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The Washington Elm Tradition
THE WASHINGTON ELM TRADITION
BY SAMUEL F. BATCHELDER
Read 27 October, 1925
The famous Washington Elm, standing in the middle of Garden Street at its junction with Mason Street, was the first of a line of six magnificent elms planted along Garden Street, the westerly border of the "Cow Commons," about 1700. The second stood at the corner of the present Waterhouse Street, and was early noted as the "Whitefield Elm," from the fact that the great revivalist preached some of his soul-shaking sermons beneath its shade in 1740. It obstructed the way and was cut down in 1871.1 The third stood at the corner of the present Concord Avenue, and the fourth opposite the present Walker Street. The fifth, just inside the fence between the present Houghton and Parsons estates, was long known as the "Stone Elm," from Gregory Stone, the early owner of the property; its maimed stump has survived all its fellows. The sixth stood opposite the present Linnaean Street, on which the line, turning at right angles, seems to have continued along the northern border of the "Commons," as indicated by several other massive trunks.
For many years the Washington Elm had been slowly dying, deprived of almost all moisture by the water-tight paving of the street around it and by the lowering of the subterranean "water table" through the construction of sewers, etc., which also cut seriously into its roots. As early as 1874, S. A. Drake alludes to "its crippled branches swathed in bandages; its scars where, after holding aloft for a century their outstretched arms, limb after limb has fallen nerveless and decayed."2 Like an ancient martyr, the more it suffered the more famous it became. Desperate if somewhat unintelligent efforts were made to preserve it by the city authorities. More and more dead branches
1 1855, the date given on page 48 of The Cambridge of 1896, seems to be an error — perhaps refers to some other tree in the line.
2 Historic Fields and Mansions of Middlesex, 267.
were cut off, the wounds smeared with tar, the hollows filled with cement, the remaining limbs braced with iron bands and rods, until it became a truly pitiable object.
Finally, on October 26, 1923, the whole wretched ruin was accidently pulled over by workmen trying to remove another dead branch, and crashed against the iron railing surrounding it. Examination showed that the trunk was hopelessly rotted below the ground, a mere mass of punk: the wonder was that it had stood so long. Experts from the Bussey Institution counted two hundred and two annual rings in a section of its trunk; so that allowing for the last few years when growth had evidently ceased entirely it must have been at least two hundred and ten years old.
The remains of the famous relic were rescued with some difficulty from a horde of souvenir hunters and taken in charge by the city government. It was determined to make of them "an object lesson in patriotism for the whole country." To this end they were sawn into numerous fragments. A large piece of the main trunk was sent to the governor of each of the forty-eight states, and the section from which the rings were counted was polished and presented to the museum at Mt. Vernon. From the smaller branches were made a quantity of gavels, two of which were presented to the legislative bodies of each state and many to fraternal organizations, etc. One hundred and fifty small blocks of the wood were given to local applicants, thirty-two to various counties, and two hundred and fifty were sent out over the country. In all about one thousand pieces were distributed, each suitably labeled with a metal plaque.
The granite tablet that had stood at the foot of the elm bore the inscription — said to be from the pen of Henry W. Longfellow:
UNDER THIS TREE
FIRST TOOK COMMAND
JULY 3D, 1775
THE WASHINGTON ELM
TOOK COMMAND OF
THE AMERICAN ARMY
JULY 3 1775
On July 3, 1925, a grand civic celebration preceded by a long parade was held on the Common close by the site of the Elm to commemorate the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the above momentous event. The exercises included a speech by the President of the United States,1 and a "pageant" representing the original ceremony as popularly understood.
After all these tokens of veneration, extending over so many years, it may be presumptuous — even profane — to question the tradition on which they have been based; yet if we lay aside the trusting spirit in which we have always accepted it, and consider it in the light of common sense and everyday experience, it appears so odd and unlikely that we are tempted to ask: Is it true?
It is only the restless iconoclasts, to be sure, that dare to propound such a question. Most of us have no wish to examine the tradition critically. Mental inertia (as in so many other cases) is primarily to blame. Every old Cantabrigian has been brought up on the story, and that is enough. The more often it is repeated the more firmly it is believed. To upset it would be as painful a shock to our historic equilibrium as to declare the truth that the Declaration of Independence was not signed on the Fourth of July. Besides, the fame of the Elm has spread over the whole country, so that it formed the best "sure-fire" attraction in town for every visitor. To discredit it would in a
1 It was remarked that the President in his address made no reference to the Elm.
But when we find, for instance, that such a painstaking and judicious local historian as Paige, who had unrivalled opportunities for collecting and sifting evidence, and the greatest regard for all authentic relics of the past, makes no reference to the Elm in his account of Washington's arrival in Cambridge,1 we are justified at least in assuming an attitude of open-mindedness, and in making some investigation of the subject along simple and obvious lines.
First of all, then, what do the upholders of the tradition claim?
Nothing at all, as I understand, concerning Washington's arrival in Cambridge on Sunday, July 2 — but everything concerning his "taking command" on Monday, July 3, 1775. This simplifies matters at once; for the events of those two days were very different, and must be kept sharply separated in all that follows.
The text, so to speak, of the traditionists, seems to be taken from the letter which John Adams had written a fortnight before from Philadelphia: "I hope the utmost politeness will be shown to these officers [Washington and Lee] on their arrival. The whole army, I think, should be drawn up upon the occasion, and all the pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war displayed; — no powder burned, however."
This passage is not only sufficiently blatant in itself, but (since the writer of course knew the utter impossibility of pomp and circumstance in the American forces) it is positively silly. Nevertheless the traditionists have seized upon his sentiments and, ignoring the fact that he referred to the reception of both the generals, have applied them to a perfectly distinct function
1 History of Cambridge (1877), 421.
A typical account of the fully developed vision is in the "Diary of Dorothy Dudley," under date of July 3, 1775:
"Today he [Washington] formally took command under one of the grand old elms on the Common. It was a magnificent sight. The majestic figure of the General mounted upon his horse, beneath the wide-spreading branches of the patriarch tree; the multitude thronging the plain around, and the houses filled with interested spectators of the scene, while the air rung with shouts of enthusiastic welcome as he drew his sword and thus [sic] declared himself the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army."
