Due to the British invasions of Virginia in 1781, only one of the five letters that Gen. George Washington wrote Virginia governor Thomas Jefferson during the period comprising volume 28 of the Papers of George Washington’s Revolutionary War Series (late August to late October 1780) has been found. Nevertheless, that letter and some of the drafts of the four missing letters reveal tension between pragmatists and purists among Patriot supporters of republican ideology, tension which became increasingly bitter and partisan after the American Revolution.
When annotating, editors at the Papers of George Washington often consult and cite personal documents, such as diaries, for additional details about the events and people described in Washington’s correspondence. These personal documents are especially useful as they commonly provide uninhibited evaluations of those events and people.
In my opinion, one of the most interesting stories that began in an earlier volume of the Papers of George Washington is the career of Samuel Birch, a British officer who first appears in volume 20 of the Revolutionary War Series. Birch’s effort to capture Washington was certainly one of the more colorful episodes of the Revolutionary War, but I am also interested in Birch because his career vividly illustrates the many ironies of that complicated conflict.
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. 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.
Washington first met Lieutenant General Rochambeau, whose French soldiers were stationed near Rear Admiral Ternay’s French fleet at Rhode Island, to plan strategy during a nadir of the American Revolution. Aspiring to take New York City from the British in 1780 before the onset of winter, Washington expected during the first two weeks of September that French reinforcements from Europe or the West Indies would soon arrive. He learned instead on September 16 that a British fleet from the West Indies had recently reached the vicinity of New York City.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of documentary editing at The Washington Papers is making annotated transcriptions of relatively inscrutable manuscripts readily available, manuscripts like spy letters with incomplete decryptions. On Sept. 9, 1780, Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge (alias John Bolton) wrote Gen. George Washington from North Castle, N.Y., and forwarded two letters addressed to him that he had received from Abraham Woodhull (alias Samuel Culper), a farmer and spy on British-controlled Long Island, New York. A preliminary transcription of Tallmadge’s letter to Washington, dated September 9, can be found on Founders Online. No transcription, however, is currently available of the enclosed Woodhull letters, which are among Washington’s papers at the Library of Congress.
Benedict Arnold infamously schemed with Maj. John André, the British adjutant general, to help Britain take West Point in 1780. Yet, how did Arnold actually plan to betray the 11 Continental and militia regiments under his command at or near West Point’s fortifications? The British, moreover, had grander strategic goals in mind than capturing West Point on a kind of large-scale raid. Indeed, when George Washington came to West Point on Sept. 25 after discussing strategy with Lieutenant General Rochambeau at Hartford, he not only foiled Arnold’s design but a British gambit to win the war.
When undertaking research, editors of The Papers of George Washington have occasionally discovered intriguing historical connections that are not included in the annotation. In some cases, the information is omitted because connections cannot be definitively tied together and therefore lack sufficient certitude to warrant inclusion.
Treason is a central theme in volume 28 of The Washington Papers’ Revolutionary War Series. In a letter dated Sept. 26, 1780, George Washington informed Lieutenant General Rochambeau, who led the French forces at Rhode Island that “General Arnold, who has sullied his former glory by the blackest treason, has escaped to the enemy. Washington expected to add the renowned Vermont militia commander Ethan Allen to that catalog, however, when he told Gov. George Clinton of New York in early November “that I have given discretionary powers to seize and secure a certain person, should it appear upon further investigation necessary.”
Nathaniel Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution recently won the George Washington Prize. The author of numerous and highly readable books about American history, Philbrick contends that Benedict Arnold and George Washington were actually quite similar. Both were up-and-comers who craved fame and fortune.