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 25, 2010

What Did Washington Do on 3 July 1775?

Gen. George Washington probably didn’t take command in a ceremony on Cambridge common on 3 July 1775. Instead, Gen. Artemas Ward almost certainly turned over the orders book and other necessities late the previous afternoon, as soon as Washington arrived at headquarters in Jonathan Hastings’s house beside Harvard College.

Like most other Massachusetts politicians, Ward was probably pleased to have Washington in command since he embodied the support of the Continental Congress. And since the same Congress had made Ward a major general and second-ranking officer in the army, he didn’t have anything to complain about.

So what did Washington do on 3 July instead? He and Gen. Charles Lee almost certainly spent their first day on the front inspecting the siege lines at what seemed to be their weakest point, near the Charlestown Neck. The British had taken Bunker Hill two and a half weeks before, moving closer to the American camps in western Charlestown and northeastern Cambridge.

Furthermore, it seems likely that Gen. Washington did inspect troops while he was there. That review didn’t involve the whole army, but soldiers stationed near Prospect Hill recorded getting ready for inspections on 3 July.

Lt. Paul Lunt of Newburyport wrote in his diary:

Turned out early in the morning, got in readiness to be reviewed by the general. New orders given out by General Washington.
The same words appear in the diary of Pvt. Moses Sleeper, also from Newburyport; that document is now in the archive of Longfellow National Historic Site.

Lt. John Hodgkins of Ipswich wrote a letter home:
Geaneral Washington & Lees got into Cambridge yesterday and to Day they are to take a Vew of ye Armey, & that will be attended with a grate deal of grandor. There is at this time one & twenty Drummers, & as many feffers a Beting and Playing Round the Prayde.
Forty-two musicians would be about two regiments’ worth, three if they were short-staffed. That passage used to be quoted to support the legend of a big assembly near the Washington Elm, but Hodgkins was probably far from that spot.

None of those diaries or letters records the men’s impression of seeing Washington, or his response to seeing them. The commander might never have actually inspected these men, therefore. But since they don’t write anything about getting all set for nothing, most likely the actual review was routine, and they had nothing to add. They would learn more about the new commander over the next few months.

COMING UP: And the next day?

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