AP History Notes

The world's best AP history notes
Posts Tagged ‘cambridge’

Digging through Harvard’s Digital Papers

I rather like my segue yesterday from the Stamp Act confrontation unfolding 250 years ago to Harvard’s new Colonial North American Project.

As the university announced, its archivists are digitizing all the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century documents in several different collections. With 2,400 objects documents available for viewing, the project is still in an early stage.

For example, here’s a notebook of Prof. John Winthrop’s meteorological observations for the mid-1740s. The professor kept those up to his death in 1779, meaning we have detailed weather records from just outside Boston for all the important days of the pre-Revolutionary turmoil and the siege of Boston. But the later notebooks don’t appear to be digitized yet.

Winthrop’s astronomical studies probably explain why the papers of him and his wife Hannah, who were firm establishment Whigs, include almanacs from the Loyalist printers John Mein and John Fleeming. But maybe they were just intrigued by the scientific reports on the covers of those publications, about giants in South America and a furious wild beast in France.

There’s a lot of other visual material in the online collection, more easily reproduced that way than in print. Harvard students learned how to take surveys and sketch buildings as part of their mathematics courses, so more than one left a plan of Cambridge common,

William Tudor, Jr.’s mathematics notebook shows him using “Genl. Warren’s monument on Bunker Hill” to calculate heights in 1795, illustrated above. A couple of decades later, Tudor helped to organize the initial drive to create today’s Bunker Hill Monument on the same hilltop.

Conversations at Washington’s Headquarters

It’s not every day we get a chance to discuss George Washington’s policy decisions at one of his military headquarters.

This month, the Supervisory Park Ranger at Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site in Cambridge, Garrett Cloer, will host two discussions of the commander-in-chief’s correspondence on important issues.

Open to anyone, these informal sessions are designed to be “a fun way to learn more about the general, the process of historical investigation, and perhaps a little about ourselves.” The topics are:

Thursday, 5 November, 6:30 P.M.
“Creating an Army: George Washington Reacts to New England”

Thursday, 19 November, 6:30 P.M.
“A Look at Washington’s Evolving Views on Slavery

The discussions will take place in the carriage house at the rear of the site. Each participant will receive copies of the Washington letters to be analyzed. For the staff to know how many handouts to make, they ask for all participants to reserve a space in advance by email or calling 617-876-4491.

John Goddard: “constant in service of the Province”

Back in April, I quoted from the diary of John Goddard (1730-1816) of Brookline, recording how he carted military supplies out to Concord for the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s Committee on Supplies just before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War.

Goddard’s work for the army continued after that break, as preserved in the same notebook:

April 22nd 1775—to supping and Breakfasting twelve Men and four oxen. £0:7:4

24. to dining 4 Men
to entertaining teames and men that brought Canteens 0:2:0

May 2d, 1775.
Delivered to the Commasary at the Store in Camebridge
Sixteen Bushels of potatoes £1:8.9 [etc. etc.]

May 2 for Entertainment for Carter with ordinance stores 0:1:0

May 22. Began to be constant in service of the Province Myself.

June 2, 1775. to load of flour and porke from Watertown 0:7:0
2 to Carting Catrage paper from Brookline to Watertown 0:4:0

June 3 to Carting load canteens to Camebridge 0:6:0

June 5. for going to Camebridge with team for ammunition 0:5.0

June 27. 1775. to one days work of two hands and teams Drawing tree to the brestwork 0-14-0

July 7, 1775. To hand and team carting stons to the well in the fort at Brookline 0-6-0

1775. Octr. 3. To a days work carting together Bombs & Balls for Colo. [William] Burbeck To 1/2 day’s work removing Powder from my own house to ye Magazine in Jamaica Plain.

Burbeck was the second-in-command of the artillery regiment.

A different partial transcription appears in Nathaniel Goddard: A Boston Merchant, 1767-1853 (1906), by Henry G. Pickering. It includes “July 19, 1775. To cart and tent poles and Baggage [“Also gabeons”] for Colonel [Timothy] Danielson’s Rigement 0..14..0”.

On August 9, Gen. George Washington’s orders included: “Mr. John Goddard is appointed by the Commander-in-Chief, Wagon-Master General to the Army of the twelve United Colonies, and is to be obeyed as such.”

The Mysterious Minister, Mr. Martin

As I described yesterday, the widow Wilmot Marsden based her plea for a federal pension on her memory of having married her husband George in Medford on 25 Nov 1775, when he was an officer in the Continental Army. She recalled the minister who officiated at their wedding as “a professor in the Harvard University” named Martin. Alas, the college had no record of such a man.

But there was a clergyman in the area who seems a likely candidate for marrying the Marsdens: the Rev. John Martin, born (as he told the Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles) in the west of Ireland in 1750 and coming to Nova Scotia in 1772.

The earliest sign of Martin in North America that I’ve found is an advertisement in the 21 Oct 1774 New-Hampshire Gazette stating that “JOHN MARTIN, Minister of the Gospel,” had lost a silver watch somewhere between the meetinghouse of Rochester, New Hampshire, and Berwick, Maine.

Shortly afterward this notice appeared in the 7 November Boston Gazette and 16 and 23 November Essex Journal of Newburyport:

L O S T.
An old Sea-Chest, (supposed to be taken out of Captain [Jonathan] Mason’s Store on the Long Wharf in Salem,) broad at the Bottom, painted blue but much wore off. If it has any Mark, it’s J. M. Should it be opened, it contains Weston’s Stenography, some Books of Physick, and some of Divinity, and considerable Writings, and both Men and Womens Cloths. Whoever shall give Information of the said Chest to the Rev. Dr. [Nathaniel] Whittaker in Salem, or the Rev. Samuel Stillman in Boston, so that the Subscriber may have it, they shall be well rewarded, and all reasonable Charges paid by

Martin appears to have been a very unlucky traveler indeed. On the other hand, these ads might have been a way to announce to the region that one is the sort of learned gentleman to travel with a silver watch and a trunk full of books even if one doesn’t actually have those goods with one. Another notable point: The ministers Martin designated as his local contacts weren’t the orthodox Congregationalists but a Presbyterian and a Baptist.

Martin preached in place of the Rev. Dr. Stiles in Newport on 16 Apr 1775. Stiles went to see him speak again on 19 April and quizzed him about his background. Martin described religious peregrination from a Catholic school through the Episcopal Church and Deism to some form of Calvinist Protestantism that Stiles found acceptable. But the Rhode Island minister was suspicious of Martin’s tale of having been a chaplain to the Pretender in Ireland in 1771. Stiles was a sucker for stories he wanted to believe, and he didn’t want to believe Bonnie Prince Charlie was genuinely Protestant.

Meanwhile, the war was starting. Martin evidently went to the siege lines. He returned to Rhode Island after the Battle of Bunker Hill, reporting that he’d served as a chaplain on the battlefield and had taken part not only in the fighting but also in overseeing the redoubt, deploying troops, and more. Fanfiction critics would recognize the story Martin told as a “self-insert,” in which he was the bravest, most perceptive, and indispensable man on the American side of the battle lines.

