US & World

Palmetto Past & Present: The South Carolina Woman Who Saved Mount Vernon

Ann Pamela Cunningham isn’t a household name … but maybe she should be.

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If George Washington is the Father of our Country, a little-remembered South Carolina woman could be called the Mother of Mount Vernon. These final days of Women’s History Month make this the ideal time to revisit her inspiring story.

Ann Pamela Cunningham isn’t a household name – but maybe she should be.

Born to a prosperous Laurens County couple in 1816, Ann distinguished herself with her keen mind and exceptional equestrian talent. She was incredibly well-educated for the era, beginning with a private governess and then advancing to the South Carolina Female Institute.

Then there was her remarkable riding skill: Folks said she sat a horse better than any girl in the Upstate. Until one ride changed everything.

When Ann was seventeen, a horse threw her to the ground and critically injured her. In an instant, the young life that seemed so full of promise was now doomed to decades of pain. In a time when today’s modern painkillers were still far off in the future (aspirin alone wouldn’t be invented until 1897), her spinal injury caused intense suffering. The best doctors could offer patients was laudanum – a mixture of opium in alcohol which was so addictive it made crack cocaine look like an afterschool snack.

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Ann’s family had relatives in Philadelphia. While returning from a visit there, her mother had one of those seemingly random experiences that can lead to something transcendent. Heading home to South Carolina on a steamboat, she was awakened when its bell rang in the middle of the night. Looking across the water, she spotted Washington’s estate, Mount Vernon, on a bluff overhead and was appalled by its deteriorating condition.

“I was painfully distressed at the ruination and desolation at the home of Washington,” she wrote to her daughter, “And the thought passed through my mind: Why was it that the women of his country did not try to keep it in repair, if the men could not do it?”

This idea resonated with Ann – and awakened the activist within her. She was 37 now and had been handicapped for more than twenty years. Perhaps she was looking for a cause to invest herself in – something beyond the bedroom where she was forced to spend most of her days. Writing from her bed on December 2, 1853, she penned an impassioned fundraising appeal, “To the Ladies of the South!” that ran in The Charleston Mercury.

The column struck a chord with patriotic women, and a meeting was soon held in Laurens County to get the ball rolling.

But Ann didn’t stop there. She enlisted the help of friends and family members in the North, and soon, “Mount Vernon Associations” began popping up around the country. Eventually, she joined Massachusetts governor Edward Everett (who would later earn a footnote in history by being the guy who talked for two hours at the Gettysburg cemetery dedication ahead of president Abraham Lincoln‘s famed two-minute address) to create the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA).

It was one of the first private historic preservation groups in the U.S. – and Ann was chosen as its first regent.

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The goal was to raise $200,000 (more than $7.6 million today) to buy the home and 200 acres.  The idea was originally pitched to Congress, but with the nation sliding ever closer to the abyss of Civil War shelling out a fortune for a dilapidated house was a non-starter.

So Ann and the group switched tactics. They essentially cut out the middleman and went straight to Mount Vernon’s owner, John Augustine Washington III, George’s great-grandnephew. She proposed her group buy the property directly from him. Washington was skeptical but told her to go for it.  And so Ann, being Ann, she did just that. Everything she had done till then was a warmup act compared to what followed.

She supervised the MVLA’s fundraising efforts with gusto, launching a newspaper called The Mount Vernon Record to promote its activities. To Washington’s astonishment, by 1858, the group had raised the $18,000 needed for a downpayment. With great effort, Ann made the trip to Richmond, Virginia that April to sign the papers. The MVLA had four years – until February 22, 1862 (George Washington’s birthday, not so coincidentally) – to come up with the $182,000 balance.

Ann only needed 18 months. By late 1859, the group had raised the remaining money. On February 22, 1860, the MVLA took over the operation of Mount Vernon and set about to restore it. 

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The Mount Vernon estate, as photographed in 1860.

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The Civil War interrupted those plans – and Ann’s own delicate health and family concerns kept her at Rosemont, the Cunningham’s South Carolina plantation, throughout the conflict. After Appomattox, though, Ann returned to Mount Vernon and resumed her plans for returning its appearance to the place George had known. Sadly, years of chronic intense pain and — even worse — her laudanum addiction had taken their toll.

In 1874, Ann was forced to step down from leading the very organization she had helped create. Unable to attend the board meeting that year, she sent a copy of the resignation address she had planned to deliver that eloquently vowed, “Ladies, the home of Washington is in your charge … Let one spot in this grand country of ours be saved from ‘change!’ Upon you rests this duty.”

This address has been read at the start of every MVLA annual meeting since 1907.

With her life mission taken away from her, Ann didn’t last long. She passed away the following year at the age of 58 and was buried at First Presbyterian Church’s cemetery in Columbia. 

Her gravesite, incidentally, sits just a few yards from the graves of former U.S. president Woodrow Wilson’s parents.

Ann Pamela Cummingham had no children. Neither, for that matter, did Washington – whose legacy she so passionately honored. Yet, because of her vision and dedication, 96 million people have visited Mount Vernon since 1860.  An estimated 1 million tourists will pass through the 266-year-old home this year alone.

How many of them, I wonder, will know of the disabled South Carolina woman who made it all possible?

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Mark Powell (Provided)

J. Mark Powell is an award-winning former TV journalist, government communications veteran, and a political consultant. He is also an author and an avid Civil War enthusiast. Got a tip or a story idea for Mark? Email him at mark@fitsnews.com.

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1 comment

Shealy Top fan March 31, 2024 at 6:44 pm

One of only two Female Portraits

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