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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Saturday, July 02, 2011

“Mr. Irving was led into a slight mistake”

In 1855, Washington Irving published the volume of his long biography of George Washington that brought the general to Cambridge on 2 July 1775. The beloved American author wrote:
In the mean time the provincial Congress of Massachusetts, then in session at Watertown, had made arrangements for the expected arrival of Washington. The students of Harvard College having returned home on the breaking out of hostilities, the house of the president of that institution, at Cambridge, had been fitted up as head-quarters for the commander-in-chief and a temporary residence of [Charles] Lee.
A Harvard professor of Greek literature named Cornelius Conway Felton (shown above) immediately wrote to Irving. Felton, who became president of the university in 1860, later described the exchange:
In the second volume there is an account of Washington’s residence at Cambridge, as Commander-in-chief of the American Army. Mr. Irving was led into a slight mistake in reference to the General’s head-quarters. The records state that the President’s house was assigned him for this purpose; meaning the President of the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts: but Mr. Irving understood it to be the President of the University, and so stated.

Feeling a great interest in the historical fame of the Cragie House,—the real head-quarters of the General, and at that time one of the most stately mansions in Massachusetts, having been built for a Tory family of great wealth,—I took the liberty of calling Mr. Irving’s attention to the error, and of stating to him the leading facts in the subsequent history of the house; its occupancy by Mr. [Andrew] Cragie, from whom it derives its present name; more recently by Mr. Everett, Mr. Sparks, Judge Phillips, Mr. Worcester, and now—and, I trust, for many years to come—by the poet Longfellow.

Mr. Irving immediately wrote me a most cordial letter, and, in a pleasant note to the next volume, made the correction.
The next edition of Irving’s biography changed the passage above to:
In the meantime the provincial Congress of Massachusetts, then in session at Watertown, had made arrangements for the expected arrival of Washington. According to a resolve of that body, “the president’s house in Cambridge, excepting one room reserved by the president for his own use, was to be taken, cleared, prepared, and furnished for the reception of the Commander-in-chief and General Lee.
There was no closed-quotation mark.

Irving also added a note:
We are obliged to Professor Felton, of Cambridge, for correcting an error in our first volume in regard to Washington’s bead-quarters, and for some particulars concerning a house, associated with the history and literature of our country.

The house assigned to Washington for head-quarters, was that of the president of the Provincial Congress, not of the University. It had been one of those tory mansions noticed by the Baroness Reidesel, in her mention of Cambridge. . . .
The note went on to discuss the history of the house through its current occupant, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

The only problem: Irving’s original passage had been right all along.

TOMORROW: The generals move house.

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