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 15, 2011

What Really Happened in Wadsworth House

Boston 1775 reader Robert C. Mitchell alerted me to this webpage from Harvard University. It says of Wadsworth House, once home of the college president and now office of the university marshal:

General George Washington, with the assistance of Henry Lee (then an officer in the Patriot Forces, and later father to General Robert E. Lee), set up his first headquarters in the house. From there, on July 3, 1775, Washington rode out to the Cambridge Common to take command of the Revolutionary troops. It is also said that the plans to oust King George from Boston took form in Wadsworth Parlor.
This description mixes up Charles Lee with Henry “Light-horse Harry” Lee. Charles was a former British army officer appointed major general of the Continental Army. He rode with Washington from Philadelphia to Cambridge, and spent some days sharing this house with the commander-in-chief.

Henry was a young man, still in his teens, whom Washington knew back in Virginia. By coincidence, both these Lees had visited Mount Vernon in late April, as Washington prepared for the Second Continental Congress. But in 1775 young Harry remained in Virginia, joining the Continental Army only in June 1776. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel by the end of the war.

The paragraph above also perpetuates the myth that Washington took command of the New England troops on the Cambridge common on 3 July 1775, a story usually set beneath the Washington Elm. Most scholars now agree that Gen. Artemas Ward handed over authority to Washington on the evening of 2 July in the college steward’s house around the corner (which is no longer standing).

Finally, it’s a stretch to say that the plans laid in Wadsworth House drove “King George” or his metonymic troops out of Boston. When Washington and Lee arrived in Cambridge, their immediate priorities were to strengthen American defenses and figure out just how many soldiers they had. Those tasks took weeks. Washington had no chance to plan an offensive until after he had moved out of this house into the abandoned Vassall mansion.


Charles Bahne said...

Just goes to show... You can't trust everything you read on the web.

Especially from disreputable sites like Harvard University.

Bob said...

Wadsworth House also stands on the site of one of the first buildings that comprised Harvard College, a 1650s house called Goffe's College after its earlier owner, Edward Goffe. The location of the corner of Goffe's College is marked by what may qualify as the most dangerous-to-view historical marker in town: a brass plate in the pavement in the middle of Mass. Ave. I have a photo taken by dashing out into the street for a few seconds during a red light.

J. L. Bell said...

Cambridge also put a Washington Elm marker in the middle of a street. Maybe the city’s preparing us for the day when there will be no cars, or they’ll hover ten feet off the ground.

Charles Bahne said...

Re the Goffe marker(s): There used to be 2 markers that said "Goffe", marking 2 of the 4 corners of the Goffe's College building; and there were 2 similar markers that said "Eaton", describing the site of another early college building. The last time I crossed the street there, I noticed that one of the 4 markers was missing; there was an empty hole in the street where it used to be. I'm not sure which one was missing -- I was too busy trying to get across safely.

(And don't forget that the Boston Massacre marker used to be in the middle of the intersection, until the city moved it onto a traffic island.)

Chaucerian (Radcliffe '62) said...

Really, what is the point of being Harvard if you can't rewrite history? After all, around what great university does the world revolve?

J. L. Bell said...

Surely the axis of the world is Harkness Tower.