SCIM-C Demonstration 2: A Letter from George Washington to Benjamin Tallmadge (1779)

In the demonstration section below, historian Tom Ewing uses the SCIM strategy to analyze the following primary source in order to explore the guiding historical question: What was the role of spies during the Revolutionary War? His analysis using SCIM was taped and transcribed. A multimedia version is also available on this page. The source to be analyzed is a letter from George Washington to Benjamin Tallmadge, a spy (view original handwritten letter, Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan). The letter was originally handwritten. What you see before you is a transcription based on that original.

Summarizing

The first phase of the SCIM strategy is summarizing. The purpose of summarizing is to locate any information or evidence that is explicitly available within the source. The first piece of evidence available from the source is the source type, that is, I am analyzing a letter. At this point it is necessary to read through the letter to get a broad understanding of the letter's author, subject, audience, and purpose.
As I continue the summarizing phase, what does the letter tell me, explicitly? The author of the letter is General George Washington and he is writing to Benjamin Tallmadge. Unfortunately, from the letter, it is not possible to discern who Benjamin Tallmadge is, as Washington only refers to him as "you." The purpose of the letter is to address two issues, Tallmadge's position at Bedford and the fatigue of the horse. Obviously, the letter is within the time frame of the Revolutionary War, but there is a lot in the letter that is not immediately obvious in terms of summarizing.

Contextualizing

The second phase of the SCIM strategy is contextualizing. The purpose of the contextualizing phase is to examine the source in more detail in terms of recognizing and locating the source in time and space. In this case, when and where the letter was written is fairly straightforward and was mentioned previously within the summarization phase. Specifically, the letter was written in 1779, in New Windsor (New York). Why the letter was written is also clearly stated. General Washington was responding to a previous communication concerning Tallmadge's position at Bedford and the condition of his horse.
The question of what was happening within the immediate and broader context of when and where the letter was written is interesting. The date of 1779 is significant, in a broad context - it is three years after the start of the Revolutionary War. Also, we can tell from the letter they are in a War, due to several references to the enemy, troop movement, and preventing ravages of small towns. The last sentence, "the enclosed contains matter for our knowledge only," tells us this letter is not a public speech, but something more confidential. Finally, Washington talks about a central place between two rivers, which gives us a clue about where this might be taking place; although, the information is not a lot and is, in some ways, very cryptic.

Inferring

I now know who wrote the letter, why it was written, and the context within which the letter was written. Within the SCIM strategy I now move on to inferring, that is, what information may be implied or concluded from the evidence within this cryptic source? Examining the first of Washington's two issues, Tallmadges' position at Bedford, Washington intimates that the people in the Bedford area are both part of the general war and part of Tallmadges' specific assignment, whatever it is. There is clearly a sense that protecting these people is important - "the purpose of covering the inhabitants". Regarding Washington's second issue, Tallmadge's horse, General Washington seems very concerned.
Now, having addressed the issues of Bedford and horse fatigue, the purpose of the letter is still not quite clear, as the letter really says very little. The letter generally addresses the Bedford location, the horse fatigue, and the coming troops, but we really do not know much about Tallmadge's specific assignment. This lack of specificity may be purposeful, so that if the enemy intercepts the letter it will give little information. Also, there may be deeper meanings embedded or coded in the letter to which we are not aware. Finally, the fact that General Washington is writing this type of letter and concerned about Tallmadge's location and the fatigue of his horse, suggests how intimately involved Washington was in the military process.

Monitoring

The progression from summarizing, through contextualizing, to inferring, always leads me to questions. The fourth phase of the SCIM strategy is the monitoring phase, that is, what questions do I have regarding my initial assumptions and interpretations or my current understandings? In this case, I have several questions. Who was Tallmadge, what was his role in the war, and what were his orders? What is the relationship between Tallmadge, the enemy, and the Colonel Maylan's regiment? What was the larger role of spies in the Revolutionary War? How involved in selecting, training, and deploying spies was General Washington?
Regarding the letter itself, some of the abbreviations and spellings are unfamiliar and the use of brackets is unclear. Obviously the original letter would be handwritten and what we have is a transcription, so it is not clear what was in the original letter and what might be transcription error. And we can imagine that the letter was written quickly, without proofreading or editing, which may account for why certain things are written the way that they are. Thus, it would be beneficial to view the original letter from which this transcript was created.

Interpretation

With all four phases of the SCIM strategy complete, I am left to create a final interpretation of the source relative to the guiding historical question: What was the role of spies during the Revolutionary War? A final interpretation might look like this:
This letter, written by General Washington, in 1779, to Benjamin Tallmadge, suggests that spies were part of a broader relationship between American forces, the British enemy, and the civilians in vicinity of the troops. Washington's commands to Tallmadge involve positioning himself as close as possible to the enemy, offering assistance and protection to the people, and waiting for the arrival of American troops. The specific issues that concern Washington, and presumably Tallmadge, include his designated location and the fatigue of his horse. These two points call attention to the close relationship between position and mobility, the first determining to a large extent the effectiveness of the spy, and the second presumably a means of self-protection in the event of detection. Letters provide only limited information about these broader issues, because they were, by definition, meant to be as cryptic as possible, and thus do not explain broader purposes, identify key participants, or suggest future actions. The letter thus needs to be read as it was presumably written: quickly, in brief, and with specific purposes in mind. The letter does clearly convey Washington's direct involvement in the command of his troops, which extends in this case to the situation of a particular spy and even the condition of his horse.
As can be seen from the interpretation above, utilizing the SCIM strategy results in a deep, thorough, and careful analysis of the primary source, as well as an insightful and well-grounded interpretation.



The Historical Inquiry project was funded by an IDDL Research Fellowship and a FIPSE grant.
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