As outlandish as Martin’s story was, this time people wanted to believe him. On 28 June, the Rhode Island Assembly appointed “John Martin” surgeon of its army brigade at a salary of £9 per month. There were other, better established men named John Martin in that colony, but I suspect this new surgeon was the young minister because he’d claimed to own “some Books of Physick” and because of a newspaper statement the next month that he’d been “appointed to a post in the Rhode Island regiment.”

On 30 June, Martin returned to Stiles’s doorstep in Newport, telling his story of the battle, and the minister wrote it all down. That evening he listened as Martin preached “a high Liberty Sermon.” On 18 July, the New-Hampshire Gazette reported briefly how Martin had “fought gallantly at Bunker-Hill.” Presumably he headed back to the war zone.

On 28 September and 28 December 1775, the New-England Chronicle newspaper reported that letters for John Martin were waiting in the Cambridge post office. Again, this may be another man of the same name (he’s not identified as a minister or a surgeon). But it’s quite clear who Sgt. Henry Bedinger of the Virginia riflemen heard preach in Roxbury on 3 Oct 1775:

We had also a Very Good Sermon preached to us by the Reverend Mr. Martin, Who Took part of the Command on Bunker’s Hill In that Battle.

This is clearly the same Martin who visited Stiles, and he was once again acting as a clergyman in the fall of 1775.

Thus, the Rev. John Martin seems like an excellent candidate to be the minister who married George Marsden and Wilmot Lee in Medford in November. He would have no qualms about breaking the Massachusetts law against traveling clergy performing marriages. And, just as he left the riflemen and others with the idea that he’d been a commander at Bunker Hill, he could easily have left Wilmot Marsden convinced he was a “professor at Harvard University.”

COMING UP: What happened to the Rev. John Martin?

Widow Marsden’s Marriage Claim

I’ve been writing about George Marsden, who went from a deserter from the British army in early 1774 to a lieutenant in the Continental Army in January 1776. He served a couple of years, including service at Saratoga, before retiring at an uncertain date. Marsden died in 1817.

His widow was born Wilmot Lee, reportedly in Nova Scotia on 21 Jan 1757, to Edward and Ann Lee or Leigh. She may therefore have been named after the British army commander Montague Wilmot. She probably met George Marsden while he was stationed in Halifax from 1769 to 1774, and she might even have been the reason for his desertion just before the 59th Regiment sailed for Boston.

Wilmot Marsden died in 1850, and she spent her last three decades trying to secure a federal pension as the widow of a Continental Army officer. The issue for the U.S. government was whether Wilmot and George had married before or after his army service. If they were legally a couple when he was an active officer, then she qualified for a pension. If not, then the government owed her nothing.

Unfortunately for Wilmot Marsden, she couldn’t provide documentary proof of their wedding on 25 Nov 1775 “at the house of Henry Putnam” in Mystic, as she wrote. Mystic was an old word for Medford, and Henry Putnam was a prominent landowner there, but that town’s records had no mention of the Marsdens’ marriage.

On 10 Oct 1839, Wilmot Marsden filed an affidavit describing her wedding in more detail. She said:

both her husband & herself came to Massachusetts, from Nova Scotia, Just previous to the revolutionary war, that she had resided but a few months at Mystic (now Medford) at the time of her marriage, & had few acquaintances, & not known out of the immediate neighborhood in which she lived, that her husband was with the army, and as little known at Mystic as herself,

that the persons present at the wedding are reported to have died long since, their names were Roger & Eli [?] Putnam & wives, Capts. Darby & Nowell from Cambridge, of Col Scammons Regiment, Edward Lee, Watson, Pool, Hall, Bracket, Gallop, Temple & Fisk [?].—

(Curiously, although Wilmot Marsden’s signature appears on her previous affidavit of 16 April, on this document she simply put her mark.)

Samuel Darby was indeed a captain in Col. James Scamman’s regiment at that time. In January 1776, Marsden became a lieutenant under him in Col. William Prescott’s regiment. Some other surnames in this affidavit also appear on the list of men in Scamman’s 1775 regiment. In addition, the alleged host Henry Putnam had younger brothers named Roger and Elijah Putnam.

Most interesting is the name of Edward Lee. Wilmot had a brother of that name (as well as a father). Had he accompanied his sister from Nova Scotia? The Medford town records include the death of a woman surnamed Lee, wife of “a Soldier in Army,” on 30 Sept 1775. Was that Edward Lee’s wife, and thus Wilmot Marsden’s sister-in-law?

Marsden clearly recalled her wedding as occurring during the siege of Boston. But there was still the problem of there being no legal record of that marriage to confirm her memory. A man from Rome, New York, looked into Marsden’s claim for her and offered an explanation for why the marriage may not have been recorded locally. At the time Massachusetts law recognized only marriages performed by ministers resident in that town; preachers without settled pulpits didn’t have the authority to marry couples. The New York man wrote:

the marriage of Mrs. Marsden was in the parish of the Revd. Doct. David Osgood, who was pertinacious of his priviledge, & was in the habit of exacting fines when he learned by the record of the town or otherwise, that a marriage had been consummated in his parish by a non-resident minister, & that such marriages were seldom recorded.

The minister who married her, Wilmot Marsden recalled, was not connected to the town of Medford. Rather, he was “the Revd. Mr. Martin of Cambridge a professor in the Harvard University.” She couldn’t say “to what denomination he belonged.”

Unfortunately for the widow Marsden, Harvard archivists told the federal government that the college had no professor or other official named Martin in 1775.

TOMORROW: Tracking down Mr. Martin the minister.

“Backwardness in Colonel Scammans”?

On 12 July 1775, five days after confirming the court-martial sentence of Capt. John Callender, Gen. George Washington issued orders for the trial of another Continental Army officer:

A General Court Martial of the Line to sit at Head Quarters, in Cambridge, to morrow morning at Nine OClock, to try Col. Scammons of the Massachusetts Forces accused of “Backwardness in the execution of his duty in the late Action upon Bunkers-hill”. The Adjutant of Col. Scammon’s regiment, to warn all Evidences [i.e., witnesses], and persons concern’d to attend the court.

The regimental adjutant was a man named George Marsden.

Col. James Scamman (also spelled Scammans, Scammon, and Scammons) commanded a regiment made up of men from Maine and New Hampshire. While the fight raged on Breed’s Hill in Charlestown, he had led his men to Cobble Hill, on the west side of the Charlestown Neck, and stayed there for a while. Then when he finally moved them onto the Charlestown peninsula, Scamman went no farther than the brow of the taller Bunker’s Hill before ordering everyone to turn around and retreat.

In his defense, Scamman said had been ordered “to the hill,” and at first he thought that meant Cobble Hill because people feared British regulars would land at nearby Lechmere’s Point. Some of his witnesses, such as Drummer Henry Foss, backed him up on that.

