Dating George Washington’s Receipt of a Samuel Culper Letter to Benjamin Tallmadge

TOPICS: EspionageRevolutionary War

By Jeffrey L. Zvengrowski, Assistant Editor
September 28, 2018

Abraham Woodhull (alias Samuel Culper), a farmer and Patriot spy on British-controlled Long Island, wrote Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge (alias John Bolton) a letter from Setauket, N.Y., on August 16, 1780 that is in the Papers of George Washington at the Library of Congress (hereafter denoted by the MARC Code DLC:GW). Although the editors at The Papers of George Washington do not know precisely when George Washington received that letter, we can make a reasoned guess.

A transcription of Woodhull’s letter with modernized grammar and spelling has previously been published.1 Our preliminary transcription that replicates the original text of the manuscript follows:

 

Samuel Culper to John Bolton

729 <Setauket>—29 <Augt>—em <16>—1780

Sir,

I have this day returnd from 727 [New York City]. And am happy to informe you, that C. Jur hath engaged to Serve as heretofore.2 I have nothing to inclose from him to you. as thers not a word of Intelligence worthy of notice in 727. I have the Satisfaction to assure you that the Judicious Torys in 727 are more dejected now than ever I knew before—On account of the neutrality enterd into by the Powers of Urope3 A few victualling Ships were to Sail yesterday to the Fleet now laying in Gardiners Bay.4 Clinton with about 7000 Thousand men are cantoned from White Stone to Jamaica for this ten days Past have bene orderd to hold themselvs in readiness to gather with the Fleet—that Still lays at White Stone. Common reports Say they are about to Proceed to Rhode island but it is very uncertain no Person can tell, but by all meanes be upon your Guard thers in this County the Qeens Rangers three Compe. of Qeens County Militia Troop Coll Fannings Regt the 17 Dragons German Huzzars all Marching to the Eastward, also three Regt More were orderd to March reports Say they are to imbark at the east end of this Island. We have a report that the Second division of French hath arived hope it may be true5—Tryon—Patterson & Mathews are about to Sail immediately in the Packet for Urope6—The Person I depended on to Procue a very accurate account of L. Neck7 is taken very ill and hath Put it out of my Power to forward it now I have orderd 725 [Lt. Caleb Brewster] to returne here again on the fi. [24] Instant and intend to Send you as frequent dispaches as Possible as long as things are in Such motion. In the interim wishing you health and Prosperity, I am &C.

S. Culper

N.B. Next opportunity you’ll have the Papers regular as heretofore Should have Sent them now but lost them out of my Pocket on the road.

I forgot to mention in the run of my letter that Genl Clinton in Person was escortd through the Town yesterd. by the Mounted Rangers 17 Dragons & German Huzzars in All about two Hundred & forty Horse. I Am &C.

S.C.

 

DLC:GW. Washington’s aide-de-camp Tench Tilghman penned decryptions above the line that are included in angle brackets. Additional decryptions are included in square brackets. For the code employed in Culper’s letter, see Tallmadge to GW, 25 July, 1779, in volume 21 of the Revolutionary War Series.

 

Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge (1754-1835). Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Tallmadge wrote Washington from North Castle, N.Y., on Aug. 12 and 20. He does not appear to have enclosed Woodhull’s letter in the latter (see Tallmadge to Washington, 20 Aug., in DLC:GW; see also Founders Online). He next wrote Washington from Round Hill, Conn., on Aug. 21 at 1:00 A.M. with “enclosed Dispatches” (DLC:GW; see also Founders Online). Two letters Brewster wrote Tallmadge from Fairfield, Conn., on August 18 and 21, however, indicate that he had not conveyed Tallmadge Woodhull’s letter by August 21 (see Brewster to Tallmadge, same dates, in DLC:GW).

In a letter he wrote Maj. Gen. William Heath from headquarters at Orangetown, N.Y., on 21 Aug., Washington noted about British general Henry Clinton: “I can hardly suppose that he will, considering the present position of this Army, venture to carry a force from New York sufficient to make an attempt upon Rhode Island; but that you may have the earliest intelligence of any movements, I have desired Genl Arnold and Major Tallmadge to transmit immediately to you, any well grounded information they may receive” (Massachusetts Historical Society: Heath Papers; see Founders Online). Washington also noted in a letter he wrote Tallmadge on the same date: “I have information from another quarter, that Sir Henry Clinton had gone towards the East end of Long Island, and that the troops at Whitestone were again embarking. Should the last peice of intelligence reach you, well authenticated, you will be pleased to transmit it immediately to Genl Heath at Newport, as well as to me, as you will always do any thing which seems to interest the French Army and Navy” (New York Public Library: U.S. Presidents; see Founders Online).

