George Washington Papers

To George Washington from John Hancock, 28 October 1776

From John Hancock

Philada Monday Eveng 11 oClock 28th Octor 1776


This moment Dodd the Express from the State of Massachusetts, who Took your Dispatches to Congress on Saturday last, Arriv’d at my house, and informs me that this Day about 12 oClock he put up at one Bissinett’s a publick house in Bristol, where he open’d his Bundle to deliver a Letter to be forwarded over the Ferry to Mrs Reed, & leaving his Bundle in the Barr Room while he Stept out, on his return the whole of his Letters were carried off, & no person could give any Accott of them, and after Enquiring and getting all the Assistance he could to Endeavour the obtaing them, their Searches were fruitless, & he is here without a single Letter1—As your Letters may be of the utmost Consequence, & the Enemy may derive great Advantages from the knowledge of their Contents, (as I have no Doubt but they will soon be in possession of them,) I have Judg’d it proper without waiting for the Meeting of Congress in the Morning to Dispatch this Express to you, to give you this Intelligence, that you may as far as possible Guard against the Movements the Enemy may make in Consequence of the Intelligence they may gain by the possession of those Letters, and that you may Take such Steps as this Accident may Suggest to you from the particulars of your Letters as necessary to Counteract the Attempts of the Enemy—I however hope that your Letters, should they fall into their hands will not Afford them much Comfort, nor give them any great Prospects of Advantages, tho’ I shall be unhappy untill I know the Contents, & Beg by the Return of this Express you will Send me a Copy of them as it will be a great Relief to Congress to Receive the earliest Accott.2

I shall early in the Morng Send to Bristol & have a strict Scr⟨utiny⟩ made, & Recover the Letters if possible, o⟨r⟩ Detect the persons who Rob’d the mail.3

You will Excuse this hasty Letter, & wrote in great Agitation & hurry, as I would not lose a moment in Sending it off. I am with the utmost Respect & Esteem Sir Your most obedt hume Svt

John Hancock Presidt

ALS, DLC:GW; LB, DNA:PCC, item 12A. The mutilated text within angle brackets is taken from the LB.

1When William Dodd, the regular express rider between Massachusetts and Philadelphia, became ill at Hartford while carrying dispatches to Congress from the Massachusetts General Court, he gave them to his brother, Timothy Dodd of Hartford, who proceeded to Philadelphia by way of White Plains (see Hancock to Thomas Cushing, 3 Nov. 1776, in Smith, Letters of Delegates description begins Paul H. Smith et al., eds. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789. 26 vols. Washington, D.C., 1976–2000. description ends , 5:429–30, and William Dodd et al. to Congress, 9 Nov. 1778, DNA:PCC, item 41). The previous Saturday was 26 October. The letter for Esther De Berdt Reed, who lived at Burlington, N.J., across the Delaware River from Bristol, Pa., probably was the one that her husband, Adj. Gen. Joseph Reed, wrote her on 26 Oct., informing her that he believed that Howe’s army was advancing to attack the American position at White Plains and that “the business of this campaign, and possibly the next may probably be determined this week” (extract in Reed, Joseph Reed description begins William B. Reed. Life and Correspondence of Joseph Reed, Military Secretary of Washington, at Cambridge; Adjutant-General of the Continental Army; Member of the Congress of the United States; and President of the Executive Council of the State of Pennsylvania. 2 vols. Philadelphia, 1847. description ends , 1:246). The ferry to Burlington was at the foot of Mill Street near Charles Bessonett’s tavern, which before the war was called the George II and subsequently operated under the sign of the fountain.

2The missing letters included Harrison’s letter to Hancock of 25 Oct., a copy of which Harrison sent to Hancock on 1 Nov.; GW’s letter to Martha Washington of 25 Oct., which has not been found despite the fact that Gen. William Howe returned it to GW on 11 Nov.; and a letter from GW to Edward Rutledge of about 25 Oct., which also has not been found (see Harrison to Hancock, 1 Nov., William Howe to GW, 11 Nov., and GW to Hancock, 14 November). Of the several letters from members of GW’s military family that were in the lost packet, only Reed’s letter to his wife has been identified (see note 1).