However, it’s clear that other men in Scamman’s regiment supported the complaints against him. Those soldiers were already split over whom they’d signed up to fight under—Scamman or his lieutenant colonel, Johnson Moulton. In their testimony, some junior officers hinted that the colonel didn’t move as quickly as he should have, or noted that other provincials moved on to Breed’s Hill even as Scamman said that was too dangerous. For example:

Ensign Joshua Trafton deposed, about two of the clock (afternoon) we marched from Cambridge to Lechmere’s-Point, where we found Gen. [John] Whitcomb who expressed much surprise at finding Col. Scammans take post there. We remained on the Point fifteen minutes and then marched to a small hill below Prospect-Hill. We continued on the small hill about half an hour or more; during which time Col. Scammans sent two Serjeants to Bunker’s-Hill, to know if his regiment was wanted.

We took the nearest road to Bunker’s-Hill, as I suppose; and before we got to the top of the hill, Colonel ordered a retreat. I cannot say whether the breastwork was forced or not at that time. We saw many men retreating down the hill who said they had spent all their ammunition; some told us that the enemy had retreated and begged us to push on. As we turned off the small hill, a regiment marched by us towards Bunker’s-Hill. As we marched from Cambridge we heard the regulars were landing at Lechmere’s Point and at Charlestown. Col. Scammans made the greatest despatch from the small hill to Bunker’s-Hill.

I saw no other instance of backwardness in Colonel Scammans, except his long stay at the small hill, which appeared to me unnecessary. As we retreated a number of men advanced up in an irregular manner.

Shortly after this Scamman accused Trafton of “abusive Language” and later of “offering to strike his Colo,” both charges apparently involving Trafton’s disdain for the colonel. But the court-martial boards went easy on the junior officer—suggesting they thought his disrespect for Scamman had a solid basis.

TOMORROW: The main witness accusing Col. Scamman of backwardness was none other than the regimental adjutant, George Marsden.

“Shot“ Exhibit Now Heard Around the Internet

If you’ve enjoyed the past few days of anecdotes from the Battle of Lexington and Concord, check out the website for the Concord Museum’s “Shot Heard Round the World” exhibit.

This exhibit, mounted last year, brought together artifacts from the museum itself, local historical societies, and private collectors to create an unprecedented gathering of relics from the first day of the Revolutionary War. As the website explains, it

followed an hour-by-hour account of the actions of British Regulars and Patriots on April 19, 1775, presenting a chronological and geographical timeline of the day and representing many of the communities surrounding Boston—Lexington, Concord, Lincoln, Arlington (Menotomy), and Cambridge—whose militias played a prominent role in the day-long engagement. Organized by Concord Museum curator David Wood and militaria expert Joel Bohy, the exhibition explored the objects on view and the part they played in the events of the fateful day that began an eight-year fight for independence.

The online exhibit not only preserves images of many of those artifacts but also ancillary videos and outside links. Plus, there’s a page for teachers and students.

John Jupp “found his way to Shirley”

Among the men from Shirley who marched during the Lexington Alarm of 19 Apr 1775 was John Jupp, a private in Capt. Henry Haskell’s company, Col. William Prescott’s regiment.

Jupp had more recent military experience than most of his companions. According to Seth Chandler’s History of the Town of Shirley, Massachusetts, he

was an Englishman by birth, and a soldier of the British army that came here to enforce colonial obedience. He was connected with the military department under Governor [Thomas] Gage at Boston, previous to the outbreak of the American Revolution. He deserted from the service of the king and found his way to Shirley…

Jupp and Mary Simonds recorded their intention to marry on 12 Nov 1774 in the Shirley meeting-house (shown above in its present form).

If her death listing from 1826 was accurate, Mary Simonds was born about 1735, making her close to forty years old when she wed. I suspect she had property since Jupp was said to have “owned a small farming estate, situated near the center of the town,” and a recently deserted soldier wouldn’t have been able to buy such land.

On 16 Jan 1775, Jupp sold a silver watch for cash and three dollars on credit to James Parker (1744-1830), who was teaching school in Haskell’s shop. Again, this doesn’t seem like the sort of property a deserting soldier would have on his own, but who knows?

Jupp served with the town militia company for ten days in April 1775. Shirley’s vital records say John and Mary Jupp had a daughter on 26 September. (However, another transcription of those records indicates that the child born that day was named John; I assume that was a misreading.)

In January 1776, John Jupp was 74 miles away in the camp at Cambridge, once again serving in a militia company under Capt. Haskell. Massachusetts had called those men up to ensure the lines around Boston didn’t collapse while Gen. George Washington strove to rebuild his forces.

Then on 9 Mar 1777, John Jupp enlisted as a private in the Continental Army for three years. He was in Capt. Sylvanus Smith’s company, Col. Timothy Bigelow’s regiment—a unit that was at Saratoga and Valley Forge. Though military records state that John Jupp was “sick at Shirley” in January 1779, his wife and daughter saw little of him in those years.

TOMORROW: Can this marriage be saved?

“Shot a Canon Ball throug the metin hous”

On 19 Apr 1775, two companies of militiamen marched from Andover. Anticipating that the British column was headed to Concord, where the Massachusetts Provincial Congress had collected supplies, they marched toward that town, but kept adjusting their course as they received more news.

Here’s the account of Sgt. Thomas Boynton from Capt. Benjamin Ames’s company:

This morning, being Wednesday, about the sun’s rising the town was alarmed with the news that the Regulars was on their march to Concord. Upon which the town mustered and about 10 o’clock marched onward for Concord. In Tewksbury news came that the Regulars had fired on our men in Lexington, and had killed 8. In Bilricke news came that the enemy were killing and slaying our men in Concord. Bedford we had the news that the enemy had killed 2 of our men and had retreated back; we shifted our course and persued after them as fast as possible, but all in vain; the enemy had the start 3 or 4 miles. It is said that their number was about 1500 men. They were persued as far as Charlestown that night; the next day they passed Charles River. The loss they sustained as we hear were 500; our men about 40. To return, after we came into Concord road we saw houses burning and others plundered and dead bodies of the enemy lying by the way, others taken prisoners. About eight at night our regiment came to a halt in notime. The next morning we came into Cambridge and there abode.

The Andover men never made contact with the enemy that day, but they did become part of the army besieging Boston.

Another man on that march was James Stevens, a carpenter born in 1749 who was in Capt. Thomas Poor’s company. His diary was published in the Essex Institute Historical Collections in 1912, offering a vivid picture of the aftermath of battle:

April ye 19 1775 this morning a bout seven aclok we had alarum that the Reegerlers was gon to Conkord we getherd to the meting hous & then started for Concord we went throu Tukesbary & in to Bilrica we stopt to Polords [Solomon Pollard’s tavern, burned in 1977] & eat some bisket & Ches on the comon. we started & wen into Bedford & we herd that the regerlers was gon back to Boston

we went through Bedford, we went in to Lecentown. we went to the metinghous & there we come to the distraction of the Reegerlers thay cild eight of our men & shot a Canon Ball throug the metin hous. we went a long through Lecintown & we saw severel regerlers ded on the rod & som of our men & three or fore housen was Burnt & som hoses & hogs was cild thay plaindered in every hous thay could git in to thay stove in windows & broke in tops of desks we met the men a coming back very fast we went through Notemy & got into Cambridg we stopt about eight acloke for thay say that the regerlers was got to Chalstown on to Bunkers hil & intrenstion we stopt about two miles back from the college

Thursday ye 20 this morning we had alarum about day we imbodied as son as posable & marcht into the comon we herd that the regrelers was gon to Boston we staid on the Comon a spel & then retreted back to the hils & exspected them out on us we herd severl small canons & one or two swevels from a tender we staid while ten or a leven aClok & then come down & got some refreshment & men come in very fast

Stevens’s idiosyncratic spelling probably gives a good sense of what he sounded like. It’s also clear that even then people had trouble spelling “Billerica.”

