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The Davenport Letters: May 22, Year Unknown

This letter does not include a year. James Davenport’s letters and his memoirs indicate that he was at West Point in May 1779, 1780, and 1782, so it is unclear in which year he wrote this one. John Davenport, who transcribed this letter in the 1850s, numbered it as the second letter, between Isaac How Davenport’s two, but James was at Valley Forge, not West Point, in May 1778.

James Davenport was born in 1759 and apprenticed to a local shoemaker. In 1776, he enlisted in a militia unit and then in the Continental Army in February 1777. In April 1777, he began several months of campaigning in New York that eventually took him to the Battle of Saratoga in September. He spent that winter at Valley Forge with the main Continental Army, where, according to his memoir, “huts and cells were built to dwell in during the winter, as commodious as place and circumstances would allow.” After a brief illness and recovery away from camp, he was inoculated for smallpox, as a result of which he “had a siege of it; but I came off conqueror.” In 1778 and 1779, he fought at the Battle of Monmouth, endured a series of illnesses, and saw active service in New York before gaining a furlough in December 1779.

In this undated letter, he complains about the minimal daily rations that Continental soldiers sometimes received: in this case, half a pound of bread, a gill (four ounces, or half a cup) of peas, and “a little stinking shad,” a type of fish. May was a hard month in army encampments because there was little fresh food available, and stores put up the previous summer and fall would be running low and spoiling.

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The Davenport Letters: August 20, 1782

On August 20, 1782, James Davenport and the 8th Massachusetts Regiment were still at West Point. Camp rumors suggested the war might be coming to an end, and Davenport reflected ongoing grievances against Loyalists in his objection to the idea that a peace settlement might allow them to “have their farms as usual.” He was wistful for home, especially as family members moved on with their lives. But he ended with a joke directly at his brother, requesting Samuel to keep him, a “Gentleman Soldier,” in mind if his ship ever came in.

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The Davenport Letters: April 14, 1783

The last letter in Davenport’s collection is dated April 14, 1783, shortly before the Continental Army began to discharge soldiers. It gives us a glimpse at how quickly letters could travel in this period, often because they were carried by individual travelers. His brother wrote a letter on March 28 that James Davenport received on April 7, and it apparently included a reprimand from his father, almost certainly for the language in James’s candid letter of March 25 (suggesting that that letter had made it to Dorchester in just three days). The reprimand didn’t prevent James from making more references to the Molls at home in this next letter, of course.

James Davenport ends this letter fittingly: “Liberty Peace and Independence forever.” He returned home in 1783 and married Esther Mellish in 1784. They had eleven children and James Davenport died forty years later, remembered as a devout Christian and Master Mason, at age 64. His descendants carefully preserved mementoes of his service, including the letters transcribed here as well as his noncommissioned officer’s sword from his service under the Marquis de Lafayette and the various objects highlighted elsewhere here. According to a family story, Esther Mellish used the red wool from a British coat that James Davenport brought home to make a small pair of baby booties for their new child. Carefully preserved by later generations, these booties allow us to imagine how the first generation of American revolutionaries beat swords into ploughshares and began their lives in the new United States. 

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The Davenport Letters: March 25, 1783

James Davenport’s letter of March 25, 1783, is among the most interesting of this collection, but not because it shares new information about major historical events. Instead, it is a rare, candid account from a Revolutionary soldier that reminds us that these soldiers were also young men. Davenport was recovering from a night of drinking, or, as he wrote, “the Perfumes of the wine ant [ain’t] hardly out of my head yet because I Drinkd a Good Sling this morning.” With his guard down, he wrote to his brother of his hope of “spending some of my Precious time with some clever Moll, especially in the dark part of the day.” As he had written the year before, “it is a fashion among us soldiers to talk so” about young women, but these conversations rarely made it into written documents that allow us to imagine the fireside banter and youthful hopes of young soldiers.

