George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Major Benjamin Tallmadge, 25 July 1779

From Major Benjamin Tallmadge

Ridgfield [Conn.] July 25th 1779


enclosed is a Scheme for carrying on the Correspondence in future with C——.1 Some directions how to use sd Dictionary may be found annexed. Any proper Names, which your Excellency or C—— may wish to add, can at any time be set down—The haste with which I have been obliged to compleat this (as Capt. Belden goes off early in the morning), must apologize for its imperfections, tho’ I doubt not but it Will be sufficient to render the Correspondence safe, & put it out of the power of any one to decypher our letters, (in Case of accident) who is not furnished with a duplicate of the enclosed;2 a Copy of the same will be forwarded to C—— immediately.

By the 29th inst. I expect to hear further from C——; his Dispatches shall be duly forwarded.3

I would take the liberty to observe that a safe Conveyance may be had, by the bearer, for the ink which your Excellency proposed sending to C——.4

A line informing that the enclosed comes safe to hand will much oblige your Excellencys most obedt Servt5


P.S. To make the plan of the enclosed dictionary more easy & familiar, I have wrote a Copy of this letter by the same, which is also enclosed.6

ADfS, CtLHi.

1The Culper spy network then involved Abraham Woodhull, who signed his letters “Samuel Culper” or “Samuel Culper, Sr.,” and Robert Townsend, who typically signed his letters “Samuel Culper, Jr.”

2The enclosure is an undated document now found in DLC:GW, Series 4, with undated documents for 1783. It is described in a notation as a “Numerical Dictionary” and includes a docket in GW’s writing that reads “of Majr Talmadge.” Over two full pages and most of a third, the dictionary has columns with 710 words listed alphabetically and linked to unique numbers running 1–710. With an editorially supplied slash separating code sets, some examples are “arms 7” / “british 72” / “clergy 79” / “Congress 85” / “Folly 197” / “Formidable 213” / “hunger 267” / “hypocrite 276” / “imprudent 305” / “important 317” / “interview 323” / “lucky 360” / “map 372” / “obstinate 449” / “peace 470” / “prison 489” / “rejoice 559” / “redoubt 563” / “surprise 604” / “troops 635” / “tory 639” / “tyranny 646” / “victory 659” / “uncertain 675” / “write 691” / “woman 701” / “yesterday 709” / “zeal 710.”

The last portion of the third page and the start of the fourth page connect “Proper Names” to numbers: “Genl Washington 711 [Genl] Clinton 712 Tryon 713 Erskine 714 Vaughan 715 Robinson 716 Brown 717 Genl Garth 718 North, Lord 719 Germain [Lord] 720 Bolton John 721 Culper Saml 722 Culper Junr 723 Austin Roe 724 C. Brewster 725. Rivington 726.”

Following on the fourth page are “Places” that read: “New York 727 Long Island 728 Setauket 729 Kingsbridge 730 Bergen 731 Staten Island 732 Boston 733 Rhode Island 734 Connecticut 735 New Jersey 736 Pensylvania 737 Maryland 738 Virginia 739 North Carolina 740 South Carolina 741 Georgia 742 Quebeck 743 Hallifax 744 England 745 London 746 Portsmouth 747 Plymouth 748 Ireland 749 Cork 750 Scotland 751 West Indies 752 East Indies 753 Gibralter 754 France 755 Spain 756 Scotland 757 Portugal 758 Denmark 759 Russia 760 Germany 761 Hanover 762 Head Quarters 763.”

Next on the fourth page is a column headed “Alphabet” with an alphabetical list of letters linked to another letter that represents it in the code. With an editorially supplied slash separating codes sets, it reads: “A e / b f / c g / d h / e i / F j / g a / h b / i c / j d / k o / l m / m n / n p / o q / p r / q k / r l / s u / t v / u w / v x / w y / x z / y s / Z t.”

Below this arrangement is a column headed “Numbers” with numerals linked to letters that read: “1 e 2 f 3 g 4 i 5 k 6 m 7 n 8 o 9 q o u.”

The remainder of the fourth page contains Tallmadge’s narrative instructions, which read: “Directions for the Alphabet N.B. the use of this Alphabet is when you wish to express some words not mentioned in the numerical Dictionary. For instance the word heart, would be expressed thus bielv. look the letters of the real word in the first column of the Alphabet and then opposite to them, let those letters in the second column represent them; in this case always observe to draw a line under the word, as Fwv stands for but.

“Numbers are represented by their opposite Letters which must have a double line under them as fikm is 2 4 5 6. & nqu is 790.

“Directions for the numerical Dictionary.

“In the numerical Dictionary it is sufficient to express a part of a sentence only in figures, to make the rest perfectly unintillegable, as all words cannot be mentioned those of synonimous meaning must be sought for. & if not to be found, & the word not proper to be wrote, then the alphabet must be used—When numbers are used always observe to put a period after the number thus 284. Stands for it & 295. inforce.

“It will often happen that the same word may need to be changed thro the different moods, tenses, nums. &c.—thus if you would express the word Introduce the number would be 328. if you would express the word introduced make a small flourish over the same 32̃8—Horse is repres[ente]d by 255. Horses by 25̃5., kill by 344. killed by 34̃4. impress by 290. impressed by 29̃0, in such cases the Foregoing & subsequent parts must determine the word.”

The loss of letters during a British raid in early July undoubtedly prompted Tallmadge to develop his code to protect his operatives and contacts (see GW to Tallmadge, 5 July, and n.1 to that document; see also William Heath to GW, 4 July, and n.1 to that document). For the rather rudimentary nature of Tallmadge’s code, see Rose, Washington’s Spies, description begins Alexander Rose. Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring. New York, 2006. description ends 114–24.

3See Tallmadge to GW, 28–30 July, and the enclosures to that document.

4For the invisible ink, which GW sent on this date, see his letter to Tallmadge of this date, and n.2 to that document; see also GW to Tallmadge, 13 June.

6The enclosed version of this letter in code has not been found.

Fig. 4.1. First page of Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge’s code book. (Library of Congress)

Fig. 4.2. Second page of Tallmadge’s code book. (Library of Congress)

Fig. 4.3. Third page of Tallmadge’s code book. (Library of Congress)

Fig. 4.4. Last page of Tallmadge’s code book. (Library of Congress)

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