Capt. Frederick Mackenzie of the Royal Welch Fusiliers says in his diary entry for 5 Nov.: “A Packet containing several letters from Washington to the Congress, and other persons, was brought in last night, and delivered to Genl [James] Robertson by a person who said he saw them lying on a table in a house at Trenton, and who, taking advantage of the absence and carelessness of the person entrusted with them, put it in his pocket, and got off undiscovered.

“Mr Washington in some of the letters, complains much of the want of discipline in his Army, and the great deficiency of good and careful officers; presses much to have an adjutant General appointed who is fit for the Station and capable of executing the duty of it, having no person with him qualified for it: recommends new modelling the Army, and appointing officers to succeed to vacancies if they are men of abilities, without regard to Seniority: and advises them to assemble a body of troops in Jersey to prevent us from taking post there. There are many other matters mentioned in those letters which shew the undisciplined and disordered state of the Army, the knowledge of which will be of much service to Genl Howe.

“Washington mentions that he is employed in sinking vessels and other things in the N[orth] River to obstruct the navigation of it, and prevent our ships of War from passing up and down. He confirms the account of the defeat of their fleet on Lake Champlain, and says that Genl Carleton commanded the British force” (Mackenzie, Diary description begins Diary of Frederick Mackenzie Giving a Daily Narrative of His Military Service as an Officer of the Regiment of Royal Welch Fusiliers during the Years 1775–1781 in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 1930. description ends , 1:96–97).

British diarist Ambrose Serle says in his entry for 5 Nov. that the American courier “was met on the Road by a Friend of Government, who, finding out his Errand at the Inn where they met, made him fuddled & got away his Dispatches secretly, which were brought this Morning to Lord Howe. The Congress have offered £500 Reward to apprehend the Person.” On 8 Dec. Howe permitted Serle to read the intercepted letters. “They were dated about the 25th. of October,” Serle says. “The Letters from Washington & the People about him state, The Necessity of a large standing regular Army to oppose the King’s; that it should be so large as to admit of being divided into two formidable Parts, the one to act in the Eastern Colonies, and the other to the South of Hudson’s River; that there are ‘Horrid Practices prevailing in the Rebel-Army,’ and likely to prevail unless a Change of Men can be effected; that the officers (to use Mr. Washington’s own Words) are ‘dreaming, sleepy-headed’ Men; that the Eastern & Southern Colonists do not agree together; that the Province of Mass. Bay, in particular, can raise no Men, and had not raised one third of its stipulated Quota in Money; and that they have the strongest Fears, respecting their Success, and of the Consequences of a Disappointment.” Although Serle spent the following day “in assorting intercepted Letters from Washington &c. & writing Remarks upon them praeparatory to their Publication,” the letters apparently were not published (Tatum, Serle’s Journal description begins Edward H. Tatum, Jr., ed. The American Journal of Ambrose Serle: Secretary to Lord Howe, 1776–1778. San Marino, Calif., 1940. description ends , 137–39, 155–57).

3Congress on 29 Oct. appointed James Wilson and Francis Hopkinson a committee “to take every step they think proper, for the recovery of the said despatches, and the discovery of the person or persons by whom the said papers were stolen” (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 , 6:907). The committee reported two days later it could find neither the missing letters nor any “traces of the robbery or stealth,” but because Timothy Dodd could not “give so clear and satisfactory an account of this matter as fully to exculpate himself,” the committee recommended that Congress question him further (ibid., 915). Dodd was confined to jail, and on 20 Nov. Congress ordered that Charles Bessonett be dismissed as a deputy postmaster and he and his bartender be apprehended and held for questioning about the missing letters. Congress on that date also directed the investigating committee to “write to the commanding officer of the continental troops in New Jersy, to make diligent search for one Wilkins, who was at the tavern in Bristol when the packet was lost” (ibid., 968–69). Those efforts proved fruitless, however. Bessonett was released on 27 Nov., and Dodd was freed on 12 Dec. (ibid., 985, 1026).

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