Book Review: General Washington’s Commando: Benjamin Tallmadge in the Revolutionary War by Richard F. Welch. Jefferson (McFarland & Company, 2014).
While most historians agree that American victory in the Revolutionary War would not have been possible without George Washington’s military leadership, it is less frequently noted that Washington could not have exercised effective command without the contributions of his numerous capable subordinates. These officers have only recently begun to receive the attention they deserve, as biographers examine the lives and military careers of William Washington, John Eager Howard, and now, Benjamin Tallmadge, in Richard F. Welch’s General Washington’s Commando: Benjamin Tallmadge in the Revolutionary War. In this detailed and engaging account, Welch tells the story of one of the most fascinating officers in the Continental Army. Although Tallmadge ranked no higher than major during most of the war (he was not promoted to lieutenant colonel until September 30, 1783), he played a key role as both a raider and the head of Washington’s intelligence network in and around New York City.
Tallmadge, the son of a minister, was born in 1754 in Setauket, Long Island, and attended Yale College. There he befriended Nathan Hale; upon graduation, both men found jobs as teachers. In 1775, after the Battle of Bunker Hill, Tallmadge left his teaching position in Wethersfield, Connecticut, and with other men from the town joined the American army besieging Boston. He was commissioned lieutenant in a Connecticut regiment, served in the rear guard when Washington’s troops withdrew from Long Island following their defeat in August 1776, and soon afterward learned that the British had executed his friend Hale as a spy. Welch argues that this incident increased Tallmadge’s determination to fight for American independence.
Tallmadge fought at White Plains, and his service in the New York campaign earned him the respect of his superiors and command of a company in the newly organized 2nd Continental Light Dragoons, with the rank of captain, in December 1776. Promoted to major the following April, he participated in the 1777 Philadelphia campaign. After the British evacuation of Philadelphia in 1778, Tallmadge and his regiment were posted in Westchester County, New York, where he would begin to make his most significant contributions to the American cause.
It was at this time that Washington assigned Tallmadge to establish an American intelligence network in and around New York City. Tallmadge, with his knowledge of Connecticut and Long Island and his personal connections there, was ideally suited to the task. He effectively exercised independent command, reporting directly to the commander-in-chief. Welch begins his discussion of Tallmadge’s espionage activities in chapter 4 and follows them in subsequent chapters. The author’s coverage of the topic, including the famed Culper spy ring, is thorough, and to his credit, Welch places Tallmadge’s efforts in the context of his other activities without overemphasizing the espionage aspect, as some historians have been prone to do.
Beginning in chapter 5, Welch also provides an informative account of the raids conducted by both sides across Long Island Sound, as well as the struggle between Loyalists and rebels on Long Island. Welch goes on to explore Tallmadge’s activities in Westchester County, and the crucial role Tallmadge played in the capture of John Andre in 1780, which revealed Benedict Arnold’s treasonous plan to turn over the fortress at West Point to the British. Welch examines the dispute between Tallmadge and Lt. Col. John Jameson; the latter had sent news of Andre’s capture to Arnold, and this report allowed Arnold to escape to a British ship in the Hudson River. Tallmadge strenuously urged Jameson to recall the letter and wait for Washington to arrive and assess the situation, but Jameson refused. Although Tallmadge was careful to avoid making accusations against Jameson later, Welch cites the major’s careful statements afterward as evidence that Tallmadge believed that Jameson mismanaged the situation.
In chapter 8, Welch discusses Tallmadge’s most successful raid, the capture of Fort St. George on Long Island in November 1780. Armed with excellent intelligence including a map of the fort and an accurate assessment of the garrison’s strength, based in part on his own daring personal reconnaissance, Tallmadge led less than one hundred of his dismounted dragoons across Long Island Sound and marched undetected to the island’s south shore, where he surprised and overwhelmed Fort St. George’s defenders, and during the return journey destroyed a large quantity of forage that the British had stored at the town of Coram. This operation, Welch notes, was Tallmadge’s most successful raid of the war.
Welch follows Tallmadge through the closing days of the war, the officer’s efforts to suppress the cross-Sound raiding that in many cases had degenerated to little more than piracy conducted under the guise of military operations, and Tallmadge’s postwar career as a businessman and Federalist politician.
The book is well organized and informative in recounting Tallmadge’s life and military service while shedding light on many lesser-known aspects of the Revolutionary War in the area where Tallmadge operated. Among these is the fact that Tallmadge provided the only eyewitness account of Washington’s farewell to his officers at New York’s Fraunces Tavern in 1783. The author also offers personal insights into his subject, including the notion that before his marriage, Tallmadge was something of a ladies’ man. Welch bases his account on thorough research in the American sources. However, he does not cite any British material, and it would be interesting to see how Tallmadge’s enemies viewed him and his activities, if any such sources are available. This omission aside, Welch has written a well-contextualized and needed biography of an important Continental officer.