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 05, 2017

Gen. Washington at His Headquarters in Cambridge, 8 July

On Saturday, 8 July, John Koopman will once again portray Gen. George Washington at his Cambridge headquarters, now the Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site.

That date is the anniversary of when the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s Committee of Safety voted to fix up the mansion belonging to John Vassall for the new commander-in-chief. Vassall, a Loyalist, had left a very fine house behind when he moved into Boston.

After arriving on 2 July, Washington and Gen. Charles Lee first stayed in the house usually reserved for the Harvard College president. Back in 2012, I shared my thinking on why Washington preferred to move to the Vassall house.

It’s not exactly clear who was in the John Vassall House in early July. Massachusetts Committee of Safety records for 15 May refer to moving “the three companies at Mr. Vassal’s house” out to “Mr. Foxcroft’s house.” Four days later, the committee proposed to use the Vassall house itself, “as soon as General [Artemas] Ward shall provide for the soldiers in said houses in some other places.”

But then came the Battle of Bunker Hill. The provincial army suddenly needed more hospital space for the wounded, and on 22 June Col. John Glover’s regiment was summoned from Marblehead to Cambridge to strengthen the siege lines. Washington’s account book states that the Vassall house “had been occupied by the Marblehd. Regimt” before he moved in, but no other source offers more information about that.

On 28 June, Ward ordered “That Lieut.-Colonel [William] Bond occupy one room, in the south-east corner of Col. Vassall’s house, upon the second floor, for the sick belonging to said regiment.” That was the regiment of Col. Thomas Gardner. Its medical staff consisted of Dr. Abraham Watson, Jr. (1752-1804), of Cambridge as surgeon and Dr. William Vinal (1752-1781) of Watertown as his mate. Though Watson and Vinal, classmates in the Harvard class of 1771, weren’t formally commissioned until early July, they probably treated the wounded in the Vassall house. That may even have been where Col. Gardner himself died of his wounds on 3 July.

Washington’s return visit to his headquarters at 105 Brattle Street will take place on Saturday from noon to 4:00 P.M. The site is free to all visitors, but Cambridge parking rules apply to nearby spaces, so it may be easier to stroll out from the Harvard Square subway station.

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