(The picture of the Lexington meetinghouse above comes courtesy of the First Shot! smartphone tour, created by Rick and Marilyn Rea Beyer and the Lexington Historical Society.)

Jeremiah Lee’s Very Bad Night

Jeremiah Lee was a non-battlefield casualty of the fight on 18-19 Apr 1775. On the one hand, that’s appropriate because he was central to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s effort to build up an artillery force, which prompted the British army march tp Concord. On the other hand, Lee’s death was probably unnecessary.

Lee was a Marblehead merchant, militia commander, and member of the congress’s Committee on Supplies. He was the conduit for its payments to the Salem painter David Mason as he collected and mounted cannons.

On 18 April, Lee attended a joint meeting of the Committee on Supplies and the Committee of Safety at a tavern in Menotomy, the western village of Cambridge that’s now Arlington. When the meeting broke up, he and two other men from Marblehead, Elbridge Gerry and Azor Orne, decided to stay the night. Richard Devens of Charlestown later wrote:

After we had finished the business of the day, we adjourned to meet at Woburn on the morrow,—left to lodge at Newell’s [the tavern], Gerry, Orne, and Lee. Mr. [Abraham] Watson and myself came off in my chaise at sunset.

On the road we met a great number of B[ritish]. O[fficers]. and their servants on horseback, who had dined that day at Cambridge. We rode some way after we met them, and then turned back and rode through them, went and informed our friends at Newell’s. We stopped there till they [the officers] came up and rode by. We then left our friends, and I came home, after leaving Mr. Watson at his house.

Likewise, Gen. William Heath wrote of himself in the third person: “on his return home, soon after he left the committee, and about sun-setting, he met eight or nine British officers on horseback, with their swords and pistols, riding up the road towards Lexington.”

The province was abuzz with rumors that the London government had ordered Gen. Thomas Gage to arrest leaders of the rebellion—and those rumors were pretty much true. The committee men were naturally nervous. Gerry sent a warning west to John Hancock and Samuel Adams, then staying at Lexington. Nonetheless, Devens and Watson had passed through the British officers twice with no trouble.

Later that evening, a long column of British troops passed by the tavern on the way to Concord. Lee, Gerry, and Orne got out of bed to watch. Suddenly they perceived some soldiers from that column coming toward the front door. Half-dressed, the three men dashed out the back and threw themselves down in a field, hoping the stalks of the previous year’s crop would hide them. Heath wrote that he heard they suffered “some injury from obstacles in the way, in their undressed state.”

The three men remained on the ground for about an hour before they decided it was safe to return to the building. Lee, who had just turned fifty-four, took sick from the cold and stress. He died on 10 May, his family and friends blaming the events of that night.

Here’s the sad irony: those British troops weren’t seeking to arrest anyone on the Committee on Supplies. Gen. Thomas Gage’s orders for that march say nothing about arresting Provincial Congress members or searching buildings before the column reached Concord. None of the several British officers who left detailed accounts of the night wrote about such a search on the way west. Heath wrote that he’d heard the troops “halted” outside the tavern, which they might have done just to get water from a well, but he didn’t say they went inside.

In his 1828 biography of Gerry, James T. Austin wrote that British troops had searched Newell’s tavern on the night of 18 April. Of course, saying that made Gerry’s decision to hide outside in the fields seem more smart than scared. And although Austin claimed, “even the beds in which they had lain were examined,” he had to acknowledge that nothing, not even “a valuable watch of Mr. Gerry’s, which was under his pillow,” had been disturbed. No eyewitness accounts from 1775 said troops had gone into the tavern, and the Massachusetts Patriots hadn’t shied from complaining about British actions that day.

I therefore suspect that Lee, Gerry, and Orne could have stayed inside their bedroom the whole night without being disturbed. And Lee might have lived for many more years.

Colonial Comics Classes and Events in April

During Massachusetts’s upcoming school vacation week, I’ll speak about the Colonial Comics series alongside top editor Jason Rodriguez, my fellow assistant editor A. David Lewis, and other contributors and comics creators in various combinations.

We’ll talk about the art and mystery of making history comics in two types of events: workshops designed for creative kids and evening talks for anybody interested in translating history into graphic form.

Tuesday, 21 April, 2:00 to 4:00 P.M.
Family Day Program for Young Historians, Parents & Grandparents
Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston
Come to M.H.S. during the school vacation week for a hands-on history program. Historian J. L. Bell will tell participants the story of the riots that followed the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765 from an eighteenth-century child’s point of view: young people participated in marches to Liberty Tree and witnessed the ransacking of Thomas Hutchinson’s mansion.

After that talk, local comic book artists associated with the Boston Comics Roundtable, Fulcrum Publishing, and the Massachusetts Historical Society will help the young historians make their own historical comic depicting the conflict over the Stamp Act. Finished comics will be part of a temporary display. This workshop is free, but registration is required.

Tuesday, 21 April, 5:30 to 7:00 P.M.
Author Talk: Colonial Comics with Jason Rodriguez
Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston
Colonial Comics editor Jason Rodriguez will speak about the process of putting the collection together, ensuring historical accuracy, and selecting the topics to be covered. He will discuss how this illustrated book brings to light tales about free thinkers, Pequots, Jewish settlers, female business owners, dedicated schoolteachers, whales and livestock, slavery and frontiers, and other aspects of colonial life.

This talk will be followed by a Colonial Comics Happy Hour open to M.H.S. Associate Members (age forty and under). Those members are invited to a nearby restaurant with Rodriguez to continue the discussion about historical events as subject matter for comic books and graphic novels. Registration required at no cost. Please call 617-646-0543 for more information.

Wednesday, 22 April, 7:00 P.M.
Colonial Comics Book Talk and Signing
Harvard Book Store, Cambridge
The store welcomes Eisner Award nominee Jason Rodriguez and local writer J. L. Bell for a discussion of Colonial Comics: New England, 1620-1750. Co-sponsored by Mass Humanities. Free.

