J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, October 08, 2007

Dr. Benjamin Church's Ciphered Letter

Yesterday I described how Gen. George Washington learned of a coded letter that Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., had tried to send into British-occupied Boston. Three Patriots sat down to decipher it, and this is what they found.

To Major [Edward] Cane in Boston,
On His Magisty’s Sarvice—

I hope this will reach you; three attempts have I made without success. In effecting the last, the man was discovered in attempting his escape, but fortunately my letter was sewed in the waistband of his breeches. He was confined a few days during which time you may guess my feelings. But a little art and a little cash settled the matter.

’Tis a month since my return from Philadelphia. I went by the way of Providence to visit mother. The Committee for Warlike Stores made me a formal tender of 12 pieces of cannon, 18 and 24 pounders, they having to a previous resolution to make the offer to General [Artemas] Ward. To make a merit of my services, I sent them down and when they received them they sent them to Stoughton to be out of danger, even tho’ they had formed the resolution as I before hinted of fortifying Bunker’s Hill, which together with the cowardice of the clumsy Col. [Samuel] Gerrish and Col. [James] Scammon, were the lucky occasion of their defeat. This affair happened before my return from Philadelphia. We lost 165 killed then and since dead of their wounds; 120 now lye wounded. The chief [i.e., most] will recover. They boast you have 1400 killed & wounded in that action. You say the rebels lost 1500, I suppose, with equal truth.

The people of Connecticut are raving in the cause of liberty. A number from this colony, from the town of Stanford [Stamford], robbed the King’s stores at New York with some small assistance the New Yorkers lent them. These were growing turbulent. I counted 280 pieces of cannon from 24 to 3 pounders at Kingsbridge which the committee had secured for the use of the colonies. The Jersies are not a whit behind Connecticut in zeal. The Philadelphians exceed them both. I saw 2200 men in review there by General [Charles] Lee, consisting of Quakers & other inhabitants in uniform, with 1000 rifle men and 40 horse who together made a most warlike appearance. I mingled freely & frequently with the members of the Continental Congress. They were united, determined in opposition, and appeared assured of success.

Now to come home, the opposition is become formidable. 18 thousand men brave and determined with Washington & Lee at their head are no contemptible enemy. Adjutant General [Horatio] Gates is indefatigable in arranging the army. Provisions are very plenty. Cloaths are manufacturing in almost every town for the soldiers. Twenty tons of powder lately arrived at Philadelphia, Connecticut & Providence. Upwards of 20 tons are now in camp. Salt petre is made in every colony. Powder mills are erected and constantly employed in Philadelphia & New York. Volunteers of the first fortunes are daily flocking to camp. 1000 rifle-men (in 2 or 3 days recruits) are now levying to augment the army to 22 thousand men. 10 thousand militia are appointed in this government to appear on the first summons.

The bills of all the colonies circulate freely and are readily exchanged for cash. Add to this that, unless some plan of accommodation takes place immediately, these harbours will swarm with privateers. An army will be raised in the middle provinces to take possession of Canada. For the sake of the miserable convulsed Empire, solicit peace; repeal the acts or Britain is undone. This advice is the result of warm affection to my King & to the realm. Remember, I never deceived you. Every article here sent to you is sacredly true.

The papers will announce to you that I am again a member [i.e., a legislative representative] for Boston. You will there see our motley council. A general arrangement of offices will take place, except the chief [i.e., governor] which will be suspended but for a little while to see what part Britain takes in consequence on the late Continental petition. A view to independence gr[ows] more & more general. Should Britain declare war against the colonies, they are lost forever. Should Spain declare against England, the colonies will declare a neutrality which will doubtless produce an offensive & defensive league between them. For God’s sake prevent it by a speedy accommodation.

Writing this has employed a day. I have been to Salem to reconnoitre, but could not escape the geese of the capitol. To-morrow I set out for Newport to send you this. I write you fully, it being scarcely possible to escape discovery. I am out of place here by choice, and therefore, out of pay, and determined to be so unless something is offered in my way. I wish you could contrive to write me largely in cypher, by the way of Newport, addressed to Thomas Richards, Merchant. Inclose it in a cover to me, intimating that I am a perfect stranger to you, but being recommended to you as a gentleman of honour, you took the liberty to inclose that letter, intreating me to deliver it as directed, the person, you are informed, being at Cambridge. Sign some fictitious name. This you may send to some confidential friend in Newport, to be delivered to me at Watertown. Make use of every precaution or I perish.
(This version of the text is from Colonial Williamsburg’s history.org.)

Reading this must have pained Washington personally. He had traveled from Philadelphia to Cambridge with Dr. Church, and now he saw the doctor had tried to share information gathered on that trip with their enemy. Furthermore, Church was apparently using his hospital duties to “reconnoitre” around the lines.

Dr. Church insisted on a more benign explanation. He was exaggerating the American supplies, numbers, and fervor in order to intimidate the British authorities. He was urging the Crown to work things out before the war got worse and the Empire was torn apart. After all, wasn’t that (not independence) still the official American policy?

A court-martial convicted Dr. Church of corresponding with the enemy and removed him from his post. He was confined in Cambridge, in the Brattle Street mansion that belonged to Loyalist widow Penelope Vassall. (It’s still there, and the graffiti he wrote on a window frame has been preserved.) The American authorities weren’t sure what to do with the doctor. The evidence seemed too weak to hang him, too strong to let him go. Finally, they struck a deal: Dr. Church would go into exile.

In May 1776 January 1778, Church sailed out of Boston harbor. He and the ship were never seen again.

COMING UP: What Washington never knew about Dr. Church.


A Staunch Whig said...

J.L., please point me to any newer sources you may have if I am wrong, but French's "General Gage's Informers" p. 199-200 gives a story of how, in mid 1777, Gen. Howe tried to effect a prisoner exchange for Church, who was still in jail in Boston. The same source suggests on p. 201 that Church sailed away in 1780, as his old father only then updated his will based on Church's loss at sea. I was hoping to find a more accurate date of his departure, but couldn't find it, but my searching is what led me here. Thanks!

J. L. Bell said...

You’re right! I relied on a U.S. military webpage for that statement about Church’s departure in May 1776. And it’s wrong.

Jeffrey B. Walker’s Devil Undone says that Church was put aboard the Welcome, bound for Martinique, in January 1778. It probably took a while for his family to accept that the ship was lost with no survivors. I’ll post a full article about this soon. Thanks.

A Staunch Whig said...

Didn't know about "Devil Undone", thanks for pointing me to it, and better yet, the pertinent chapter is almost entirely visible in the Google Books limited view. I'm glad the claim has a reliable reference to source material too.

J. L. Bell said...

Walker transcribed the name of the Welcome captain as “Smitharick.” I see other sources use “Smithwick,” which seems more likely. I’m going to search for that many in period material.

A Staunch Whig said...

I have now obtained a copy of the resolve from the SC1/series 45X, Mass. Archives Coll. v 168 p 142, and in it they spell the name Smithwick, and so Walker transcribed it incorrectly. The captain is James Smithwick, just as you suspected.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for that confirmation. I’ve found a little more about Capt. Smithwick and his family. I also found a reference in the published Massachusetts House records saying that Church should be put on a different boat with a different master. Hoping to post all that info later this September.

A Staunch Whig said...

Great, I look forward to your post.