Broken Vial

This letter, written April 20, 1779, is one of my favorite pieces of correspondence from the Benjamin Tallmadge Collection. It clearly conveys the danger of the enterprise undertaken by the members of the Culper Ring and their acute awareness of the extraordinary risks they were taking. Tallmadge writes to Washington enclosing intelligence gathered by his agents about British activities in Rhode Island. The letter expresses the difficulties present in getting information to Headquarters expediently, writing, “I have urged by Letter & Verbally the plan of forwarding Letters by some shorter Route to Hd Qrs. – C – wishes, as much as your Excellency to hit on some more speedy mode of Conveyance, but after all his Enquiry finds such a step very dangerous & difficult.”

Tallmadge also shared a story of the unnerving of one of his agents by several women, resulting in the need for another supply of invisible ink. From the letter:

I must now relate an anecdote respecting the Vial which I forwarded C – from your Excellency.  Much pleased with the curious Ink or stain, & after making some experiments with the same, he was set down to answer my Letter which accompanied it.  He had finished the enclosed when very suddenly two persons broke suddenly into his private apartment.  The Consideration of having several Officers quartered in the next Chamber, added to his Constant fear of detection & its certain Consequences, made him very rationally conclude that he was suspected & that these were steps taken by sd. Officers for discovery.  Startled by so sudden & violent an obtrusion he sprang from his seat, snatched up his papers, overturned his table & broke his Vial. This step so totally discomposed him that he knew not Who they were or to which sex they belonged; for in fact they were two Ladies who living in the house entered his Chamber in this way on purpose to surprise him. Such an excessive fright, & so great a turbulence of passions, so wrought on poor C – that he has hardly been in tolerable health since – The above Relation I had from his own mouth – He is much pleased with the ink, & wishes (if any more can be spared, & his Service continued) to be favd. with it a little more.”

This letter demonstrates the ways in which ordinary life continued in the midst of a violent war. The two ladies who entered the chamber were undoubtedly playing a joke on C. Although their comfort at intruding indicates he was doing a great job of not being detected, it, unfortunately, resulted in a great deal of strain for him. Tallmadge’s correspondence also shows us some of the hardships faced by residents of Long Island while it was occupied by the British. He wrote,

“There are some men on this side the sound who carry on conduct most vilanously towards the Inhabitants of Long Island by Lying on the Roads & Robbing the Inhabitants as they pass. C__ was robbed the other Day ^ plundered of all his money & was glad to escape with his life – I know the names of *several, some of whom under Sanction of cruising in the Sound by Commission, land on L.I. & plunder the Inhabitants promiscuously.”  In the side margin, Tallmadge noted the names Joseph Smith, Ezekiel Weeks & Conklin Shaddon).

Although substantial evidence of the war experience was preserved, it is less common to find evidence of what the citizenry experienced. When we take a closer look beyond the battles and covert operations, we can find glimpses of what the average resident went through.

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