May 14, 1782

Written by James from West Point

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.

Transcription PDF
A Soldier's Joke

To understand this soldier's joke, imagine it this way: One soldier says to another, "What's new?" The other says "The war's over, ain't it?" The first says, "Yes, it's over all the world!"

James Davenport's Siblings

James Davenport had thirteen siblings. When he wrote this letter, Josiah and Hannah were living in Warwick, Massachusetts, and Joseph and Isaac Howe had died fighting in the war. The other nine were living at home with his parents, Isaac and Mary Davenport: Samuel, Lydia, Mary, Sarah, Ephraim, Ebenezer, John, Daniel, and Esther.

What are "the Molls"?

Molls was a slang term for young, single women.