As a 57-year-old president, he made a sensation on his journey through New England, but even at 24 George Washington in New London made quite a splash.
George Washington was a rising young militia officer when he turned heads in 1756.
He arrived in New London on March 8, 1756. Joshua Hempstead, then a 77-year-old farmer, noted Washington’s arrival in his diary. Hempstead usually remarked only briefly on the day’s events in his diary. But the sight of George Washington in New London caused him to wax unusually descriptive.
Col. Washington is returned from Boston and gone to Long Island, in Power’s sloop; he had also two boats to carry six horses and his retinue; all bound to Virginia. He hath been to advise with Governor Shirley, or to be directed by him, as he is chief general of the American forces.
George Washington in New London
An article in the 1858 publication The Repository explained why Washington drew such notice:
Irving, in the Life of Washington, says that this journey of 500 miles was performed on horseback. Col. Washington was accompanied by his aid, Capt. George Mercer, and Capt. Stewart of the Virginia Light Horse, and the three men each had an African servant in livery. The whole party were splendidly equipped and made a brilliant appearance.
The Repository author speculated on the impact of George Washington in New London:
We can imagine that the populace of New London, which at that period was very gay and excitable, was considerably moved when this dashing party came galloping into town. Washington was a skillful rider, and a noble figure upon horseback, eminent also for his martial bearing and stately courtesy.
Undoubtedly our gallant fort at the foot of the parade, displayed old England’s cross, and fired its six pounders in a salute to the brave young Virginians. In the evening probably, bonfires blazed and the strangers were saluted with a martial serenade.
Washington probably stayed at Capt. Nathaniel Colt’s Red Lion in Main Street, then the principal house of entertainment for travelers.
Washington had also some celebrity after the publication of his journal describing his expedition to the Ohio Valley three years earlier. Lt. Gov. Robert Dinwiddie had sent him to tell the French to leave the region and to stop harassing English travelers. (The French did not take his advice.)
Roots of a Revolutionary
Washington then received a military commission and a company of 100 men. They set off the French and Indian War in 1754 by ambushing French forces at the Battle of Jumonville Glen. Washington then received an appointment to lead the Virginia Regiment after his bravery during the Battle of the Monongahela.
He desperately wanted the British Army to recognize his rank of colonel, but the British looked down on the colonial militias. It rankled Washington that junior British Army officers ranked higher than senior militia officers.
So Washington went to Boston in 1756 to ask Gov. William Shirley, acting commander in chief, to obtain a royal commission in the British Army. He didn’t get what he wanted, but Shirley did decree that Virginia militia officers outranked British officers of lower rank.
Joshua Hempstead, a prominent citizen, still actively worked his farm at the age of 77 when Washington came through town. He had lived in the same house all his life, a house his grandfather built before his birth. Today, Connecticut Landmarks runs it as a historic house museum.
This story about George Washington in New London was updated in 2021.