons in inverted order and with arms inverted to the place of interment- the drums muffled and the music playing a dead march.

The bier carried by four sergean[ts] and attended by six pall bearers…where there is not cavalry, a detachment of infantry will precede the bier which itself will in every case be preceded by such of the Clergy as may be present…When arrived near the place of interment the procession will halt. The troops in front of the bier will form in line and opening the ranks will face inwards to admit the passage of the bier, which will then pass through the ranks, troops leaning on their arms reversed while the bier passes. When the bier shall have passed, the troops will resume their position in line and reversing their arms will remain leaning upon them until the ceremonial shall be closed. The music will now perform solemn airs after which the introductory part of this order will be read (a eulogy to Washington).

At the end of this, a detachment of infantry appointed for the purpose will advance…over the bier…the music playing the President’s Mar[ch]…The commanders at particular stati[ons] conforming generally to the plan will make such exceptions as well accommodate it to situations. [i]

News of Washington’s death did not reach the garrison at Fort Niagara until January 10, 1800. On that date, the fort’s commandant, Major John Jacob Ulrich Rivardi, wrote to Alexander Hamilton:

This moment the fatal news of the death of our Commander in Chief reached this Fort-and my mind is so depressed by that unfortunate event that you will have the goodness to excuse my laconism- I would have paid the usual tribute of military honors to the memory of the departed hero, but the order of the Secretary of War published in the papers induced me to postpone that Mournful ceremony until I receive your instructions.[ii]

On January 24, the fort’s garrison turned out to pay military honors to Washington. On February 6, Rivardi reported to Hamilton:

On the 24th, ulto, we paid our Share of military honors to the memory of the illustrious Washington. I followed as Much as circumstances permitted your orders as published in the papers. [iii]

 


[i] General Orders, December 21, 1799 (ALS, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress, LCRG 94 Post Revolutionary War Records, Adjutant General’s Office, National Archives).

 

[ii] Rivardi to Hamilton, January 10, 1800. (ALS)Hamilton Papers.

 

[iii] Harold C. Syrett, ed. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, v. XXIV, November 1799-June 1800, p. 227. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1973).

 

 

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