Philip Smucker has been fascinated with George Washington since he was a kid.
"My mother would say, 'Well, can’t you be a little more like George Washington?' And I always felt like I could never live up to that," Smucker says.
Maybe not. But if anyone could, it would be one of Washington’s descendants, right?
"I do have a family connection on my mother’s side," Smucker says.
In fact, Smucker is Washington’s fifth great-grandnephew. When Smucker was in college, he began researching his great-great-great-great-great uncle. And he learned that Washington excelled in every sport he played.
Playing For Sport, Training For War
"He was an immensely tall gentleman for his day," Smucker says. "Being 6-foot-2, he was a good six, seven inches taller than the average Colonial.
"He grew up on a horse, like a lot of Virginians. They used to say that a Virginian would chase his horse for two hours just to ride it two miles to church, because they wanted to be seen on a horse. Thomas Jefferson mentioned that he was the greatest equestrian he’d ever seen."
Washington loved fox hunting in particular.
"Back in the day when George was learning, it had a kind of a military edge to it," Smucker says. "You were trying to ride well and jump over fences because you might have to do that eventually in a battle. It was the one sport that he was passionate about. Sometimes he would go hunting four, five times in a 10-day period."
"George Washington loved to ride into the heat of a battle and he loved to be at the forefront of that battle. And it was only his equestrian skills that allowed him to dodge bullets, to ride through the smoke, to win a victory there at Princeton."Philip Smucker
A few years ago, Smucker began to wonder what role sports might have played in shaping Washington. So he spent five years following in the footsteps of his ancestor.
He began by learning how to fox hunt, somewhat reluctantly.
"I kinda had a certain queasiness about learning how to hunt foxes," Smucker says. "I always rooted for the fox. And I was lucky. Most of the time that I was with them hunting, the fox did get away and I could still learn the sport."
Smucker’s classrooms were the hills, woods and ravines of Washington’s old stomping grounds in the Shenandoah Valley, where George had once ridden as a young surveyor. There, it was easy for Smucker to see how his great-great-great-great-great uncle’s fox hunting training contributed to his battlefield bravado.
Equestrian In Chief
In 1775, Washington accepted his appointment as full General and Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army.
"George Washington loved to ride into the heat of a battle and he loved to be at the forefront of that battle," Smucker says. "And it was only his equestrian skills that allowed him to dodge bullets, to ride through the smoke, to win a victory there at Princeton."
The Battle of Princeton was fought on Jan. 3, 1777, when the Continental Army attacked the British garrison at Princeton, New Jersey. Washington and his army were in danger of being completely overrun by two British army regiments commanded by British Colonel Charles Mawhood. Many generals would have sat back from the chaos and directed his soldiers from afar. But not Washington.
"George rode into the middle of this battle on a white horse as the Continental Army was retreating," Smucker says. "And he rose up on the hind legs of his horse. And his aide-de-camp pulled his hat over his eyes and hid himself because he thought the General was going to die immediately. When Colonel Mawhood turned and ran, George shouted to his men, 'It’s a fine fox chase, my boys!'"
The Continental Army won the pivotal Battle of Princeton. Washington’s bravery is immortalized by a famous portrait of him rallying his troops while aboard a rearing white horse.
Meeting Mr. Washington
"I have been a horseman as long as I remember. My name is George Washington, and you can call me 'Mr. Washington'," says Ron Carnegie, a character interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg.
Smucker met with Carnegie on his journey of Washingtonian discovery. And Carnegie stayed in character for our conversation, too. Mr. Washington agrees that being a horseman made him better at being a general.
"Also, to be honest," Washington/Carnegie says, "at attracting women, because it’s also excellent for your calves."
But when it came to attracting fair colonial damsels, there was another sport available to Virginians that surpassed all others.
"Any ball or assembly, particularly a formal one, will begin with the minuets," Washington/Carnegie says.
A minuet is a dance with a fixed sequence of left and right hand dance patterns, often followed by variations as couples see fit.
"That’ll be done one couple at a time, starting with the highest socially-ranked couple in attendance, down to the lowest," he says. "That’s one couple at a time with the rest of the participants watching, viewing and often judging."
Philip Smucker learned that Washington’s love of dance equaled his love for all things equestrian. So Smucker took minuet lessons in Williamsburg with a colonial etiquette expert.
"Well, I think maybe I got three steps into a minuet before my self-confidence completely collapsed," Smucker says. "Everybody in the circle is looking at you, and they’ll certainly even make fun of you. In Virginia in that day, there were a lot of giggles going on when people tried and failed to dance. And it was very competitive, kinda like 'Dancing With the Stars' today."
I wonder if Mr. Washington knows that show?
"I’m not familiar with it, but it wouldn’t surprise me, sir."
So why was George so interested in the minuet?
"I suffer a deficiency of education," Washington/Carnegie says. "I should have perhaps mentioned that earlier. And I grew up in the country. I have long been of the opinion and the fear that I come across as just a simple country bumpkin. And I’ve endeavored to improve upon that as best I may. And, certainly, your bearing and your carriage is an important aspect of the minuet."
Smucker learned that as Washington mastered the minuet, he rose through Virginia’s social ranks and developed the self-confidence that had been absent from his youth.
"And he felt comfortable amongst his peers, I think, because he was a great dancer," Smucker says. "The first time he ever went to the South when he was President, almost every Southern woman wanted to dance with George Washington. And he continued to show his prowess on the dance floor, until the waning years of his life."
Washington The Sportsman
Washington’s other sporting loves included fishing, fencing, archery and the throwing of weights, which he claimed he could launch further than junior officers half his age. And he bowled.
"It’s an ancient game," Washington/Carnegie says. "They say that Drake played it when the Armada was threatening England."
"And I thought, well, if I’m going to meet and talk to George about his sporting prowess, we’re gonna have to do something," Smucker says.
So the two met in Williamsburg.
"I took him to a bowling green. We bowled and I showed him the game," Washington/Carnegie says with a laugh. "I’m sure he did well for a man who hadn’t been engaged in the sport before."
Perhaps bowling, dancing, riding and all the rest helped Washington cope with the burdens of leadership and horrors of war. Philip Smucker is a journalist who’s reported from war zones in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, Serbia and elsewhere. He’s seen a lot. Maybe that’s why he felt such a profound connection to his famous great-great-great-great-great uncle.
"The one thing he learned from war, and I think that he articulated well in some letters that he wrote, was that it was errant, it was folly, it was about a false glory," Smucker says. "And he always encouraged people to engage in entertainment and fun, and I think he loved sport for that very reason."
Still, if Washington were alive today, perhaps he’d be amused that anybody would be interested in his sporting life.
"I wish more had paid attention to my Farewell Address than perhaps the games I played, sir," Washington/Carnegie says. "But, then again, politics is just another game, isn’t it?"
This segment aired on August 5, 2017.