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The Davenport Letters: March 12, 1783

With little news or change in his situation, James Davenport wrote to his brother again on March 12, 1783. By this time, as he wrote, his military service felt akin to “Slavery,” and he regretted having enlisted when he “was young and foolish” and before he had the chance to enjoy “the sweets of Freedom.” But the long winter – the last winter of the war, as it would turn out – dragged on, and Davenport remained with the army as his friends and family began to enjoy what seemed an increasingly likely peace. 

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The Davenport Letters: February 15, 1783

The winter of 1782 dragged on as James Davenport was encamped with the Continental Army at New Windsor, New York. This particular letter hints at the religious education that Davenport must have received as a child in Dorchester. Like many young Americans, he would have learned to read and write with the Bible as a primary learning and teaching tool. Two of his references – to a coming “jubilee” in which the soldiers would become free and to making bricks without straw under strict taskmasters – would have been familiar to most people as both common idioms and ideas rooted in Christian tradition. And both references helped Davenport convey the increasing resentment he felt at his situation, stuck in an army waiting for peace. “We hope to get free from our Slaveng soon,” he wrote.

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The Davenport Letters: January 22, 1783

James Davenport’s letters from early 1783 suggest that he was indeed as regular a correspondent as he maintained, writing at least every week or two when in winter encampments. Whether his other letters were never delivered or had been lost by the 1850s remains unclear, and for an unknown reason, John Davenport, who transcribed these letters in the 1850s, omitted one letter (the thirteenth in his recording) dated January 22, 1783, from his transcriptions. James Davenport was overjoyed in this letter to have finally received a letter in return. But he remained cynical about the war itself, doubting it would end soon and believing that his service amounted to little more than slavery: “six years and a half being a slave for nothing is enough.”

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The Davenport Letters: January 15, 1783

James wrote another letter home about a month after his mess finished their winter hut in the encampment at New Windsor, New York. The army remained largely inactive and unpaid, or, as Davenport put it, in “peace and Poverty,” leading to ongoing frustrations among the soldiery. While many Continental soldiers had a deep ideological commitment to the Revolution and had served for years, they also felt, as Davenport put it, that “the Labourer is worthy of his hire.”

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The Davenport Letters: December 13, 1782

By December of 1782, Washington had moved his army from Verplanck’s Point to a permanent winter encampment up the Hudson at New Windsor. Amid his usual complaints about how little food, money, and correspondence he had, James Davenport recorded how the army went into its winter quarters. As they had every previous winter of the war, the soldiers maintained a defensive front while building huts. James was a member of the light infantry, units of soldiers who were supposed to be especially active, intelligent, and prepared for the sort of common small engagements and dispersed fighting called skirmishing. His unit remained in their tents on guard in case of a British attack while other soldiers began building the small log cabins that would house them over the cold New York winter. These huts usually had plank roofs, bunk beds, and fireplaces, and by December 13, James and perhaps a dozen other soldiers had finished theirs enough that they could begin living in it.

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The Davenport Letters: October 23, 1782

Just days later after writing his August 1782 letter from West Point, James Davenport travelled down the Hudson with 8,000 other soldiers to a new encampment at Verplanck’s Point. Washington used this move to think through how an amphibious assault on New York might work. And as you can explore in the Museum’s Picturing Washington’s Army interactive, he used the encampment there to impress French allies. The Continental Army was encamped in a long line, and soldiers built elaborate structures, gateways, and arbors. Just down the line from the 8th Massachusetts, a sergeant in another Massachusetts regiment wrote in his journal that “We have here a fine encampment which will furnish the public with a curious map someday or other.”

Davenport made no mention of this activity besides noting that on October 23, he was encamped on “Lunts Creek” a few miles below “Peeksville” (today’s Dickey Creek feeds into Lunts Cove just outside Verplanck, New York, down the Hudson from Peekskill). More important to him was the absence of news from home, and he opened this letter with an amusing dialogue between himself and his pen, perhaps inspired by the popular fictional “object narratives” of this period. 

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