Given the contents of a letter Tallmadge wrote Heath from North Castle on Aug. 22, the intelligence mentioned in Washington’s letter to Tallmadge probably resembles that found in Woodhull’s letter:

I have this moment recd a letter from His Excellency Genl Washington, in which I am directed to transmit any intelligence which I may obtain of the Movements of the Enemy, which may affect the French Army at New–Port, to Major Genl Heath.

Last night I recd Private intelligence from N.y. that Sir Henry Clinton had gone to the E. End of Long-Island escorted by about 200 Horse. A Body of Infantry supposed about 1600 or 2000 Men, were also on the March the same way. All the Troops lying from White Stone to Flushing were ordered to be in readiness to move about 5 Days ago, & Report now says they are again embarking at White Stone. On Long Island some conjecture they are going to N. Port, others to N. London [New London, Conn.]. I shall shortly have more particular intelligence when will further inform (Massachusetts Historical Society: Heath Papers).

Tallmadge does not seem to have enclosed Woodhull’s letter in his next letter to Washington written from the Middle Patent area of Westchester County, N.Y., on Aug. 26 (see Tallmadge to GW, same date, in DLC:GW; see also Founders Online). Instead, Tallmadge probably enclosed Woodhull’s letter when he next wrote Washington from Bedford, N.Y., on Aug. 28, by which point Woodhull’s intelligence from Aug. 16 had become obsolete (see Tallmadge to GW, same date, in DLC:GW; see also Founders Online).

A transcription of Woodhull’s letter to Tallmadge will be included in volume 28 of The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series as part of the annotation for Tallmadge’s letter to Washington dated Aug. 28. The latter letter contains new intelligence about the British in New York similar to that found in a mutilated letter to Heath written in Tallmadge’s hand and dated Aug. 28 (see [Tallmadge] to Heath, same date, in Massachusetts Historical Society: Heath Papers).

 


1. See Morton Pennypacker, The Two Spies: Nathan Hale and Robert Townsend (Boston and New York, 1930), 49–50.

2. For the efforts in August of Tallmadge and Woodhull to retain Robert Townsend (alias Samuel Culper, Jr.) as a Patriot spy operating in British-controlled New York City, see Alexander Rose, Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring (New York, 2006), 192–94.

3. Woodhull is referring to the League of Armed Neutrality, which Catherine II (Catherine the Great) of Russia formed in August to protect neutral shipping from depredations by warring powers. The pro-British New York Gazette, and Weekly Mercury (New York City) for October 30 printed a report: “LONDON, August 19. . . . Russia has been the first to set on foot a plan for an armed neutrality, calculated entirely for the assistance of France and Spain, and the destruction of Great-Britain.”

4. Woodhull is referring to British vice admiral Marriot Arbuthnot’s fleet, which sailed on Aug. 18 from eastern Long Island for the vicinity of Rhode Island (see The American Rebellion: Sir Henry Clinton’s Narrative of His Campaigns, 1775–1782, with an Appendix of Original Documents, ed. William B. Willcox [New Haven, 1954], 207). Arbuthnot departed hoping to intercept French warships (see Arbuthnot to George B. Rodney, 20 Sept., in Letter-books and Order-Book of George, Lord Rodney, Admiral of the White Squadron, 1780-1782 [New York, 1932, in Collections of the New-York Historical Society, vols. 65–66], 1:13–14). The abrupt departure of Arbuthnot’s fleet ruined British general Henry Clinton’s plan to embark troops from Long Island against the French and Patriot forces at Rhode Island (see American Rebellion, ed. Willcox, 204–8).

5. These army and naval reinforcements for the French forces at Rhode Island had actually been confined to Brest in France by a British fleet (see Rochambeau to Washington, Aug. 21, in DLC:GW; see also Founders Online).

6. British officers Edward Mathew, James Pattison, and William Tryon sailed from Sandy Hook, N.J., for Europe in early September with a British fleet that consisted mostly of transports (see Historical Memoirs from 26 August 1778 to 12 November 1783 of William Smith, ed. William H. W. Sabine [New York, 1971], 2:329, and The Journals of Hugh Gaine, Printer, ed. Paul Leicester Ford [1902; reprint, [New York] 1970], 98).

7. Woodhull presumably is referring to Lloyd Neck, New York. He described the British fortifications and garrison there in a letter he wrote Tallmadge from Setauket on Nov. 5 that is in DLC:GW (see also Founders Online).