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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Saturday, September 11, 2010

“To Obtain Constant & Authentick Intelligence from Boston”

On 28 July 1775, Gen. George Washington’s secretary, Joseph Reed (shown here, courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania), wrote a confidential letter to Lt. Col. Loammi Baldwin, who was commanding the American forces maintaining the siege lines at Chelsea, on the north side of Boston harbor.

Reed was trying to set up an intelligence-gathering operation within besieged Boston, which he helpfully laid out for Baldwin in his letter:

In full Confidence of your prudence & Secrecy as a Soldier, a Man of Honour & a Friend to your Country, the General has directed me to communicate to you a Scheme he is about to put in Execution to obtain constant & authentick Intelligence from Boston.

The Plan is this. The inclosed Letter will be delivered by you to one Dewksbury who lives about 4 Miles from you towards Shirly Point—He will deliver it to a Waterman whom he can depend on who will convey it to one John Carnes a Grocer in the South Part of Boston. The Answers & such Intelligence as he can procure will be forwarded to you thro the same Channell: which you are to transmit to his Excell’y by Express immed’y—

As the Success of the Project & the life of the Man in Boston may depend upon your Conduct let it not escape you to the nearest Friend on Earth & for fear of Accident destroy this Letter as soon as you are sufficiently Master of its Contents—

When you see Dewksbury give him the above Caution in the strongest Terms: And so to pass from him to the other—Your good Conduct & Discretion in this Matter will not fail to be duly noticed.
Reed sent his letter thirteen days after Gen. Washington recorded paying an unnamed man £100 “to go into the Town of Boston [and] to establish a secret correspondence for the purpose of conveying intelligence.” It’s not certain that man was “John Carnes a Grocer,” but he’s the most likely candidate.

Some historians of American espionage, such as John Bakeless, have cited “Carnes” as the first American undercover agent who can be identified as using “cut outs,” or intermediaries, to transmit their messages while avoiding suspicion themselves.

TOMORROW: “One Dewksbury who lives about 4 Miles from you.”

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