J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

General Investigation

In late September 1775, Gen. Nathanael Greene (shown here) brought two fellow Rhode Islanders to meet his commander, Gen. George Washington, at what is now Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site.

One of those men, Adam Maxwell, was Greene’s old Latin and mathematics tutor. The other was Godfrey Wenwood, a Newport baker who was holding onto a letter, written in cipher, that an old lover had asked him to pass on to British officials. Obviously, a coded communication to the enemy was a serious concern.

Wenwood’s former lover was living in “Little Cambridge,” the part of Cambridge on the south side of the Charles River, now Brighton. Washington sent Wenwood there to find out who had given her the ciphered letter. As James Warren, speaker of the Massachusetts House, described it, the baker’s mission was “to draw from the Girl, by Useing the Confidence She had in him, the whole Secret.”

Wenwood failed. (“She is a suttle, shrewd Jade,” Warren complained.) So Gen. Washington ordered the woman to be brought to headquarters. In 1851 Washington Irving wrote that Gen. Israel Putnam carried out this task in dramatic fashion:

Tradition gives us a graphic scene connected with her arrest. Washington was in his chamber at head-quarters, when he beheld from his window, General Putnam approaching on horseback, with a stout woman en croupe behind him. He had pounced upon the culprit.

The group presented by the old general and his prize, overpowered even Washington’s gravity. It was the only occasion throughout the whole campaign on which he was known to laugh heartily. He had recovered his gravity by the time the delinquent was brought to the foot of the broad staircase in head-quarters, and assured her in a severe tone from the head of it, that, unless she confessed everything before the next morning, a halter would be in readiness for her.

So far the tradition;…
This anecdote is consistent with other stories about Putnam. However, there’s no contemporaneous evidence for it, especially for the detail of Washington laughing in his own bedroom. After all, who could know that? Even Irving seems dubious, twice labeling the story “tradition.”

James Warren’s contemporaneous description of the woman’s arrest is more basic: “She was then Taken into Custody, and Brought to the Generals Quarters that Night. It was not till the next day that any thing could be got from her.” An officer in the Roxbury camp passed on a more detailed but less reliable rumor: the “Girl…after an Examination and 4 Hours under guard Confessd.”

The man who had given her the coded letter, the woman told Washington, was Dr. Benjamin Church, a leader of the Massachusetts Whigs, representative from Boston in the Massachusetts legislature, and Surgeon-General of the American army.

I wrote about the process of deciphering that letter back here in 2007. But since then I’ve learned some additional details.

TOMORROW: How the deciphering put Elbridge Gerry on the general’s bad side.

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