George Washington's Solar Eclipse
On Monday August 21, 2017, the world was entranced by one of nature’s most marvelous sights – an eclipse of the sun. Everyone in North America was able to gaze upon a partial solar eclipse. According to NASA, a partial solar eclipse is “where the moon covers part of the sun’s disk.” The partial solar eclipse was also visible in parts of South America, Africa, and Europe. Additionally, a total solar eclipse was visible in the continental United States for the first time in 38 years.
The concept of a solar eclipse has fascinated the minds of our world for centuries. This includes the definitive founding father of America, George Washington. According to George Washington's Mount Vernon, there were two solar eclipses during the Revolutionary War. As Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, General Washington understood that an eclipse held an important military significance.
From December 26, 1776 to January 3, 1777, Washington's army managed to pull off its first two major victories of the war at Trenton and Princeton. This stunning pair of battlefield accomplishment's came at a time when the fate of the American cause was in serious doubt.
General Washington and his troops crossing the frigid Delaware river on December 25, 1776. After the difficult navigation on Christmas night, Washington and his troops attacked the Hessian garrison at Trenton, achieving their first major victory of the Revolutionary War. Painting by Emanuel Leutze in 1851. (Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art)
After an unimaginably difficult year of 1776, the following year began on much more hopeful terms for Washington and his troops. Days after earning victory at Trenton and Princeton, General Washington wrote a thank you letter to acknowledge the Pennsylvania Council of Safety for notifying him about an impending eclipse.
Washington received a letter dated January 5, 1777 from Thomas Wharton. Wharton warned the General that "according to Astronomical Calculations, on Thursday next between the hours of 9 and 11 in the forenoon, a great Eclipse of the Sun will be visible here, perhaps it may not be amiss on this occasion to guard against a superstitious fear in the Army which might take place should the Men be unexpectedly surprised with this appearance." Washington was in total agreement in his response, writing, "this event, without a previous knowledge of it, might affect the minds of the Soldierly, and be attended with some bad consequences." On January 9, a partial eclipse took place and obscured around two-thirds of the sun.
A second eclipse occurred more than a year later on June 24, 1778. George Washington's Mount Vernon writes that "a total solar eclipse was recorded as being visible by combatants from the Carolinas to New England." There is no evidence of Washington mentioning the second eclipse of the war, but soldiers in his army took notice as they prepared for the Battle of Monmouth.
A painting of General Washington rallying his troops at the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778. (Photo: britishbattles.com)
In regards to the second eclipse in 1778, Revolutionary War veteran Joseph Plumb Martin recalled that "the day we were drafted the sun was eclipsed; had this happened upon such an occasion in 'olden time,' it would have been considered ominous either of good or bad fortune, but we took no notice of it." The road ahead was still filled with incredible challenges for men like Martin, but through tireless dedication to Washington and the American cause, good fortune would come the army's way.