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British Gen. Henry Clinton’s Secret Letter

As previously described, one of the most important gems of the archives in which I researched 1775 is the Clements Library at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. The Clements has been called “the headquarters of British documents of the Revolution”—a fair assessment. Among its collections is the papers of British Lieutenant General Thomas Gage—the British commander-in-chief and lead antagonist in the story of Revolutionary Boston. But another important collection at Clements is the papers of Major General Henry Clinton.

Gen. Clinton did not arrive in Boston until May of 1775, almost a month after war had been kindled in the sleepy New England town. But Clinton was perhaps the keenest strategists among the eight or so British generals assigned to Boston. Much later in the war, he would be promoted to commander-in-chief of all British forces in America.

Upon his arrival, Clinton immediately set out to reconnoiter the American siege lines and assess the rebel force. A few weeks later, the Battle of Bunker Hill was waged just across the Charles River from Boston. Late in the battle, upon seeing the British assault once repulsed by the tough American force on and east of Breed’s Hill, Clinton crossed without orders to give succor. As he did so, the British force gave two more assaults, the third being successful at rooting the Americans from their breastworks. The Americans were already starting their orderly retreat when Clinton arrived in time to help rally a tattered and disorganized group of redcoats and with them gave chase to the fleeing Americans, driving them from Charlestown Peninsula. The rest of the 1775 was little more than a stalemate between the American lines and the British.

Fortunately for posterity, Clinton recorded much of his observations, though many of the interesting details are relegated to an unorganized collection of tattered documents, uneasily deciphered as they are written in Clinton’s atrocious penmanship. From Clinton’s volumes of letters, we learn that he was a complex man, outwardly timid, opinionated, intelligent, but paranoid.

One of his especially interesting letters, undated, was written sometime in late 1775 to William Phillips in England. It is utterly boring at first glance. It reads in part:

…as for the famous City of Boston, leave it to the navy, they will be able to take care of it. I [illegible] sense you agree & if you have heard as they done all that may be said on that subject, and as much of the coast as I have you would totally agree with me…

Seems like a long, run-on sentence of gibberish, does it not? His writing takes much practice to decipher, but the rest of the letter is much the same, giving a few opinions of the state of affairs of the British in Boston, but nothing of great consequence.

But… the real letter is not the one above. 

Instead, you have to lay over the letter a mask (see the photo to the right), and only with that mask, does it become obvious that the gibberish above was written in to fill the space around the true letter, no doubt written first in the center of the page. The entire part of the hidden letter reads as follows:

let me know what you think[.] they realy [sic] intend doing[.] will they sustain us properly or are we to have beef stake work; if so better by far leave it to the navy if you had heard as much of the coast as I have, & the effect this sort of war will have on the people, you would agree with me. We are an army of Children and our officers have customs I highly disapprove[.] our disposition on the 17th [of June at Bunker Hill] was one long stragling line two deep, men loaded with blankits [sic] and knapsacks[,] halting often to form [the] line[,] obliged to reserer[? reserve?] the front and when they arrived at the entrenchment many Regts. with out bayonets[.] if this is american deposition it is not mine; it may be right, but I shall never think so[.] if this method succeeds I shall continue; do the Same1

The hidden letter within the letter is also comprised of broken grammar, but Clinton’s desire to hide his criticisms of the war and the British leadership are certainly understandable, his paranoia in devising this masked message justifiable. When Clinton wrote the line “it may be right, but I shall never think so”, did he mean to suggest that the war to squash the American rebellion was foolhardy? The context is unclear, but years later Clinton wrote in his personal account of the Revolution, “I was not a volunteer in that war, I was ordered by my Sovereign and I obeyed”.2

The use of a mask to reveal a secret message is an interesting novelty. But perhaps more interesting is that in the secret message, Clinton seems to foreshadow in 1775 what would take the British Parliament nearly eight years to come to terms with: that the war would not be an easy one, and that the British would indeed “have beef stake work” of it before they would at last be convinced of giving up the enterprise.

The Clements Library kindly gave permission for the use of the images of the letter and its quotation. The Henry Clinton image is by photographer Peter D’Aprix of artist George Stuart’s statuette. The artist kindly gave permission for its use. Learn more about the artist’s work.

  1. Clinton to William Phillips, before Dec 5, 1775 (Clinton MSS 12.22), Clements Library
  2. Clinton MSS loose sheet in front of Box 280 “I was not a Volunteer…”, Clements Library
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About Derek W. Beck

I write stuff. I film stuff too.

One Response to British Gen. Henry Clinton’s Secret Letter

  1. Adam D says:

    Absolutely fascinating. Thank you for sharing!

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