“In the first of three proposed anthologies, beautifully produced comics reveal the rich, often overlooked lives of Native Americans, women, and servants in colonial New England. Each of the two dozen selections is based on primary sources, and most pieces feature individuals whose names can be found fairly readily elsewhere. Unlike those other resources, however, the selections in this anthology take the vantage point of more marginalized groups, bringing attention to the people history has tended to view as mere props to stories featuring white male upper-class settlers.” —Booklist

Thursday, 23 April, 10:00 A.M. to 12:30 P.M.
History, in Panels: A Comic Book Making Workshop
Concord Museum, Concord, Massachusetts
Make your own comic book! Professional comic-book artists and writers will introduce kids to the world of comic-book creation and mentor them as they create their own history-themed comics. Working with editor and writer Jason Rodriguez, along with artists behind Colonial Comics: New England, 1620-1750 and the upcoming Colonial Comics: New England, 1750-1775, participants will get a hands-on look at how a historical comic book story is created, from working with primary and secondary sources, piecing a narrative together, and finding references, to illustrating the piece.

Then participants will create a comic of their own using first-hand accounts from colonial Concord, as well as objects and images from the Concord Museum’s collection. The workshop is designed for ages 8-16. The cost is $10 per person for museum members, $15 for others. Register online or by calling (978) 369-9763, ext. 216.

Talk on Washington’s Black Soldiers in Cambridge, 12 Mar.

On Thursday, 12 March, I’ll again speak at Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site in Cambridge honor of the upcoming Evacuation Day anniversary. This year’s talk is titled “When Washington Changed His Mind: The Question of African-American Soldiers in the Continental Army.”

In his first report back to the Continental Congress after taking command in Boston, Gen. George Washington wrote on 10 July 1775 that they shouldn’t expect quick results. The New England recruiters, he said, had already scraped the bottom of the barrel for soldiers:

Upon finding the Number of Men to fall so far short of the Establishment, & below all Expectation I immediately called a Council of the general Officers whose Opinion as to the Mode of filling up the Regiments; & providing for the present Exigency, . . . From the Number of Boys, Deserters, & Negroes which have been listed in the Troops of this Province, I entertain some Doubts whether the Number required can be raised here…

For a Virginia planter like Washington, whose entire life depended on managing enslaved people of African descent, the sight of black soldiers in fighting regiments wasn’t just a surprise. It was a profound contradiction of the social order.

That day Washington’s hand-picked adjutant general, Horatio Gates, issued recruiting orders that barred “any Stroller, Negro, or Vagabond” from enlisting. The Massachusetts legislature, which had approved all the existing regiments with black soldiers, reversed itself and told officers to stop signing up such men, whether free or enslaved.

At a council of war in October, Washington quizzed his generals on the issue. All but two agreed with the policy of excluding African-Americans from the army. So did the committee of the Continental Congress who met with Washington soon afterwards. Which wasn’t a surprise when the agenda for that meeting expressed the question this way:

Ought not Negroes to be excluded in the New Inlistment? especially such as are Slaves—By a Council of Officers both are.

On 31 October Washington’s general orders put that policy into practice by inviting all American soldiers around Boston to sign up for another year in the army—“(Negroes excepted, which the Congress do not incline to inlist again).”

And yet on 30 Dec 1775 Washington wrote in his general orders that recruiting officers could sign up “Free Negroes.” The next day he took responsibility for that new policy in a letter to the Congress:

I have presumed to depart from the Resolution respecting them, & have given Licence for their being enlisted, if this is disapproved of by Congress, I will put a Stop to it.

As he anticipated, the Congress did not overrule that policy.

In this talk I’ll explore the factors that pressed the commander-in-chief change his mind, and the repercussions of that decision for the Continental Army and for Washington personally.

I’m scheduled to begin speaking at 6:30 P.M. in the Longfellow carriage house. Parking restrictions ease up along Brattle Street to the west at 6:00—not that this winter is making parking easy. This event is free, but because of limited seating the site asks people to make reservations by calling 617-876-4491.

New Database of Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Petitions

Yesterday saw the official debut of the Digital Archive of Massachusetts Anti-Slavery and Anti-Segregation Petitions. This online database is a collaboration between the Massachusetts Archives and Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute, Center for American Political Studies, and Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

Two years in the making, the collection offers views of 3,500 documents filed with the Massachusetts General Court from the 1600s to the 1800s. I saw a Twitter message saying that some of those petitions appears to have never been opened before being digitized.

Boston 1775 reader Nicole Topich, who worked on the project, alerted me to a number of items from the database relating to people discussed on this blog. For example, I’ve been passing on news about the identification of a young African-American portrait artist named Prince Demah. His mother Daphne appears in several documents because she was part of the estate confiscated from the Loyalist merchant Henry Barnes.

The state told the men it appointed to administer that estate to pay her from its earnings. The second of those men, Simon Stow, ended up suing his predecessor with the state’s encouragement. In June 1789 Stow complained to the legislature that he was still paying Daphne and thought she could live more cheaply in the countryside, but she was refusing to leave Boston. The legislature excused Stow from that responsibility. Two years later, Daphne petitioned directly, describing herself as having been “born in Africa,” “purchased by Henry Barnes, Esqr.,” and too old to support herself. The legislature authorized Joseph Hosmer to pay for her expenses on the state account.

Similar issues arose in the case of Tony (Anthony) and Cuba (Coby) Vassall, who had been enslaved to different members of the Vassall family in Cambridge. (As a child, Cuba had worked at the Royall House in Medford.) In 1780 the couple petitioned the legislature to be granted land from the John Vassall estate so as to support themselves. Tony stated that since the war began:

he and his family have since that time occupied a small tenement, with three quarters of an Acre of land, part of Mr. John Vassall’s estate in Cambridge and has paid therefor a reasonable rent, and all the taxes that were assessed upon him. . . .

the earlier part & vigour of their lives is spent in the service of their several masters, and the misfortunes of war have deprived them of that care & protection which they might otherwise have expected from them—

the land Your Petitioners now improve is not sufficient to supply them with such vegetables as are necessary for their family use, and their title is so precarious that they can’t depend on a continued possession of the same—

they might however promise themselves a tolerable subsistence by their industry & attention, if this Honble Court would grant them a freehold in the Premises and add one quarter of an acre of adjoining land to that which they now improve.

The following February, the legislature responded by voting Anthony Vassall a £12 annual pension but no more land. After his death, in 1811 the widow “Cuby” requested that the pension continue; her plea eventually succeeded, but she died the next year. Their son Darby, who reportedly met Gen. George Washington when he arrived at the John Vassall house to use it as his headquarters, lived long enough to sign a petition against the Fugitive Slave Law in 1861.

The database also contains digitized documents that don’t appear to have a direct connection with slavery. For instance, there are several petitions from Samuel Adams the wire-worker in the 1850s asking for compensation from the state for losses he sustained in the Shays Rebellion over sixty years before. They show Adams gathering pages of signatures in support of his cause, just as the opponents of the Fugitive Slave Law would do.

A Valentine’s Card from 1752

Historic New England’s collection includes this cutwork valentine with German fraktur calligraphy.

