May 22, Year Unknown

Written by James from West Point

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.

Transcription PDF
"Little stinking shad"

Shad is a type of small fish that travels up rivers to spawn in the spring and was actively harvested by early Americans.

"a Jill of pease"

Meaning "a gill of peas," a gill is a measurement of four ounces or half a cup.

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.