Cambridge Historical Commission | Revolutionary Cambridge

Washington Takes Command
Cambridge During the American Revolution

by the Historic Cambridge Collaborative


This exciting map and guide explores events in Cambridge during the Revolution and identifies historic sites throughout the city.  Soldiers  from all over New England were stationed here. The  British marched  through town. And  Washington  really did sleep here -- and Mrs. Washington, too.

The illustrated map is available for only $1.00 (includes shipping) and may be purchased at the Cambridge Historical Commission (831 Mass. Ave.), the Cambridge Historical Society (159 Brattle St.), and the Visitors Information Booth in Harvard Square. Orders can be made by mail.  Click here for order form and instructions.

The Camp at Cambridge

With the fighting on April 19, 1775, the War for Independence had truly begun. That night, the provincial Committee of Safety, the overseers of colonial civil defense, met in the home of Jonathan Hastings, on Cambridge Common. General Artemas Ward was chosen as the first commander-in-chief of the New England militias and selected Hastings' house as his headquarters.

Within days, more than twenty thousand armed men from all over New England had gathered in Cambridge. The Tories' vacant estates, the empty Christ Church, and even Harvard's brick buildings, all served as barracks, officers' quarters, and hospitals. Soldiers camped on Cambridge Common in tents and other make-shift shelters. By order of the Committee of Safety, Harvard College canceled classes on May 1. More than 1,600 troops were quartered in the college buildings. Classes resumed in Concord in October; the students did not return to Cambridge until June 1776.

The British on the March

[On the morning of April 19, 1775], 1,000 British reinforcements under Lord Percy had left Boston following the land route used by William Dawes a few hours earlier. On reaching the Great Bridge [site of today's Larz Anderson Bridge], they discovered that the residents of Cambridge had removed its planks to prevent their crossing. The thrifty citizens, however, had merely stacked the boards on the Cambridge bank of the river; the troops replaced them easily and continued through town unmolested.

General Washington's Headquarters

Schoff portrait of George Washington, Library of Congress

On June 15, 1775, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia had appointed George Washington commander-in-chief of the army. Arriving in Cambridge on the afternoon of July 2, Washington met that evening with the New England generals at Hastings' house. The next day he took command of the army and visited the troops at their lines in Cambridge and Roxbury. The Provincial Congress had arranged for the commander-in-chief to stay in the college president's house, but Washington ... ordered the mansion of John Vassall, Jr. [now the Longfellow National Historic Site] prepared for his occupancy. The Vassall house would be the army's headquarters for nine months, until April 1776.

Washington wrote that he expected to leave Cambridge by autumn, but as the stalemate with the British dragged on into the winter, he sent for his family. Martha Washington, her son, and his wife, arrived in Cambridge on December 11, 1775, and remained here until the army's departure in April 1776.

(Image of George Washington, from a portrait by Stephen Alonzo Schoff, is from Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [reproduction number, LC-USZ62-105109).

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