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, December 02, 2007

Snowball Fight in Harvard Yard

This afternoon I escorted a tour group through Gen. George Washington’s Cambridge headquarters, and one of the Concordant Volunteers’ young interpreters described life with the commander-in-chief, including the following anecdote. Since there’s snow forecast for this evening, it seems doubly appropriate for today.

The story comes from Israel Trask, born in or around Gloucester in 1765. His father was a lieutenant in an Essex County regiment, and in some early version of Take Your Child to Work Day decided that Israel, who had turned ten years old in February 1775, should come along with him to the war.

Israel’s duties were, he later wrote, “the care of the baggage and the property of the mess. When the officers were called on duty, which was daily the case, either to mount guard, or fatigue duties in fortifying the camp,...my duty alternately was to take the edibles prepared at the mess to the officers on duty, which in some instance [were] miles distant.”

In the winter of 1775-76 the regiment was moved into one of the buildings of Harvard Yard. And then some new soldiers arrived from outside New England. Trask recalled:

A day or two preceding the incident I am about to relate, a rifle corps had come into camp from Virginia, made up of recruits from the backwoods and mountains of that state, in a uniform dress totally different from that of the regiments raised on the seaboard and interior of New England. Their white linen frocks, ruffled and fringed, excited the curiosity of the whole army, particularly to the Marblehead regiment, who were always full of fun and mischief.
In his 1960 biography of Col. John Glover, head of the Marblehead regiment, George A. Billias suggests that the Virginians in turn scorned the fact that Glover’s soldiers included some blacks.
[The Marblehead men] looked with scorn on such an rustic uniform when compared to their own round jackets and fishers’ trousers, [and they] directly confronted from fifty to an hundred of the riflemen who were viewing the college buildings.

Their first manifestations were ridicule and derision, which the riflemen bore with more patience than their wont, but resort being made to snow, which then covered the ground, these soft missives were interchanged but a few minutes before both parties closed, and a fierce struggle commenced with biting and gouging on the one part, and knockdown on the other part with as much apparent fury as the most deadly enmity could create. Reinforced by their friends, in less than five minutes more than a thousand combatants were on the field, struggling for the mastery.

At this juncture General Washington made his appearance, whether by accident or design I never knew. I only saw him and his colored servant [possibly Will Lee], both mounted. With the spring of a deer, he leaped from his saddle, threw the reins of his bridle into the hands of his servant, and rushed into the thickest of the melee, with an iron grip seized two tall, brawny, athletic, savage-looking riflemen by the throat, keeping them at arm’s length, alternately shaking and talking to them.

In this position the eye of the belligerents caught sight of the general. Its effect on them was instantaneous flight at the top of their speed in all directions from the scene of the conflict. Less than fifteen minutes time had elapsed from the commencement of the row before the general and his two criminals were the only occupants of the field of action.
I’m struck by the fact that Washington grabbed two of his fellow Virginians, not two locals or one each from the home and away teams. He might have wanted to show he wouldn’t be guided by regional loyalties, or expected better from his fellow colonists.

Israel Trask went on to serve on various privateers between the ages of twelve and seventeen, then went into business and politics in Gloucester. He related this story as part of his application for a federal pension in the 1830s. It must have become publicly known because Washington Irving quoted it in his biography of Washington, published in the late 1850s. Trask was also quoted in David Humphreys’s 1817 pamphlet about the Gloucester Sea Serpent.

(The image of a 1740 engraving of Harvard College above is from Wikipedia.)

2 comments:

DeWitt said...

I think the book His Excellency this story of Washington jumping into a fight and grabbing two men by throat is also retold.

I wouldn't be surprised that Washington had no problem grabbing two Virgians, like you said, he needs to show that he isn't favoring his home state.

J. L. Bell said...

I get the sense that historians distrusted the anecdote for many years because they had trouble tracking the source, and Washington Irving’s biography mixes legend and documented facts. Retellings mixed in a little more legend, or at least spurious facts.

Israel Trask’s pension application, complete with the story, was printed in John Dann’s The Revolution Remembered a couple of decades ago (where I saw it). Dann pointed out how Trask’s memories are what we’d expect of a ten-year-old boy: a big snowball fight would have grabbed his attention, but he wouldn’t have been privy to military strategy and he wouldn’t have kept track of dates. That made serious historians trust the anecdote, so it’s reappeared in their books.