Let us simply remark in passing that John Adams' letter was not a statement of fact but merely the expression of a wish — not in the past tense but in the future. And very curiously we shall find as we proceed that every other contemporary reference to the great event was also in the future tense. As for Dorothy Dudley's diary, almost everyone knows by this time that it is a literary forgery — and not a very clever forgery at that — written for the centennial anniversary volume entitled The Cambridge of 1776. Its whole phraseology is obviously modern, and it is full of small inaccuracies. In this passage, for example, the only house near by was the Moore house, built about 1750, where the Shepard Church now stands: as Cambridge had been virtually deserted by its inhabitants there could have been no thronging multitude of spectators: and the army was not then the Continental Army but the Army of the United Colonies. All the same, the passage is worth repeating to show the traditionists' state of mind. It is just the sort of thing which our school children have been fed up with for generations. And on the scene which it describes, the traditionists are ready to stake "their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor."1
1 The incident is pictured in substantially similar terms by sundry "popular" historians, from Washington Irving (who seems to have started the whole thing) to Henry Cabot Lodge. These gentlemen allow their enthusiasm for the main event — the first entry of Washington upon the military scene which he was to dominate for so many eventful years — to run away with their fidelity to detail.
Moreover, to clinch the effect of the printed word, the most outrageous pictures have been published in the history books, especially the school histories issued during the middle of the last century. In these pictures the artists have allowed their "historical imagination" to run amuck. Prancing steeds, dipping colors, dear little drummer boys, long rows of troops aligned to a hair's breadth, gorgeously uniformed, and presenting glittering arms with fixed bayonets, thrill every youthful heart, while smack in the middle of the front rank stands the Elm, with just room for Washington, nourishing his sword, to ride between it and his immaculate warriors.1 What child after devouring such a scene could doubt the tradition for the rest of his life?
Before we proceed, let us emphasize that it is agreed on all hands we are dealing with a tradition. Now the value of a tradition varies inversely with the civilization of the community in which it is found. Among savage tribes, where traditions are handed down from father to son with solemn ritual, they are as authentic as written records. But the invention of printing may be said to have killed the reliability of tradition. As we all know, any sort of statement now has only to be made in type to be believed. Have we not "seen it in the papers"? This bit of psychology is the basis of all modern advertising.
A modern tradition is thus at the mercy of every unscrupulous meddler who can rub one idea against another. As Carlyle says in his Essays on History, "Our Letter of Instructions conies to us in the saddest state; falsified, blotted out, torn, lost, and but a shred of it in existence." In a modern community a tradition grows like Jack's Beanstalk, and sends out the most amaz-
All are carefully discussed (and discredited) by Charles Martyn on page 153 of his recent scholarly and minute Life of Artemas Ward. This writer devotes more space and critical study to the events of early July, 1775, than any other whom I have found.
1 Perhaps the most amazing of these pictures was published as the "front page feature" of Ballou's Pictorial for July 7, 1855. It is credited to "Mr. Warren, the artist." Washington, mounted apparently on a Shetland pony, is backed up tight against the Elm, and gazes calmly off into space, surrounded by an indescribable confusion of staff officers, orderlies, infantry in heavy marching order, cavalry, cannon, and enthusiastic ladies standing up in barouches to point out the hero to their children.
When we admit, then, that we are discussing a tradition, and a tradition of modern times in a highly civilized community, it is tantamount to saying that we are leaning upon a very feeble reed. A tradition, for instance, connected with the founding of Harvard College would be entitled to much more weight, because arising much earlier and in a much more primitive society. But at the risk of breaking a butterfly on the wheel, let us try to trace this tradition as far back as we can.
The first appearance in black and white that its champions claim for it seems to be a short article by John Langdon Sibley in his American Magazine of Useful Knowledge for 1837. The crucial passage is this:
"Whitfield stood in its shade and moved a vast multitude by his eloquence.... The Revolutionary soldiers, who stood shoulder to shoulder,— blessings be on their heads,— tell us that when Washington arrived at Cambridge, he drew his sword as commander-in-chief of the American army, for the first time, beneath its boughs, and resolved within himself that it should never be sheathed till the liberties of his country were established. Glorious old tree, that hast stood in sight of the smoke of Lexington and Bunker's Hill battles, and weathered the storms of many generations,— worthy of reverence."
Enthusiasm rather than accuracy marks this passage. The author is flatly in error as to the Whitefield Elm, draws the long bow as to the battle smoke, and does not explain how the Revolutionary soldiers could divine what Washington resolved within himself! Such accessories appreciably weaken the main statement. The article is chiefly interesting as containing the first known picture of the Elm, with a signboard nailed to its trunk for the direction of travellers.
1 Cf. S. A. Drake, Historic Fields and Mansions of Middlesex (1874), 268.
In 1844 another picture of the Elm was made — a pencil sketch by Miss Quincy, daughter of the president of Harvard. According to a memorandum in the corner of this sketch, in 1830, or fourteen years earlier, "an old resident" remembered that Washington "stood" (not rode) at "about the place" when he took command. Like Sibley, she gives no names or
Earliest Known Picture of the Washington Elm, 1837direct statements — all is vague and at second hand. This seems to indicate that the tradition was then, so to speak, still in its fluid or formative state. But old residents will remember anything. The older they are the more they will remember. We all know the story of the convivial octogenarian who before dinner could remember George Washington, and after dinner could remember Christopher Columbus.
