Using the Code

Letter in Cipher, Benjamin Tallmadge to George Washington, July 28, 1779, Helga J. Ingraham Memorial Library, Litchfield Historical Society

One of the spycraft methods employed by Benjamin Tallmadge and the Culper Ring was the use of a code. Tallmadge developed a code dictionary and shared it with General Washington. Although this dictionary is not part of our collection, we are fortunate to be able to access Washington’s copy, now preserved by the Library of Congress. A transcribed version is available on the Mount Vernon website.

Several years ago, a number of volunteers worked with staff to transcribe much of the Benjamin Tallmadge Collection. This letter was especially fun. The first step was transcribing it as written. This is what we came up with:

The next step was to determine the meaning of the numbers and odd characters. Since we do not have Tallmadge’s copy of the dictionary, we were thrilled to find Washington’s on the Library of Congress website. After looking up a few items, we had the following result!

You’ll notice that we try to transcribe as closely to the original as possible, keeping the line breaks, insertions, misspellings, grammatical errors, and all. Our main purposes in transcribing are to help researchers who may have trouble with 18th century handwriting and to make it possible to keyword search the documents.

Although the Library of Congress has this document arranged with the General Correspondence from 1783, we know it was sent much earlier. Head to Founders Online to see a transcription of another letter from our collection that shows Tallmadge forwarded it to Washington in 1779- shortly before the above letter was written.

We still use the code today- not just for transcribing letters written with it, but also as an educational tool in public programs for kids, families and adults!

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