George Washington in Cambridge and the Birth of a Nation

1

Exterior of Longfellow House – Washington’s Headquarters. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

There was little or no mention of American independence when General George Washington arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army on July 2, 1775, and reviewed his troops the following day. On the contrary, Washington had assured the New York Provincial Congress on June 26, “every exertion of my worthy colleagues & myself, will be equally extended to the reestablishment of peace and harmony between the Mother Country and the Colonies.” After spending his first days in Cambridge in the home of Samuel Langdon, President of Harvard College, Washington recognized the need for more spacious lodgings to serve as his personal residence and army headquarters during the Siege of Boston.

The three-story house on Tory Row (later Brattle Street) of the King’s Highway splendidly fulfilled this purpose. John Vassall, its Loyalist owner, had left Cambridge to live under the protection of British troops in Boston. Soon after Washington and his staff occupied the house, it buzzed with activity day and night. The most important work took place in the room off the entry hall on the right-hand—or southeast—side of the ground floor. That room doubled as Washington’s dining and meeting room, essentially functioning as his main office. Decisions made there altered the course of history.

Copy of bust of George Washington by Jean-Antoine Houdon, Longfellow House – Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Calls for separation from England grew louder and more frequent after the Royal Navy shelled the town of Falmouth (where Portland, Maine is now located), burning much of it to the ground. The morning of the attack, October 18, 1775, Washington began five days of consultations with his generals and civil authorities, including a three-member congressional delegation headed by Benjamin Franklin, then sixty-nine years old. Like most important conferences at headquarters, these meetings took place in the office-cum-dining room off the front hall. In response to Washington’s query about tolerance for collateral damage to Boston, the delegation promised to consult with the full Congress, refusing at this point to endorse any operation that would result in destruction of the city. They changed their tune after King George III, just eight days after the annihilation of Falmouth, stood firm against reconciliation with the Colonies in his speech to Parliament, denouncing his rebellious subjects as traitors and committing forces to compel their submission.

The die was cast with the arrival of the first copies of the king’s speech in Cambridge on the first day of 1776. By January 16, when Washington—joined by John Adams—met with his full roster of generals, Congress had voted to direct the commander-in-chief “to destroy the army & navy at Boston in any way he & a council of war shall think best, even if the town must be burnt.” The ragtag Continental Army gained sufficient force to back up this threat two days later when Henry Knox, a former bookseller from Boston, arrived with the legendary guns from Fort Ticonderoga, a formidable arsenal of fifty-eight mortars and cannon. Victory was assured after the “rebels,” under the cover of bombardment on and from Boston, accomplished the extraordinary feat of occupying and fortifying Dorchester Heights, a peninsula with two hills overlooking the city and harbor, during a single night of nonstop work. Knox’s guns now commanded the field of action. By daybreak on March 5, the anniversary of the Boston Massacre, this first major stage of the war was all but over. The British, unable to defend the city and their fleet or to launch an effective attack, were forced to sail from Boston on March 17, 1776 (“Evacuation Day”) to fight another day.

Half a century later, in August 1837, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow took up residence in Washington’s former headquarters as a boarder. The newly appointed professor of modern languages at Harvard rented adjoining rooms on the second floor of the Georgian mansion from Mrs. Elizabeth Craigie. “I live in a great house, which looks like an Italian villa,” he wrote in 1838 to George Washington Greene in Rome, adding that his “two large rooms were once Gen. Washington’s chambers.” Longfellow delighted in dropping this tantalizing tidbit in a letter to his dear friend descended from the revolutionary war hero Nathanael Greene and named for the great general who had occupied those very rooms. After Longfellow and Frances Appleton were married on July 13, 1843, the bride’s father offered the couple a generous wedding gift: ownership of the property. A visit from Greene sealed the deal. He “excited an historical association,” Fanny wrote to her brother Tom, “or rather reminded us how noble an inheritance this is—where Washington dwelt in every room.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his study, 1868. Photo: Courtesy National Park Service, Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site.

Longfellow enjoyed a strong “historical association” with the nation’s founding father even before moving into his former headquarters. The poet’s maternal grandfather, Peleg Wadsworth, had distinguished himself as an officer in the Continental Army during and after the Siege of Boston. On July 4, 1841 Longfellow honored Washington by starting to read the general’s Cambridge correspondence, which he had written “perhaps in this very room; certainly in this very house.” Fanny likewise revered the house for its historical connection to Washington. Soon after Nathan Appleton purchased the house for the newlyweds, she declared that despite being “full of plans & projects,” they had “no desire to change a feature of the old countenance which Washington has rendered sacred.”

