Letters of the Revolutionary War

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Benedict Arnold

Over time inter-colonial communication became more important to settlers. As the colonies solidified and Crown-appointed governors began to be accepted as colonial leaders, the British government realized that it needed a reliable method of mail delivery for communication between its colonial officials. The Internal Colonial Postal Union, which later became the British Colonial Post, was formed in 1693 to fill this function. For the most part the ICPU carried official and commercial mail until around the 1740s, the colonists still being more concerned with relatives in Europe than they were with each other. This predilection began to change over the next several decades as the colonies grew, fought in the French and Indian War, and slowly developed a common dislike of British domination. Benjamin Franklin, appointed joint Postmaster General with William Hunter in 1753, was dismissed from his position in 1774 because of his revolutionary activities. Alongside Hunter, Franklin had essentially reorganized the British Colonial Post, making it functional and even profitable, so when the British turned him out the Continental Congress immediately selected Franklin as Postmaster General for the newly formed United Colonies Post (later to become the United States Postal Service).

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July 12, 1780—Benedict Arnold letter written in code to John André. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan.

Despite the drastic improvements Franklin made in the colonial postal system, sending letters through the mail was still prohibitively expensive. Ordinary citizens usually couldn’t afford to mail a letter through the official post. They might try sending letters by way of an acquaintance traveling near the letters’ destination, but for the most part most American colonists sent very few letters in their lifetimes, averaging at one letter received per person per year. Expensive postage was only part of the reason for this dearth. Another significant factor was that illiteracy was not uncommon among the colonists, or throughout England and Western Europe, for that matter. While basic reading skills were considered important for all children to learn, so that they could read the Holy Scriptures, many American adults either never acquired the skill or forgot what little they had known. The literacy rate among women, for example, was 55% in the late 1700s, and only that high because mothers were expected to be able to give their children moral instruction by referencing the Bible. If sending news by letter became imperative, literate persons like the town doctor or minister could often be found to read the letter to its illiterate recipients, but such a course of action was so cumbersome to arrange that most colonists rarely sent letters at all.

Almost all of the mail that came through the United Colonies Post, therefore, was sent by a select group of wealthy, upper-class citizens who could both afford the postage rates and be assured that the recipients of their letters were educated enough to read them. These were the same citizens, by virtue of their social standing more than their education, who fell naturally into the positions of governmental leadership in the colonies and in the new nation. These merchants and public figures (and sometimes their wives) had to transact all of their non-local business through the mail, and so kept the Post in continuous action. During the Revolutionary years unofficial messengers were used to communicate among the colonial troops and Revolutionary leaders, but the daily merchant transactions still had to be done, so the colonial post continued operating. Relief from exorbitant postage charges wouldn’t come until 1851, when stamp fees were lowered to three cents per letter.

Most businessmen kept up extensive correspondences during and after the Revolution simply to maintain their basic operations. In the days when writing letters was the only way to pass a message over many miles, merchants and purveyors of various services saw their perpetual letter-writing as the continuation of conversations they would like to be having in person, the vouchsafing of transactions upon which they built their businesses. To that end, a lot of letter-writing from colonial times until the advent of quicker means of communication was simply business mail--notes of receipt of this product, questions regarding the sale of that one. With the political figures of the day, however, the case is somewhat different. Prominent political figures used letter writing to communicate strategies to their allies. Secret letters, often written in code, were sent between commanders of the troops in order to synchronize movements during the Revolutionary War. Often the letters they sent back and forth (through trusted private messengers) were of high political importance, outlining strategies for winning the war and, later, public elections. It is not unusual to find "Burn this letter" scrawled across the bottom of such clandestine missives, leading modern readers to wonder why this command was so often ignored. [ To read about public political letters, click here. ]

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June 27, 1779-George Washington letter to Benjamin Tallmadge. Washington concealed a letter containing secret information inside a harmless sham letter and sent them both to Tallmadge. At the bottom of the first page, which is the sham letter, are the words, "The inclosed (sic) contains matter for our knowledge only." Images courtesy of the William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan.

