The twentieth century brought a more skeptical approach to writing history, even the history of one’s own nation (as opposed to someone else’s). Authors began to look askance on stories based only on “tradition,” demanding support from contemporaneous documents. One casualty of that approach was the legend of the Washington Elm.
Charles Martyn’s biography The Life of Artemas Ward (1921) struck the first blow. He studied Gen. Ward’s orders book, which notes the arrival of the new commander-in-chief, Gen. George Washington, in Cambridge on 2 July, but mentions no ceremonial handover scheduled the next day, much less one involving lots of American troops.
Martyn also looked at diaries from men in the New England army besieging Boston. He found nine that mention Washington’s arrival, but none describes him taking command in a public ceremony on Cambridge common.
What’s more, Martyn reported, four “diaries specifically testify that on July 3 there happened ‘Nothing new’ or ‘Nothing remarkable’ or ‘Nothing extraordinary’.” And about other sources:
No one was sufficiently impressed by his assumption of the command to send a letter to any newspaper, though events of much lesser moment were thus reported; no one seems to have described the ceremony in any letter to family or friends; and no diary recorded it.Only two diaries contain any hint of parading for the new commander.
Martyn quoted a letter that Gen. Nathanael Greene (shown above) wrote on 4 July:
I sent a detachment today of two hundred men, commanded by a colonel, lieutenant-colonel, and major with a letter of address to welcome his Excellency to camp. The detachment met with a very gracious reception, and his Excellency returned me a very polite answer, and invitation to visit him at his headquarters.This makes clear that after Washington’s first full day as commander in Cambridge:
- Greene still hadn’t met the generalissimo.
- Washington hadn’t reviewed most of Greene’s Rhode Island troops.
- Greene felt that sending two hundred men (less than one regiment) with some well-chosen officers and a nicely written letter was a sufficient welcome. In fact, in sending such a big delegation Greene comes across as a bit of a suck-up.
TOMORROW: The Washington Elm crashes to earth.