Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Meet the brave woman who saved Mount Vernon

August 5, 2011 by Allison Heishman


You will discover something no one has ever seen before when you experience Discover the Real George Washington: New Views from Mount Vernon this summer at the National Constitution Center. And surprisingly enough, it’s not the handcrafted dentures that once graced our first president’s mouth. Though you can see those, too!

Inside the exhibit, you will meet Sarah Tracy, who is featured for the first time. Not many people know the story of the 18-year-old girl from New York who kept Mount Vernon safe during the Civil War.

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In all likelihood, we wouldn’t have a Mount Vernon to visit if it weren’t for her dedication to the estate at a time when the United States were anything but united. Her story is being explored as part of an ongoing Theatre Gallery Series here at the Center.

When we create theatre pieces for our exhibits, we look for the often unknown moments that help bring the larger story of the exhibit to life. So when we took a trip to Mount Vernon to find the inspiration for our piece and learned about the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, we knew we were on the right track. And when we came across the story of Sarah Tracy, we knew we had our girl!

Sarah's story

Miriam White as Sarah Tracy. Photo by Brian Straczewski

On the eve of the Civil War, Miss Tracy came to Mount Vernon as the Secretary to Miss Pamela Cunningham, the Regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association. Miss Cunningham started the letter-writing campaign that resulted in women from across the country coming together to raise $200,000 to purchase Mount Vernon and restore it to its original grandeur. Right before the war broke out, however, the ailing Miss Cunningham returned to South Carolina. She was unable to return to Mount Vernon for the entire length of the conflict, leaving the young Miss Tracy to make her way as the lady of the house.

One of her greatest challenges was to keep the estate a neutral territory. When soldiers came to see the home of the great General Washington, she asked out of respect that they leave their weapons outside the grounds and cover up their uniforms. She even provided them with shawls if they had no other clothing! But it wasn’t as easy as that. To help her enforce neutrality as a military order, she met personally with many of the generals encamped in the area, including General George McClellan and even President Lincoln himself.

Learning about this strong young woman and creating a character based on her lengthy letters was a creative challenge. We worked with local actresses Miriam White and Felicia Leicht on the best way to tell her story. Our journey revealed how she not only stood her ground at Mount Vernon, but served to inspire a country at war with the seeds of unity and peace.

For us, discovering George Washington meant discovering Sarah Tracy. Creating a world where we could tell her story, and share a part of her experience at Mount Vernon is just one of the many ways the National Constitution Center works to inspire you with our nation’s history when you come to visit.

Allison Heishman is the Theatre Programs Manager at the National Constitution Center. Felicia Leicht portrays Sarah Tracy in the video, which was shot by Gus Graves.

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