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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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Washington Reads the 101st Psalm?

A recent discussion on the Revlist alerted me to a problematic passage in Edward G. Lengel’s 2005 study General George Washington: A Military Life. It comes from page 105:

Six hot and dusty days later, on July 2nd, he [Washington] passed the first pickets around the American lines at Cambridge, Massachusetts. Just as he entered camp it began to rain, sending the troops that had been assembled to greet him scrambling for shelter. He had to wait until the following morning to meet his army on a muddy parade ground. The new commander-in-chief then delivered a short speech, read from the 101st Psalm, and reviewed the fidgety lines of paraded troops. “Joy was visible in every countenance,” Brigadier Nathanael Greene later wrote, “and it seemed as if the spirit of conquest breathed through the whole army.”
Lengel’s only citation for this paragraph is to the letters of Gen. Greene of Rhode Island. The quotation is accurate, but it did not describe any welcome ceremony on 3 July 1775. Greene was not even in Cambridge that day, having sent a detachment of his men instead, as his 4 July letter states. The quotation is from Greene’s letter dated 14 July, after Washington had ridden round to other parts of the American lines, including where the Rhode Island troops were stationed.

As for Washington’s “short speech” and psalm-reading, Lengel’s book doesn’t say where he read about those actions. But it’s not hard to figure out. For a quote on the following page, Lengel cites Charles Martyn’s Life of Artemas Ward. That biography, in a long footnote that covers most of his pages 152 and 153, quotes “Secomb’s History of the Town of Amherst, N. H.” about Washington’s remarks. Lengel’s list of sources did not include this local history, so he dug only as far as Martyn.

But here’s the puzzle. Martyn’s clear conclusion in that long footnote was that, contrary to traditions that sprang up in the mid-1800s, there was no grand ceremony on Cambridge Common to welcome the new commander from Virginia. Some troops turned out, but many more wrote “nothing remarkable” happened that day, as in the diary of Pvt. Samuel Haws, and none left a contemporaneous description of the encounter.

Furthermore, Martyn stated that he had found no “authentic sources” describing how Washington had addressed even part of the Continental Army in Cambridge. He called the story in Secomb’s book an “alleged recollection.” He printed it separate from his list of all the sources he considered reliable, after discussing how two previous historians had misrepresented other sources.

It’s clear that Martyn did not consider the story of Washington reading the 101st Psalm to be reliable. Samuel F. Batchelder echoed that assessment in his own study of the local “Washington Elm” tradition, reprinted in Bits of Cambridge History: “This whole passage [about psalm-reading] is so odd and improbable that commentators like Martyn dismiss it as the maunderings of a nonagenarian.”

Lengel must have missed Martyn’s hints, or ignored them. And the lack of a citation for his book’s statement about the commander’s remarks leaves readers of General George Washington with no way to assess its reliability...

TOMORROW: ...until now.


Larry Cebula said...

Have you contacted Lengel about this?

J. L. Bell said...

No, I haven’t. The anecdote is a small part (one sentence, literally) of Lengel's book, which I haven't appraised fully.

General George Washington was published by Random House, not a scholarly press. Its endnotes seem to offer citations for all direct quotations but not for all factual statements, which doesn’t seem uncommon for that level of publishing.

Larry Cebula said...

I ask because you know the story of Washington reading s Psalm will be all over the evangelical blogs and media. Sermons will be written around this event and my students will come to History 110 asking me why I don't talk about Washington's psalm reading and why do I hate America.

J. L. Bell said...

Indeed, this incident has already been reenacted here in Massachusetts. I learned about it first from the fellow who played Washington. Clearly part of the story's appeal for him is how it makes the general out as a more orthodox Christian than anything he wrote or anything written about him in his lifetime.

Larry Cebula said...

The rabid cat is out of the bag then. Alas, historical research and primary documents are such a thin reed to wield against the power of what people want to believe!

I am not going to bother anymore. Indeed, I am going to write a book: "Born Again Founders: Why the Founding Fathers Hated Gays, Abortion, and Busing." The royalties will enable me to retire immediately to the south of France, where I shall hide my shame from the historical profession.

horse_1 said...


I may have gotten this wrong, but I can assure you I had no agenda in doing so. I was just a bit too casual in this instance. Try writing a long book on a short deadline, and you'll see what I mean. But if wrong, the fault remains mine.

If you dig deeper, you'll find other mistakes--even though I farmed out the manuscript to readers like Don Higginbotham and Pete Henriques before publication. In one instance I'll never live down, I put Fort Ticonderoga on the Hudson River instead of Lake Champlain--another late night writing, getting tired and sloppy. But again, the fault is mine and no one else's.

You and others are right for looking for these errors and pointing them out--that is what history is all about. Knowledge is no one's monopoly, but a common heritage. I tried my best to be accurate and objective, but we're all human--me especially.

--Ed Lengel

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the note, Prof. Lengel. I started looking into the topic of Washington's psalm-reading with the theory that the story popped up in the 1880s, yet, as you saw, I kept finding earlier versions. Nothing back in 1775, but still decades earlier than I expected.

Which just goes to show us how even small details can have deep roots. And when we multiply that by the hundreds of details that go into a book, it's indeed a huge job!