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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Monday, July 19, 2010

The First Blow Against the Washington Elm

The twentieth century brought a more skeptical approach to writing history, even the history of one’s own nation (as opposed to someone else’s). Authors began to look askance on stories based only on “tradition,” demanding support from contemporaneous documents. One casualty of that approach was the legend of the Washington Elm.

Charles Martyn’s biography The Life of Artemas Ward (1921) struck the first blow. He studied Gen. Ward’s orders book, which notes the arrival of the new commander-in-chief, Gen. George Washington, in Cambridge on 2 July, but mentions no ceremonial handover scheduled the next day, much less one involving lots of American troops.

Martyn also looked at diaries from men in the New England army besieging Boston. He found nine that mention Washington’s arrival, but none describes him taking command in a public ceremony on Cambridge common.

What’s more, Martyn reported, four “diaries specifically testify that on July 3 there happened ‘Nothing new’ or ‘Nothing remarkable’ or ‘Nothing extraordinary’.” And about other sources:

No one was sufficiently impressed by his assumption of the command to send a letter to any newspaper, though events of much lesser moment were thus reported; no one seems to have described the ceremony in any letter to family or friends; and no diary recorded it.
Only two diaries contain any hint of parading for the new commander.

Martyn quoted a letter that Gen. Nathanael Greene (shown above) wrote on 4 July:
I sent a detachment today of two hundred men, commanded by a colonel, lieutenant-colonel, and major with a letter of address to welcome his Excellency to camp. The detachment met with a very gracious reception, and his Excellency returned me a very polite answer, and invitation to visit him at his headquarters.
This makes clear that after Washington’s first full day as commander in Cambridge:
  • Greene still hadn’t met the generalissimo.
  • Washington hadn’t reviewed most of Greene’s Rhode Island troops.
  • Greene felt that sending two hundred men (less than one regiment) with some well-chosen officers and a nicely written letter was a sufficient welcome. In fact, in sending such a big delegation Greene comes across as a bit of a suck-up.
The obvious implication is that the late-nineteenth-century descriptions of Gen. Washington taking command of the entire American army, or even a lot of it, on Cambridge common were not only unsupported by contemporaneous documents, but actually contradicted by them.

TOMORROW: The Washington Elm crashes to earth.


Charles Bahne said...

"Only two diaries contain any hint of parading for the new commander."

Curious: What did those two diaries say?

J. L. Bell said...

I’m a-comin’ to that!