George Washington Papers

Council of War, 3–4 October 1775

Council of War

[Cambridge, 3–4 October 1775]

At a Council of War held at Head Quarters Cambridge Octr 3. 1775


His Excelly General Washington
Majors Generals Ward Brigads. Spencer
Lee Heath
Puttnam Sullivan
Brigadiers Thomas Green

The General communicated to the Board a Discovery of a Correspondence carried on with the Enemy by Dr Church by Letter in Characters which was decyphered by the Revd Mr West & laid the sd Letters before the Members of this Council.1

After considering & discussing the Matter it was determined to adjourn till tomorrow—& then that Dr Church be examined.

October 4. 1775 The Council of War met.

Present as before.

Dr Church being sent for & shewn the Letter in Characters was asked—Whether the sd Letter was written by him—To which he answered he believed it was.

He was then shewn the Explanation of sd Letter⟨r⟩ as decyphered—& asked whether it was a t⟨rue⟩ one.

To which he answered in the Affirmative.

Dr Church then explained his Intentions in writing sd Letter as calculated to impress the Enemy with a strong Idea of our Strength & Situation in order to prevent an Attack at a Time when the Continental Army was in great Want of Ammunition & in Hopes of effecting some speedy Accommodation of the present Dispute & made solemn Asseverations of his Innocence.2

The General then asked the Opinion of the Council severally whether it did not appear that Dr Church had carried on a criminal Correspondence with the Enemy—to which they unanimously answered in the Affirmative.

A Question was then proposed & discuss’d what were the proper Steps to be taken with Respect to him—& after examining the Regulations of the Continental Army & particularly the Articles 28 & 51—

It was determined from the Enormity of the Crime, & the very inadequate Punishment pointed out that it should be referr’d to the General Congress for their special Direction & that in the mean Time he be closely confined, & no Person visit him but by special Direction.3

D, in Joseph Reed’s writing, DLC:GW; copy, enclosed in GW to Hancock, 5 Oct. 1775, DNA:PCC, item 152; copy, DNA:PCC item 169; copy, NjMoHP; Varick transcript, DLC:GW.

1See figure 1 for a part of Benjamin Church’s encoded letter, the original of which is in DLC:GW. Although Church’s mistress addressed the cover “To Major Cane in Boston on his magisty’s sarvice” and dated it “22 july,” Church wrote the letter on 23 July to his brother-in-law in Boston, John Fleming. For a discussion of the woman’s attempt to send the letter into Boston and GW’s acquisition of it, see GW to Hancock, 5 Oct. 1775, n.3. Three persons worked at deciphering Church’s letter. Samuel West (1730–1807), a Congregational clergyman from Dartmouth (now New Bedford), Mass., who served as a chaplain in the army from June to October 1775, made a decoded copy, while Elisha Porter, assisted by Elbridge Gerry, independently produced another one. The two translations, both of which were apparently completed on 2 Oct., closely agree with one another in wording (Dexter, Diary of Ezra Stiles description begins Franklin Bowditch Dexter, ed. The Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles, D.D., LL.D., President of Yale College. 3 vols. New York, 1901. description ends , 1:628). West’s translation appears in the Mass. House of Rep. Journal, July–Nov. 1775 sess. and Nov. 1775–Feb. 1776 sess description begins A Journal of the Honorable House of Representatives of the Colony of the Massachusetts-Bay in New-England. Watertown, Mass., 1775. (Microfilm Collection of Early State Records). description ends , 202–3. Porter’s version is an enclosure to GW to Hancock, 5 Oct. 1775. Porter’s partially mutilated draft is in DLC:GW. Both copies of Porter’s translation include a key to the code, which was apparently broken by making a symbol frequency count (see fig. 2).

2For Church’s written explanation, see Church to GW, c.3 Oct. 1775. See also Church’s defense before the Massachusetts house of representatives, 27 Oct. 1775, in Mass. Hist. Soc., Collections description begins Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Boston, 1792—. description ends , 1st ser., 1 (1792), 84–94.

3Article 28 provides that “whosoever belonging to the continental army, shall be convicted of holding correspondence with, or of giving intelligence to, the enemy, either directly or indirectly, shall suffer such punishment as by a general court-martial shall be ordered,” but article 51 states “that no persons shall be sentenced by a court-martial to suffer death, except in the cases expressly mentioned in the foregoing articles” (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 2:116, 119). GW submitted the problem of finding an adequate punishment for Church to the Congress in his letter to Hancock of 5 October. The committee of conference discussed the matter on 22 Oct. and referred it to the Massachusetts General Court. See Proceedings of the Committee of Conference, 18–24 Oct. 1775, Document II, Minutes of the Conference.

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