The border features men, women, birds, and flowers cut from paper. In the center is a poem, which reads in translation:

Let love occupy your heart
Let love inflame you continually.
Not a love which burns with incontinence
And pursues a base desire for worldy things.
God’s love should impel you
To leave Evil alone
To love your Neighbor as yourself
And carry your cross forbearingly

Below that are the words “Made in Honor of Sophia Kemper,” the name “John Tillman Dickenshaw,” and what I suspect is an attempt at “in [?] month…in the year of our Lord 1752.”

The most recent issue of Historic New England magazine shows this artifact and reports that the handwriting and cutwork match one dated 22 May 1754, now on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The man’s name might be an Anglicization of Johan Dielman Dickenschied, who was born in Prussia in 1727 and arrived in Philadelphia with his parents and siblings in 1744. Or that similarity might just be coincidence.

Maria Sophia Kemper (1739-1832) was the daughter of German immigrants to New Brunswick, New Jersey. How did her valentine come to New England? In 1761 she married businessman John Morton in New York. Their daughter Eliza Susan Morton visited Massachusetts in the 1790s and caught the ear of Josiah Quincy, son of the Boston lawyer of the same name who had died in 1775. Thus, her mother’s valentine eventually came to be part of the family papers at the Quincy House.

(Just to tie everything together, Josiah Quincy courted Eliza Morton at Elizabeth Craigie’s house in Cambridge—the same house featured in the Washington’s headquarters tours I mentioned yesterday.)

Visit Washington’s Headquarters, 19 Feb.

On Thursday, 19 February, Ranger Garrett Cloer of the National Park Service will lead special tours of the Cambridge mansion that was Gen. George Washington’s home and headquarters from July 1775 to early April 1776. That estate is now the Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site.

How did the generalissimo spend his own birthday there? Probably working. Washington’s earlier diaries don’t note any special events or reflections on the two days that could be considered his birthday: 11 February (the date on which he was born under the Julian Calendar) or 22 February (the equivalent under the Gregorian Calendar, which he eventually preferred for birthday celebrations).

Gen. Washington’s letter to Gov. Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut on 22 Feb 1776 gives a taste of the matters he was dealing with:

In my letter to you of the 19th instant [i.e., of this month] I mentioned to you that I was sorry to find there would come but 4217 pounds of powder instead of 6 or 8000 I had expectations of—I had taken my information from [Rhode Island] Governor [Nicholas] Cooke’s letter which upon a reperusal I find mentions that weight including the Casks. I have since had it weighed by the Commissary, an exact return of which you have inclosed; by which you will see, that the Net weight is 3577 lbs. 577 lbs. thereof will be placed to the credit of your Colony and the whole settled for in whatever manner will be most agreeable.

I have just received a letter from J[abez]. Huntington Esqr. with the agreeable account of his having forwarded two tons of powder to this Camp, by your order. Accept Sir of my thanks for this seasonable supply. When it arrives I shall send you an account of it; and when you point out the mode it shall be paid for, or replaced in the manner you and the rest of your legislature shall think proper.

In a couple of weeks, that gunpowder would be used to start an artillery attack on British-held Boston, which in turn covered up a move onto the heights of the Dorchester peninsula.

Back to the tours of Washington’s headquarters! They start in the visitor center at the back of 105 Brattle Street in Cambridge. They’ll begin on the hour from 3:00 to 6:00 P.M. and last forty-five minutes. These tours are free, but space is limited, so call 617-876-4491 to reserve a spot.

Cambridge Forum Lectures on Video

In recent years I’ve moderated a series of annual talks at the Cambridge Forum by historians of the Revolutionary era.

These talks all have a link to George Washington since they’re primarily co-sponsored by the Friends of Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters and the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati.

The Cambridge Forum edits those lectures for a public-radio audience. It also makes them available in long video form on YouTube, and here are the handy links:

Washington’s Return to the Vassall Estate in Cambridge

Yesterday I quoted President George Washington’s description of his return visit to Cambridge on 24 Oct 1789, when he viewed Middlesex County militia troops under the command of militia general John Brooks (shown here later in life). Washington noted that those troops formed up late but “made however an excellent appearance.”

But let’s explore what the President reportedly didn’t see. In the 26 July 1862 Boston Transcript a correspondent using the initial “C.” shared this tale:

The late Judge Joseph Hall and his cousin, the late Col. Fitch Hall, were the aids of Gen. John Brooks, when Washington visited New England. The former was despatched to Worcester…; and the latter stated to the writer that he (then being quite a young man), was struck with awe when he went to Washington’s headquarters, now occupied by Prof. Longfellow, and after being ushered into his presence, asked at what time it would be his pleasure to pass the troops in review. Washington, taking him by the hand, replied, in five minutes. The aid mounted and ran his horse at full speed to Cambridge common, and the troops were barely in line, before Washington, with his suite, appeared, having kept his word, and evidencing the promptness which characterized all his movements.

That passage was quoted in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register in 1862.

Two years before, the same periodical had printed William H. Sumner’s reminiscences of the day, which offered even more detail, reportedly also based on conversations with Fitch Hall:

…an arrangement was made that on his way to the capitol, Washington should stop at Cambridge and receive a salute from the militia under General Brooks, then commander of the third division, the cavalry, artillery and light infantry of which he had ordered to parade on the common, to present arms to the General as he passed their lines. The house provided for his reception at Cambridge was the same old Vassal House which had been his headquarters while the army was encamped in that town at the commencement of the Revolutionary War. . . .

The time appointed for the review was 12 o’clock, and this hour having arrived, Gen. Brooks’s aid, Colonel Hall, who was stationed at that house to receive General Washington, knowing the punctuality of his commander, but without special orders at the moment, informed Washington as he was dismounting that the hour of twelve had arrived and that the line was formed. Taken somewhat by surprise that time had passed so rapidly, and still unwilling to be outdone in punctuality, a prominent trait in his own character, the General, without alighting, immediately threw his leg back again across the saddle, and directed Colonel Hall to conduct him to the field.

Fearing he had been too precipitate in telling Washington that the line was actually formed and ready to receive him, and seeing him remount, Colonel Hall left his co-aid, Major Joseph Hall (who had accompanied the General from Marlborough) to perform the remainder of his duty, and putting spurs to his horse galloped with the greatest rapidity to the common, and informed Gen. Brooks that Washington was on his way and close at hand. Col. Hall had ventured to tell Washington that the line was formed, as he saw him actually dismounting, and naturally supposed that the General would occupy a few minutes in refreshing himself after his morning’s long ride.

Nothing could have surprised Gen. Brooks more than Col. Hall’s announcement. His troops were scattered over the field; but glancing at his watch, and finding that the appointed time had in truth arrived, although noted for his great deliberation in times of great moment, he lost no time in bringing his troops into line, which was done while the artillery was firing the national salute.

This was scarcely accomplished when Washington appeared on the right of the line, and immediately heard from the lips of his old friend and companion in arms all through the war, the command never before so thrillingly given, “Present arms.” . . . Gen. Brooks, who was an elegant horseman and sat as proudly erect as a martinet, rode down the line in company with Washington, who most particularly noticed its beautiful appearance. Riding back with rapidity in the rear, and observing that not a single man looked around, but that all (although excited with the greatest possible curiosity) kept their faces steadily to the front, he remarked to Gen. Brooks, in allusion to the seven years’ war in which they had both been engaged, “Ah, General, if we had had such troops as these, we should have made short work of it!”

