Brian Campbell of Cambridge sent a long comment attached to a posting from last year, and I thought it would be more visible in a posting of its own. Mr. Campbell is concerned about Fort Washington Park in Cambridge, the lone remaining geographic feature from the siege of Boston in 1775-76. Here are his comments, somewhat edited:
In November of 1775, by order of George Washington, volunteer soldiers constructed the three-gun battery earthworks at Fort Washington Park at 101 Waverly Street. Of the many siege fortifications built, only the three-gun battery earthworks at Fort Washington Park survive in an original condition.Fort Washington Park is now one of Cambridge’s two dog parks. Last year dog-owners petitioned the city to augment the Victorian iron fence around the park because pets could get through it and run away. In Jan 2006 the Cambridge Historical Commission approved a chain-link fence beside the older fence as a temporary measure. Presumably the city is working on a longer-term solution that matches the historic decor.
After the Revolution, the affluent Dana family preserved the earthworks until 1858 and donated the land they occupy to the city. In 1859 Cambridge built the beautiful historic fence around the earthworks to protect them.
In the History of Cambridge, Massachusetts 1630-1877, Lucas R. Paige wrote, “Let no unpatriotic hand destroy this revolutionary relic, now known as Fort Washington.”
Mr. Campbell sees that use of the park as a threat to its survival:
The primary historic preservation concern was the 148-year-old fence, which no longer serves as protection to the earthworks. Instead, it keeps pooches caged in, making Fort Washington a legal off-leash park. Dogs burrow holes in the earthworks with impunity, as there is no protection for these fragile Revolutionary relics our forefathers so bravely constructed under British cannonades while suffering sickness and death in the camps and barracks of Cambridge.Here is Mr. Campbell’s full letter to the Cambridge Chronicle in February. You can read more of his thoughts on the park here. He has also posted slide shows titled “Ft. Washington Dog Damage.”
As a USN Veteran, I feel this not the proper place to allow dogs to run free. The 231-year-old, Revolutionary relic three-gun battery earthworks are a monument to the labor of volunteer soldiers who constructed them, and deserve the respect and protection afforded the earthworks at national battlefields.
On the other side of the issue, folks on such websites as CambridgeDog.org and the SomervilleDog blog are pleased to have the dog park, and pleased that Cambridge agreed to steps that make it better for dogs.
I literally don’t have a dog in this fight. I don’t have a dog, I don’t live in Cambridge, and I have no special feelings about Fort Washington Park compared to other Revolutionary sites. But here are some observations from a historical perspective.
First, there were earthworks and fortifications and artillery batteries all around Boston in 1775-76, and inside the town as well. Soon after the war, most were plowed up or built over. Massachusetts farmers didn’t like to see land go to waste. People weren’t that interested then in preserving such reminders of the war. Since then, the geography of Boston and Cambridge has changed drastically, with large landfills creating new areas for construction. The park is now surrounded by streets, parking lots, and train tracks.
Those facts can cut both ways. On the one hand, as Mr. Campbell says, because these earthworks are the only military features that survive, it might be all the more important to preserve them. On the other hand, it’s not possible to get a sense of the siege—its scale, its strategy, its challenges for both sides—from this patch of land, so its value for understanding history is limited.
Aesthetically, I see Fort Washington Park as a relic of the Victorian period. The earthworks (in some form) go back to 1775-76, but the fence, cannons, and carefully planted trees reflect how people of the 1800s treated history and the land. Even the twentieth-century statues there include, as well as figures of Continental Army soldiers at work, a Victorian woman sitting on an earthwork to enjoy the sun.
I agree with Mr. Campbell that it’s valuable to maintain these formations as a physical reminder of the siege. I’m not sure how much of a permanent threat dogs and their owners pose. Those earthworks were piled up to withstand cannonballs, after all. With proper maintenance (not always certain, of course), they could last for more centuries. How about a community effort to fill in the holes the dogs dig, to make sure grass grows back every spring?
Perhaps the issue the more emotional: should this land be treated as a war memorial, akin to a cemetery or battlefield? There were no fights there, no soldiers killed or buried there. One could argue that using the space as a public park will encourage people to forget the soldiers of the Revolution. Then again, visiting that spot might make folks think about the men who built those mounds. All in all, this consideration seems to come down to symbolism, and the meaning and weight of symbols change over time.
Is making Fort Washington Park into a dog run specifically disrespectful? I’m not convinced, for a couple of reasons. While dogs can’t be toilet-trained, dog-owners can be; there’s been a remarkable change even since my childhood in how many urban and suburban owners pick up after their pets. Of course that’s not a perfect solution, but, as with maintaining the earthworks, it seems possible for people to keep the park healthy and clean. And pet-owners would benefit most.
Finally, from a historical perspective, it seems worth noting that Gen. George Washington was fond of his hunting dogs, owning many over his youth and middle age. His colleague Gen. Charles Lee loved his dogs even more, probably more than any person he met; he once insisted that Abigail Adams shake hands with one of his dogs. Gen. Israel Putnam had dogs at his farm in Connecticut.
Among Patriot politicians, Samuel Adams had a pet Newfoundland, and this week Prof. Richard Brown of the University of Connecticut told me that James Sullivan once offered a reward for the return of his dog. Ebenezer Fletcher, who joined the Continental Army in 1777 as a sixteen-year-old fifer, credited a dog with helping him escape from British troops around Fort Ticonderoga. Pvt. Joseph Plumb Martin mentioned American officers having a “favorite little dog” with them in 1780 (alas, he mentioned this in the context of them finally killing and eating the dog because they were so starved for rations).
For the soldiers of the Continental Army, securing Cambridge’s freedom to choose where to let its dogs roam might have been more important than maintaining their earthworks.