Anyhow, it was evidently in the 1830's that the tradition began to appear in recorded form. In all that long interval from 1775 there had been innumerable Fourth of July orations, political sermons, and other patriotic harangues, many of them
In 1851, Benson J. Lossing, after a visit to Cambridge, printed the story (with another sketch, showing the Moore house also) in his Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution. Here the embellishments begin. Washington "walked" — he was then still on foot — from his quarters to the tree, "stepped a few paces in front, made some remarks, drew his sword, and formally took command of the Continental Army." This is quite mild and unassuming — almost tentative. But unfortunately Lossing locates the Elm "on Washington Street"1 and "at the north end of the Common"; and also locates Washington as then in the Vassall-Longfellow house, "in which mansion, and at Winter Hill, he passed most of his time." Further, in his Seventeen Seventy-Six, published in 1847 without the tradition (i.e. before he had seen Miss Quincy?), Lossing makes Washington arrive in Cambridge on July 12. Thinking that such a frame for the picture was rather shaky, the late Horace E. Scudder, in the interests of local antiquaries, wrote to Lossing to ask where he got his authority for the story. But no satisfactory answer was ever received.2
In 1864 the thing became an accepted part of history by a very simple device. The City of Cambridge, during the height of the Civil War "patriotism," did a good bit of propaganda by erecting the granite tablet "to commemorate," as the vote of the Aldermen vaguely read, "the Revolutionary event and date that rendered said Tree historical." Of course after such an indorsement from such an authority, no "100 per cent American" could do otherwise than accept the "fact."
It was not till this period, by the way, that the Elm attracted sufficient notice to be marked on the maps of Cambridge as one
1 A retraction is necessary here. I find this portion of the way was known as Washington Street till 1848. It is a curious illustration of the early indifference to (or doubt of) the tradition that the title was then deliberately dropped, and the name Garden Street extended to the whole length of the thoroughfare. The public interest of those days was plainly much greater in the Botanic Garden than in the Elm — a condition long since reversed!
2 For the above data I am mainly indebted to Professor Albert Bushnell Hart.
Thus snowball-like grew the tradition, from vague and feeble beginnings ever gaining, as it rolled along, in weight and importance, till it represented the greatest Revolutionary event in town. Nevertheless, almost apocryphal as it seems in its present form, we must not forget one point in its favor. A tradition may grow and flower surprisingly; but it doesn't grow like a kind of historical orchid. It must have its root in something definite. Very few traditions associated with a given location spring from nothing at all. If I point out to my little boy the crack in the parlor floor where I once lost a quarter, my descendants will doubtless in time show each other the very room where great-grandfather was declared a bankrupt — but it will be the same parlor.
Now it is a notable example of the survival of our ancestral "tree worship" to consider what a number of famous trees there are (or were) in Cambridge. There was the "Whitefield Elm" already noted. There was the "Election Oak" across the Common, on the spot now marked by another tablet. There was the "Spreading Chestnut Tree" beside which stood the "village smithy," at the corner of Brattle and Story Streets. There were the "Rebellion Tree" and the "Class Tree" in the College Yard. There were the "Palisade Willows" on Mount Auburn Street, made famous by Lowell's poem. We confidently challenge any other community to exhibit such an historical and poetical arboretum.
Yet none of these trees have ever been associated with the name of Washington. He has a tree all to himself. We will allow the "unpatriotic" and the "un-American" and other evil-minded persons to insinuate that as this particular tree was not already "tagged" it was conveniently open to be assigned to the Father of His Country. Let such cavillers go. We are quite ready to admit that from the considerations above set forth Washington probably did do something, active or passive, beneath his Elm. The only question is — what?
In trying to answer the question we may first apply the "process of exclusion," and consider (even, it is to be feared, at tedious length) what he almost certainly did not do. Let us begin with the "antecedent probabilities." What was natural and likely under the circumstances? What were the known conditions under which Washington "took command"? And what logically follows from them?
We may first discuss the topography. The road from Watertown (the most ancient travelled way in town) came down by what is now Brattle Street, passing the scattered country seats of the rich Tories, and turned into the present Mason Street. Its lower end debouched upon the Common, then a perfectly open plain. Around the edge of the Common were several dwellings, the schoolhouse, the Episcopal church, the graveyard, and the buildings of Harvard College. At this point, therefore, the real village might be said to begin; and here stood a big elm, either at the side of the road or just within the dooryard of the Moore house already mentioned.
Now important military ceremonies do not normally take place under roadside trees, especially with an excellent parade ground only a few yards away. (If the Elm had stood in the center of the Common instead of cramped against the edge and almost in one corner, the probabilities would be much more in its favor.) And in such an important affair as taking command of an army, the leading figure of all would not naturally "take cover" whether under a tree or any other shelter. The ceremony (if any) emphatically calls for him to seek an open space. Or are we to assume that the immortal George, like the immortal Robin Hood, sate himself down 'neath greenwood tree and called on his merry men to gather round his leafy retreat? No manual of tactics covers such an emergency. Perhaps an exhibition drill by the Shriners — but why pursue the inquiry?
The supposition, by the way, that Washington "sheltered himself from the heat beneath its branches" is too ridiculous to be taken seriously. Would a man in the prime of vigor, inured to all weathers, act like a schoolgirl preserving her complexion? Would a commander on his first appearance before his men give
Secondly, what inferences can be drawn from the date? It was only a fortnight after Bunker Hill. Everybody expected — and expected very naturally — that the British would follow up their victory by another attack. This second attack did in fact very nearly come off — though the historians have generally failed to notice the circumstance. A letter from Cambridge (to which we shall have occasion to refer again) dated Monday, July 3, states:
"When the Generals were within twenty miles of the camp, they received an express that the Parliamentary troops had, on Saturday morning, about 6 o'clock, begun a very heavy cannonading on the town of Roxbury, which continued better than two hours, without intermission, tho' with little or no loss on the side of the Provincials, and that they expected a general attack on Sunday, about two o'clock, at the time of high water; that we had confirmed, and this I believe was prevented by a heavy ram, which began at half-past twelve, and continued till late at night."1
Even on the very day of the alleged "taking command" Glover's regiment (stationed just behind Harvard College) was ordered to be ready to march at a minute's warning, to support General Folsom "in case his line should be attacked."
