George Washington Autographed Signed Letter
Type of Material: Letter
Personal Name: George Washington and Benjamin Tallmadge
Collection ID: Collection 402
Creator: George Washington
Extent: Folio; 30.5 cm. x 18.5 cm.
Span Dates: 24 September 1779
Extent, Scope, and Content Note
Arrangement and Processing Note
View this document at: http://guides.library.stonybrook.edu/culper-spy-ring
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.
"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.
Head Quarters West-point
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 communication 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 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 a 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 has 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