Head Quarters, Cambridge:
Washington’s Occupancy of the Longfellow House


George Washington

Today visitors to the Longfellow House frequently are surprised to learn that George Washington lived in the house and used it as his headquarters during the Siege of Boston from July 1775 to March 1776. No visitor in the nineteenth century would have had to be reminded of this historical fact. For them the house was inextricably associated with Washington’s occupancy and the early days of the Revolutionary War.

In June 1775 the Second General Congress from Virginia voted Washington, one of its delegates, the commander of the New England militias besieging Boston. He hastened to Cambridge and arrived on July 2, 1775. That evening he was received by the officer corps, all New Englanders and all strangers to him including Massachusetts General Artemas Ward whom he was to replace as Commander-in-Chief. The next day he officially assumed his position. Popular legend describes Washington taking formal command under the "Washington Elm,” but a small unpublished soldier’s diary found in the Longfellow House archives and several other contemporary diaries record that the troops stationed across the front lines from Charlestown to Roxbury received the new Commander-in-Chief.

Meeting in nearby Watertown, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress arranged for Washington and his second in command, Major General Charles Lee, to live in Wadsworth House, Harvard College’s president’s house, which still stands today in Harvard Square on Massachusetts Ave. Since it was customary for generals to use their residences as their headquarters, Washington needed a conveniently located house large enough to accommodate staff meetings and councils of war, provide work space for his small group of aides, and have room for his large number of daily visitors. Wadsworth House could not accommodate those uses. The Vassall House—as the Longfellow House was then known—could.

The Vassall House had been built in 1759 for Major John Vassal!, a Tory sympathiser, who was forced to flee with his family from Cambridge to Boston in September 1774. After the battle of Lexington and Concord, it was used as a hospital until June 22, 1775, when it was assigned to Captain John Glover’s newly arrived regiment of Marblehead Mariners, who pitched their sailcloth tents on the lawns. The only scrap of information we have about Washington’s actual move to the Vassall House comes from his account book: “Cash paid for clearing the House which was provided for my Quarters & had been occupied by the Marbleh. Regimt.” The amount was two pounds ten shillings and ninepence.

In Washington’s time, a general’s staff was referred to as his “family,” no doubt because they lived and dined with him daily. Washington’s family in Cambridge was remarkably small and consequently overworked. It consisted of several young aides and General Horatio Gates, who served as adjutant general. When Martha Washington arrived on December 11, 1775 with a small party that included the Commander’s step-son Jackie Custis, and Mrs. Gates, the family increased in size. The household was attended to by a retinue of servants and slaves: a steward, Ebenezer Austin, whose monthly pay of seven pounds ten shillings included the services of himself, his wife and daughter; a French cook, Adam Foutz; Mrs. Morrison, kitchen-woman; Mary Kettel, washerwoman; Dinah, “a negro woman;” Peter, “a negro man;” and William Lee, Washington’s slave and body-servant from Mt. Vernon who served him throughout the war.

The Commander used the ground floor room to the right of the entrance as his dining room where he entertained numerous official and unofficial visitors, including Benjamin Franklin and Abigail and John Adams. Washington also used the same room as his office, just as Longfellow did later on. During Washington’s councils of war, his major generals and their aides crowded into this room to debate strategy. In this room Washington gave Benedict Arnold command of a small army to attack Quebec from the rear, over the Maine mountains. And in late September 1775, it was here that Washington confronted Dr. Benjamin Church, one of the most trusted Massachusetts patriot leaders, with evidence that he was a spy for the British.

In the southwest corner of the house, to the left of the entrance, was Washington’s reception room, which Martha Washington used as her parlor and probably for the gala party the Washingtons gave that winter to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Behind Washington’s study, was the General’s writing room, where his aides were kept busy drafting orders, maintaining Washington’s extensive correspondence (most of the over six hundred letters were headed “Camp in Cambridge” but some read “Head Quarters, Cambridge”), and keeping his accounts. Washington slept in the southeast room above his office.

In this House during the Siege of Boston, Washington struggled with numerous problems. He had to defend an extensive coastline against an attack by the well-trained British troops only a few miles away, supported by a squadron of British ships. The Commander worried about his army’s lack of discipline and training, the officer corps’ suspicions of him as an outsider and Southerner, an unexpected and extremely serious shortage of gunpowder, insufficient troops to man extended lines, and the ever-pressing need to find salary, supplies, and arms for his troops.

By spring 1776, however, Washington’s army was reasonably disciplined with a stable command structure, and new enlistments increased its strength. On March 4 Washington miraculously placed cannon on Dorchester Heights and forced the British to evacuate Boston. He won the Siege of Boston without a battle, which would have cost many lives and demolished Boston. For this Congress voted him a medal, and Harvard gave him an honorary degree.

While in the House, Washington put in place a secret network of spies in Boston to stay ahead of British plans. He approved the building and arming of ships to prey, with some success, on British ships supplying Boston, thus inaugurating the United States Navy. More important still for the future of the nation was the crucial precedent he set of deferring to civilian authority in all important matters.


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