Pretty plainly, then, the camp during those days was in a state of considerable trepidation. The paramount need was to strengthen the defences, and the army was strung out all the way from Maiden to Roxbury, digging like beavers. In Cambridge village there were not more than three or four regiments, and even these were heavily depleted by drafts for the entrenching parties. To have assembled the army, or even a respectable portion of it, for a grand parade on Cambridge Common at that time would have been a risky business — rather like calling off the ditchers at a forest fire to attend a political rally. And thus to assemble them, to bully or coax
1 Pennsylvania Gazette, July 12, 1775.
In the third place, what can we learn from those same sturdy farmers? There probably never was an army — except perhaps the late lamented Boers -— so little fitted by inclination or by training for "fuss and feathers." The men, officers and all, could shovel and shoot. At that point their military notions stopped. Their drill was a farce. Timothy Pickering asserted that not one officer out of five knew even the commands for the simplest evolutions, much less how to execute them. Most of the camps, according to William Gordon, were in a condition of most unmilitary nastiness. Nobody cared a fig for uniforms. Washington had to order the officers to wear colored ribbons, at least, so as to be distinguished in any way from the privates. Even in the matter of an official flag there was so little interest that the whole thing was left in abeyance until the war was almost half done. Esprit de corps was entirely lacking. The troops of each colony were under control of their own commanders only, and frequently not on good terms with their neighbors. Up to that time, there is record of only one occasion on which the bulk of the army had been assembled for concerted manoeuvres — a practice march to Charlestown and back on May 13 — a feat which seems to have astonished everybody concerned, including the enemy. On one point indeed the army seems to have been well supplied. There was, if countless family traditions are to be believed, a superabundance of drummer boys. But as in the Civil War, this merely allowed the youngsters to enlist and see the fun, and probably gave a painfully uncertain quality of field music.
How are we going to construct a soul-stirring military function out of elements like these? Where do the illustrators get the material for their elaborate uniforms, glittering arms, and serried ranks of the army beneath the Elm? Is it probable that
And fourthly, how about Washington himself? It is well known that he was extremely unassuming and modest — so modest that when he was nominated for the high command by the Continental Congress he immediately left the hall. We may be sure that any pompous ceremony would not have been at his own seeking. Moreover, none realized better that he was in a very delicate position. As Charles Martyn points out, he was not yet the popular idol that he later became.1 He was merely a distinguished stranger, coming with nobody knew what theories of his own, to oust the New England commander of a New England army, a well-known and trusted veteran, who had just received the highest mark of confidence from the other colonies. For, after Ward's handling of the affair at Bunker Hill, both Connecticut and Rhode Island had voted to put their forces also under his unreserved control. And thus not only in fact, but in title, he had become "Commander-in-Chief of the Allied American Army."2 Washington was therefore the second and not the first commander-in-chief — a point not generally appreciated. At all events, it was certainly natural for him to walk softly and sing small at first — not to flourish his sword and prance up and down the camp.
Further, George Washington was accompanied by Charles Lee. Now Lee was immensely popular, an old campaigner, a bluff hail-fellow with everyone, and enjoyed a military reputation which very nearly got him the nomination instead of Washington himself. He thus filled the popular eye quite as much as the new commander. Every "address of welcome" that Washington received on his way to Cambridge was accompanied by another to Lee. When they arrived at the camp their names were universally coupled. Most contemporary accounts speak of "the Generals" as doing this or that. Lee, being intensely jealous of his chief, took good care to stick to
1 Life of Artemas Ward, 151, n.
2 See Rhode Island Records, vii, 355.
The diplomatic situation, in fact, may roughly be compared to a dignified and rather inscrutable Texan, closely accompanied by Theodore Roosevelt, relieving General Edwards in the middle of his campaign with the 26th Division in France. Under such circumstances it seems likely that Washington would have considered it the part of prudence to get into the saddle as quietly and unostentatiously as possible.
For every reason, then — personal, practical, political, and diplomatical — it is not probable that Washington "took command" in any such flamboyant style as old Cantabrigians so fondly assert.
Yes, say the traditionists, all this is very pretty, but it is mere theory. Very well, let us leave the realm of antecedent probability and proceed to the records.
Fortunately we have plenty of records — legislative, military and civil — by press and public, by men and women. What can we fairly infer from them?
It is appropriate to start with those of the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts, the ultimate authority in the military as well as the civil affairs of the province. Apparently a good deal worried by John Adams' letter and similar suggestions, they held a number of anxious debates on the subject of Washington's reception. A committee was appointed, their report was tabled, taken up again, amended, and finally, on June 26, a formal resolve was passed. The house of the president of Harvard College (Wadsworth House), as the most dignified in town, was, except one room reserved for the owner, to be "taken, cleansed, prepared and furnished for the reception of General Washington and General Lee." General Ward was to be officially notified of the "expected early arrival" of these dignitaries, so that he "may give such orders for their honorable reception as may accord with the rules and circumstances of the army, and the respect due to their rank, without, however, any expense of powder, and without taking the troops off from the necessary attention to their duty at this crisis of our affairs."
Pretty discouraging, this! The "booming of cannon" and the "joyful salvos of musketry," which the "popular" historians delight to describe, were taboo right away. Any general assemblage of troops was forbidden, too.
Let us see how Ward interpreted the "respect due to their rank," under "the circumstances of the army." Here it is in his general orders for Saturday, July 1 — his only reference to the subject: "That the drummers in this encampment [i.e., Cambridge] attend upon Mr. John Bassett, drum major, at 7 o'clock tomorrow morning, and receive orders from him." No reference to a parade or the concentration of any troops. And the orders for July 2, Ward's last day of command, are equally negative. They are concerned solely with the much neglected subject of sanitation — sick inspection and cleaning up the camp.1 Apparently Ward, like a sensible man, was much more anxious to present Washington with a healthy and tidy army than with a complimentary review. The utmost that he seems to have contemplated was to have the new generals "drummed into town," or perhaps to have additional field music for the first day's guard mounting.
