After several months spent manning and equipping his new unit, Maj. Henry Lee, Jr., finally got his partisan corps into the field in August 1778. Gen. George Washington had assigned Lee to operate with Brig. Gen. Charles Scott’s light infantry brigade, the element of the army that had advanced closest to the British lines in the lower part of Westchester County. For the remainder of August and most of the next month, Lee and his corps carried out their patrol and intelligence-gathering duties, but in late September, that would change.
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.
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.
Neither associate editor Benjamin L. Huggins nor assistant editor Adrina Garbooshian-Huggins could have anticipated the complexities involved in editing The Papers of George Washington’s Revolutionary War Series, volume 26. One such difficulty concerned the content of the documents, which included the communication of misleading or even false intelligence. And so, in anticipation of the volume’s publication later this year, I sat down with both editors—who collaborated on the volume—to examine the work behind the next installment of the series.
In June 1780, General George Washington told a lie. In fact, he planned a major deception. But as it was intended to deceive the British high command during the Revolutionary War, most Americans would likely forgive him. Washington, with the aid of Major General Lafayette, wanted the British to believe that the French army under the command of Lieutenant General Rochambeau was soon expected to arrive in North America to help the Americans liberate Canada from the British yoke.