WASHINGTON, George. Letter signed ("G:o Washington"), as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, to Major Benjamin Tallmadge, Headquarters, Bergen County, 16 September 1780. 1 page, folio, closed tears at creases
WASHINGTON PROMISES TO REWARD HIS FAVORITE SPY: "I SHALL THINK MYSELF BOUND TO...PROCURE HIM A COMPENSATION..."
One of the most remarkable letters Washington wrote about the valuable American spy Robert Towensend--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 5 February 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 25 September, only to receive disastrous intelligence from a completely unexpected source: Benedict Arnold;s treason and his attempt to surrender the garrison at West Point. Published in Fitzpatrick, 20:61.