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 03, 2011

“The residence of his excellency General Washington”

The Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s records say that on 26 June 1775 the body voted

That the president’s house in Cambridge, excepting one room reserved by the president for his own use, be taken, cleared, prepared, and furnished, for the reception of General [George] Washington and General [Charles] Lee, and that a committee be chosen immediately to carry the same into execution.
Most of the time that congress used “the president” to refer to its presiding officer, who at that point was James Warren. However, Warren’s own house was in Plymouth, and he was staying somewhere in Watertown, so this must mean another “president’s house in Cambridge.”

The only president who lived in Cambridge was the Rev. Dr. Samuel Langdon of Harvard. And with the college closed, he didn’t need the whole building, right? That house still stands on the edge of Harvard Yard, and is officially called the Wadsworth House (shown above).

The generals arrived in Cambridge on 2 July. Four days later, the congress ordered its Committee of Safety “to desire General Washington to let them know if there is any house at Cambridge, that would be more agreeable to him and General Lee than that in which they now are.” That suggests its members had heard murmurs that the generals weren’t fully satisfied.

By the next day, it was clear that the two generals would be living separately, and on 8 July the Committee of Safety decided that “it is necessary the house of Mr. John Vassal, ordered by Congress for the residence of his excellency General Washington, should be immediately put in such condition as may make it convenient for that purpose.” It looks like he moved in a week later; at least his aide Thomas Mifflin paid the cleaning bill on 15 July.

John Vassall had left that mansion when he moved his family into army-occupied Boston in September 1774. In the 1790s Andrew Craigie, who back in 1775 had worked for the Provincial Congress as an apothecary, bought the house and expanded it. After his widow’s death it became the home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and family, and it’s now Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site.

Thus, Prof. Cornelius Conway Felton was correct in telling Washington Irving that what he called “the Cragie House” was Gen. Washington’s headquarters and residence for most of the siege of Boston. But Irving had been correct when he originally wrote that the Provincial Congress had first put Washington and Lee up in the Harvard president’s house.

COMING UP: Where did Gen. Charles Lee live?

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