U.S. Revolutionary War Letters and Diaries

One of the most significant events in world history, although it took place in the mid-18th century (from 1775 to 1783), the American Revolutionary War, also known as the American War of Independence, is very well documented thanks to the many letters and diaries of Benjamin Franklin and other Founding Fathers of the United States and the signatories of the declaration of independence in 1776, including Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock and George Washington. The Library of Congress holds a priceless collection of many of these documents. British government correspondence, military orders, and even books of code used by spies working for the two sides in the war, also survive to provide a vivid picture of life in late-18th century colonial and revolutionary America.

Franklin, known as "the First American," for his campaigning to bring unity to the original 13 colonies on the east coast, was a polymath - scientist and inventor, author, philosopher and politician, diplomat - who regularly wrote up to 13 letters in a day on various topics. At the beginning of the Revolution, he wrote a long letter to his friend Bishop Shipley, expressing his concern that problems with Great Britain would not be easily resolved. "The Congress will send one more Petition to the King, which I suppose will be treated as the former was, and therefore will probably be the last; for tho' this may afford Britain one chance more of recovering our Affections and retaining the Connection, I think she has neither Temper nor Wisdom enough to seize the Golden Opportunity. When I look forward to the Consequences, I see an End to all Commerce between us…"

Historians have suggested that one of the principle causes for the might of Britain, with its professional, standing army and vast resources of its empire, to lose a war to what was at first a poorly organized and under-equipped rebel militia, was its poor communications, both between London and America, and between its various generals and commanders in the field in Boston, Philadelphia, New York and elsewhere in the colonies. During the war, gathering information, and sometimes spying, became increasingly important.

The William L. Clemens Library at Michigan University has an outstanding collection of spy letters. Some of them are written in invisible ink, others are coded. Among the most interesting method of delivering information is a letter, sent in August 1777 by Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander in chief in North America, to General John Burgoyne, that was intended to be read by its recipient while wearing a mask. By putting on the mask, part of the letter is hidden and only the secret message remains visible.

Another letter with important information about army manoeuvres was sent by the American, Benedict Arnold, to the British troops in return for £20,000. The letter was written in a secret code of numbers, letters and symbols. The key is a previously determined book. When writing the letter, first the word you want to write is found in the book and instead of the word itself, you write the page number, line number and word number - for example the code "293.9.7" corresponds to the word "wrote".

Away from the battles, life in the new American cities or on the frontier often seemed to continue as normal. With campaigning over in the winter of 1777-1778, the British stayed in Philadelphia, occupying their time with many parties and social occasions. Affluent Americans living in the city were regular guests of the soldiers. Rebecca Franks, form a loyalist family and one of the most popular "belles," in the city, gained renown for her poetry and letters, including correspondence with the Continental Army's General Charles Lee. Franks married British Colonel Henry Johnson in 1782, and after the war moved to England. Her letters show that American society managed to function, maintaining close contact with friends and relatives on both sides.

A letter from Abigail Grant to her husband, who fought at Bunker Hill in June 1775, has survived in the papers of a Connecticut family. "I hear by Captn Wm Riley news that makes me very Sorry for he Says you proved a Grand Coward when the fight was at Bunkers hill… If you are afraid pray own the truth & come home & take care of our Children & I will be Glad to Come & take your place, & never will be Called a Coward… but exert myself bravely in so good a Cause."

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799
John C. Fitzpatkick; George Washington.
U.S. Govt. Print. Off., vol.7, 1931
Librarian’s tip: Questia has multiple volumes in this series
Thomas Jefferson: Thoughts on War and Revolution: Annotated Correspondence
Thomas Jefferson; Brett F. Woods.
Algora, 2009
Letters from France: The Private Diplomatic Correspondence of Benjamin Franklin, 1776-1785
Benjamin Franklin; Brett F. Woods.
Algora, 2006
Mercy Otis Warren: Selected Letters
Mercy Otis Warren; Jeffrey H. Richards; Sharon M. Harris.
University of Georgia Press, 2009
FREE! The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States
Francis Wharton.
Govt. Print. Off., vol.3, 1889
The American Revolution, Garrison Life in French Canada and New York: Journal of An Officer in the Prinz Friedrich Regiment, 1776-1783
Mary C. Lynn; Helga Doblin.
Greenwood Press, 1993
FREE! The Life of Peter Van Schaack, LL. D: Embracing Selections from His Correspondence and Other Writings during the American Revolution, and His Exile in England
Henry Cruger Van Schaack.
D. Appleton & Company, 1842
Benjamin Franklin and Catharine Ray Greene: Their Correspondence, 1755-1790
William Greene Roelker.
American Philosophical Society, 1949
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