Vassal-Craigie-Longfellow House

A New Leader in Command

The Vassal-Craigie-Longfellow House at 105 Brattle Street is a gorgeous example of Georgian architecture. Hallmarks of this architectural style include symmetrical building structure, a central front door, a pair of large chimneys that supported fireplaces in each of the four rooms on each side and each floor. The outside of the building includes pilasters (fake pillars for a Classical look referencing ancient Greece and Rome) and a pediment. To learn more about the interior of the house, explore the floorplan to see the structure and layout, which shows some of the changes over time.

Longfellow House

This house dates to 1759 and was built for John Vassal, a wealthy plantation owner at the time. Much of his wealth stemmed from enslaved labor from sugar plantations in the West Indies. This house was once part of a much larger estate as Cambridge was more rural then than it is now. According to records he kept at least seven enslaved individuals in his Cambridge estate. Like many who lived along this street, he was a Tory, or Loyalist to the British Crown. So many of the wealthy residents of this street were Tories that it earned the nickname Tory Row. Some time after the Battle of Lexington and Concord, Vassal and other Tories fled the region as Cambridge became a staging ground for Patriot militia. 

General Glover of the Marblehead Battalion occupied the home in 1775. When the Colonial government officially confiscated Vassal’s estate in 1778, they noted that it “containing 105 Acres of Meadow & Orcharding and a large Dwelling House with very extensive Gardens and Stabling and three other houses.

The Continental Congress having now taken all the Troops of the several Colonies, which have been raised, or which may be hereafter raised, for the support and defence of the Liberties of America; into their Pay and Service: They are now the Troops of the United Provinces of North America; and it is hoped that all Distinctions of Colonies will be laid aside; so that one and the same spirit may animate the whole, and the only Contest be, who shall render, on this great and trying occasion, the most essential service to the great and common cause in which we are all engaged.

- General Orders, July 4, 1775
Plaster copy of the Houdon Bust of George Washington acquired by the Longfellows in 1844. Museum Collection (LONG 4132)

During the Siege of Boston, but after the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Continental Congress appointed George Washington the head of the Continental Army and asked him to take over the Siege of Boston. When he arrived on July 2, 1775 he chose this home for his headquarters. General Washington resided there from mid July 1775 – April 4, 1776. For just under a year, it was the place where the American Revolution was happening in full force, from the planning meetings to social gatherings. At this home General Washington planned the Siege of Boston, the march to Quebec, organizing the Continental Army, as well as the occupation of Dorchester Heights

In November 1775, Martha Washington joined her husband in Cambridge, spending the winter and spring by his side. Her presence became a morale boost for the Continental Army. After the British evacuated Boston, she accompanied her husband to New York, where he predicted the British would strike next. 

SIR, I have taken the freedom to address your Excellency in the enclosed poem, and entreat your acceptance, though I am not insensible of its inaccuracies. Your being appointed by the Grand Continental Congress to be Generalissimo of the armies of North America, together with the fame of your virtues, excite sensations not easy to suppress. Your generosity, therefore, I presume, will pardon the attempt. Wishing your Excellency all possible success in the great cause you are so generously engaged in. I am, Your Excellency’s most obedient humble servant,

Phillis Wheatley. Providence, Oct. 26, 1775.
Did You Know?
Black poet Phyllis Wheatley, having been educated in part by many of the brightest female minds of the Patriots, was an avid devotee to the idea of Independence. Phyllis wrote to the General a letter of her hope and regard and enclosed a poem she wrote in his honor.

The Enclosed Poem Reads

“Celestial choir! enthron’d in realms of light,

Columbia’s scenes of glorious toils I write.

While freedom’s cause her anxious breast alarms,

She flashes dreadful in refulgent arms.

See mother earth her offspring’s fate bemoan,

And nations gaze at scenes before unknown!

See the bright beams of heaven’s revolving light

Involved in sorrows and the veil of night!

The goddess comes, she moves divinely fair,

Olive and laurel binds her golden hair:

Wherever shines this native of the skies,

Unnumber’d charms and recent graces rise.

Muse! bow propitious while my pen relates

How pour her armies through a thousand gates:

As when Eolus heaven’s fair face deforms,

Enwrapp’d in tempest and a night of storms;

Astonish’d ocean feels the wild uproar,

The refluent surges beat the sounding shore;

Or thick as leaves in Autumn’s golden reign,

Such, and so many, moves the warrior’s train.

In bright array they seek the work of war,

Where high unfurl’d the ensign waves in air.

Shall I to Washington their praise recite?

Enough thou know’st them in the fields of fight.

Thee, first in place and honours,—we demand

The grace and glory of thy martial band.

Fam’d for thy valour, for thy virtues more,

Hear every tongue thy guardian aid implore!

One century scarce perform’d its destined round,

When Gallic powers Columbia’s fury found;

And so may you, whoever dares disgrace

The land of freedom’s heaven-defended race!

Fix’d are the eyes of nations on the scales,

For in their hopes Columbia’s arm prevails.

Anon Britannia droops the pensive head,

While round increase the rising hills of dead.

Ah! cruel blindness to Columbia’s state!

Lament thy thirst of boundless power too late.

Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,

Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide.

A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,

With gold unfading, Washington! be thine.

General Washington wrote back to her, honored by her verses. He invited her to visit him at the Brattle Street home, and she did so in March of 1776. You can read the whole letter here, but his closing lines are: 

If you should ever come to Cambridge, or near Head Quarters, I shall be happy to see a person so favourd by the Muses, and to whom nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations. I am, with great Respect, Your obedt humble servant,

G. Washington

Look at the Map Below

Some of Washington’s soldiers stayed in the nearby church, now called Christ Church Cambridge at 0 Garden St, across from Boston Commons, where you can see some Revolutionary War era cannons. You can read more about it in the next article.

Many years later, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow came to live in this home. He wrote much of his poetry while living here, including the famous Paul Revere’s Ride, he was inspired after a tour of Boston’s North End, including the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground and the Old North Church. He wrote about the tour in his diary and soon started composing the poem. 

Explore Primary Documents

An excellent way to learn about historic events is to read the words of people who were in the middle of them! The Massachusetts Historical Society has a list of eyewitness accounts of the Siege of Boston. Select one of the accounts and read it – you can view the original document and a transcription side by side.

What can You Learn about this early part of the American Revolution?

“Enclosure: Poem by Phillis Wheatley, 26 October 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives,  [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 2, 16 September 1775 – 31 December 1775, ed. Philander D. Chase. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987, pp. 242–244.]

“From George Washington to Phillis Wheatley, 28 February 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 3, 1 January 1776 – 31 March 1776, ed. Philander D. Chase. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988, p. 387.]