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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Showing posts with label Elkanah Tisdale. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Elkanah Tisdale. Show all posts

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.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

An Early Picture of Washington Taking Command

As early as 1797, Elkanah Tisdale engraved an image captioned “GENL. WASHINGTON takes Command of the American Army at Cambridge July 3d 1775,” as shown above. It’s an inset under his engraved portrait of the general visible through the John Carter Brown Library’s Archive of Early American Images.

The engraving shows George Washington and three other officers on horseback before a long line of uniformed soldiers carrying muskets with bayonets. In the foreground there’s a vaguely drawn flag, perhaps striped, and in the background some tents.

Tisdale was born in 1768 in Lebanon, Connecticut, and thus wouldn't have been in Cambridge in 1775. When he engraved the Washington image, he had recently started working in New York, and there’s no evidence that he had visited Cambridge to find out how its common looked.

Tisdale’s engraving obviously depicts how Americans wanted to imagine the scene back in 1775. When it appeared, Washington had become their beloved general and first President. The army had become a source of pride (though there was still debate over the danger and value of a standing army); these troops look very uniform and well equipped.

But it’s far from obvious that Tisdale had a historical basis for this picture, even though it was published for an audience that included Revolutionary War veterans, possibly including some who had been in Cambridge on 3 July 1775. Was Tisdale simply creating an iconic scene—the way Americans should think of Washington taking command?

TOMORROW: The “Washington Elm” sprouts.