We may here add that those drummers duly reported to Mr. Bassett on Sunday morning and received their "orders." Which orders were evidently (on account of the weather) to come again on Monday and bring the fifers too. For the enthusiastic Joseph Hodgkins, lieutenant in Wade's company of Ipswich, wrote to his better half: "Cambridge, July 3, 1775. Monday morning about 8 o'clock. I now set down to write a line to you... Geaneral Washington and Lees got into Cambridge yesterday, and to Day they are to take Vew of ye Armey, & that will be attended with a grate Deal of grandor. There is at this tune one & twenty Drummers & as many feffers a Beting and Playing Round the Prayde."2
Note Mr. Hodgkins' future tense again. If he was prepared to be so thrilled with a "grate Deal of grandor" is it conceivable that he would have utterly failed to mention it had it materialized? Note also that taking a view is very different
1 See Mass. Historical Society Proceedings, xv, 113.
2 Ipswich Antiquarian Papers, ii, no. xx. Even larger "massed bands" are recorded. Thus at Roxbury, Elihu Clark noted on June 9, 1775, "I see 36 Drum 27 fifers all playing [at] once." MS. Journal, Library of Congress.
Such were the official preliminaries. Not much ammunition for traditionists here. Let us turn to the newspaper account of the actual arrival. Now it so happened that the brothers Hall, proprietors of that estimable weekly, the Essex Gazette and New England Chronicle of Salem, had foreseen a good deal of job printing would be needed at Cambridge, and had moved their office, by permission, into one of the rooms in Stoughton Hall — thus continuing the printing tradition that had been one of Harvard's first ventures. From their window, therefore, they could look out on the Common and see everything that passed. This was their account, appearing in the issue of the following Thursday.
"Cambridge, July 6. Last Sabbath came to town from Philadelphia His Excellency George Washington Esquire, appointed by the Continental Congress General and Commander-in-Chief of the American Forces, and was received with every testimony of respect due to a gentleman of his real worth and elevated dignity. His Excellency was accompanied by the Hon. Charles Lee, Esquire, and a number of other gentlemen."
The most striking thing about this news item is its amazingly non-military language. Had Washington been a well-known scientist or a famous philosopher, and Lee a learned judge, the phraseology could not have been more civilian in tone. In fact, it almost suggests that the editors were trying to make the best of a very poor business. While as for the pomp and display, if any, on the Monday, the reporter evidently couldn't make "copy" of it at all; for he says nothing whatever about it. This again is pretty fair negative evidence.
Civilian records made on the spot are scarce, since (as already stated) most of the non-combatants had left town. Mrs. Adams, however, wrote to her husband a few days later:
"The appointment of the Generals, Washington and Lee, gives universal satisfaction.... I was struck with General Washington. You had prepared me to entertain a favorable
Surely a lady of such appreciative and emotional temperament would have been the first to chronicle any soul-stirring ceremony such as the traditionists claim. But unfortunately she doesn't; and there seems only one inference to draw from her silence.
The letter from Cambridge dated July 3, already quoted, after describing the rain goes on to say, "The Generals have spent this whole day in reviewing the troops, lines, fortifications, etc. They find the troops to be 15,000 strong, and the works to be in as good order as could be expected." Here we have the facts in a nutshell. Washington's "whole day" is accounted for, in precisely the way any sensible man would expect, at the very time when the traditionists solemnly place him beneath the Elm, waving his sword and haranguing his assembled forces. But as all the fortifications and nearly all the troops were miles away from the Common, this entry gets him farther off from the Elm than ever. The word "review" here is applied to earthworks as well as troops, and hence must mean "inspect" — or "visit" as Washington himself, and various other chroniclers, say. It cannot mean "take command," because it is distinctly applied to both Washington and Lee.
Out in Stoughton, Ezekiel Price was keeping a diary. He was in close touch with what was going on in Cambridge, and recorded all items of news that were interesting enough to filter out of the camp. In fact, he may be considered as reproducing faithfully the general talk of the day. His entries are as follows:
"Monday, July 3. The plentiful rains that fell yesterday made it exceeding pleasant this morning. Toward noon, very warm. In the afternoon, assisted in raking hay. Reports of the day — that General Washington had got to Cambridge with General Lee and others."
There is no entry for July 4.
"Wednesday, July 5. Heard ... that General Washington
We may add that the civilian chronicler, William Gordon, who was on the spot and very thick with Washington, recording his movements in detail, makes no mention of any ceremony of "taking command" in his account of Washington's arrival at Cambridge.2
Our liveliest and most suggestive records are the camp diaries, kept by many of the soldiers themselves. These are surprisingly numerous — and surprisingly silent on the great event. In fact, many of them enter specifically on July 3 — "Nothing of importance this day," — "Nothing remarkable," — and the like. One of the best for our inquiry is that of Noah Chapin, Jr., of Somers, Conn., ensign in Willes's company of Spencer's regiment, stationed at Roxbury. Noah was a poor speller but a conscientious recorder. Moreover, he was a hero worshipper, and took a sort of fascinated interest in the doings of the new generals. This is what he wrote:
"1775. July 2 this Day about 11 o'c Genrel Washington & Genrel Lee with several other Gentlemen arrived at Cambridge and in the afternoon they Road out to the line of forts at Prospect Hill in Charlestown.
"3. this day the Gener from Cambrid Came to Brookline fort.
"4. this Day near 2000 Roxbury Troops musterd toward Cambrid to waight on the new Generals But was Rejected By the General Who said they did not want to have time spent in waiting on them.3
"5. this Day the Generals from Cambridge Came to Roxbury in the fore noon and viewed the Lines and forts and about Noon Returned Back."4
Here let the traditionists answer one question: If the soldiers
1 Mass. Historical Society Proceedings, vii, 185.
2 See his History of the American Revolution (1788), ii, 63.
3 Compare Clark's entry for this date, at Roxbury: "the rodeislanders went over to Cambridge to wait on General Washington." (MS. Journal, Library of Congress.) This must be the same occasion noted by General Greene, in command of the Rhode Island regiments at Jamaica Plain, who on July 4 "sent a detachment of 200 ... to welcome his Excellency to camp," and considered that they "met with a very gracious reception."
