Thoughts on History

History and legend are tied so closely together that it’s often difficult to separate them. Many of America’s most famous legends revolve around George Washington. We all learned the story of the cherry tree, and most of us know that it’s utter balderdash. I was surprised, though, to learn recently that even the legend has become distorted. Parson Weems said that little George merely “barked” the tree with his new hatchet, not that he chopped it down.

Another Washington legend arose after he court-martialed General Charles Lee following the Battle of Monmouth. The story goes that Washington was so incensed when he found Lee in retreat that he lost control of his famous temper and swore at the general. Some accounts say Washington called Lee “a damned poltroon.” General Charles Scott, whose movements on the battlefield may have been largely responsible for Lee’s actions there, went even further. Years later he was asked if he had ever heard Washington swear. “Yes sir, he did once,” Scott replied. “It was at Monmouth and on a day that would have made any man swear. Charming! Delightful! Never have I enjoyed such swearing before or since. Sir, on that memorable day he swore like an angel from heaven!” The only problem with Scott’s account is that he was nowhere near the commander in chief when Washington encountered Lee.

Washington figures in another legend from the Battle of Monmouth, that of Mary Ludwig Hays, better known as Molly Pitcher. It seems that she did bring water to thirsty American troops and may have even taken her husband’s place when he was wounded at his cannon. Beyond that, things get murky. “While in the act of reaching for a cartridge and having one of her feet as far before the other as she could step,” an American soldier later reported, “a cannon shot from the enemy passed directly between her legs without doing any other damage than carrying way all the lower part of her petticoat.” Following the battle, according to legend, Mary Hays was presented to General Washington. “Madam, who are you?” Washington asked. “Mary Ludwig Hays, sir,” she replied. “They call me Molly.” “You are now Sergeant Molly,” Washington said. That the incident never happened hasn’t stopped painters from depicting the scene in loving detail.

Legends are history with all the rough edges shaved off, buffed and polished and reshaped so they fit into a convenient, appealing package. Legends are rarely ambiguous. They are presented in black and white. That’s one reason why they stick in the popular imagination. The sense is, well, if it didn’t happen that way, it should have. Even the story of Lee and Washington at Monmouth has, over the years, taken on a simplistic aspect, that of the noble Washington rallying his troops after the incompetent–if not downright treasonous–Lee nearly cost him the battle. The truth of the matter, as writer Eric Ethier reports in this issue, is a little more complicated.

The only constant, they say, is change, and we’ve been making some changes in American History. The “Americans” department has been running for a few issues now and we’ve been gratified by your response to it. Many readers have called and written to suggest people we should include. We’ve introduced some other new departments too. Our “Museum Spotlight” will focus on institutions of interest (and here too we’re open to suggestions) while our “Calendar” section will tip you off to history-related events around the country. You may have also noted that we’ve beefed up our “Reviews” section with longer reviews and a short author interview. One message we hope to get across with these departments is that history is not a dead thing that exists only in the past. In fact, you can find it all around you in the present.

Tom Huntington, Editor, American History