George Washington Autographed Signed Letter: September 16, 1780
George Washington, 1732-1799
Stony Brook University acquired this secret wartime letter authored by General George Washington to his chief spy at Christie's (auction) in Manhattan on Thursday, February 12, 2009. The letter was Lot 48 of Sale 226, "Americana and Printed Manuscripts."
Scope, and Content Note
This original manuscript letter was authored and signed by George Washington, Commander in Chief of the Continental Army on September 16, 1780 concerning C-- junior, code name of Robert Townsend, a member of the Culper Spy Ring, who gathered intelligence on British troops in New York City and Long Island and is here being praised, referring to some form of compensation for his efforts.
Washington, George (b. February 16, 1732, d. December 17, 1799), President of the
United States of America (1789-1797).
Letter signed ("G:o Washington"), as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, to Major Benjamin Tallmadge, Headquarters, Bergen County, dated September 16, 1780.
1 page; folio; body of the letter in the hand of aide Tench Tilghman and docketed upon receipt by Major Tallmadge.
Dimensions: 21.5 cm. x 34 cm.
Arrangement and Processing Note
Processed and finding aid by Kristen J. Nyitray in 2009. Finding aid updated in April 2019.
Special Note 1
This letter can be viewed online at: https://ir.stonybrook.edu/xmlui/handle/11401/66224
Special Note 2
Visit the research guide for more information about George Washington and the Culper Spy Ring: https://guides.library.stonybrook.edu/culper-spy-ring
Special Note 3
This document underwent conservation treatment by the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts (CCAHA). These measures were taken to restore the letter.
- Surface cleaning using a grated white vinyl eraser and a soft brush to remove dirt.
- Cleaning and deacidification baths (two). To reduce discoloration and acidity, conservators often bathe disbound leaves in deionized or filtered water, often with added calcium to help remove acids. The bathwater turns a yellow color in the first bath and each successive bath is cleaner. When the water remains clear, the acidic degradation products have been removed from the paper.
- Removal of previous tape repairs during baths.
- Drying and flattening document.
- Mending and filling holes with acrylic mulberry tissue and wheat starch paste.
- Humidification in a gore-tex package and flattening under moderate pressure.
A housing needed to be fabricated for stability and for exhibition purposes. A unique offering at CCAHA is the sealed package. In it, the letter, mat board, and glazing (acrylic) are joined together as a single unit and sealed along the edges. The matted, encapsulated letter was inserted into a custom fabricated package consisting of UV filtering acrylic glazing and Marvelseal (a nylon, foil, polyethelene laminate) sealing the sides of the package. The package was designed to protect the letter from particulate matter and help mitigate environmental changes.
Restrictions on Access
The collection is open to researchers without restriction.
Rights and Permissions
Stony Brook University Libraries' consent to access as the physical owner of the collection does not address copyright issues that may affect publication rights. It is the sole responsibility of the user of Special Collections and University Archives materials to investigate the copyright status of any given work and to seek and obtain permission where needed prior to publication.
George Washington Autographed Signed Letter, September 16, 1780, Special Collections and University Libraries, Stony Brook University Libraries.
Stony Brook University acquired a second secret wartime letter from George Washington to Benjamin Tallmadge at Christie's in Manhattan on Thursday, February 12, 2009. The letter was Lot 48 of Sale 2265: "Americana and Printed Manuscripts." The letters document Long Island's critical role during the American Revolution and specifically the actions of the Culper Spy Ring, which was based in Setauket, New York.
The acquisition was made possible with private funds from a private donor, Dr. Henry Laufer (a former professor of mathematics at Stony Brook University) and from the New York State Legislature through Assemblyman Steven Englebright. A series of esducational outreach activities have been implemented in partnership with local historical societies and non-profit organizations.
WASHINGTON PROMISES TO REWARD HIS FAVORITE SPY: "I SHALL THINK MYSELF BOUND TO...PROCURE
HIM A COMPENSATION..."
