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, January 17, 2015

President Washington and Major Gibbs

Here’s a final glimpse for the week of President George Washington’s visit to Massachusetts in 1789.

On Friday, 30 October, Washington left Boston for the north shore and New Hampshire. His diary entry for that day was all about the bridges along the way, such as the one over the Charles River, shown above courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library.

The 19 July 1823 Columbian Centinel added this anecdote:
It will be recollected by many, that when he visited Boston, in 1789, he appointed 8 o’clock in the morning, as the hour when he should set out for Salem, &c. and that while the Old South clock was striking 8, he was crossing his saddle.

It will also be remembered, that the company of cavalry which volunteered to escort him, not anticipating this strict punctuality, were parading in Tremont-street after his departure; and it was not until the President had reached Charles river bridge, (where he stopped a few minutes to examine the draw) that the troop of horse overtook him.

On passing the corps, the President, with perfect good humor, said to the Commander, “Major ———, I thought you had been too long in my family not to know when it was 8 o’clock.”
That anecdote was reprinted in later years (without citation) in the Literary Register, various anecdote collections, and eventually by authors back in Boston who identified the mounted major as Caleb Gibbs (1748-1818).

Gibbs had indeed been in Washington’s military “family” through most of the Revolutionary War. He started in the Continental Army as adjutant of John Glover’s Marblehead regiment, but on 12 Mar 1776 Washington appointed him head of the Commander-in-Chief’s Guard. In that job Gibbs was responsible for transporting and guarding the headquarters papers, organizing the general’s living quarters, and sitting in as an aide-de-camp when necessary. He was a popular member of the headquarters staff, known for his easygoing temperament and fondness for singing.

Gibbs officially transferred to the 2nd Massachusetts Regiment in 1781 but seems still to have worked at headquarters. He suffered a wound at Yorktown and left the army in 1784. Gibbs settled in Boston and married Catherine Hall in 1787. That was his situation when President Washington came through town in 1789.

Unfortunately, Gibbs did poorly in business. He invested a lot of money with the merchant Nathaniel Tracy, who then went into bankruptcy. In 1790 Gibbs wrote to Washington that he had sold most of his furniture at auction and was moving from Boston to Barre, Massachusetts, which he called “the wilderness, incompassed by an uncooth neighbourhood, and to occupy a house prehaps not tennantable.”

From that town Gibbs wrote to Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, another old colleague from headquarters, about money the federal government supposedly owed Tracy and about federal job openings. It struck me how often in that surviving correspondence Gibbs mentioned his wife:
  • 16 Jan 1791: “Mrs. Gibbs would go with me almost any where if a Comfortable competence offers (even with the strictest oeconomy) and can be obtained. Perhaps something within your own sphere can be found. Think of me My good Sir and notwithstanding the Presidents forgetfulness of me a hint from you I know would answer every purpose.” 
  • 16 May 1791: “And what is still more effecting to me, to see my amiable wife looking over the Letter and exclaiming is it possible, is it possible Mr. Gibbs that you have lost that hard earned money you friendly lent that wicked man [Tracy]. Indeed my friend it was too much for her to bear.” 
  • 10 Sept 1792: “Mrs. Gibbs cannot no longer content herself in this wilderness. Her seperation from her dearest connections, the great distance and extreem bad roads to Boston, and what is still more trying is the Education of her Children and an innumerable number of difficulties to incounter, has brought me to a Resolution to Linger out the cold Inclement winter at this place and return to Boston Early in April next if possible to get there.”
In 1794 the administration made Gibbs a clerk at the Boston Navy Yard. (Oddly, at the time the U.S. of A. did not have a navy.) That job did not, however, end Gibbs’s letters to the capital seeking better jobs. After eighteen years, during the Madison administration, he became superintendent of the yard.

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