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Letter from William Tudor to Delia Jarvis, 24 December 1776

Letter from William Tudor to Delia Jarvis, 24 December 1776

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  • "I cannot desert a man ... who has deserted everything to defend his country and whose chief misfortune among ten thousand others is that a large part of it wants spirit to defend itself." In this letter written by William Tudor, a young Boston lawyer who was serving as the judge advocate general of the Continental Army, to his future wife, Delia Jarvis, Tudor describes the desperate circumstances of George Washington's forces just before the Battles of Trenton and Princeton the turning point in the American Revolution. Tudor describes his adherence to the cause of American independence at a time of great adversity, but also his personal devotion to his commander, George Washington.

    The turning point of the American Revolution

    In the summer and fall of 1776, the American army had been outmaneuvered and badly beaten by the British in a campaign that began around New York City and continued through a harrowing retreat across New Jersey. The waning days of 1776 were the low point of the American Revolution and it appeared that the new nation might collapse before it truly began. William Tudor's natural optimism--he was a young man in love--was balanced by the hard lessons he had learned on campaign and the apparently bleak prospects of the American cause. His letter to Delia Jarvis is a wonderful mixture of family news, romance, military affairs, and gossip; he longed to return home, but was bitterly critical of the "young geniuses" of Boston who were not doing their part to support the war effort.

    On the evening of 24 December 1776, the day Tudor wrote to Delia, Washington's army crossed the Delaware River and, in a surprise attack, captured the British garrison of Hessian mercenaries at Trenton. Nine days later, Washington's army won a second dramatic victory at Princeton. The American Revolution had not been won in a single day, or even in a single brilliant winter campaign, but the "united States" (as Tudor describes them) had passed through the darkest days of the Revolution, perhaps the darkest period of American history.

    Billy Tudor, lawyer, soldier and lover

    William "Billy" Tudor was born in Boston in 1750, the son of a wealthy merchant and church deacon, John Tudor, and Jane (Varney) Tudor. Educated at Harvard (Class of 1769) where he got into more than his share of college scrapes, Tudor studied law in the office of John Adams, who became his life-long friend, mentor, and correspondent. Tudor began his own law practice in 1774, but his life soon was disrupted by the coming of the Revolution and, probably even more, by the charms of Delia Jarvis, the daughter of Elias and Deliverance (Atkins) Jarvis. After the outbreak of the Revolution, the loyalist Jarvis family was cut off in besieged Boston, while Billy Tudor fled to join the American army and, through the assistance of John Adams, to serve as the chief legal officer on George Washington's staff. The Siege of Boston stretched on until the spring of 1776, but Billy and Delia maintained a surreptitious correspondence and, according to family lore, he swam Leander-like across Boston Harbor to visit her on Noddle's Island. No sooner was the Siege lifted, than Captain (later Lieutenant-Colonel) Tudor moved on with Washington and the American army to New York City, further frustrating his much-interrupted courtship.

    Colonel Tudor returned to Boston in 1777 and, perhaps bending to Miss Jarvis's wishes, resigned his commission in 1778. He resumed his law career and they soon were married. If the Tudors did not live completely happily ever after ("Judge" Tudor, as he came to be known, was not the best of businessmen), they had a long colorful life together in Boston and at "Rockwood", the family farm and retreat in Lynn (now Nahant), Massachusetts, as well as in Europe where they traveled for pleasure--and sometimes to escape creditors. Judge Tudor was a man of wide interests. He was one of the most active movers in the establishment of a public theater in Boston, and he was one of the ten founding members of the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1791. The first meeting of the Historical Society took place in his Court Street Home. He lived on until 1819; Delia survived him by more than twenty years. Of their eight children, William Tudor, Jr., was a diplomat and author; Frederic Tudor (the "Ice King") founded the New England ice trade; and daughter Delia married the naval hero Charles Stewart.

    Suggestions for further reading:

    The lively, romantic correspondence of Billy Tudor ("Crito") and Delia Jarvis ("Felicia") began before the Revolution and forms the cornerstone of the Massachusetts Historical Society's collection of Tudor Family Papers. The Society also holds the Tudor-Adams Papers, correspondence between William Tudor and John Adams. To read descriptions of these collections please see ABIGAIL (the Society's online catalog) and within the Search page, type the name of the collection in the "Find this" box, and click on "Title" in the "Find Results in" box.

    For the life of William Tudor see:

    "Memoir of Hon. William Tudor," in Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Second Series, vol. VIII. Boston: 1819, 285-325.

    Shipton, Clifford K. "William Tudor," in Sibley's Harvard Graduates, vol. XVII. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1975, 252-265.

    Few periods of American history are as well served by recent historical studies as the background of the Trenton-Princeton campaign:

    Fischer, David Hackett. Washington's Crossing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    Ketchum, Richard M. The Winter Soldiers. Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1973.

    McCullough, David. 1776. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005.


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