To which Brooks might well have replied, “Phew!”

There are some discrepancies among those three accounts—Washington’s written on that day, and the two stories based on what people had heard from Fitch Hall years later. According to Washington, the troops were supposed to be ready at ten o’clock and didn’t form up until eleven—not ready and formed just at twelve, as Sumner wrote. And the President was obviously not fooled that the troops were drawn up when he arrived. Indeed, it looks like Fitch Hall improved on what likely happened when he told the story years later, giving himself a central role in a last-minute saving of the day.

Another question, especially burning for me, is whether on this visit Washington went into the mansion confiscated from John Vassall that he’d used as his headquarters in 1775 and 1776. According to Sumner’s retelling, he never even got off his horse. But the account from “C.” suggests that Fitch Hall met him inside that house. Washington’s own diary makes no mention of the house or who was living in it then—another mystery, not answered by property records.

TOMORROW: Boston schoolboys and President Washington.

On the Road with President Washington

As I announced yesterday, on 21 January Prof. T. H. Breen will speak at the Cambridge Forum about President George Washington’s visit to New England in the fall of 1789, and the political issues it raised.

As newly elected President of a new nation, Washington was trying to thank the American people and also to bind them together. On his trip through the northern states he avoided entering Rhode Island since it hadn’t yet ratified the Constitution or sent representatives to Congress.

In some ways I think the President’s visit was like a royal progress, full of pomp and celebration. But Washington was trying not to appear too kingly. Even though as President he was the commander-in-chief of the federal forces, and had also commanded the nation’s army during the war for independence, he didn’t want to be seen as claiming any power over state militia troops.

And yet, as his diary entry for 23 October shows, those state militia troops kept coming out to show off to him:

Here [in Worcester] we were received by a handsome Company of Militia Artillery in Uniform who saluted with 13 Guns on our Entry & departure. At this place also we met a Committee from the Town of Boston, and an Aid of Majr. Genl. [John] Brooke of the Middlesex Militia who had proceeded to this place in order to make some arrangements of Military & other Parade on my way to, and in the Town of, Boston; and to fix with me on the hours at which I should pass through Cambridge, and enter Boston.

Finding this ceremony was not to be avoided though I had made every effort to do it, I named the hour of ten to pass the Militia of the above County at Cambridge and the hour of 12 for my entrance into Boston desiring Major [Joseph] Hall, however, to inform Genl. Brookes that as I conceived there was an impropriety in my reviewing the Militia, or seeing them perform Manoeuvres otherwise than as a private Man I could do no more than pass along the line; which, if he thought proper might be under arms to receive me at that time.

These matters being settled the Committee and the Aid (Colo. Hall) set forward on their return and after breakfast I followed; The same Gentlemen who had escorted me into, conducting me out of Town.

At the border of Worcester and Middlesex Counties a militia troop of light horsemen awaited the President.

Then came Jonathan Jackson, the state’s first U.S. marshal (shown above), who insisted on accompanying the President throughout the state. Jackson was a federal employee, so Washington could have told him to get back to his job—but who’s to say that the U.S. marshal’s job was not to escort a visiting President?

Washington slept that night in Weston before pressing on. He had lived in Cambridge for nine months during the siege of Boston, so he was probably interested in seeing it again. In a letter dated 21 October, Brooks had promised “a body of about 800 men, will be under arms at Cambridge on the day of your entering into Boston. The troops will occupy the ground on which the continental army was formed for your reception in the year 1775.” (Memories of that “reception” in 1775 were probably the seed of the “Washington Elm” legend in the next century.)

Here’s how Washington described the next morning in his diary:

Dressed by Seven o’clock, and set out at eight—at ten we arrived in Cambridge, according to appointment; but most of the Militia having a distance to come, were not in line till after eleven; they made however an excellent appearance, with Genl. [John] Brooks at their Head. At this place the Lieut. Govr. Mr. Saml. Adams, with the Executive Council, met me and preceeded my entrance into town—which was in every degree flattering and honorable.

President Washington was probably not happy about the hour’s wait between his arrival in Cambridge and the militia parade he hadn’t wanted in the first place. But at least those troops made “an excellent appearance.”

TOMORROW: What the President didn’t see?

Breen on the President and the Governor, 21 Jan.

On Wednesday, 21 January, Prof. T. H. Breen will speak at Cambridge Forum on “Duel Over Dinner: President Washington’s Clash with Governor Hancock Over State Sovereignty.”

In 1789 George Washington returned to Massachusetts for the first time since 1776, as part of his tour of all the states that had adopted the Constitution and elected him President of the United States. Most places welcomed Washington with pomp and ceremony. Boston organized a grand parade. Yet Washington found himself at odds with his old colleague John Hancock, oft-elected governor of Massachusetts.

Who was the higher authority, the governor of a state or the chief executive of this new federal union? Was the Presidency the highest office in the land or more like being Secretary-General of the United Nations, beholding to the body’s constituent states? What did the arrangement that Washington and Hancock worked out mean for the conflicts over states’ rights that persist till today?

This talk is based on research for Breen’s upcoming book George Washington’s Journey: The President Forges a New Nation, to be published by Simon & Schuster later this year.

T. H. Breen is the William Smith Mason Professor of American History Emeritus at Northwestern University and a James Marsh Professor at Large at the University of Vermont. He has written for the New York Times Magazine, the London Review of Books, and other publications.

Among Breen’s books, the latest are The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence and American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People, about the uprising in New England in 1774. Copies of both titles will be available at the event for purchase and signing, courtesy of Harvard Book Store.

This talk will take place at First Parish Church, located at 3 Church Street in Harvard Square, Cambridge. It will start at 7:00 P.M., and is free to all. The talk and question-and-answer session afterward will be recorded for the radio and the web, and as moderator I’ll have the job of making sure we all follow the right protocols for recording.

Breen’s talk is co-sponsored by the Cambridge Forum, Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site, the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the Friends of Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters, with support from the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati.

Walking Tour and Colonial Comics in Cambridge, 20 Dec.

On Saturday, 20 December, I’ll sign copies of Colonial Comics: New England, 1620-1750 at the Million Year Picnic comics shop in Harvard Square, along with the book’s main editor, Jason Rodriguez, and some of the other writers and artists contributing to this anthology of historical comics. The signing is from 3:00 to 5:00 P.M.

At 4:00, in conjunction with that event, I’ll lead a free walking tour of central Cambridge focusing on colonial sites for anyone who wants to come along. We’ll gather in the lower alcove of the Million Year Picnic’s building at 99 Mount Auburn Street.

The tour will include the location of the first printing press in America (subject of a story in Colonial Comics), the burying-ground that Cambridge established in 1635, and the house where Gen. George Washington first slept in town. Weather permitting, we’ll go as far afield as the Georgian mansion that Harvard keeps tucked inside one of its dorms and the mythical Washington Elm before ending up back at the Million Year Picnic.

