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From Grandfather's Chair, 1840

By Nathaniel Hawthorne

Part 3
Chapter 8


THE next evening but one, when the children had given Grandfather a full account of the Diorama of Bunker Hill, they entreated him not to keep them any longer in suspense about the fate of his chair. The reader will recollect that, at the last accounts, it had trotted away upon its poor old legs nobody knew whither. But, before gratifying their curiosity, Grandfather found it necessary to say something about public events.

The Continental Congress, which was assembled at Philadelphia, was composed of delegates from all the colonies. They had now appointed George Washington, of Virginia, to be commander-in-chief of all the American armies. He was, at that time, a member of Congress; but immediately left Philadelphia, and began his journey to Massachusetts. On the 3d of July, 1775, he arrived at Cambridge, and took command of the troops which were besieging General Gage.

"O Grandfather," exclaimed Laurence, it makes my heart throb to think what is coming now. We are to see General Washington himself."

The children crowded around Grandfather and looked earnestly into his face. Even little Alice opened her sweet blue eyes, with her lips apart, and almost held her breath to listen; so instinctive is the reverence of childhood for the father of his country. Grandfather paused a moment; for he felt as if it might be irreverent to introduce the hallowed shade of Washington into a history where an ancient elbow-chair occupied the most prominent place. However, he determined to proceed with his narrative, and speak of the hero when it was needful, but with an unambitious simplicity.

So Grandfather told his auditors, that, on General Washington's arrival at Cambridge, his first care was to reconnoitre the British troops with his spy-glass, and to examine the condition of his own army. He found that the American troops amounted to about fourteen thousand men. They were extended all round the peninsula of Boston, a space of twelve miles, from the high grounds of Roxbury on the right to Mystic River on the left. Some were living in tents of sail-cloth, some in shanties rudely constructed of boards, some in huts of stone or turf with curious windows and doors of basket-work.

In order to be near the centre and oversee the whole of this wide-stretched army, the commander-in-chief made his headquarters at Cambridge, about half a mile from the colleges. A mansion-house, which perhaps had been the country seat of some tory gentleman, was provided for his residence.

"When General Washington first entered this mansion," said Grandfather, "he was ushered up the staircase and shown into a handsome apartment. He sat down in a large chair, which was the most conspicuous object in the room. The noble figure of Washington would have done honor to a throne. As he sat there, with his hand resting on the hilt of his sheathed sword, which was placed between his knees, his whole aspect well befitted the chosen man on whom his country leaned for the defence of her dearest rights. America seemed safe under his protection. His face was grander than any sculptor had ever wrought in marble; none could behold him without awe and reverence. Never before had the lion's head at the summit of the chair looked down upon such a face and form as Washington's."

"Why, Grandfather!" cried Clara, clasping her hands in amazement, "was it really so? Did General Washington sit in our great chair?"

"I knew how it would be," said Laurence; "I foresaw it the moment Grandfather began to speak."

Grandfather smiled. But, turning from the personal and domestic life of the illustrious leader, he spoke of the methods which Washington adopted to win back the metropolis of New England from the British.

The army, when he took command of it, was without any discipline or order. The privates considered themselves as good as their officers; and seldom thought it necessary to obey their commands, unless they understood the why and wherefore. Moreover, they were enlisted for so short a period, that, as soon as they began to be respectable soldiers, it was time to discharge them. Then came new recruits, who had to be taught their duty before they could be of any service. Such was the army with which Washington had to contend against more than twenty veteran British regiments.

Some of the men had no muskets, and almost all were without bayonets. Heavy cannon, for battering the British fortifications, were much wanted. There was but a small quantity of powder and ball, few tools to build intrenchments with, and a great deficiency of provisions and clothes for the soldiers. Yet, in spite of these perplexing difficulties, the eyes of the whole people were fixed on General Washington, expecting him to undertake some great enterprise against the hostile army.