This is one of the most remarkable letters Washington wrote about the valuable American spy Robert Townsend--code named "Culper, Jr."--who operated within British-occupied New York. Washington shows his great regard for this agent by pledging generous support after the war. "It is impossible for me, circumstanced as matters are, to give a positive answer to C---- Junior's request, as I cannot, without knowing his views, tell what are his expectations. Of this, both you and he may rest assured, that should he continue Serviceable and faithful, and should the issue of our Affairs prove as favorable as we hope, I shall be ready to recommend him to the public, if public employ should be his aim, and if not, that I shall think myself bound to represent his conduct in the light it deserves, and procure him a compensation of another kind. I shall take the first opportunity of sending you a further sum of money for contingencies."
Washington placed great reliance on Culper, Jr. and found his information to be first rate. "His accounts are intelligent, clear and satisfactory," he told Tallmadge on February 5, 1780. "I rely upon his intelligence." We can piece together the kinds of information Culper, Jr. provided by examining the intelligence requests made by Washington. For example, there is a memorandum in Washington's papers dating from September 1780, "Instructions for Spies Going into New York" that reads in part: "Get into the City. There, in the best manner possible, learn the designs of the Enemy. Whether they mean to evacuate New York wholly or in part, or continue the Army there. A discovery of this kind will be best made by attending a little to the conduct of [leading Tory merchants] Delancey, Bayard, Matthews" (Fitzpatrick, 20:104). Washington particularly wanted any news on movements of British supplies and baggage. This is precisely the sort of intelligence that Culper, Jr./Townsend was so well placed to gather. As a prominent merchant he could roam the docks and wharves without suspicion, keeping an eye open for shipping activity, talking with British officers and well-connected Tories. He also had business interests on Long island which further broadened his contacts, and provided excuses for meeting with other members of his spy ring, such as Abraham Woodhull ("Culper, Sr."), and the couriers who passed his intelligence to Washington.
The reference in this letter to compensation or indeed public recognition is particularly intriguing, since Townsend never claimed any credit for his wartime exploits, and took his secrets with him to his grave in 1838. Washington, for security reasons, did not want to know Culper, Jr.'s identity during the war. Major Tallmadge (Washington's chief officer for espionage matters) was Townsend's handler, and all communications between Washington and Townsend went through Tallmadge. It was only in the 1930s that historian Morton Pennypacker uncovered Culper, Jr.'s true identity after comparing samples of Culper Jr.'s letters with the handwriting of a hitherto obscure merchant, Robert Townsend.
The timing of this letter is also significant: the day after Washington sent this letter he traveled to Hartford for a week's discussion with the Comte de Rochambeau about joint Franco-American actions. Washington returned to West Point on September 25, only to receive disastrous intelligence from a completely unexpected source: Benedict Arnold's treason and his attempt to surrender the garrison at West Point.
Note: Published in "The writings of George Washington: from the original manuscript sources, 1745-1799, prepared under the direction of the United States George Washington Bicentennial Commission and published by authority of Congress"; John C. Fitzpatrick, editor (20:61).
Washington, George, -- 1732-1799 -- Correspondence.
United States -- History -- Revolution, 1775-1783 -- Secret service -- Sources.
Tallmadge, Benjamin, -- 1754-1835.
Townsend, Robert, -- 1753-1838.
Long Island (N.Y.) -- History -- Sources.
Culper spy ring.
Washington, George, -- 1732-1799.
New York (State) -- Long Island.
Head Quarters Bergen County 16th Sepr 1780.
I have received yours of the 13th: as I have
your several late favors with their inclosures. It is im:
:possible for me, circumstanced as matters are, to give
a positive answer to C- juniors request, as I cannot,
without knowing his views, tell what are his expectations.
Of this - both you and he may rest assured, that should
he continue servicable and faithful, and should the
issue of our Affairs prove as favorable as we hope, I
shall be ready to recommend him to the public, if
public employ should be his aim, and if not, that
I shall think myself bound to represent his conduct
in the light it deserves, and procure him a compen:
:sation of another kind.
I shall take the first opportunity of
sending you a further sum of Money for contin:
I am Dear Sir
Your most ob.’ Servt