FACETIME- Lengel frankly: Washington man cuts swath in a Jefferson town

Ed Lengel

When Ed Lengel does a book tour for the latest volume of The Papers of George Washington, he's not trying to sell books. Actually, it's not really even a book tour. But he's jazzed about this country's first president– and he wants people to know about the cool stuff in Volume 18, even though most of us will never read it.

The latest in the Revolutionary War series covers about 10 weeks– from November 1, 1778, to January 14, 1779– and sheds light on how Barracks Road got its name from a POW camp.

Four thousand British and German prisoners captured at Saratoga were moved here from Boston. "They became part of the local community," says Lengel, with the British performing plays and the Germans fighting cocks. "Fifteen hundred deserted and settled here." Perhaps in Hessian Hills?

"We can see accounts of how the Germans viewed the locals," says Lengel, and he's found their comments in letters on "the nature of the people, the cruelty with which they treated their slaves, and the laziness of white people." 

Tucked in a corner of Alderman Library in the heart of Mr. Jefferson's U are 135,000 copies of papers to and from George Washington. Historian Lengel didn't intend to make Washington his day job when he started there as a grad student, but the tight job market for historians made him "the de facto Washington guy," says Lengel.

As a kid, Lengel, 39, wanted to be an archeologist, and he remembers building Fisher-Price cities "and then putting junk on top of it so I could excavate it." 

He's working on another Washington book called Fake Founder, about myths like the vision of the Virgin that have sprung up about Washington.

In his spare time, Lengel wrote a book on the World War I battle of the Meuse-Argonne, "one of the bloodiest in American history with 26,000 killed in three weeks," he explains. "Nobody had written about it since 1919, and I've gotten a fair amount of flack from the war-is-fun crowd."

Lengel gets out of the library a lot, talking to students, teachers, and civic groups. "Ed carries the flag of the Washington Papers across the country," says his boss, editor-in-chief Theodore Crackel, who calls Lengel the project's "corporate memory."

It's easier being a Washington man here than it used to be, in part because people "are looking for a person in American history they could look up to," says Lengel. "Jefferson's been taken down because of his personal life." 

He adds a little dish on the two presidents: Jefferson "considered Washington a yokel," and the "father" of our country was sterile.

Washington's ethics, sense of duty, self-doubts, and depression make it clear who Lengel thinks the nobler figure. After 12 years of living with Washington, "I find the more I study him, the more I like him," says Lengel.