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, October 28, 2012

Seeking Large House, River View, Must Be Available Immediately

Once the Second Continental Congress chose Gen. George Washington as commander-in-chief of the army it was adopting outside of Boston, he had to travel to Boston and take command. The third chapter of my report Gen. George Washington’s Headquarters and Home—Cambridge, Massachusetts describes that journey and his arrival in Cambridge on 2 July 1775.

That evening, according to the diary of Ens. Noah Chapin, he and Gen. Charles Lee reviewed troops on Prospect Hill. In 1797 the artist Elkanah Tisdale depicted Washington taking command of the army drawn up in formation at Cambridge on 3 July, and in 1826 Edward Everett connected that undocumented event to a large elm beside the town common. I discussed the myths and realities of the Washington Elm on this blog, and this part of the report benefited from the comments those postings produced.

At that time, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress had arranged for Washington and Lee to share the house of the Harvard president, Samuel Langdon, “excepting one room reserved by the president for his own use.” That building, shown above, is now known as Wadsworth House, and it contains administrative offices. It’s not clear whether Langdon was still on the premises or needed the room to store his stuff.

By 6 July, the Committee of Safety had to ask Washington “if there is any house at Cambridge, that would be more agreeable to him and General Lee than that in which they are now.” Clearly the congress had received hints that the Wadsworth House was unsatisfactory. Lee announced that he planned to take up his own headquarters. And on 8 July the committee recommended making John Vassall’s vacated house ready for Gen. Washington.

I explored various reasons for that move. The Vassall house was bigger, with no rooms set aside, and Washington would need space for his staff. However, Cambridge village could surely have offered another house or two nearby. Why did the general prefer to move over half a mile from the town center?

One possible explanation was security. Wadsworth House was closer to the front and the Charles River in case of British raids. In 1861 Eliza Susan Quincy described hearing from a former army surgeon about a Royal Artillery shell landing in modern Harvard Square, as I quoted back here. So I floated that explanation, and heard back that central Cambridge was well beyond mortar range in the eighteenth century.

So I finally concluded that Washington most likely chose the Vassall house as his headquarters because:
  • as a big house looking out on a river, surrounded by outbuildings and farmland (and staffed by slaves), it made him feel at home.
  • it was a mile away from the hundreds of enlisted men housed in Harvard Yard.
Gen. Artemas Ward had been content to have his headquarters in the Harvard steward’s house near those soldiers. Washington, with his emphasis on hierarchy, might well have preferred more distance.

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