On This Day: September 24, 1779…

General George Washington wrote a historically important letter about spy activities in Setauket. Did you know that Special Collections in the Melville Library has this original letter?

Letter, George Washington to Benjamin Tallmadge, 1779.

Letter, George Washington to Benjamin Tallmadge, 1779.

Written during the American Revolution from “Head Quarters Westpoint,” the letter to Major Benjamin Tallmadge focuses on the activities of Robert Townsend, a secret agent from Oyster Bay, Long Island. The letter, signed as Commander in Chief by Washington, refers to Townsend by his alias, “Culper Jr.,” and includes instructions for how to spy and gather intelligence, including the use of invisible ink.

The Culper Spy Ring was assembled in 1778 by Tallmadge (alias: John Bolton) at the request of Washington and operated on Long Island and New York City during the Revolutionary War.

Robert Townsend gathered intelligence in British occupied New York City by Abraham Woodhull (alias: Culper, Sr.). It was then passed to Austin Roe for transportation to Setauket, Long Island. Once in Setauket, the intelligence was carried across the Long Island Sound by Caleb Brewster to Major Tallmadge in Connecticut.

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 sought to match 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.

For more information about this letter, please visit the research guide for George Washington and the Culper Spy Ring or contact Kristen J. Nyitray, Head, Special Collections and University Archives, University Archivist.

Posted in Special Collections & University Archives


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