Henry and Fanny were indeed committed to preserving their home’s historical legacy, as visitors can still see from the terra cotta bust of George Washington—copied from Jean-Antoine Houdon’s original at Mount Vernon—that has adorned the entry hall since 1844. But change was inevitable. Sometime after the birth of Charles (“Charley”) on June 9, 1844, and before the arrival of Ernest less than eighteen months later, the Longfellows converted Washington’s former bedroom into a nursery. This room, together with the adjoining private study, had been the general’s private chambers on the second floor, directly above his meeting room and his staff’s room. Although Charley’s nursery, immortalized in the ode “To a Child,” was a source of joy for Longfellow, he could not help but regret “the dismantling of that consecrated chamber,” as he put it in 1847.

Longfellow’s poem to his son pays homage to the “Father of his Country,” the room’s former occupant. “Weary both in heart and head,” Washington passed therein “those hours of gloom,” and when he left the room, “heavy with the weight of cares, / sounded his majestic tread” on the “echoing stairs” of the house. In contrast to the general’s “grave thoughts” as he labored to free Boston, the child’s “only dream is liberty,” freedom not from political tyranny and oppression but from the walls of his nursery, “now like prison walls to thee.” His natural desire is to go “out, out! into the open air,” to be liberated from the confines of the very house in which George Washington exerted great effort to advance the cause of American freedom.

Washington’s “weight of cares” was substantially lightened by the successful liberation of Boston with, in the words of a delegation of Boston selectmen, “so little effusion of human blood.” They praised and thanked him for saving the “large, elegant, & once populace city from total destruction.”

On April 4, 1776, soon after the departure of the victorious Continental Army for New York, Washington left the stately house that had served so well as his residence and headquarters. The Continental Congress in Philadelphia resolved that the Colonies “are, and, of right, ought to be, Free and Independent States” on July 2, adopting the Declaration of Independence two days later and signing it in August. But it was Washington’s nine-month sojourn in Cambridge, when the founding father lived and worked within walls destined to inspire Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, that prepared for the birth of a new nation.

Guy P. Raffa is Associate Professor of Italian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He teaches and writes primarily on Dante and his legacy. His latest essay—on Longfellow, Lincoln, and Dante—appeared in Not Even Past.

Sources: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vols. 1-3, edited by Philander D. Chase (Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press, 1985-88); J. L. Bell, George Washington’s Headquarters and Home: Historic Resource Study (National Park Service, US Dept. of the Interior, 29 Feb. 2012); David McCullough, 1776 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005); Hugh Howard, Houses of the Founding Fathers (New York: Artisan, 2007); Richard Smith, “Diary of Richard Smith,” 23 Dec. 1775, Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789, edited by Paul H. Smith et al., 25 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1976-2000); Resolution of the Continental Congress on Dec. 22, 1775, Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, edited by Worthington C. Ford et al., 34 vols. (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1904-37); The Letters of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, edited by Andrew Hilen, 6 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap-Harvard University Press, 1966-82); Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: With Extracts from his Journals and Correspondence, edited by Samuel Longfellow, 3 vols. (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1891); Frances Appleton Longfellow, Mrs. Longfellow: Selected Letters and Journals of Fanny Appleton Longfellow (1817-1861), edited by Edward Wagenknecht (New York: Longmans, Green, 1956); Robert Mitchell, “The House Which ‘Washington Has Rendered Sacred’,” Longfellow House Bulletin 4.1 (2000); The Complete Writings of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Craigie edition, 11 vols. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1904-17). The layout of Longfellow House – Washington’s Headquarters, with explanations of how the rooms were used, is available at: http://lnhstest.brinkster.net/Level1/House1a.html

Share.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks to Guy Raffa for this informative article about the famous “Longfellow House” on Brattle Street during the momentous months of 1775-76.Other officers of the Continental Army occupied Massachusetts Hall in the Harvard Yard as the army assembled and drilled on the nearby Cambridge Common. The glorious cause was then in its tenuous early stages of formation and independence for the colonists was by no means assured. How this process ultimately resulted in a new nation is one of the miracles of history.

Share your thoughts