How was Washington's Birthday celebrated during the American Revolution?

The first documented celebration of Washington's Birthday occurred at Valley Forge in February 1778.

Wherever social order is tied to inherited rank, a newborn heir or heiress embodies the hope of dynastic continuity and constitutional stability. Therefore, wherever monarchy and nobility persist, a royal birth is proclaimed to great fanfare and festivity. For the same reason, its anniversary is commemorated with equal pomp and well wishes. For most commoners, on the other hand, only those birthdays marking the threshold of adulthood or old age warranted ceremony. Otherwise, individual birthdays customarily merited little attention, outside of one’s immediate family. We may infer, nonetheless, that birthdays were domestically celebrated in Colonial times from the remonstrances of seventeenth-century Quakers and Puritans, who frowned upon such personal observances as frought with pagan precedents.

George Washington, son of Augustine and Mary Ball Washington, was “Born ye 11th Day of February 1731/2 about 10 in the morning…” at his parents’ plantation in Wakefield, Westmoreland County, Virginia. At three years of age, his father moved to the farm later known as Mount Vernon. We do not know if or how young George’s birth was annually commemorated, but there was little controversy over when to celebrate until he turned twenty years of age.

Whereas all Catholic and most Protestant principalities adopted Pope Gregory XIII’s corrections to the calendar in 1582, Russia, Sweden and England held obstinately to the Old Style. It wasn’t until 1752, when, during the reign of King George II, Lord Chesterfield shepherded an act through Parliament “for correcting and reforming our present calendar, which is the Julian, and for adopting the Gregorian.” In switching to the New Style, New Year’s Day moved from March 25th, the Feast of the Annunciation, back to January 1st. Since the seasons had fallen out of synch with the old calendar, eleven days were added between Wednesday, September 2, 1752, and Thursday, September 14, 1752. Therefore, since George Washington was born on February 11, 1732, Old Style, his birthday, after the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1752, technically became February 22nd. 

Martha Washington arranged a supper to mark her husband’s forty-sixth birthday at the winter cantonment in Valley Forge on February 22, 1778, serving a meal prepared with veal, chicken, partridges, onions, potatoes, cabbages, turnips, parsnips and eggs. As a special treat on that dark and windy evening, musicians from Colonel Thomas Proctor’s Continental Artillery Regiment serenaded the Commander-in-Chief and his guests at his headquarters after supper. According to his expense accounts, General Washington responded with a gift of 15 shillings “to Proctor[‘s] band.” Aside from fifers and drummers, the artillery band consisted of musicians drawn from the gun crews, who played woodwinds and horns.

Drawing from a General Return of the Col. Proctor’s Regiment, dated December 21, 1778, the serenaders likely consisted of nine musicians, who performed under the direction of master musicians, Charles Hoffman, a German-born clarinetist, and William Shippen, of Philadelphia. The other instrumentalists on that winter evening were likely Quarter-Master Sergeant John Maloney, a regimental clerk, matross and flutist, from County Westmeath, Ireland; Major Daniel Hauthern, Sr., a matross; Quarter Master Sergeant James Patterson, born in Ireland; Peter Colkhoffer, a German-born master clarinetist; and musicians Jacob Snell, Thomas Menckle, and German-born matross, George Weaver. Fife Major Thomas Guy, and Irish-born Drum Major William Norton, who supervised musical instruction, may also have participated. Washington's birthday gift from his wife may have been a miniature portrait, which Charles Willson Peale painted at Martha’s behest on February 16, 1778, for a fee of $56.

In celebration of the new alliance between France and the United States, Lieutenant-General Comte De Rochambeau, commander of the French Expeditionary Force, wrote to Washington, then at the New Windsor, New York, on February 12, 1781, saying, “Yesterday (Sunday) was the anniversary of your Excellency’s birthday. We have put off celebrating that holiday till to-day, by reason of the Lord’s Day, and we will celebrate it with the sole regret that your Excellency will not be a witness of the effusion and gladness of our hearts.” Accordingly, at his camp in Newport, Rhode Island, Rochambeau ordered a parade of French troops, an artillery salute and a holiday rest from all labor. Washington responded from Headquarters, New Windsor, on February 27, writing, “The flattering distinction paid to the anniversary of my birthday is an honor for which I dare not attempt to express my gratitude. I confide in your Excellency’s sensibility to interpret my feelings for this and for the obliging manner in which you are pleased to announce it.”

And so official note of George Washington’s birthday was first taken during the war. Its celebration grew in popularity with the onset of peace and formal recognition of American Independence. On the occasion of Washington’s fifty-third birthday, February 11, 1784, which arrived only two and a half months after the British evacuation of New York City on November 25, 1783, the New York Gazette asked, “Shall such a day pass unnoticed?” No; let a temperate manifestation of joy express the sense we have of the blessings that arose upon America on that day which gave birth to Washington. Let us call our children around us and tell them the many blessings they owe to him and to those illustrious characters who have assisted him in the great work of the emancipation of our country, and urge them by such examples to transmit the delights of freedom and independence to their posterity.” 

The Pennsylvania Packet reported on the New York celebration in its issue of February 17, 1784, noting, “Wednesday last being the birthday of His Excellency General Washington, the same was celebrated by all true friends of American Independence and Constitutional Liberty with that hilarity and manly decorum ever attendant on the sons of freedom.”

On Thursday, February 12, 1784, a correspondent to The Independent Gazette, or the New York Journal Revived, opined, “To contribute to the hilarity of a day which, I hope, will be annually observed, I herewith send you a song made in this city for the entertainment of a Select Club of Whigs, who assembled, according to their annual custom, to celebrate the birthday of George Washington, February 11, 1783.”

                                      Americans rejoice;

                                      While songs employ the voice,

                                                    Let trumpets sound.

                                                    The thirteen stripes display

                                      In flags and streamers gay,

                                      ‘Tis Washington’s Birthday,

                                                    Let joy abound.


                                     Long may he live to see

                                     This land of liberty

                                                   Flourish in peace;

                                                   Grateful people’s love,

                                    And, late to heaven remove,

                                                   Where joys ne’er cease.


                                   Fill the glass to the brink,

                                   Washington’s health we’ll drink,

                                                    ‘Tis his birthday.

                                                    Glorious deeds he has done,

                                   By him our cause is won,

                                   Long live great Washington,

                                                    Huzza! Huzza!


A Country Ball upon the 281st Anniversary of Washington’s Birthday will be held at Historic New Bridge Landing on Sunday, February 24, 2013, between 1 and 5 pm. Eighteenth century dancing will be featured in the Steuben House between 1:30 and 4 PM under Denise Piccino’s direction with Ridley & Anne Enslow providing musical accompaniment on fiddle and hammered dulcimer. Throughout the afternoon, Rodger Yaden will portray General George Washington. Re-enactors from the Third NJ Regiment will be on hand. Hot cider and crullers will be served in the restored 18th-century tavern in the Campbell-Christie House, where the gift shop is also located. Visitors may also see open-hearth cooking demonstrated in the Out-Kitchen. A tiger-stripe maple bedstead, reputedly used in a local home where George Washington stayed during the 1780 Steenrapie Encampment, is currently on display. 

General George Washington made his headquarters in the Zabriskie-Steuben House at New Bridge in September 1780, when Continental troops encamped between Van Saun Park in River Edge and Soldier Hill Road in Oradell.

Suggested donation: $7 adult, $5 children, BCHS members free. For further info:  http://www.bergencountyhistory.org or contact: 201-343-9492

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