4 Manuscript at State Library, Hartford, Conn.
Paul Lunt of Newburyport, first lieutenant in Era Lunt's company of Little's regiment, was stationed at Prospect Hill. On July 3 he noted: "Turned out early in the morning, got into readiness to be reviewed by the General."1
It will be observed that this entry, as well as Chapin's, exactly bears out the letter of July 3 quoted above. It evidently means that Washington inspected the troops at Prospect Hill on Monday just as he inspected those at Brookline. Such a wide "swing around the circle" certainly leaves little time for the far-famed function on the Common. Indeed, all the positive documentary evidence that we can collect leads away from the Elm rather than towards it; while the negative evidence of course omits all reference to it in a manner almost equally significant.
James Stevens, an Andover carpenter, in Poor's company of Frye's regiment, stationed right hi Cambridge, has perhaps the most illuminating notes of all:
"Saturday July the 1 ... we preaded to receive the new jeneral Washington but he did not com.
"Sunday ye 2 this morning we preaded to receive the new jeneral it rained & we was dismesd the jeneral com in about nune there was no meting in the afternune. [Evidently on account of the weather.]
"Munday ye 3 nothing happeng extr orderly we preaded three tunes I went up on the nil."2
Stout old William Heath was in command of the whole Roxbury division of the army. As a high ranking officer he would be greatly interested in all the doings of his new superior. Yet after duly recording in his diary the arrival of Washington on the 2d, he makes no further entry at all until the 5th, when he mentions, like Chapin, the visit to Roxbury.3
Thus, in climbing the ladder of rank, we come finally to Washington himself, the main figure of the tradition. Now or
1 Mass. Historical Society Proceedings, vii, 192.
2 Essex Institute Collections, xlviii, 49.
3 See his Memoirs (N. Y. 1901). Original MS. at Mass. Historical Society.
"Camp at Cambridge, July 10, 1775. Sir: I arrived safe at this place . . . after a journey attended with a good deal of fatigue, and retarded by necessary attentions to the successive civilities which accompanied me on my whole route. Upon my arrival I immediately visited the several posts occupied by our troops; and as soon as the weather permitted reconnoitered those of the enemy. I found the latter strongly entrenched on Bunker's Hill, about a mile from Charlestown, and advanced about half a mile from the place of the late action," etc.
This is perhaps the unkindest cut of all. Washington is ready enough to mention other "civilities." Why not the greatest, crowning civility of the whole series — if it occurred? No. If there was a tithe of the sword drawing and curvetting, the drumming and fifing, the parading and saluting that Cambridge loves to dwell upon — under the Elm or anywhere else — it must have been recorded in some of the numerous sources we have examined.
How much interest, by the way, did Washington take in his Elm in after years? Sidney Willard, in his Memories of Youth and Manhood, describing Washington's visit to Cambridge in 1789, says: "Then nine years of age, I distinctly remember sitting on the fence before the old house which still  remains at the corner near the tree, and seeing the majestic warrior, mounted on a fitting steed, 'with all his trim belonging,' pass by," Here he ends. Was the tree decorated for the occasion? Did Washington stop and point it out to his escort as the scene of one of the greatest events of his life? Did he, in the regulation style, annex a souvenir of the occasion? Apparently not. He only "passed by." Priest and Levite in the parable were not more unfeeling to the wayfarer than Washington to the youthful traditionist perched on the fence.
Why then, we ask, this astounding universal omission to record by so many diverse, eager, vigilant recorders? Why this "conspiracy of silence" by all concerned? Plainly the traditionists must explain this away in some reasonable manner or shut up shop.
But though nobody on the spot seems to have been sufficiently impressed by the ceremony (if any) of "taking command" to set down the slightest reference to it when it was fresh in memory, there were at least two eyewitnesses whose accounts were recorded — at second hand — long afterwards. One of these was Andrew Leavitt of Amherst, N. H., a soldier in Crosby's company of Reed's regiment, probably stationed at Medford. About 1840, in extreme old age, he is said to have given Mr. Daniel F. Secomb the following description of the scene:
"The officers placed their men in as good shape as they could, but they were a motley looking set, no two dressed alike. Some were armed with fowling pieces, some with rifles, others with muskets without bayonets. When all was in readiness, Washington and his staff advanced to the square prepared for their reception. He was a large, noble-looking man, in the prime of life, and was mounted on a powerful black horse over which he seemed to have perfect control. After a short address to the soldiers, he took from his pocket a psalm book, from which he read the one hundred and first Psalm (another account says it was then sung by the soldiers to the tune of Old Hundred)."
Whether Secomb wrote this down at the time, or simply carried it in his head for some forty years, is not clear. At any rate, he did not publish it until 1883.1 It certainly makes no mention of the Elm, but of a hollow square formation into which Washington rode; nor of the drawing of any sword, but instead — a psalm book! Indeed the whole passage is so odd and improbable that commentators dismiss it as the maunderings of an nonagenarian.2
1 Secomb, History of Amherst, N.H. (1883), 371. This Psalm contains some verses easily applicable to the opposing parties: "Whoso hath also a proud look and high stomach, I will not suffer him.. . . Mine eyes look upon such as are faithful in the land, that they may dwell with me.... I shall soon destroy all the ungodly that are in the land, that I may root out all wicked doers from the city of the Lord."
2 "One may read with some curious interest the following alleged recollections given to the author [Secomb] forty or so years earlier by Andrew Leavitt, a very old soldier, then about ninety years of age." Martyn, Life of Artemas Ward, 153, n. Leavitt died in the summer of 1846. Mass. Historical Society Proceedings, 2d Series, xvii, 129.
