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.