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, July 04, 2010

An Early Picture of Washington Taking Command

As early as 1797, Elkanah Tisdale engraved an image captioned “GENL. WASHINGTON takes Command of the American Army at Cambridge July 3d 1775,” as shown above. It’s an inset under his engraved portrait of the general visible through the John Carter Brown Library’s Archive of Early American Images.

The engraving shows George Washington and three other officers on horseback before a long line of uniformed soldiers carrying muskets with bayonets. In the foreground there’s a vaguely drawn flag, perhaps striped, and in the background some tents.

Tisdale was born in 1768 in Lebanon, Connecticut, and thus wouldn't have been in Cambridge in 1775. When he engraved the Washington image, he had recently started working in New York, and there’s no evidence that he had visited Cambridge to find out how its common looked.

Tisdale’s engraving obviously depicts how Americans wanted to imagine the scene back in 1775. When it appeared, Washington had become their beloved general and first President. The army had become a source of pride (though there was still debate over the danger and value of a standing army); these troops look very uniform and well equipped.

But it’s far from obvious that Tisdale had a historical basis for this picture, even though it was published for an audience that included Revolutionary War veterans, possibly including some who had been in Cambridge on 3 July 1775. Was Tisdale simply creating an iconic scene—the way Americans should think of Washington taking command?

TOMORROW: The “Washington Elm” sprouts.

1 comment:

pilgrimchick said...

I'm amazed by how quickly the "myth" of Washington was created--I've learned more and more about this recently, and I really thought it was a far later phenomenon.