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, January 14, 2015

Washington’s Return to the Vassall Estate in Cambridge

Yesterday I quoted President George Washington’s description of his return visit to Cambridge on 24 Oct 1789, when he viewed Middlesex County militia troops under the command of militia general John Brooks (shown here later in life). Washington noted that those troops formed up late but “made however an excellent appearance.”

But let’s explore what the President reportedly didn’t see. In the 26 July 1862 Boston Transcript a correspondent using the initial “C.” shared this tale:
The late Judge Joseph Hall and his cousin, the late Col. Fitch Hall, were the aids of Gen. John Brooks, when Washington visited New England. The former was despatched to Worcester…; and the latter stated to the writer that he (then being quite a young man), was struck with awe when he went to Washington’s headquarters, now occupied by Prof. Longfellow, and after being ushered into his presence, asked at what time it would be his pleasure to pass the troops in review. Washington, taking him by the hand, replied, in five minutes. The aid mounted and ran his horse at full speed to Cambridge common, and the troops were barely in line, before Washington, with his suite, appeared, having kept his word, and evidencing the promptness which characterized all his movements.
That passage was quoted in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register in 1862.

Two years before, the same periodical had printed William H. Sumner’s reminiscences of the day, which offered even more detail, reportedly also based on conversations with Fitch Hall:
…an arrangement was made that on his way to the capitol, Washington should stop at Cambridge and receive a salute from the militia under General Brooks, then commander of the third division, the cavalry, artillery and light infantry of which he had ordered to parade on the common, to present arms to the General as he passed their lines. The house provided for his reception at Cambridge was the same old Vassal House which had been his headquarters while the army was encamped in that town at the commencement of the Revolutionary War. . . .

The time appointed for the review was 12 o’clock, and this hour having arrived, Gen. Brooks’s aid, Colonel Hall, who was stationed at that house to receive General Washington, knowing the punctuality of his commander, but without special orders at the moment, informed Washington as he was dismounting that the hour of twelve had arrived and that the line was formed. Taken somewhat by surprise that time had passed so rapidly, and still unwilling to be outdone in punctuality, a prominent trait in his own character, the General, without alighting, immediately threw his leg back again across the saddle, and directed Colonel Hall to conduct him to the field.

Fearing he had been too precipitate in telling Washington that the line was actually formed and ready to receive him, and seeing him remount, Colonel Hall left his co-aid, Major Joseph Hall (who had accompanied the General from Marlborough) to perform the remainder of his duty, and putting spurs to his horse galloped with the greatest rapidity to the common, and informed Gen. Brooks that Washington was on his way and close at hand. Col. Hall had ventured to tell Washington that the line was formed, as he saw him actually dismounting, and naturally supposed that the General would occupy a few minutes in refreshing himself after his morning’s long ride.

Nothing could have surprised Gen. Brooks more than Col. Hall’s announcement. His troops were scattered over the field; but glancing at his watch, and finding that the appointed time had in truth arrived, although noted for his great deliberation in times of great moment, he lost no time in bringing his troops into line, which was done while the artillery was firing the national salute.

This was scarcely accomplished when Washington appeared on the right of the line, and immediately heard from the lips of his old friend and companion in arms all through the war, the command never before so thrillingly given, “Present arms.” . . . Gen. Brooks, who was an elegant horseman and sat as proudly erect as a martinet, rode down the line in company with Washington, who most particularly noticed its beautiful appearance. Riding back with rapidity in the rear, and observing that not a single man looked around, but that all (although excited with the greatest possible curiosity) kept their faces steadily to the front, he remarked to Gen. Brooks, in allusion to the seven years’ war in which they had both been engaged, “Ah, General, if we had had such troops as these, we should have made short work of it!”
To which Brooks might well have replied, “Phew!”

There are some discrepancies among those three accounts—Washington’s written on that day, and the two stories based on what people had heard from Fitch Hall years later. According to Washington, the troops were supposed to be ready at ten o’clock and didn’t form up until eleven—not ready and formed just at twelve, as Sumner wrote. And the President was obviously not fooled that the troops were drawn up when he arrived. Indeed, it looks like Fitch Hall improved on what likely happened when he told the story years later, giving himself a central role in a last-minute saving of the day.

Another question, especially burning for me, is whether on this visit Washington went into the mansion confiscated from John Vassall that he’d used as his headquarters in 1775 and 1776. According to Sumner’s retelling, he never even got off his horse. But the account from “C.” suggests that Fitch Hall met him inside that house. Washington’s own diary makes no mention of the house or who was living in it then—another mystery, not answered by property records.

TOMORROW: Boston schoolboys and President Washington.

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