J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Another Version of Andrew Leavitt's Story

I’ve been discussing the tale that Gen. George Washington read the 101st Psalm to the Continental Army troops he met at Cambridge in 1775, a tale that I traced to Daniel F. Secomb’s 1883 history of Amherst, New Hampshire. Yesterday I promised to reveal a widely distributed version of that story printed before Secomb’s book, which I thought might have given rise to the local tradition. But I did some more research, found some more sources, and changed my thinking and my plans.

Yesterday I found another version of the same anecdote attributed to Secomb’s main source, the New Hampshire carpenter and veteran Andrew Leavitt, but published six years earlier. It comes from the Amherst, New Hampshire, newspaper titled The Farmer’s Cabinet.

When Leavitt died in 1846, that newspaper’s death notice was unusually long—a full paragraph. But it said nothing about his military experience, concentrating instead on his work as a builder and his religious faith. Over three decades later, on 22 Jan 1878, the Farmer’s Cabinet ran a profile titled “Andrew Leavitt,” which started with the man’s status as “probably the last survivor of the workmen who assisted in building the Congregational meeting house at Amherst.” The first three paragraphs were all about that local construction project.

The next three paragraphs concerned Leavitt’s recollections of the Revolutionary War:

On the breaking out of the war of the revolution he repaired to Cambridge and enlisted in the company commanded by his townsman, Capt. Josiah Crosby. For his subsistence on the march he took two loaves of brown bread, and a generous slice of good, thick, salt pork, the pork he cut in thin slices, of which he placed one upon a slice of bread and covered it with another slice of bread, his teeth being good he bit through all three slices; he said, “it was the sweetest morsel he ever ate.”

He was probably in the battle of Bunker Hill, as Capt. Crosby reports among the articles lost by his company, 1 coverlid, 1 pair stockings, 1 knapsack and handkerchief lost by Andrew Leavitt, the date of his enlistment is given on the company roll call as two days later, 19th Jun. 1775. [The newspaper had printed Crosby’s report on 23 June 1875.]

He was present at Cambridge when Gen. Washington assumed command of the army, 2nd July 1775, and narrated the events of that day to the writer who called on him one day after he had passed his ninetieth year [i.e., after 1842]. Said he “the men were clad in their every day dress, scarcely any two alike, their arms were of all sorts, sizes, and shapes, some were provided with bayonets, but the most were without, and the soldiers had but a poor idea of military discipline. After the officers had succeeded in getting the men into tolerable order, Gen. Washington came upon the field and reviewed them, he was a large noble looking man, apparently in the full strength of manhood, mounted upon a magnificent black horse, in whose shining coat you could almost see your face, so carefully was he groomed. After the review the soldiers gathered around the tree under which the General sat, and listened to his address. At the conclusion he read to them from his Psalm book the 101st Psalm.[”?] Here the vete[r]an paused, and stepping into the adjoining room, appeared, bringing two Psalm books, one of which he handed his visitor, and finding the place in the other, he read in tones tremulous with age and emotion, the “Magistrate’s,” Psalm [i.e., the 101st], the father of his country, read to his fellow countrymen, seventy years before while they were gathered around him at Cambridge.

Mr. Leavitt was quite a musician in his day, and his musical talent is inherited by many of his descendants, among whom are the celebrated “Hutchinson family, of the tribe of Jesse.” He died at the great age of 94 years, 24th of August 1846.
The Hutchinson family were very popular singers of the mid-1800s, known especially for their support of Abolitionism and other reform movements. The picture of the Hutchinsons above comes from this fan page, which also provides links for more information on them.

As you can see in yesterday’s posting, this 1878 account overlaps a lot with Secomb’s on details, including the wrong date for when Washington reviewed troops in Cambridge, but the two share only a little of the same phrasing (“a large noble looking man”). That implies that Secomb did not write both, which in turn supports the statements that Leavitt had told this story to various people in the mid-1840s.

That said, the details of this version make the story less credible, not more so. I’m already dubious about the notion of Washington pulling out a psalm book and reading to his soldiers. It’s well documented that as President he walked out of church rather than take communion. He never used the word “psalm” in his correspondence or speeches. His private letters show faith in “Providence” but no rhetoric or tenets pointing to orthodox Christianity.

But the image of the new generalissimo sitting under a tree surrounded by those men as he reads the 101st Psalm like an itinerant preacher is so completely incongruous that I can’t even picture it. It doesn’t fit Washington’s personal style throughout his lifetime. It doesn’t fit all the concerns about discipline and hierarchy that he wrote about in the summer of 1775. The Farmer’s Cabinet article tells us that Leavitt habitually told this story, but it also provides far more reason to think of the story as a legend.

TOMORROW: This time I really will have an earlier, widely published version of the tale.

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