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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Thursday, March 12, 2015

Washington Jumping Rope and Sleeping with a Black Soldier

Here are two anecdotes of Gen. George Washington and an African-American soldier from Massachusetts, as reported by the Rev. Henry F. Harringon in Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book, July 1849:
There lately died [in 1842 actually], in the city of Boston, a very respectable negro, named PRIMUS HALL. He lived to an advanced age, and was the possessor of considerable property. Throughout the Revolutionary war he was the body servant of the late Col. [Timothy] Pickering, of Massachusetts. He was free and communicative, and delighted to sit down with an interested listener and pour out those stores of absorbing and exciting anecdotes with which his memory was stored.

It is well known that there was no officer in the whole American army whose friendship was dearer to Washington, and whose counsel was more esteemed by him, than that of the honest and patriotic Col. Pickering. [So much for Lafayette.] He was on intimate terms with him, and unbosomed himself to him with as little reserve as, perhaps, to any confident in the army. Whenever he was stationed within such a distance as to admit of it, he passed many hours with the colonel, consulting him upon anticipated measures, and delighting in his reciprocated friendship.

Washington was, therefore, often brought into contact with the servant of Col. Pickering, the departed Primus. An opportunity was afforded to the negro to note him, under circumstances very different from those in which he is usually brought before the public, and which possess, therefore, a striking charm. I remember two of these anecdotes from the mouth of Primus. One of them is very slight indeed, yet so peculiar as to be replete with interest. The other conveys a high and holy moral, and deserves to be recorded among the public and remarkable acts of our country’s saviour, as a brilliant illustration that disinterestedness and true humility were guiding principles of his character. The authenticity of both may be fully relied upon.

Washington once came to Col. Pickering’s quarters, and found him absent.

“It is no matter,” said he to Primus. “I am greatly in need of exercise. You must help me to get some before your master returns.”

Under Washington’s directions, the negro busied himself in some simple preparations. A stake was driven into the ground about breast high, a rope was tied to it, and then Primus was desired to stand at some distance and hold it horizontally extended. The boys, the country over, are familiar with this plan of getting sport. With true boyish zest, Washington ran forwards and backwards for some time, jumping over the rope as he came and went, until he expressed himself satisfied with the “exercise.”

Repeatedly, afterwards, when a favorable opportunity offered, he would say—“Come, Primus, I am in need of exercise;” whereat the negro would drive down the stake, and Washington would jump over the rope until he had exerted himself to his content.

On the second occasion, the great general was engaged in earnest consultation with Col. Pickering in his tent until after the night had fairly set in. Head-quarters were at a considerable distance, and Washington signified his preference to staying with the colonel over night, provided he had a spare blanket and straw.

“Oh, yes,” said Primus, who was appealed to; “plenty of straw and blankets—plenty.”

Upon this assurance, Washington continued his conference with the colonel until it was time to retire to rest. Two humble beds were spread, side by side, in the tent, and the officers laid themselves down, while Primus seemed to be busy with duties that required his attention before he himself could sleep. He worked, or appeared to work, until the breathing of the prostrate gentlemen satisfied him that they were sleeping; and then, seating himself on a box or stool, he leaned his head on his hands to obtain such repose as so inconvenient a position would allow. In the middle of the night Washington awoke. He looked about, and descried the negro as he sat. He gazed at him awhile, and then spoke.

“Primus!” said he, calling; “Primus!”

Primus started up and rubbed his eyes. “What, general?” said he.

Washington rose up in his bed. “Primus,” said he, ”what did you mean by saying that you had straw and blankets enough? Here you have given up your blanket and straw to me, that I may sleep comfortably, while you are obliged to sit through the night.”

“It’s nothing, general,” said Primus. “It’s nothing. I’m well enough. Don’t trouble yourself about me, general, but go to sleep again. No matter about me. I sleep very good.”

“But it is matter—it is matter,” said Washington, earnestly. “I cannot do it, Primus. If either is to sit up, I will. But I think there is no need of either sitting up. The blanket is wide enough for two. Come and lie down here with me.”

“Oh, no, general!” said Primus, starting, and protesting against the proposition. “No; let me sit here. I’ll do very well on the stool.”

“I say, come and lie down here!” said Washington, authoritatively. “There is room for both, and I insist upon it!”

He threw open the blanket as he spoke, and moved to one side of the straw. Primus professes to have been exceedingly shocked at the idea of lying under the same covering with the commander-in-chief, but his tone was so resolute and determined that he could not hesitate. He prepared himself, therefore, and laid himself down by Washington; and on the same straw, and under the same blanket, the general and the negro servant slept until morning.

I say that this lost incident conveys a high and holy moral. It affords additional evidence, and that of the clearest nature, that the reverential admiration of the American people for their Washington is not misplaced. He acted from that pure and deep-seated principle, that true nobility of character and self-respect, which enabled him to bear himself with lofty dignity in the presence of the proudest, and, at the same time, impelled him to respect the rights and sympathize with the sufferings of the humblest.
Hall did work as a waiter for Pickering toward the end of the war, as he stated in his pension applications. Otherwise, I don’t believe a word of this.

Hall never mentioned such close encounters with Washington in his applications or, so far as I know, anywhere else. As Harrington told the story, it reinforced everything that Sarah Josepha Hale’s ante-bellum magazine readers would want to believe: Washington a “saviour” kind even to blacks rather than a slightly conflicted slaveholder totally invested in formal hierarchy and manners, Hall an obedient servant to his “master” and to Washington rather than a stubborn fighter for his pension and for civil rights in the new republic.

Tonight I’ll speak about how Washington started to think differently about black soldiers and African-Americans in general. But I really don’t think that ever extended to sharing his bed.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interesting article. While it (the anecdote)belongs right up there with zinging a silver dollar across the Potomac and cutting down a cherry tree, history is regularly (ab)used to support political motive as you've recently relayed in these pages. One historical "fact" I came across last year was that Washington used slaves' teeth on occasion to make his dentures. Any light to be shed on this?

J. L. Bell said...

In May 1784 Washington paid 122 shillings to “Negroes” at Mount Vernon—presumably enslaved—for nine teeth. At the time he was under the care of a French dentist who specialized in teeth transplantation, as shown in his newspaper advertisements. That process didn’t work for Washington. It’s possible that the same teeth, or other teeth bought from slaves, were used in some of the several sets of dentures Washington used in his later lifetime.