On July 2, 1775, George Washington, the newly appointed commander-in-chief, arrived in Cambridge to take command of the army encamped here and in Roxbury.
Many of the approximately 20,000 armed New Englanders were living in tents on Cambridge common, while others were billeted in vacant Tory-owned houses on Brattle Street, the empty Anglican Christ Church (Zero Garden Street), and various Harvard buildings. Washington’s first tasks were to unify the soldiers into a national army, address the supply shortage, and break the British occupation of Boston.
Washington established his headquarters in the mansion of loyalist John Vassall, Jr. (now Longfellow House-Washington’s HQ National Historic site, 105 Brattle Street). His household comprised a large staff of servants, among them three slaves, including his body servant, William “Billy” Lee, who remained with Washington throughout the war.
Martha Washington arrived in Cambridge on December 11, 1775; that New Year’s Eve, the Anglican Washingtons worshipped at Christ Church. Many dignitaries and friends met with the general at his headquarters, including Benjamin Franklin, Benedict Arnold, and Native Americans from Canada and New York. Phillis Wheatley, the first African American poet to be published in America, was invited to visit.
Cambridge Under Siege
Life in Cambridge was difficult during the Siege of Boston.
Firewood was in short supply; most of the fences and trees for a mile round the camp were cut down for fuel. Many residents, including most of the women and children, fled to more peaceful environs. Some days the town was shelled from Bunker Hill.
In early November 1775, British Regulars raided East Cambridge. In response, Washington ordered Fort Putnam erected (site of the present Putnam School apartments) and caused “two half-moon batteries to be thrown up” along the Charles River. One of these, Fort Washington, survives on Waverly Street.
Short-term enlistments were customary, and many of the men stationed at Cambridge had enlisted only until the end of 1775, but Washington managed to persuade many to reenlist. When Congress instructed him not to renew the enlistments of African Americans, he responded, “the free Negroes who have served in this Army are very much dissatisfied at being discarded.”
The policy was reversed, and black soldiers served throughout the war. At least three Cambridge African Americans; Cato Stedman, Neptune Frost, and Cato Boardman, fought in the Revolution.
An End To Occupation
On the night of March 4, 1776, Washington ordered the rapid installation of fortifications on Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston. Two nights earlier, cannons at Fort Putnam had begun bombardments to distract from the impending work. The strategic fortifications forced the evacuation of Boston beginning March 17, 1776, thus ending British occupation.
The war was essentially over for Cambridge. The troops decamped for New York; Washington departed on April 4, 1776, and his family soon after. Although Cambridge’s participation was brief, it was extremely important in shaping the early events of the war.
It was here that Washington first assumed the role of commander-in-chief, planned and successfully conducted the Siege of Boston, and transformed the raw New England recruits into a working army.
To learn more about the history of Cambridge visit the Cambridge Historical Commission’s website.
Story by Kathleen (Kit) Rawlins, Cambridge Historical Commission