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, July 10, 2013

Gen. Washington Coming to Cambridge Discovery Days

This weekend, 13-14 July, the city of Cambridge is hosting its annual Discovery Days of historic walks, lectures, and building tours. For the first time this year, that event includes a Revolutionary encampment at Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site and Longfellow Park on either side of Brattle Street.

On 15 July 1775, Gen. George Washington paid for cleaning, and presumably moved into, the mansion that the Loyalist John Vassall had left behind the previous September after the “Powder Alarm.” For the next nine months Washington lived there with Gen. Horatio Gates, his secretaries and aides, and after December his wife Martha and her son and daughter-in-law.

Why did the new commander-in-chief choose that home for his headquarters? Neither he nor his staff nor the Massachusetts Provincial Congress left any direct statements about his thinking. I looked at several theories that authors have suggested over the years. For instance, some suggested that the Vassall house was further away from British artillery batteries—but eighteenth-century guns couldn’t have reached central Cambridge.

In the end I concluded that Washington’s most likely motive was not to get away from the British but to get away from his own men. The house that Gen. Artemas Ward used as his headquarters (now gone) and the first house Washington used when he arrived at Cambridge were both right next to Harvard College, where hundreds of Continental soldiers were barracked. Washington liked hierarchy. He liked order. He had work to do. I think he thought putting more distance between headquarters and the enlisted men was a good thing.

Plus, in 1775 the Vassall estate—the most expensive in Cambridge, with barns, stables, fields, gardens, orchards, and land extending to the Charles River—might have reminded Washington of Mount Vernon.

A gentleman who portrays Gen. Washington will be part of Cambridge Discovery Days’ reenactment on Sunday, 14 July. (I understand that he recently sustained an injury, so the general might be even stiffer than usual.) There will be infantry drills, demonstrations of medical care, and other aspects of life in the American camp. This being the middle of a city, the soldiers won’t be firing their muskets—so consider this event as reenacting camp in August after the general discovered how little gunpowder his army had and ordered the troops not to fire their guns needlessly.

ADDENDUM: This afternoon I obtained a schedule for the day. Highlights include:
  • 10:30 and 11:30 A.M., 1:30 and 3:30 P.M.: Drill demonstrations and training for young visitors (April 1775-April 1776).
  • 11:00 A.M.: Gen. Washington and his aides arrive (July 1775).
  • 12:00 noon: Gen. Washington inspects the troops and inquires into an officer’s behavior at Bunker Hill (July 1775).
  • 12:30 P.M.: The general invites John Adams to a potluck dinner (January 1776).
  • 1:00 P.M.: Col. Benedict Arnold arrives with a report and expenses from Ticonderoga (August 1775).
  • 2:00 P.M.: Is there a spy ensconced in the American camp? (September 1775)
  • 3:00 P.M.: Formal transfer of command from Gen. Artemas Ward (July 1775).

1 comment:

John L Smith Jr said...

I am coming from Florida for this event and hope to see all the Bell-Blog followers + J.L. + George Washington on Sunday. C U all then!