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, January 23, 2011

Highlighting Washington’s Headquarters

Late last month President Obama signed a law redesignating the Longfellow National Historic Site in Cambridge as the Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site. Here is a story from National Parks Traveler reporting on the name change.

The point of that bill, originally introduced by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and then taken up by Sen. John Kerry and Rep. Michael Capuano, is to highlight the site’s full significance in American history. The mansion, long known as “Longfellow House,” is recognized as important to the nation’s literary culture, but it was also a major military headquarters.

From mid-July 1775 to early April 1776, Gen. George Washington and his staff lived in the mansion. The Loyalist who had commissioned the building in 1759, John Vassall, had taken his family into Boston for the protection of the British army in September 1774. Washington spent a longer stretch in the Vassalls’ abandoned house than in any other Revolutionary War building but one: his headquarters in Newburgh, New York.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his family were proud of their home’s past, installing pictures of the Washingtons and a bust of the general in the front hall. The poet felt a duty to welcome visitors who wanted to see the general’s headquarters, though such curiosity-seekers could themselves prove to be a curious bunch. For example, Longfellow wrote to his son Ernest on 5 Aug 1876:

A party of sight-seers has just been here from Illinois and elsewhere. They all called me “General,” and perhaps mistook me for General Washington, or “G. Washington,” as another visitor yesterday irreverently called the Father of his Country. The Centennial Year brings its inconveniences as well as its pleasures.
At the time, many Americans viewed Longfellow as a national treasure, as beloved for his poetry as a pop music star today, but not everyone recognized who led their tours. Octavius Brooks Frothingham reported in his profile of the poet:
he always did the honors of it with perfect urbanity, whether the caller knew anything about Washington or himself, and he did not forbear his jest when some remarkably obtuse specimen appeared,—as when one to whom he had shown the rooms asked in parting, “And who be you?” and another, not knowing what else to say, patronized the trees.
For the rest of the week Boston 1775 will look at stories from Gen. Washington’s period in the new Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site.

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