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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Monday, July 05, 2010

“It Has Stood Like a Watchman”

By 1837, a new character appeared in descriptions of how George Washington took command of the Continental Army on 3 July 1775. This was a large elm tree on the town common, which authors dubbed the “Washington Elm.”

The first mention of that tree, according to the Cambridge historian Samuel F. Batchelder and my own best efforts, appeared in an article titled “The Washington Elm” in John Langdon Sibley’s American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge in 1837, more than sixty years after the event. The article said:

The Washington Elm stands in the westerly corner of the large common near Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and is probably one of the trees that belonged to the native forest. Amid the changes which have taken place in the world, and particularly in America and New England, it has stood like a watchman; and if it could speak, it would be an interesting chronicler of events. . . .

the revolutionary soldiers who stood shoulder to shoulder,—blessings be on their heads,—tell us that 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 picture above accompanied that article. I called the tree a “character” because the earliest writings about it emphasized imagining what it would say about the events it had “seen.” The notion of “witness trees” remains resonant today, particularly within the National Park Service.

While this magazine didn’t explicitly state that Washington “drew his sword” as part of a ceremony taking over the army, the mention of “soldiers who stood shoulder to shoulder” is certainly reminiscent of the 1797 picture I showed yesterday of troops lined up for the new commander.

COMING UP: American poets take up the tree’s story.

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