Few things inspire curiosity like a George Washington letter…or a letter about spies. This past fall, a very generous donor presented to the New-York Historical Society a most interesting item: a George Washington letter about spies! Dated August 21, 1780, Washington writes to Major Benjamin Tallmadge regarding the Culper Spy Ring, one of Washington’s most successful intelligence-gathering networks during the American Revolution.
Most active in New York City and along the Long Island Sound, the Culpers have long enjoyed a special chapter in the story of American independence, but AMC’s ongoing series, TURN, has significantly broadened awareness of the ring’s exploits.
In his letter, Washington references eastward movements of the British Commander in Chief Sir Henry Clinton on Long Island. He advises Tallmadge to notify General William Heath at Newport, Rhode Island, should Tallmadge’s own intelligence confirm suspicions that British troops are “again embarking” from Whitestone, Queens. Washington also went ahead and apprised Heath the same day. As the “again” would indicate, a little over a month earlier Clinton disembarked from Whitestone intent on striking a blow to the newly arrived French fleet at Newport. Instead, intelligence gathered by Tallmadge and his cohort helped alert Washington to an impending attack. This knowledge likely influenced Clinton’s decision to not follow through on the raid.
While much more could be said about the importance of the Culpers and the letter’s reflection of a perilous moment in American history, it’s also worth considering the story of the letter itself. Long held as a family heirloom, the letter passed through many hands, including those of Walter S. Poor (1836-1906), a Civil War veteran and New York lawyer. As it turns out, the library holds a collection of his Civil War era letters revealing that this is not the first time a member of the Poor family gave to N-YHS. Indeed, his son and subsequent heirs continued to give items and artifacts to both the N-YHS Library and Museum over the course of the 20th century.
But how did the letter end up in this family in the first place? This is a tricky question to say the least. A familial link to Enoch Poor, an American officer in the Revolutionary War, has been suggested and a little sleuthing corroborates the claim’s veracity. It appears that Walter Poor’s great grandfather, Ebenezer, born in 1732, was a first cousin to Enoch, born in 1736. Still, it’s hard to know under what circumstances Enoch Poor himself could have come into possession of the letter. This is especially challenging since the window is a relatively small one: typhus struck down Enoch within a few weeks of Washington writing the letter.
The exact journey of the letter then remains a mystery. But what is assuredly true is that this is both an important piece of American history, and a continuation of a great family legacy of generosity to the New-York Historical Society.