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Historical interview opens Fort Ligonier Days festival

| Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
Sean Stipp | Trib Total Media
Writer/editor Ralph Kinney Bennett (center), who retired from covering national and international affairs for the Washington Bureau of Reader’s Digest, interviews (right) General George Washington (Dean Malissa) as Charles A. Fagan III, (left) chairman of the Ligonier 250 celebration in 2008, looks on.

Dean Malissa, the official historical portrayer of George Washington at Mt. Vernon, appeared on the Diamond during the opening ceremony Friday for an informative interview with Ralph Kinney Bennett, a Ligonier writer, editor, Fort Ligonier Days committee member and Fort Ligonier trustee.

“Since Colonel Washington was at Fort Ligonier in 1758, arriving shortly after the Battle of Fort Ligonier that took place on Oct. 12, it is a significant addition to our historical programming for Fort Ligonier Days to have Dean Malissa here,” said Annie Urban, Fort Ligonier executive director.

Malissa, who stayed in character throughout the interview, said he was “greatly pleased to see the growth of this hamlet of Ligonier.”

“I am humbled by your approbation, and I thank you kindly for your assemblage,” Malissa told the crowd.

Bennett started the interview by asking Malissa why Washington chose to be portrayed in the uniform of the Virginia Militia for Charles Willson Peale's portrait of him at age 40.

“It is a rather fancy uniform, and I must tell you, I designed it myself,” Malissa said. “It was very fancy — scarlet, blue and silver lace — but that is not why I stood in that uniform for that portrait at that time.”

Malissa went on to explain that, despite the British Americans' conflict with Great Britain at the time of the portrait's creation, Washington wanted to “remain a loyal subject of the crown.”

Bennett inquired about one of the closest calls of Washington's life, which occurred in Ligonier in November 1758, when two groups of Virginian soldiers mistook one another for the French and fired shots.

“We had agreed to stay in quarters in the fort over the winter,” Malissa said. “The next day everything changed because the French and their Indian allies once again pushed within a few miles of the fort. We sent out Virginia soldiers under the direction of Capt. George Mercer. We heard a pitched battle. It sounded like it was moving closer to the fort, which meant that Mercer was losing ground and he was in trouble. I took other Virginia soldiers, and we marched to the rescue, if you will... We came upon a ridge as the sun was going down on a very rainy, foggy, low-cloud day, and very sadly Mercer's Virginians saw me and my Virginians, thought they were the French and opened fire upon us. It was a withering fire. My Virginians, not being able to see clearly either in the other direction, opened fire, and it was a very serious situation on our hands that caused the death of an officer and several soldiers.”

Malissa commented on the Whiskey Rebellion, as he described it as “the first challenge to the new federal government” and “an unlawful challenge.”

“If you want to change the law, do so through your elected representatives,” he said. “I'm sure this bears no resemblance in your day and time, but there was a great deal of frustration because frequently the Congress just would not get things done.”

The crowd around the Diamond chuckled at the statement, in light of the partial government shutdown.

“The lesson to be learned is, yes, challenge your government,” Malissa said. “Yes, make your public servants conform to your will, but do so legally through the form of government, which is good and generous, that we have put in place in our constitution. This government belongs to you, and as long as we set aside faction and division and, as I have writ and you can read, dare I say set aside political party, we can accomplish absolutely anything as Americans.

“The government is in your hands,” he said.

After his interview on the Diamond, Washington went to Fort Ligonier, where he took questions from fort visitors, including a group of students from Penns Manor Elementary School.

Students snapped photos of Malissa as he discussed how Fort Ligonier was a central location of the French and Indian War, which he said was a direct cause of the American Revolutionary War.

John Krystyniak of Donegal visited the fort Friday and listened to Malissa's discussion. Krystyniak said he thought the interpretation of Washington was very good and feels such presentations during Fort Ligonier Days can benefit young people.

“The youth of today is overwhelmed and focused on texting, video games, social networks and not reality,” he said. “They're being programmed for an altruistic society that can't be achieved because we're dealing with human beings. They need to come back and learn about the beginning of our nation so that they have an appreciation of where they reside and the tremendous amount of effort and sacrifice to have freedom.”

Nicole Chynoweth is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2862 or