Secret letters were also the purview of another group of men and women during the Revolutionary time period: spies. Spies for both the British and the colonists spent the Revolutionary War writing carefully coded letters to their leaders, letters full of secret information designed to give their side the advantage. The most famous of these men and women was Benedict Arnold, a merchant-turned-brigadier general who sold his services to the British after the unpleasantness of a court martial caused him to resign his post as Commander of Philadelphia. In a letter written July 12, 1780 to British General Henry Clinton's aide de camp, John Andre, Arnold revealed Washington's plans for the upcoming offensive: "General W[ashington]--expects the arrival of the F[rench]--Troops to collect 30,000 Troops to act in conjunction; if not disappointed, N[ew] York is fixed on as the first Object, if his numbers are not sufficient for that Object, Can-a- is the second; of which I can inform you in time, as well as of every other design . . . ." Arnold, who became famous for his treachery when his accomplice John Andre was caught and hanged, escaped with his family to England when the war was over, and ended his days as an unsuccessful merchant in London.

Not all letters containing secret information came from spies on the British side, however. Benjamin Tallmadge, captain of a troop in the 2nd Continental Light Dragoon Regiment, became an intelligence source recruiter after his dragoons were assigned to the command of Brigadier General Charles Scott, Washington's chief intelligence officer. Tallmadge used his connections throughout New York City and Connecticut to put together a group known as the Culper ring, all of whom gathered intelligence for Washington.

In a letter dated June 27, 1779, which came to Tallmadge enclosed in another, inconsequential letter, Washington advises his recruiter to investigate a new potential source of information: "There is a man on York Island living on or near the North River, of the name of George Higday who I am told hath given signal proofs of his attachment to us, & at the same time stands well with the enemy.--If upon inquiry this is found to be the case (and much caution should be used in investigating the matter, as well as on his own account as on that of Higday) he will be a fit instrument to convey intelligence to me . . . ." Tallmadge's intelligence network communicated via personally delivered coded letters that were concealed in order to look innocuous should the messengers be caught, and the sound intelligence chain continued to provide Washington with invaluable information throughout the war. [For more information on Revolution-era spies, see the University of Michigan’s “Spies of the Revolutionary War” at si.umich.edu/spies/index-people.html (accessed in 2005)]

Though many letters written during the Revolutionary time period were either business transactions or missives of a strategic military/political nature, personal letters were still written and received by that small percentage of the population who were wealthy enough to afford the postage fees. These letters served as a source of news to those who received them, whether they traveled overseas or within the colonies, and also expressed the opinions of ordinary citizens (extraordinary only in their wealth) on the tumult around them. Responses ran the gamut from outrage at the British and full support of the Revolutionaries' actions to Loyalist leanings. In a letter from 1775, a Loyalist lady from Massachusetts named Anne Hulton described for her friend Mrs. Adam Lightbody back in England the actions of the colonial minutemen, whom she called "the banditti." Criticizing their unconventional battle strategies, she complained, "The [British] Troops now combatted with fresh Ardour, & marched in their return with undaunted countenances, receiving Sheets of fire all the way for many Miles, yet having no visible Enemy to combat with, for they never would face 'em in an open field, but always skulked & fired from behind Walls, & trees, & out of Windows of Houses . . . ."

As Hulton's depiction of British military hardships raced across the Atlantic, the Continental Congress was preparing to state their case against the King of England. Thirty years later John Adams, in a letter to Timothy Pickering, fellow Federalist, former Postmaster General, and Adams' secretary of state, explained the way in which Thomas Jefferson (who Pickering hated) had come to be chosen as the man to write the Declaration of Independence. "Though a silent member in Congress," Adams wrote of Jefferson, "he was so prompt, frank, explicit and decisive upon committees and in conversation, not even Samuel Adams was more so, that he soon seized upon my heart; and upon this occasion I gave him my vote . . . ." Later in the letter Adams reported the reasons he gave Jefferson for refusing to write the draft himself when the younger man offered him the opportunity in committee: “Reason first—You are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second—I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third—You can write ten times better than I can.” Describing in such detail this significant moment in American history, Adams’ letter has become much more than a simple communication between friends. Like the letters of many prominent Americans, it has become one of the important historical documents that record for posterity the origin of a nation.