The first thing that he found necessary was to bring his own men into better order and discipline. It is wonderful how soon he transformed this rough mob of country people into the semblance of a regular army. One of Washington's most invaluable characteristics was the faculty of bringing order out of confusion. All business with which he had any concern seemed to regulate itself as if by magic. The influence of his mind was like light gleaming through an unshaped world. It was this faculty, more than any other, that made him so fit to ride upon the storm of the Revolution when everything was unfixed and drifting about in a troubled sea.

"Washington had not been long at the head of the army," proceeded Grandfather, "before his soldiers thought as highly of him as if he had led them to a hundred victories. They knew that he was the very man whom the country needed, and the only one who could bring them safely through the great contest against the might of England. They put entire confidence in his courage, wisdom, and integrity."

"And were they not eager to follow him against the British?" asked Charley.

"Doubtless they would have gone whithersoever his sword pointed the way," answered Grandfather; "and Washington was anxious to make a decisive assault upon the enemy. But as the enterprise was very hazardous, he called a council of all the generals in the army. Accordingly they came from their different posts, and were ushered into the reception-room. The commander-in-chief arose from our great chair to greet them."

"What were their names?" asked Charley.

"There was General Artemas Ward," replied Grandfather, "a lawyer by profession. He had commanded the troops before Washington's arrival. Another was General Charles Lee, who had been a colonel in the English army, and was thought to possess vast military science. He came to the council, followed by two or three dogs which were always at his heels. There was General Putnam, too, who was known all over New England by the name of Old Put."

"Was it he who killed the wolf?" inquired Charley.

"The same," said Grandfather; "and he had done good service in the old French War. His occupation was that of a farmer; but he left his plough in the furrow at the news of Lexington battle. Then there was General Gates, who afterward gained great renown at Saratoga, and lost it again at Camden. General Greene, of Rhode Island, was likewise at the council. Washington soon discovered him to be one of the best officers in the army."

When the generals were all assembled, Washington consulted them about a plan for storming the English batteries. But it was their unanimous opinion that so perilous an enterprise ought not to be attempted. The army, therefore, continued to besiege Boston, preventing the enemy from obtaining supplies of provisions, but without taking any immediate measures to get possession of the town. In this manner the summer, autumn, and winter passed away.

"Many a night, doubtless," said Grandfather, "after Washington had been all day on horseback, galloping from one post of the army to another, he used to sit in our great chair, rapt in earnest thought. Had you seen him, you might have supposed that his whole mind was fixed on the blue china tiles which adorned the old-fashioned fireplace. But, in reality, he was meditating how to capture the British army, or drive it out of Boston. Once, when there was a hard frost, he formed a scheme to cross the Charles River on the ice. But the other generals could not be persuaded that there was any prospect of success."

"What were the British doing all this time?"inquired Charley.

"They lay idle in the town," replied Grandfather. "General Gage had been recalled to England, and was succeeded by Sir William Howe. The British army and the inhabitants of Boston were now in great distress. Being shut up in the town so long, they had consumed almost all their provisions and burned up all their fuel. The soldiers tore down the Old North Church, and used its rotten boards and timbers for firewood. To heighten their distress, the small-pox broke out. They probably lost far more men by cold, hunger, and sickness than had been slain at Lexington and Bunker Hill."

"What a dismal time for the poor women and children!" exclaimed Clara.

"At length," continued Grandfather, "in March, 1776, General Washington, who had now a good supply of powder, began a terrible cannonade and bombardment from Dorchester Heights. One of the cannon-balls which he fired into the town struck the tower of the Brattle Street Church, where it may still be seen. Sir William Howe made preparations to cross over in boats and drive the Americans from their batteries, but was prevented by a violent gale and storm. General Washington next erected a battery on Nook's Hill, so near the enemy that it was impossible for them to remain in Boston any longer."

"Hurrah! Hurrah!" cried Charley, clapping his hands triumphantly. "I wish I had been there to see how sheepish the Englishmen looked."

And as Grandfather thought that Boston had never witnessed a more interesting period than this, when the royal power was in its death agony, he determined to take a peep into the town and imagine the feelings of those who were quitting it forever.

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