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Naval Honors to George Washington

Origin of a Custom

Navy ships on the Potomac passing George Washington's tomb at Mount Vernon pay tribute to the memory of our first president in one of the Navy's oldest ceremonies. Ships of the Navy follow a prescribed and inspiring ceremony; private vessels toll their bells as they pass the channel leading to the Mount Vernon wharf.

Commodore Charles Morris, United States Navy, related the earliest known account of this ceremony. In May of 1801, three men-of-war of the U.S. Navy passed up the Potomac River to the new Navy Yard in the District of Columbia. Commodore Morris, as a young midshipman, was on board the two-year old frigate USS Congress (36 guns, Captain James Sever). In his autobiography he states:

"The ship was delayed by head-winds so that we did not reach Washington till late in May. We passed the frigate United States in the lower part of the Potomac. About 10 o'clock in the morning of a beautifully serene day, we passed Mount Vernon. Every one was on deck to look upon the dwelling where Washington had made his home. Mrs. Washington and others of the family could be distinguished in the portico which fronts the river. When opposite the house, by order of Captain Sever, the sails were lowered, the colors displayed half-masted, and a mourning salute of thirteen guns was fired as a mark of respect to the memory of Washington, whose life had so recently closed, and whose tomb was in our view. The general silence on board the ship and around us, except when broken by the cannon's sound, the echo and re-echo of that sound from the near and distant hills, as it died away in the distance, the whole ship's company uncovered and motionless, and the associations connected with the ceremony, seemed to make a deep impression upon all, as they did certainly upon me. When the salute was finished the sails were again set, the colors hoisted, and we proceeded up the river. The frigate New York had preceded us, without saluting, but we found her grounded on the bar at the entrance of the eastern branch of the Potomac, and the Congress, passing her, was the first ship of war that reached what has since become the Navy Yard at Washington. The frigates New York and United States joined us a few days afterwards."

This custom has erroneously been attributed to Admiral Sir George Cockburn, R.N., during his command of a squadron of British men-of-war during the War of 1812. Admiral Cockburn, aboard his flagship Sea Horse, ordered the ship's bell tolled as she came opposite Mount Vernon after he had raided and burned the city of Washington. Bushrod Washington, nephew of George Washington and proprietor of Mount Vernon from 1802 until his death in 1826, was an interested observer as the British squadron advanced in battle formation toward Fort Washington on the Maryland shore opposite Mount Vernon. He states in his letter to Chancellor de Saussure, dated Mount Vernon, November 29, 1814, that:

"I am happy to have it in my power to say that I escaped in person and property all kind of injury and loss. The squadron lay at this place some days in its ascent and on its return, and yet I do not believe that during the whole time a single barge approached this shore. This distinguished forbearance I owe to the generous feelings of Commodore Gordon for a place which had once been the residence of my venerated Uncle. He expressed to one of the Alexandria commissioners, who was deputed to stipulate for the safety of the town, an anxious desire to visit this spot, but was so delicate as to declare his resolution not to do so, presuming that my official situation would render such a step peculiarly embarrassing & disagreeable to me. He further added that he would commit no act of hostility injurious to this place even though the militia should make their appearance on it. I have much reason to thank him for such sentiments & conduct, and should it ever be my good fortune to see him in peace here or elsewhere, I should be proud to give him proofs of my gratitude."

Bushrod Washington makes no mention of gun salutes or other honors paid to George Washington by the vessels of the British squadron passing or repassing Mount Vernon. 

Washington's Birthday Observed

While the gun salute when passing Mount Vernon was discontinued some time before specific honors to Washington's tomb were prescribed, the memory of our first president is honored in accordance with Navy regulations by a 21-gun salute fired at noon on each twenty-second day of February by all vessels and naval stations equipped with saluting batteries. This regulation has come down intact from 1818 except for one change in 1865 of the number of guns required since 1818 (it was a 17-gun salute then). The Regulations for the Navy of the Confederate States called for similar honors on Washington's birthday:

"Salutes on the 22nd of February, &c. On the anniversary of the declaration of independence of the Confederate States, and on the twenty-second day of February, the anniversary of the birth of Washington, a salute of twenty-one guns shall be fired at meridian from vessels in commission and navy yards." (Art. 25)

There is an instance on record when Union warships lying off the Confederate-held fort at Pensacola, Florida, joined with the fort at the firing of a salute. During the Civil War, Mount Vernon was by spontaneous consent of those on both sides of the great contest neutral ground. Soldiers were requested to leave their arms outside the gates, which they did, and men in blue and grey met fraternally before the tomb of the Father of their divided country. 

Passing Honors Become Official

In 1906 when the yacht Mayflower rendered passing honors with President Theodore Roosevelt embarked, he was much impressed. Finding upon inquiry that the honors were not official, he immediately prompted the issuance of the following order prescribing the ceremony to be observed by all vessels of the United States Navy passing Mount Vernon between sunrise and sunset:

"Marine guard and band paraded; bell tolled and colors halfmasted at the beginning of the tolling of the bell. When opposite Washington's Tomb, buglers sound taps, marine guard present arms, and officers and men on deck stand at attention and salute. The colors will be mastheaded at the last note of taps which will also be the signal for 'carry on.' " (General Order No. 22, June 2, 1906)

Today's orders are the same except that the playing of the national anthem was prescribed in 1913. The tolling of the ship's bell is perhaps the most distinctive aspect of the ceremony, which is observed during daylight hours while the tomb and adjacent areas are abeam.

The manner of rendering these honors varies, depending on the size and complement of the ship. Insofar as practicable, it calls for parading the full guard and band, playing the national anthem, half-masting the national ensign, and tolling the bell.

Most smaller naval ships do not have bands or buglers nor do they have a regularly detailed guard. However, any naval vessel has a bell and a national ensign. Usual practice when cruising off Mount Vernon is for all hands not on watch to be stationed topside.

As a naval ship passes Mount Vernon, the crew forms up on deck with the tallest sailor nearest the bow and attention is sounded. When opposite the tomb, "hand salute" is signalled. Meanwhile the ship's bell is struck eight times at five-second intervals. As the bell begins to toll, the national ensign is lowered to half-mast. At the end of the tolling, the ensign is raised to the peak; two blasts on the whistle indicate "end of salute," and three "carry on."

Civilian personnel on board naval vessels customarily uncover and place their hats over their hearts.


31 March 1997

Published: Tue Jun 04 14:43:58 EDT 2024