Although Colonial Comics focuses on the first century of British settlement in America, most of the sites we’ll visit will date from the eighteenth century, and most of my stories will be about the Revolutionary period. That’s because of what survives, and what I know best. My goal is to point out some of the oldest things we see around Harvard Square every day.

And, of course, to sell books.

Selig on Rochambeau at Washington’s Headquarters, 11 Dec.

On Thursday and Friday, 4 and 5 December, Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site in Cambridge will host its annual Holiday Open House, this year in conjunction with the Friends Meetinghouse, the choir of the Latter-Day Saints Church, and other institutions in the neighborhood. I’ll be volunteering there on Thursday.

But the big news from that site is that on the following Thursday, 11 December, Dr. Robert A. Selig will speak on “‘A Journey of Instruction’: General Rochambeau Visits Washington’s Headquarters.”

Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau (shown here), was the French commander who brought troops to the young United States in 1780. On 13 December, he wrote to Gen. George Washington from Boston, “I came here, to make a journey of instruction, and to admire the brilliant Campaign which your Excellency made.” Later Washington and Rochambeau led the bulk of their troops south to Yorktown, winning that decisive siege. Their route through nine states was recently designated the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Historic Trail.

Robert A. Selig holds a Ph.D. in History from the Universitaet Wuerzburg (Germany) and serves as Project Historian to the National Park Service in connection to the Washington-Rochambeau trail. His talk will focus on Rochambeau’s activity in Massachusetts.

This event is cosponsored by the Massachusetts Lafayette Society and the Friends of Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters. It’s free and open to the public, but to reserve a seat call the site at 617-876-4491. The talk is scheduled to start at 6:30 P.M. in the carriage house at the rear of 105 Brattle Street; at that time some parking spaces along Brattle Street to the west become legal for all.

(Longfellow–Washington was also the site of a memorable dinner for French naval officers in 1781.)

“Washington Elm” Exhibit in Cambridge

On Thursday, 13 November, the Cambridge Historical Society hosts an opening reception for its special exhibit on “The Washington Elm,” featuring the photography of Bruce Myren (one example shown here).

That elm, as I’ve discussed, was associated in the late 1800s with a moment on 3 July 1775 when Gen. George Washington was said to have taken command of the Continental Army, often pictured as drawn up in ranks for his review.

In reality, Washignton probably took command indoors on 2 July 1775 when he met Gen. Artemas Ward, and he and Gen. Charles Lee inspected the troops in their various positions around Boston over the next several days.

But the tree became a national symbol. This exhibit explores the artifacts it gave rise to:

historic representations of the Elm, pieces of the tree, collectibles made from the Elm’s wood, and Myren’s large-format pictures of scions, cuttings grown to create clones of the original tree. . . . Images of the Elm appeared on teacups, on stationery, and in paintings, while scions were planted by the hundreds across the country.

When the tree fell in 1923, it was cut into pieces, with cross sections going to the capitals of the forty-eight states, the White House, and the Capitol, and blocks going to prominent citizens across the country.

Myren quotes the English philosopher Bernard Williams when describing the show: “A myth is a fanciful picture of the past designed to justify certain activities in the present.”

The reception is from 6:00 to 8:00 P.M. on 13 November at the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House on Brattle Street. The exhibit will also be open for viewing on Saturday, 22 November, from 11:00 A.M. to 3:00 P.M. The society will announce additional hours on its website.

“Letters from Washington” in Cambridge in November

This month Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site in Cambridge will host a new series of discussions on George Washington, open to anyone.

Each Thursday at 6:00 P.M. the site’s Revolutionary War specialist, ranger Garrett Cloer, will lead chats about letters that Washington wrote on different topics:

  • November 6: Native Americans
  • November 13: Nationhood
  • November 20: Slavery

The selections will come from Washington’s military and political careers and periods of retirement. Copies will be provided at the start of each evening. The goal will be to explore how Washington viewed these issues and how his thinking might have changed over time.

These gatherings will take place in the Longfellow carriage house behind the mansion that Washington used in 1775-76 (and where the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his family later lived). Parking in Cambridge is notoriously difficult, but some areas along Brattle Street become free at 6:00. For more information about the discussion series, call the site at 617-876-4491.

Letters from Gen. Phillips to Gen. Heath Up for Bid

After my mention of the Convention Army yesterday, Boston 1775 reader Christopher Hurley alerted me to the auction on 1 November in Marlborough of six letters related to those prisoners of war.

The Skinner auction house describes the lot as:

Six Letters…dated April through October 1778, from Major General William Phillips to Major General William Heath written from Cambridge, Massachusetts, relating to conditions, clothing, and monetary needs for the Convention Army surrendered after the battle of Saratoga.

Unfortunately, the auction house’s online description doesn’t give the dates for those letters or offer other details on their contents.

Gen. Phillips (1731-1781) became the highest-ranking officer in the Convention Army after Gen. John Burgoyne was paroled and sailed for home. (To confuse matters a little, there was a prominent Boston merchant and politician with the name William Phillips, whom I also mentioned last week.)

Meanwhile, Gen. William Heath (shown above) had been named American military commander of the region. He thus had responsibility for finding housing and supplies for all those prisoners, treating them humanely but also making sure they didn’t disrupt local life too badly. The low point came when a young American sentry shot and killed a British officer for venturing too far from camp.

As a result, Phillips and Heath exchanged a lot of letters in 1778. Each man probably kept a copy of his own letters, at least the most important ones, so there were two parallel collections. And neither appears to have survived intact.

The Massachusetts Historical Society became the guardian of the William Heath Papers in 1859. However, when the society published a third volume of transcriptions in 1905, its editor stated:

In spite of the enormous mass of papers preserved by General Heath it is certain that many documents, some of them of considerable importance, had disappeared before the collection came into the possession of Mr. [Amos A.] Lawrence [around 1838], as stated in the preface to the second part of the Heath Papers.

A striking illustration of this occurs in connection with the controversy, in 1778, between General Heath and General Phillips of the Convention troops. In General Heath’s Memoirs and in our previous volume are numerous letters bearing on the subject, and it was supposed by the Committee that in one or the other place would be found everything of interest or importance relating to it; but in the “Report on American Manuscripts in the Royal Institution of Great Britain,” issued in London at about the same time as our volume [in 1904], are a number of letters printed or calendared from copies sent over to England, of which neither originals nor copies now exist in the Heath Papers. They contain no new facts, but they should not be overlooked in any thorough study of the episode of the Convention troops; and it is not easy to see how they could have been lost, except through carelessness after the death of General Heath.

The Boston Public Library has one letter from Heath to Phillips dated 7 April, apparently Heath’s draft. The Gilder-Lehrman Collection has two more, dated 9 June and 1 August.

Three letters from Phillips to Heath, dated 23 April, 14 May, and 16 July, are part of the Lloyd W. Smith Collection at Morristown National Historical Park, according to Robert P. Davis’s 1999 biography of Phillips.

Which means multiple institutions might like to add this batch of correspondence to their collections.