George Washington Autographed Signed Letter
Manuscript Collection 402

Collection Description

Washington, George (b. February 16, 1732, d. December 17, 1799), President of the United States of America (1789-1797).
Letter signed as Commander in Chief (of the Continental Army) to Major Benjamin Tallmadge, Headquarters, Westpoint, 24 September 1779.
3 1/2pp.; folio; text in the hand of aide James McHenry and docketed upon receipt by Major Tallmadge.
Dimensions: 30.5 x 18.5 cm.

Processed by Kristen J. Nyitray, Head of Special Collections and University Archives, July 2006.

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History
Transcription


History

Stony Brook University acquired a secret wartime letter from General George Washington to his chief spy for $96,000 at an auction at Christie's in Manhattan on Friday, May 19, 2006. The letter was part of the The Forbes Collection of American Historical Documents, Part Four.

Written from "Head Quarters Westpoint" on Sept. 24, 1779, the missive to Major Benjamin Tallmadge, the Revolutionary Army's spymaster, focuses on the activities of Robert Townsend, another secret agent, from Oyster Bay, Long Island. The letter, signed as Commander in Chief by Washington, refers to Townsend by his code name, Culper Jr., and refers to techniques used in the spying, including invisible ink.

Stony Brook's Special Collections, with a contribution from Henry Laufer (a former Mathematics professor at the University) and State funds provided by Assemblyman Steven Englebright, acquired the letter, which will be on display at the University. The location of the display will be announced in the next few months.

"This is a terrific acquisition," said Chris Filstrup, Dean and Director of Libraries at Stony Brook University. "It brings to Stony Brook University a famous letter documenting one of Long Island's many contributions to the American Revolution. The purchase is a wonderful example of private-public cooperation with funds coming from an individual donor, Henry Laufer, and from the State Legislature through the good work of Assemblyman Steven Englebright. We are already working with Sarah Abruzzi, Director of Raynham Hall Museum, and Frank Turano, President, Three Village Historical Society, to develop a long-term plan to mount exhibits of the letter in Nassau and Suffolk Counties and to sponsor programs on Long Island's contributions to the American Revolution."

According to the auction catalogue, the letter reveals "[Washington's] daring game of espionage, telling his spymaster Benjamin Tallmadge how to manage a key New York agent," referring to Townsend (1753-1838). Townsend was the central figure in the so-called "Culper ring" of New York and Long Island spies. In the letter, Washington launches into a lengthy discussion of the mechanics of espionage, suggesting methods for transmitting intelligence.

"It is not my opinion," Washington begins, "that Culper junr. should be advised to give up his present employment. I would imagine that with a little industry, he will be able to carry on his intelligence with greater security to himself and greater advantages to us, under cover of his usual business, than if he were to dedicate himself wholly to the giving of information. It may afford him opportunities of collecting intelligence, that he could not derive so well in any other manner. It prevents also those suspicions which would become natural should he throw himself out of the line in his present employment. He may rest assured of every proper attention being paid to his services."

Townsend—whose true identity was concealed even from Washington (by the Commander-in-Chief's own preference)—owned a merchant's shop in New York City and had business dealings on Long Island, Christie's said. The auction house also said that Townsend also wrote for a local newspaper, giving him the cover to ask questions of British officers without arousing suspicion. Washington then goes on to suggest the best devices for receiving information.

Since "the scrutiny of the enemy...is chiefly directed against paper made up in the form of letters," Washington thought "Culper" should occasionally write his intelligence "on the blank leaves of a pamphlet; on the first second &c. pages of a common pocket book; on the blank leaves at such end of registers almanacks or any new publication or book of small value." Letters could also be used as long as they were sufficiently disguised using invisible ink, which Washington referred to as a "stain."

"He may write a familiar letter, on domestic affairs, or on some little matters of business to his friend at Sautuket or elsewhere, interlining with the stain, his secret intelligence or writing it on the opposite blank side of the letter." The letters containing intelligence matters could be coded by leaving off the date and place (then putting the date in invisible ink), "or fold them up in a particular manner, which may be concerted between the parties...and may be the signal of their being designed for me." Washington and Townsend each possessed the set of chemicals needed to swab the papers and bring the invisible ink back to light.

Washington thought highly of Townsend's reports, according to letters he later wrote to Tallmadge. Although the British captured a Washington letter to spy Abraham Woodhull that referred to "Culper," they never figured out his identity and Townsend took his secret with him to the grave in 1838. His double life remained a secret until the 20th century when Long Island historian Morton Pennypacker matched the handwriting in "Culper Jr's" letters to Washington with the script contained in ledgers and other documents found in Oyster Bay, belonging to an obscure New York and Long Island merchant, who turned out to be Townsend.

Transcription

Head Quarters Westpoint
24th Sept. 1779.

Sir,

I this morning received your letter of the 22nd with its several enclosures.

It is not my opinion that Culper Junr. should be advised to give up his present
employment. I would imagine that with a little industry he will be able to carry on his
intelligence with greater security to himself, and greater advantages to us under cover of his
usual business, than if he were to dedicate himself wholly to the giving of information. It may
afford him opportunities of collecting intelligence, that he could not derive so well in any other
manner. It prevents also those suspicions which would become natural should he throw himself
out of the line of his present employment. He may rest assured of every proper attention being
paid to his services.

One thing appears to me deserving of his particular consideration, as it will not only
render his communications less exposed to detection, but relieve the fears of such persons as may
be entrusted with its conveyance to the second link in the chain and of course very much
facilitate the object we now have in view. I mean that he should occasionally write his
information on the blank leaves of a pamphlet on the first second &c. pages of a common
pocket book on the blank leaves at each end of registers for the year almanacks, or any
new publication or book of small value. He should be determined in the choice of these
books, principally by the goodness of the blank paper as the ink is not easily legible unless it is
on paper of good quality. Having settled a plan of this kind with his friend, he may forward them
without risque of search, or the scrutiny of the enemy as this is chiefly directed against paper
made up in the form of letters.

I would add a further hint on this subject. Even letters may be made more subservient to
his communications, than have been yet practiced. He may write a familiar letter on domestic
affairs, or on some little matters of business to his friend at Satuket or elsewhere, interlining with
the stain his secret intelligence, or writing it on the opposite blank side of the letter. But that
his friend may know how to distinguish these from letters addressed solely to himself he may
always leave such as contain secret information without a date or place (dating it with the stain);
or fold them up in a particular manner, which may be concerted between the parties. This last
appears to be the best mark of the two, and may be the signal for their being designed for me.

The first mentioned mode however, or that of the books, appears to me the one least
liable to detection.

I am Sir
Your most obedient
and humble servt.
\[signed\] Go. Washington