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, September 05, 2012

“The little fellow had some balls”

Yesterday I quoted an anecdote about Gen. George Washington at Yorktown that Benson J. Lossing put into two of the history books he published in 1848. Lossing didn’t say where he found that story, but I located a version of it in The Rural Repository, published in Hudson, New York, on 15 Sept 1838:
The Huzzas of Posterity.

A little boy near Hagerstown, in Maryland, was one day pointing out to me a copse of trees as the place where Washington at the head of the Virginia rangers, fought a battle long before the war of the revolution, with some Indians, headed by the French from Fort Duquesne, now Pittsburgh. The little fellow had some balls which had been fired in that battle, chopped from the centers of the now massive and aged oaks. I saw the sunbeam of some moral emotion was in his eyes, and I asked him further of Washington, the brave youth who led the Virginians into that thicket when the warwhoop shook its boughs, and the rifle rung in its gloom.

His mind seemed to glance like lightning through the illustrious deeds of arms in which Washington had been engaged, and settled down at the closing scene of Yorktown. He told me of one circumstance only. Said he, when the British troops were marching out of their entrenchments to lay down their arms, Washington told the American army, ‘My boys, let there be no insults over a conquered foe! when they lay down their arms don’t huzza; posterity will huzza for you.’

I could have hugged the little boy to my bosom. Although he had not probably been able to read more than four years, yet his mind had drank deep in the moral greatness of the act of sparing the feelings of a fallen foe. I asked him what it was that Washington said that posterity would do? he quickly answered, huzza. ‘Huzza! then,’ said I; and he sent his clear, wild shout into the battle-wood, and I shouted with him, ‘Huzza, for Washington.
Isn’t that just sweet enough to make your teeth itch? The Rural Repository published this item in a section of uplifting and amusing stories just before it got to the poetry; that was the equivalent of the fun pages in the old Reader’s Digest. (The piece was reprinted later that month in the Poughkeepsie Casket and elsewhere.)

The Washington anecdote thus entered print all wrapped up in a lesson for small children: “the moral greatness of the act of sparing the feelings of a fallen foe.” Imparting moral lessons to youth is a great excuse for bending, or even concocting, historical facts.

The author’s grasp of history was already shaky. Though Hagerstown had a monument to Washington (shown above, courtesy of Wikipedia) and a fort from the French and Indian War, Washington didn’t lead rangers in any fight in any nearby “copse of trees.” I wonder if the little fellow was just playing, or if he tried to sell the nice man some old bullets as historical artifacts.

TOMORROW: Five years further back.


Anonymous said...

And who was an editor of the Poughkeepsie Casket? Lossing. -- Thanks for a great blog, Joe Bauman

Rob Velella said...

I only read this because of the risque headline and the phallic looking image of the tower.

J. L. Bell said...

I am shocked, shocked by any implication that I chose that headline for its alternate interpretations.