The other account is by the Reverend Hezekiah Packard of Bridgewater, who served in Captain Cobb's company of Titcomb's regiment. His story, also told in extreme old age, was transmitted, also after a very long interval, by Judge Samuel P. Hadley of Chelmsford, who says —
"Our village pastor was a Harvard freshman at Cambridge when the war broke out; and, with an elder brother, he joined the army as a fifer, and stood at attention when Washington took command, and reviewed his army of farmers on Cambridge common. I sat on his knee while he described to me the scene. 'Washington,' said he, 'was a grand looking man; and, when he walked by with his staff, I was so impressed that I forgot to remove my hat.'"1
Here again is no mention of the Elm or the sword drawing; and Washington "walks by," saluted, apparently, by the ludicrously civilian removal of hats! The most casual reader will notice that these stories are not only sufficiently surprising in themselves but are totally unlike. In fact they probably do not refer to any grand ceremony at all, but to two separate reviews or inspections which Washington made of different detachments on that busy Monday. At the best, even taking them at their face value, they not only fail to give the least confirmation of the tradition, but suggest, in the psalm book and the hat doffing, a most unmilitary ceremonial which must somewhat stagger the believers in an imposing and properly "patriotic" parade.
Both these accounts of course are nothing but "hearsay evidence." But Hezekiah Packard is said to have made a direct written statement himself, mentioning the Elm. If so, it is the only first-hand material we have, and as such deserves some further examination. The facts appear to be these: In 1837, or 62 years after the event, at the age of 76, Packard set down, for the benefit of his children, a series of autobiographical notes, to be opened after his death. He died in 1849, and the manuscript was promptly used by his son Alpheus in writing a memoir of
1 This is the version quoted in Treyelyan's George III and Charles Fox, i, 291, n, A slightly briefer statement occurs in Lowell Historical Society Contributions, i, 218 (1910). Packard died in 1849, aged 88. Hadley died at about the same age in 1919. If in his childhood he sat on Packard's knee, the latter must already have been a very old man. See Kingman, North Bridgewater, 146.
Unfortunately this manuscript has long been lost. But Hezekiah's other son Joseph also quotes, or assumes to quote, from it in his book Recollections of a Long Life, published in 1902. His quotations of the same Revolutionary portion however are surprisingly different from those made more than fifty years before, and almost seem as if he were quoting from memory, after the loss of the manuscript. He did not even take the trouble to compare the quotations given by Alpheus. Whole sentences are altered until nothing but their general sense remains, there are omissions in the middle of important passages, and after the Rhode Island episode (far out of its chronological order) occurs this addition: "I saw Gen. Washington take command of the army under the Elm tree in Cambridge."1
Considering the above circumstances this is not as strong evidence as we should like; but until the original manuscript can be found and the entry substantiated, it may be allowed to stand for what it is worth.
The real trouble with the traditionists is twofold. They have mixed their dates and they are obsessed by a fallacy. They have confused the events of Sunday and Monday. They have failed to notice that almost all the evidence of preparations for a ceremony refers to Washington's reception on Sunday. That ceremony, whatever it was intended to amount to (and it cannot have been much), was completely spoiled by the rain. For rain was in those days a far more serious military matter than it is now. Aside from the lack of waterproof clothing, no body of men could be turned out under arms during a storm, for the
1 For much help in tracing this singular sequence my thanks are due to Professor William Romaine Newbold of the University of Pennsylvania.
To be sure there is some evidence of an expected function of some sort in Cambridge early Monday morning, but it was small, local, and probably simmered down to a brief inspection only. For anything more elaborate, Washington was too busy galloping from fort to fort examining his own lines and those of the enemy. He had neither time nor inclination for receiving any half-baked and impolitic honors.
Thus, though there might have been, had all gone well, something in the way of a military reception on the second, there was nothing in the way of a dramatic "taking command" on the third. But the traditionists jumble up the two. In order to support their story, they must not only assume that a grand parade actually did take place, but to connect it with "taking command" they must further assume that it took place on Monday — that is, that Washington stole into Cambridge on Sunday, virtually unnoticed, and burst into full bloom, so to speak, the next day. That is not the way in which military honors are rendered, however.
The fallacy under which the traditionists labor regards the essential nature of "taking command." Does this consist of drawing a sword and riding up and down a line of troops? Of course not. The idea seems to have been derived from the sight of a regimental parade. There the adjutant, having formed the line, turns it over to the colonel. The latter thereupon draws his sword to show that he has taken charge and that all subsequent orders will proceed from him. But that is a mere gesture. It invests an officer with no new power. And that every American schoolboy should be taught the contrary, is a pathetic commentary on our national ignorance of military affairs. No British or continental schoolboy would accept it for a moment. Our Civil War veterans at least should know better. For during that conflict the command of armies was frequently taken,
The fact of the matter is, we have all been so long bedazzled and befuddled with this traditional sword-drawing gasconade that we cannot seem to realize that taking command of an army in the field, with all it implies, is a mighty serious business. Like most other important administrative events, military and civil, its essentials are of a quasi-legal and extremely prosy description. They consist mainly in the new commander's presenting his credentials, otherwise reading his commission, in taking over the headquarters order book and other documentary evidence of his authority, and especially in publishing official notice of the fact in general orders.
These uninteresting and untheatrical formalities seem to have been duly observed in the case before us. Ward's order book, as the original shows, was turned over to Washington and continued without a break. But the general orders for Monday morning are headed for the first time, "By His Excellency George Washington, Esquire, Commander-in-Chief of the Forces of the United Colonies of North America." (These orders, by the way, consist of nothing but a call for every colonel to make a return of his regiment and his ammunition in detail.) This of course is a perfectly sufficient basis for the usual statement that Washington "took command of the army" on July 3, 1775. That is, he began to give his commands on that date. However, as general orders were issued early in the morning, it was necessary to prepare them the night before. The order book, therefore, must have been turned over to Washington on Sunday. Indeed, some contemporary writers assert that Washington "took command" on the second. At all events, considering that Ward's headquarters were just across the Common, nobody but a lunatic would maintain that the above technicalities took place under the Elm.
