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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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The Davenport Letters: June 26, 1782

The letters James Davenport wrote from West Point in May and June of 1782 were just over a month apart, suggesting that he probably wrote more letters home than survive in this set. Little had changed in his circumstances, however, and the soldiers still had “Plenty of duty & Little Provision & less money.” Davenport’s humor comes through in this letter, and it includes facetious remarks about the quality of his paper, young women at home, and the oppressive summer weather.

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The Davenport Letters: May 14, 1782

Shortly after writing his letter from West Point in January 1781, James Davenport was transferred to the light infantry company of the 8th Massachusetts. Light infantry soldiers were usually nimble young soldiers and more likely to be deployed in running fights and skirmishes. Davenport served in the Yorktown campaign and remembered being present at the surrender of the British Army in October 1781. Years later, James Davenport recalled his experiences at Yorktown to a local historian, who wrote:

“The regiment that this man belonged to had, previous to that event, suffered unnumbered privations, were continually on the alert, and their clothing was literally rags: he said nearly one-half of the regiment were barefoot; but their hearts were as true as the needle to the pole. The supplies which had been long expected from the government had not arrived; but, by perseverance and valor, the day of their deliverance was at hand… Our allies, the French, were drawn up in a long line on one side, and the Americans on the other; and the British troops, the prisoners, were to march out between the lines, with trailed arms, unloaded, and deposit them on the spot assigned. Our brave Yankees literally toed the line, for their feet were many of them bare; while the proud British soldiers were dressed, as the saying is, ’neat as a new pin,’ – every man had his hair powdered, and everyone was a prince to look to. My informant said that language was too feeble to describe the indignation and resentment of the British soldiers, plainly depicted in their countenances, to think that they had surrendered to such a dirty, ragged, weatherbeaten set of human beings; they gnashed their teeth, and shook their heads, and muttered out oaths and execrations too horrid to rehearse. All the while our victorious countrymen stood firm and unmoved, – guns loaded, swords drawn, hearts of steel: a glow of manly enthusiasm and joy beamed from every countenance; while the rude winds of heaven sported with their tattered garments.”

After 10 months of active campaigning, Davenport found himself back at West Point in 1782, where he wrote this letter in May. Davenport’s humor shines through in this letter, even if the joke he uses to explain ongoing anxiety about the war’s duration strikes us as a bit of a dad joke. Nonetheless, this was a difficult time for the Continental Army, with soldiers still largely unpaid and disgruntled.

Shortly before Davenport wrote this letter, soldiers in the Connecticut Line began to plot a mutiny. When they were discovered, one of them, Lud Gaylord of the 1st Connecticut, was executed on May 13, 1782. Davenport witnessed this execution but was largely unmoved. “It is very dull times here,” he wrote in his next sentence.

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The Davenport Letters: January 20, 1781

James Davenport continued to serve with the Continental Army through the fall and winter of 1780, including witnessing the execution of captured British spy Major James André. He was back in camp at West Point, New York, in January 1781. As this letter indicates, winter encampments could be long, dreary affairs for an army of young men anxious for action or to return home. In this letter, James reflects on thoughts of desertion (writing that “we Shall go out of Camp without Leave & forget to return half of the time”), meager rations, and a lack of pay. Continental soldiers, just like British and Hessian soldiers during the war, were formally entitled to food, clothing, and payment as part of their military service. But in practice, the Continental government struggled to produce the money necessary to pay soldiers. Many went months or even years without receiving any, and by January 1781 James Davenport noted that it had been thirteen months since their last pay was received.

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The Davenport Letters: August 26, 1780

By August 1780, James Davenport was encamped at Hackensack, New Jersey, north of New York City. That summer, the Continental Army was engaging in regular movements, marches, and active skirmishing with British parties that ventured out of the city. As James endured these marches, he was also reflecting on the larger strategic shifts of the war. Since February 1778, the French had been in a formal alliance with the United States, but many people remained skeptical both of the French and of their long-term commitment to the cause. A second copy of this letter, on different paper and with slightly different spelling, survives in the Davenport family papers.

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The Davenport Letters: April 16, 1780

The earliest dated letter from James Davenport is from April 1780, when he was in camp at West Point, New York, for at least the second time in his service. He had been at home on furlough since December 1779 and wrote to his brother the day after he returned to camp. The bulk of Washington’s army was still encamped at Morristown, New Jersey. Like most Continental soldiers in the spring of 1780, James was wistful for home but decided “to make the best of a bad bargain.” 

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The Davenport Letters: June 13, 1778

The second of the two surviving letters of Isaac Davenport was written at the very end of the Valley Forge encampment. Washington’s Continental Army had spent the winter training for a new campaign. As Davenport predicted, the British evacuated Philadelphia – for New York, not Boston – and Washington’s army left Valley Forge within days of this letter. Washington engaged and defeated the British at the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey on June 28, where Davenport was presumably engaged along with the rest of his unit, the 3rd Dragoons.

Three months after writing this letter, Isaac Davenport was with a detachment of dragoons in Bergen County, New Jersey, north of New York City. Late on the evening of Sept. 27, while encamped in houses and barns, they were surprised by British troops. The event became known as the “Baylor Massacre,” after George Baylor, the dragoon’s commander. Isaac Davenport was killed. He was 22.

In 1967, an excavation uncovered the skeletal remains of six soldiers killed at the Massacre and hastily buried in a tanning vat. One of the skeletons was that of a robust adult male who was fully dressed when he was buried. Scholars believe that the silver buttons and silver neckstock buckle – hallmarked by a Boston silversmith whose shop would have been a convenient place to visit from Dorchester – found with this skeleton suggest that it was that of Isaac Davenport.

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The Davenport Letters: January 15, 1778

The Continental Army had been at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, for less than a month when Sergeant Isaac How Davenport wrote home to his brother, Samuel, in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Isaac had joined the Continental Army shortly after Lexington and Concord and served as a member of General George Washington’s Commander in Chief’s Guard. A company of mounted Guardsmen were commanded by Captain George Lewis, Washington’s nephew. In early 1777, they were consolidated into the 3rd Regiment of Continental Dragoons commanded by Colonel George Baylor. Davenport served as a sergeant through the campaigns of 1777 with this regiment. In this letter, he reflects on conditions at Valley Forge in early 1778. James and Isaac had three other brothers, Josiah, Joseph, and Samuel.

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The Davenport Letters: James & Isaac How Davenport's Letters

Browse a selection of more than a dozen letters written by natives of Dorchester, Massachuesetts, Continental Army soldiers, and brothers James and Isaac How Davenport during the Revolutionary War from 1778-1783. These surviving letters have descended through the Davenport family for generations. In the 1850s, the letters were transcribed into a ledger — those transcribed versions are the letters seen throughout. They are currently in the possession of a descendant of James Davenport.

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The Davenport Letters: About the Davenport Letters

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