Clothing the Continental Army

Most of us are familiar with the grand narrative of the Revolutionary War—the hard-fought battles, the fragile alliances, the derring-do of the newly formed Continental Army. More rarely do we scratch the surface of the well-known textbook history to examine the minor players, local transactions, and day-to-day dealings that undergirded the war effort.

Now, this approach has been simplified with the recent digitization of a rather unlikely collection: Revolutionary-era clothing receipts. Found in the papers of Chauncey Whittelsey, a Yale-educated clergyman and Connecticut-based merchant who served as purchasing agent for the Continental Army during the American Revolution, the receipts help reveal another front-line in the Revolutionary war: supplying the Continental Army. Yet a problem remains: no digitally searchable transcriptions of the Whittelsey papers presently exist.

In order to help scholars make use of Whittelsey’s receipts and other similar manuscripts, the Newberry developed Transcribing Modern Manuscripts, a crowdsourced transcription site that allows members of the public to help transcribe almost 30,000 pages of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American manuscripts. Once completed, these transcriptions promise to deepen our understanding of American history and shed light on overlooked but important actors like Chauncey Whittelsey.

And certainly, Whittelsey’s role was important. As purchasing agent, he was responsible for supplying the Continental Army with those essential goods–from frock coats, stockings, and beaver hats to axes, firearms, cheese, and rum (lots of rum) – that enabled the war effort to proceed. His receipts thus provide a glimpse into the commercial networks that sustained the Revolutionary Army. To be sure, this is only a glimpse, as the handwriting of many of Whittelsey’s correspondents sometimes borders on the inscrutable. Take, for example, a note sent to Whittelsey on May 24, 1977 from Army "comesary" Elijah Hubbard:

Even if "Chainsaw" Whittelsey was able to look past the careless butchering of his name by Hubbard, he still may have found himself wondering, as we did, how much cheese was to be sent to the hungry troops (two thousand wheels? two thousand pounds?).

Hubbard’s request remains rather cryptic, but other items in the collection are clearly legible and clearly significant. Take, for example, a letter sent by John Jay to John Lawrence, Treasurer of the State of Connecticut, on July 3, 1779. Aside from its connection to Jay, the letter’s significance lies in the way it sheds light on the Continental Army’s supply chain.

Whittelsey’s receipts, on the other hand, show how the provisioning process played itself out at the local level, as a receipt from Gideon King of Bolton suggests:

Together with the other 180 or so receipts in the Whittelsey collection, King’s receipt helps illuminate the contributions made by small towns around the state of Connecticut–called by Washington “the Provision State”–to the effort to supply the Continental Army. Because each receipt links authorities of various Connecticut towns to Whittelsey and his associates, these receipts promise to be especially useful when it comes to understanding Revolutionary-era commercial networks.

As a member of the Department of Digital Initiatives and Services at the Newberry, I’m especially excited by the digital resources that could emerge once the transcriptions have been finished. For example, I envision a map that displays the geographic nodes in this commercial network, along with the names of town authorities, sums of money transferred, and types of goods exchanged. Such a project would help scholars and other users more clearly understand the nuts-and-bolts operations of the Continental Army, but it will only be possible with the help of those willing to contribute their skills as transcribers to the Whittelsey papers and the other manuscripts accessible at Transcribing Modern Manuscripts.

By Matthew Clarke, Digital Initiatives and Metadata Assistant