Let us recollect again — all popular ideals to the contrary — that Washington was performing no original or creative act, that he did not wave his sword and by a sort of military magic cause his famous army to spring into being. He was simply taking over the control of a distinctly "going concern," a force that had already fought a highly creditable pitched battle under
Speaking of fallacies, we may in conclusion glance at one other — the "unbroken chain." Suppose A makes an oral statement to his son B concerning what he remembers of an event which happened perhaps forty years before. B, after perhaps forty years more, relates what he remembers of the statement to his son C, and C in turn to D. Now D, having a justifiable amount of family pride, naturally believes he is in possession of the identical original statement. To prove it, he recites his descent from A! It is hardly necessary to point out that this does not prove that A had a trustworthy and scrupulous memory, or that his meaning was correctly understood by B — and so on down the "chain." Indeed an accurate "long range" memory is the rarest of modern gifts; for documents, as already suggested, have superseded and almost atrophied memory. (D himself will be glad enough to use them in proving his descent.) In place of the old primitive fidelity in transmitting a story, there has sprung up an irresistible tendency to "embroider" it. One has only to cite the familiar example of the growth of a bit of gossip.. And what after all is tradition but historical gossip — a long-extended series of "they say's"?
Such then, in sum (errors, omissions, and typographical slips excepted), is the present state of the argument for the negative — the contention of the much-abused "detractors of the Elm." If the traditionists can counter with anything weightier than more flag flapping and more family trees (which are quite a different species from elms), let them by all means now speak, or adopt the alternative presented in the wedding service.
At the same time and per contra, to say that it is virtually certain that Washington did not, in any such heroic style as is now currently believed, "under this tree first take command of the American army" (and why "first"? How many times must
Perhaps the easiest way of arriving at a reasonable answer will be to make use of the probabilities and the evidence we have accumulated above, in an attempt to visualize the occurrences of that eventful Sunday, the second of July, 1775, in Cambridge.
It is eleven o'clock in the morning — the very middle of "meeting time" (all the troops were inveterate church goers) — and raining hard. With this double reason for keeping within, scarcely a soul is to be seen. The weather has put a stopper on the modest arrangements that Ward has felt justified in making for receiving the new generals "with the respect due to their rank." It has done the same for the more or less independent preparations made by a few exceptionally zealous regimental commanders. Down at the main guard in the Court House (on the present site of the cooperative store) they are speculating whether it will even be a case of "Turn out the guard!" Anyway, the generals are far behind their schedule, and the waiting, like the rain, has cooled enthusiasm.
But a courier comes cantering down the road from Watertown. "They're coming!" and Ward, like a courteous host, feels he must at least go out and greet his guests. With two or three aides he splashes across the Common. But he is old and heavy and tortured with gallstones, and he does not go far. Where the road enters the village, he halts and shelters himself from the downpour under the wide branches of a magnificent elm. In a few minutes the group of distinguished strangers is seen approaching. They are soaking wet and dog-tired — Washington himself is half sick.1 They also draw rein (or rani) beneath the protecting roof of foliage. Ward greets them politely, and the old and the new generals shake hands. And in that handclasp, to put it fancifully, the electric thrill of com-
1 "In poor health." Letter of Provincial Congress to Trumbull, July 4, 1775. "A good deal fatigued." Washington's own letter quoted on p. 66 ante.
Ward conducts his new chief at once to President Langdon's. Here the most distinguished civilian in town, and bishop, so to speak, of all the clergy in New England, receives him from the hands of the most distinguished military man. Early in the afternoon, Washington, refreshed by a good dinner and dry clothes, starts off, burning with impatience "at this crisis of our affairs," to get a first look at the situation. At the end of the day he comes to Ward's headquarters in the Hastings house (on the site of the present Hemenway Gymnasium). Here a little knot of ranking officers has gathered to meet him. He reads his commission, receives the headquarters documents and any flag or insignia of rank possessed by Ward, and is introduced to his brigadiers — perhaps makes a brief speech. (If he does, Charles Lee makes another!) These necessary formalities concluded, Ward serves an excellent supper — this is another delightful and most reasonable tradition — the Madeira goes round, the proper toasts are drunk, songs are sung, and amidst old-time conviviality the great man relaxes at length from the strain of one of the most memorable days of his life.
Such is the story as nearly as we can reconstruct it. Unfortunately there is nothing dramatic or "patriotic" in it. It is merely the application of ordinary Yankee common sense — an article in which the traditionists occasionally seem to be lacking. But at least it suggests a reasonable connection between Washington and the Elm. Although in a very different form from what the traditionists would have us believe, such a connection is quite sufficient to found the tradition upon.
If the above picture be thought too elaborate, another perfectly simple explanation suggests itself. It is clear that Washington spent all of Monday, July 3, in visiting and "sizing up" as many detachments of his scattered forces as possible. Among them would naturally be included — perhaps first of all — the few regiments in Cambridge. They would no doubt be drawn up on "the parade," as the Common was then called. During the inspection, or while waiting for it to be formed, Washington very probably stood beside or near the Elm, as that was close
But, from what has been adduced in the course of this study, that anything more significant or impressive occurred "under this tree" it will take more than mere iteration and indignation to convince the sceptic.
It is a matter of regret that Cambridge, the scene of so many momentous occurrences in the opening stages of the Revolution, has neglected (with the same unaccountable lack of civic pride which has allowed her unique old burying ground to go to ruin) for a century and a half to erect any adequate monument to commemorate them. The Washington Elm, after a fashion, did perform that function. At least in popular estimation, it formed a tangible memento of the most stirring days in the history of Cambridge — the only local and visible focus for patriotic enthusiasm. It was more than the reputed witness of a great event. It was more than an object for that mysterious tree worship which, inherited from our remotest ancestors, still stirs obscurely within us. It was a symbol of Our Country. And to the conscious or unconscious recognition of this fact was doubtless due a large part of the veneration in which it was held. Now nothing remains.