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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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Washington Dogwood?

In 1949 Cambridge added a bronze plaque to the granite monument showing Washington on horseback reviewing ranks of troops. The sculptor was Leonard Craske, who also created the Gloucester Fisherman’s Memorial.

The Cambridge Historical Commission spent a lot of time trying to find correct wording for the caption on that plaque, reflecting both the tradition of the Washington Elm and what could actually be documented. In the end the brass letters say:

GENERAL GEORGE WASHINGTON
having taken command of
the army of the United Colonies
at Cambridge
inspects the troops near this spot
on the fourth day of July 1775.
We know from Gen. Nathanael Greene’s 4 July letter that on that day Washington did have a chance to look at some Rhode Island troops. “Having taken command” separates this scene from whatever earlier moment Gen. Artemas Ward turned over authority. “Near this spot” is vague enough to apply to anything in central Cambridge, if not the whole town. And there’s no mention of a tree.

Similarly, the websites of Cambridge’s historical commission and historical society take pains to say that there’s no evidence for the traditional story of the Washington Elm.

Yet Craske’s plaque shows Washington under a big old elm tree. The earlier markers repeating the legend—the slab of granite with the line said to be written by Longfellow shown above, the D.A.R. plaque—remain on Cambridge common because they have some historic value themselves. And there’s a big tree nearby. Dutch elm disease probably brought down the 1932 replacement elm, so since the 1980s a hardy dogwood has stood in. [CORRECTION: Whoops! That D.A.R. plaque refers to a descendant of Cambridge’s Washington Elm planted in New Jersey. The current replacement for Cambridge’s tree is a younger elm.]

As a result, tourists photograph that dogwood replacement elm beside the monument as historically important, as all these Flickr images show. The last one in that series notes how some guidebooks explain that this isn’t really the tree, and that the basis for the tree’s legend is shaky at best. So does the page for the picture above, by z0xx, which I chose to show because it has a Creative Commons license.

Apparently the dogwood that replaced the elm that was grown from an elm that was grown from another elm that stood in another place in Cambridge when Washington was in town in 1775-76 is now an important symbol of our national heritage. Symbolism’s flexible that way.

TOMORROW: Grumbling about the loss of a tradition.

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