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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Sunday, September 19, 2010

“Suspected by Gen. Gage”

Yesterday I quoted Ezekiel Price recording a rumor of information slipped out of besieged Boston in August 1775 by John Carnes, a retired clergyman and grocer who was working for Gen. George Washington.

On 13 November, Ezekiel Price recorded another tidbit of information that may have come by the same route:

Mr. Carnes (a son of the parson’s) was here this afternoon: he says that it is reported at Cambridge, &c., and believed, that twenty-five hundred Regulars have lately arrived at Boston; he also says that the Regulars, last Saturday, intended to land a number of them at Chelsea,—having their boats, &c., ready,—but the wind blowing fresh against them prevented their setting off.
That rumor might not have come from the parson inside Boston, however. A Carnes family tradition that appears to have hit print first in an 1898 volume of American Ancestry says:
lived in Boston during the siege 1775. corresponded with Gen. Washington, was suspected by Gen. [Thomas] Gage, had his house and papers searched, and was ordered to leave, which he did
Gage sailed away from Boston on 11 Oct 1775, leaving the command to Gen. William Howe. If the family lore is correct about Gage ordering Carnes to leave, that must have happened before October, and Price’s November rumor had a different source. Alternatively, the family might not have remembered the right general’s name.

John Carnes was definitely outside the besieged town by 1 Mar 1776 when he took the job of chaplain to a regiment in the Continental Army. He didn’t remain in Boston throughout the siege.

The entry on Carnes in Sibley’s Harvard Graduates calls the lore “an unsubstantiated family tradition,” but I think the man’s name in Washington’s papers and Ezekiel Price’s August diary offers a fair amount of substantiation for his espionage work. I wonder if there’s more to be found in the papers of Gen. Gage or Gen. Howe.

After serving several months as a chaplain, at one point taking over his colonel’s correspondence with Gen. Horatio Gates, Carnes returned to Massachusetts. By the late 1770s he had settled in Lynn, his wife’s home town. The Rev. William Bentley wrote that “by the prosperity of his children [Carnes] rose to competence, was in the General Court & became justice of the peace.” He was also part of the Massachusetts convention to ratify the U.S. Constitution.

And apparently no one outside of the Carnes family suspected the man of having been a spy. In fact, he appears to have come across as an easy mark, which might be why he had so much trouble as a minister. After Carnes died, Bentley wrote:
His talents were small & his manners displeasing but his simplicity had no vice in it. . . . His poverty returned again towards the close of life tho’ not in extreme. We used often to laugh at Carnes, but there was many a worse man in our wicked world.
That harmless impression might have saved Carnes from imprisonment—because his little spy network had been infiltrated from the start.

TOMORROW: The British army’s moles behind the American lines.

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