Presidents’ Day, celebrated in February, generally was designed to honor the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, both of whom had a connection to Annapolis. Washington had a deep and meaningful relationship with our city, while Lincoln had only a single experience in Annapolis.
Records show that Washington was in Annapolis as early as 1757 and visited many times thereafter. We know from his diaries that in 1771, Washington dined at the Duke of Gloucester Street home (still standing) of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the richest man in the colonies and the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.
In Annapolis, Washington was much less the military man and much more the landed socialite and social gambler. He often attended the horse races held in Annapolis and enjoyed playing cards with the town’s gentry. His diaries record bets he made and money he lost on those bets. He also enjoyed the well-known local theater, noting the four plays he saw and three balls he attended during his eight-day stay in Annapolis in 1771.
On his various visits to Annapolis, Washington frequented several taverns, some of which still exist, including Middleton Tavern and The Maryland Inn.
So, it was in familiar territory that Washington came to resign his commission as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, a momentous decision that helped shape our democracy.
Congress decided that the hero of the Revolution should be honored with a grand dinner on December 22 and resign at noon the next day.
On December 23, just before noon, Washington put the retirement documents in his pocket and headed off from Mann’s Tavern (at Main and Conduit Streets) to meet Congress, riding his horse across Church Street (now Main Street), seeing the City Dock on his right and St. Anne’s Church on his left, taking the short trip up the hill to the State House.
Precisely at noon, Washington entered the Old Senate Chamber and took his seat before the legislators and the galleries full of Maryland and Annapolis dignitaries, including ladies in the gallery above the entrance door.
After opening amenities, Washington arose with speech in hand, and contemporary accounts say that his hand shook violently and his voice was hoarse with emotion. The speech took only about three minutes, thus ending his military life. He shortly left the State House, mounted his horse and left for a Christmas at his Virginia home, Mount Vernon – and even more history.
As for President Lincoln, Annapolis played a small part in his efforts to end the Civil War. In February of 1865, just a few months before the war ended, encouraged by General Ulysses Grant, Lincoln travelled to Fort Monroe, a union-held fortress at Hampton Roads, Virginia, to meet with Confederate peace commissioners to explore the remote possibility of a cease fire to end the horrendous killing of war combatants.
Since ice blocked the ports near Washington, Lincoln took a detour through Annapolis by rail, arriving at the corner of Calvert and West Streets, near where that railroad station still operated in my mid-20th century youth.
The President walked through town on a less than one-mile trip to a deep water wharf at the Naval Academy. Lincoln certainly passed in sight of the State House, where the Maryland Senate was considering ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery in the U.S. Boarding a steamboat, Lincoln’s party headed out the Severn River and down the Chesapeake Bay to Fort Monroe, where the Confederate Commissioners awaited. Lincoln’s insistence that nothing could be negotiated unless the commissioners first agreed to the dissolution of the Confederate Government, effectively ended the negotiations.
Two days after he arrived, Lincoln returned up the Bay to Annapolis and took a special train back to Washington. Lincoln’s trip is fully explored in a fascinating short book Lincoln in Annapolis: February 1865, by Rockford E. Toews and published by the Maryland Archives.
Thus, two of our greatest presidents touched Annapolis and, much to Annapolitans’ delight, many other presidents would follow.