George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Major General Israel Putnam, 24 July 1777

From Major General Israel Putnam

Head Quarters Peeks kill [N.Y.] July 24th 1777
10 o Clock at night

Dear Genl

Inclosed is a Letter from G. How to G. Burgoine brot out by one Mr Williams who was betrusted to Carry it to Canada inclosed also is the account he gave of the matter on Examination also Major Fishes Recommendation of him—which being of So much importance I thought prudent not to loose a moments time in transmitting to you1—It Seems that G. How Means to make a Shew of going Southward when his real intent is Eastward if this Intelligence may be depended on.

In consequence of receiving the above, I Consulted with a Number of Genl Officers, & have advised Ld Sterling not to cross the river untill he Shall receive your further advice—The boats are all ready & his Division may be thrown over in a very Short time. with respect & Esteem am your Excellencys Obedt humble Servant

Israel Putnam


1The enclosed intercepted letter from William Howe to John Burgoyne, written at New York on 20 July 1777, has not been identifed, but William Sprague’s nineteenth-century transcript of it reads: “I have received your letter of the 14th May from Quebec, and shall fully observe the Contents—The expedition to B—n will take place of that up the N. River.

“If, according to my expectations we may succeed rapidly in the possession of B—the enemy having no force of any consequence there, I shall, without loss of time, proceed to co-operate with you in the defeat of the Rebel army opposed to you—Clinton is sufficiently strong to amuse Washington and Putnam.

“I am now making demonstration to the Southward, which I think will have the full effect in Carrying our plan into execution—Success attend you” (DLC:GW).

The enclosed statement about the letter reads: “Henry Williams from New York on Tuesday morning 22nd July says he was confined in Provost Guard three Weeks, that upon Recommendations from several Gentlemen in N. York in his favour, he was sent for by Colo. Sherriff who proposed to him to be the Bearer of a Letter to Lt Genl Burgoyne in Canada with Assurances of Great reward, which he for some time declined tho’ at length Accepted with Intention to expose the Letter to some American Officer—That at the time the Letter was delivered to him by Colo. Sherriff he had some suspicions of its being delivered to him with intent to fall into our Hands, tho’ he has no Particular Reason for his Opinion—That the Enemy’s Troops that have embarked still lie at the Hook—that there are three Regts (two of English and one of Hessian) in the City of New York—that there is a small guard of Hessians at Fort Washington—that there is in his Opinion about 5,000 Troops at and about Kingsbridge under the Command of General Tryon of which there is one Regt of Brittish 35th & some Hessian Troops but the Principal part American raised Troops—that an Express arrived from Kings Bridge when he was in Conversation with Colo. Sherriff Advising that Genl Washington was upon his march to the Bridge with 15,000 Men, and that the Tories are very apprehensive of our Obtaining Possession of N. York.

“That while he was in Provost Guard he heard some Conversation between the Provost Martial & two Boston Gentlemen, who upon parting desired to be remembred to certain Gentlemen at that Place.

“That Colo. Sherriff advanced six half Johannes’s to defray his Expences with a Strict Charge to make all possible dispatch.

“That there is a person who constantly plyes between N. York & Canada his Name Taylor, his dress a blue Camblet Coat with white Facings & Silver Epaulets.

“last Tuesday [15 July] morning three Regts the 7th 26th & a Regt of Hessians marched to the Seven mile Stone Col. Sheriff Said three Regt more were to march up next day—These Troops disembarked from on board the Ships” (DLC:GW). GW agreed with Williams’s assessment that Howe’s letter to Burgoyne was intended to fall into the hands of the Americans (see the postscript to GW’s first letter to Putnam of 25 July).

The enclosed letter from Nicholas Fish to Putnam vouchsafing for Williams, written at the “Manor of Scarsdale” in New York on 24 July 1777 by order of Col. Philip Van Cortlandt, reads: “I have the Pleasure of inclosing to You the Examination of Mr Henry Williams from New York on Tuesday [22 July] last, together with an intercepted Letter from Genl Howe to Genl Burgoyne in Canada, a knowledge of the Contents whereof, will in all probability operate greatly to our Advantage—The young Man who was the Bearer of it, voluntarily sought out our Guards, and exposed the Letter to Us—I am well acquainted with him, as well as his nearest Connections, who seem firmly attached to our Cause” (DLC:GW).

Brig. Gen. John Glover, writing from Peekskill, N.Y., to James Warren on 25 July, discusses at length the intercepted letter and Howe’s possible actions for sending it out, as well as the effects it had on some of the American officers: “The Enemy’s Conduct is exceedingly Embarrassing to us.—They have for two weeks past been Collecting all the Seamen that have any knowledge of the Southern Coast, from this we supposed their Design was on that Quarter—but last Evening, we took a Mr Williams at the White Plains from New York who was sent by Genl Howe with a Letter to Genl Burgoyne at Fort Edward—acknowledging the Rect of his Letter of the 14th May, & advising he (Howe) was all ready for Sailing, & should make an Attack on Boston, (in which Burgoyne is to Co-operate from the Northwd) & flatters himself he shall not meet with much difficulty—as he supposes the Rebel Army was now Collected, & at such a Distance from that place, that an easy Conquest may be made.

“The Letter referr’d to, was sent off to Genl Washington 12 OClock last night (about 28 Miles distce) an Express came in from him this morning 3 OClk with Orders for the two Divisions before mention’d to join him—This Express met the one sent off with Howes Letter, 10 Miles on his way—how far this intelligence will operate with Genl Washington, I am not able to say—but taking all Circumstances together (which are too many to Enumerate) all the Genl Officers on this side the North River are fully of the Opinion Boston is their mark—

“Should Genl Washington favour this Opinion, he will be on with his whole Army, except my Brigade, which is now Embark’d & waiting for a wind, for Albany & one Brigade which will be left at this Post.—

“It’s one of the first Principles in War to deceive,—Howe has taken great pains to do this in many Circumstances—His Expedition he keeps as a profound secret—at the same time Offers great Encouragemts for Pilots to the Southward, gives Prisoners an opportunity to Escape with a Design that this may be known to Genl Washington—then sends a Fleet of Ships abt 30 Sail thro’ the sound—at the same time sends 4 Arm’d ships & Row Gallies up the North River as if they design’d to stop the Troops crossing from the West to the East side of the River—then lyes still 10 days—sends out Williams with the Letter before mention’d & the next day sails from the Hook, with his whole Fleet Consisting of 170 Sail—These Manoeuvres are design’d to Baffle & deceive us.—I wish the Effect may not prove it—If his Object was Philadelphia, would he not have procur’d Pilots in a more private Manner, on the other hand if Boston would he have sent Mr Williams, a young Gentleman of York, who is a Staunch friend of America—as appears by his being Confined in the Provost Guard two weeks (& other favourable Circumstances) before he was engag’d on this Errand—taken out, & the next day sent off by Major Sherriff—& sent in such a way, & by such a Road, that he could not but have fallen into our hands. However he like an honest man made inquiry for our Guards & deliver’d himself up—He recd 6 half Joe’s & was recommended to Genl Burgoyne for a further Reward—from his coming out in this open way, we suppose it was design’d he should fall into our hands, & that we should not pay any Attention to it—at the same time sent off one Taylor—of middling Stature, Dark Complexion, short brown hair—Blue Camblet Coat, with white Lappels who we expect will get thro’—as he has been employ’d in that way for several Months past with success, having return’d from that Quarter, but a day or two before Mr Williams Left York” (Naval Documents description begins William Bell Clark et al., eds. Naval Documents of the American Revolution. 11 vols. to date. Washington, D.C., 1964—. description ends , 9:334–35).

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