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.

Follow by Email


Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Growth of the Washington Elm

To return to the Washington Elm, said to be the tree in Cambridge under which Gen. George Washington took command, one of the striking things about that story is how it grew over the years. The first print mention, back in 1837, stated:

when Washington arrived at Cambridge, he drew his sword as commander-in-chief of the American army, for the first time, beneath its boughs, and resolved within himself that it should never be sheathed till the liberties of his country were established.
The image of Washington drawing a sword shows up in many of the subsequent descriptions of the event, though it might simply have been metaphorical.

Gradually, authors and illustrators began to increase the number of troops involved, if not explicitly then implicitly. By 1864, Benjamin Franklin Morris thought it credible for a Continental Army chaplain to describe how Washington “drew his sword and formally took command of the army of seventeen thousand men.” In 1876 Currier & Ives published this lithograph of “Washington Taking Control of the American Army, at Cambridge, Mass. July 1775.” Like the 1797 engraving I started with, it shows ranks of soldiers drawn up for review, equipped with uniforms, flags, and tents. But now there are even more ranks, and the Washington Elm towers over the scene.

Another Centennial manifestation of the myth was the diary of “Dorothy Dudley,” published in a commemorative book titled Theatrum Majorum: The Cambridge of 1776. Many authors have taken that diary of a Cambridge teenager as authentic. But the writer, Mary Williams Greely (later Goodridge, born 1848), created the day-by-day account of the siege as historical fiction. The second edition states that explicitly. An 1885 reference book listed “Dorothy Dudley” as Goodridge’s pseudonym. The true nature of that diary has been stated many times, and yet it keeps getting cited and studied.

The “Dudley diary,” Currier & Ives print, and Lowell poem aren’t the crowning details of the Washington Elm legend, though. It seems impossible to top an unsourced claim that Samuel Adams Drake made in Historic Fields and Mansions of Middlesex, first published in 1874:
When the camp was here Washington caused a platform to be built among the branches of this tree, where he was accustomed to sit and survey with his glass the country round.
Unfortunately, I’ve found no images of the commander-in-chief in his treehouse.

TOMORROW: The great tree starts to fall.


Robert Winters said...

Edward Everett's 1826 speech in Cambridge (I have a print copy) contains the following:
"Beneath the venerable elm, which still shades the southwestern corner of the common, General Washington first unsheathed his sword at the head of an American army, and to that seat* was wont every Sunday to repair, to join in the supplications which were made for the welfare of his country.

* The first wall pew, on the right hand of the pulpit.

So, this raises the question: From where does the myth (or perhaps reality) of General Washington and the Washington Elm originate? I have in my hands a reference prior to the 1830s from a significant historical figure (to say the least) earlier than the reference quoted on the website.

J. L. Bell said...

Excellent work! Although no one’s found the phrase “Washington Elm” before 1837, Everett’s 1826 speech is a deeper root for the tradition itself.

Everett also put the elm on the Cambridge seal in the 1840s. As a Harvard president, Massachusetts elected official, and admired writer he had the authority to make a statement like this stick.

I assume Everett spoke in Cambridge’s Congregationalist meetinghouse near the common. However, I don’t know of evidence to confirm that Washington went to that church “every Sunday,” or even most Sundays. We know that on his first full Sunday in Cambridge, on 9 July, his main business was a council of war.

George and Martha Washington had Christ Church reopened for a service at the end of 1775. An 1890 itinerary says that the general attended a sermon by the Rev. Abiel Leonard in the Cambridge meetinghouse on 3 Dec 1775 (no source stated), and another on 17 Mar 1776 (contemporaneous newspaper), but doesn’t mention churches otherwise.

pilgrimchick said...

Your exploration of the many elements of American myth are really fascinating, this included.

I can entirely relate to how 19th-century historical fiction creates a false perception of past events. While working at Plimoth Plantation, over and over again, the Longfellow poem about John and Pricilla Alden came up. There is no factual basis to this story, and yet, many people took it as gospel truth about the history of Plimoth Colony.

The best response to this came from one gentleman who was playing Captain Standish--someone brought up Pricilla (who is portrayed as married to John Alden), and his reply was: "Oh, you mean the girl? No, no. But I did take a liking to her mother..."

Charles Bahne said...

The reference to "The first wall pew, on the right hand of the pulpit" is interesting. A pamphlet distributed in Christ Church today gives that as the location where General & Mrs. Washington sat when they worshipped at the church on December 31, 1775. I believe there is also a plaque on the wall next to that pew. However, other sources say that the church was only opened twice for services during the Revolution, since every member of the congregation had fled to Boston. (The second time was for the funeral of a British army officer, prisoner of war from Saratoga, who died while being held prisoner in Cambridge in 1777 or 1778.)

I have heard that the reopening of Christ Church at the end of 1775 was at Martha's request, since she had recently arrived in Cambridge. Like J. L., my understanding is that at other times Gen. Washington worshipped at the meetinghouse, which was then located near the modern-day Lehman Hall in Harvard Yard, not far from today's newsstand. (The square then really was a square, and included part of the present Harvard Yard.) That meetinghouse was still standing in 1826, but would be demolished in 1833.

I found Edward Everett's address on Google Books. He was indeed speaking in the Congregational meetinghouse, which doubled as the town hall until 1832. And the footnote about the site of the pew is printed in the book -- Everett was obviously gesturing to the pew as he spoke.

And all this implies that Christ Church has its plaque on the wrong pew, and in the wrong building!

Or maybe Washington just liked to sit near the minister, no matter which church he was in.

J. L. Bell said...

I “flipped” through the 1826 printing of Everett’s remarks, looking for a statement about where he spoke, and didn’t see one. Were there clues I missed?

I finally decided it had to be Cambridge’s Congregationalist meetinghouse because Christ Church was still officially closed at the time. I didn’t know that meetinghouse was also serving as the town house that late, but that certainly also points to it being the place.

Charles Bahne said...

On page 1 of the text of the Oration, third sentence, Everett says, "Within the walls, in which we are now assembled, was convened the first provincial Congress, after its adjournment at Concord."

And there's another reference on page 7, to a Provincial Congress session on December 4, 1774, "held in this very house, where we are now convened."

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for spotting the significance of those passages.