Colonial Maryland captured to letter Correspondence exhibit offers glimpse into past at a price

August 28, 1998|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

It's a most unusual history lesson: a rare collection of letters to and from William Smallwood, the commander of the Maryland Battalion during the Revolutionary War, spread out on a table in an upstairs banquet hall of a downtown Annapolis restaurant.

A cache of letters from famous colonists, including the Smallwood collection, dubbed the "Annapolis Papers" is on exhibit -- and for sale -- at the Middleton Tavern. Today is the last day to get a look at the precious -- and expensive -- papers.

They give a glimpse into the struggle for liberty in at least the Colony of Maryland, which accounts for their expensive price tags.

A letter to Smallwood from George Washington announcing the first meeting of the Society of the Cincinnati -- an exclusive group of Revolutionary War commanders -- is priced at $38,000.

Another note to Smallwood from Declaration of Independence signer Thomas Stone about legislation to sell property and use the money to recruit soldiers for the war is offered for $6,500. A letter from soldier (later Maryland governor) John E. Howard in which he laments that he cannot visit Smallwood because he is nursing a wound is for sale at the comparatively bargain price of $550.

"We thought since we have these papers for Annapolis, it would be nice to have something in Annapolis," said William Chaney, president of The Rhodes Scholar, a year-old Lothian business that buys and sells historical documents.

He chose the Middleton Tavern for the company's first show and sale because of the building's history. Opened in 1750, the inn has played host to Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and Benjamin Franklin.

Chaney said he bought the Smallwood letters about three months ago at an auction in New Hampshire when a Portsmouth museum sold them to get money to purchase letters related to that state. The letters had been donated to the museum by a Smallwood descendant, Chaney said.

Historical records indicate Smallwood was probably born on his father's plantation in Charles County. A planter by trade, he became a career military officer after fighting in the French and Indian Wars. He led 1,400 men from Annapolis into the Continental Army in April 1775. He rose to the rank of major general in five years and after the war became Maryland's governor.

The collection of about 50 letters is rare, according to R. J. Rockefeller, historian and Towson University instructor and lecturer, who said the letters were scattered after the general's death in 1792. They show Maryland at a time when the sovereignty of the state and the strength of its troops were as frail as the yellowing paper on which the letters are written.

A 1776 letter from Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer, a Marylander who signed the U.S. Constitution, shows the new government offering support to the troops on the battlefield -- "two Continental Batallions [sic] will be raised in our Province." It also shows the struggle to shape a young government. Several men, including Samuel Chase, William Paca and Charles Carroll of Carrollton, had been "appointed a Committee to frame the Constitution of our State," Jenifer wrote.

"If I got this letter as a soldier," Rockefeller said, noting the reference to the constitution, "I'd feel like this is what I'm fighting for."

Some of the dozen or so visitors to the exhibit yesterday came looking for a personal piece of history.

Anne Smyth of Annapolis said she thought she might find information about Tench Tilghman, an aide-de-camp to Washington. She found only a letter written by a James Tilghman and priced at $550.

"That's probably a brother or a cousin," Smyth said, then whispered, "It doesn't matter. I'm not going to buy it."

L Ellen Moyer of Annapolis came just to have a look, she said.

"It's amazing we still have this original stuff," she said, running her hand along documents written by Thomas Jefferson. "It's like touching a wonderful piece of the past."

Pub Date: 8/28/98

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