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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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

New Study of Dr. Benjamin Church

John A. Nagy has written two books on espionage in the Revolutionary War: Invisible Ink: Spycraft of the American Revolution and Spies in the Continental Capital: Espionage Across Pennsylvania During the American Revolution.

For his third, he turned to the first notable Patriot to be revealed (somewhat) as secretly slipping information to the Crown: Dr. Benjamin Church, Spy: A Case of Espionage on the Eve of the American Revolution.

I say “somewhat” because Gen. George Washington and Massachusetts General Court couldn’t come up with ironclad proof of Church’s treachery. He admitted to sending his brother-in-law John Fleeming a letter in cipher that described the Continental Army in detail. But that description overstated the American strength. Did Church actually believe the figures he wrote? Was he communicating in some previously arranged code? Or was he playing a double game, trying to bluff the British out of attacking the Continental siege lines?

In the end, the American authorities couldn’t answer those questions solidly enough to convict Church of spying. (It didn’t help that the Continental Congress’s committee to write regulations for the army, originally chaired by Washington, hadn’t taken the possibility of such betrayal into account.) The Congress ordered Church confined without trial, tried to exchange him for a British officer, and finally sent him into exile.

The Revolutionary generation wrote a lot about Church, but much of it seems rooted in guesswork tinged by hindsight rather than hard evidence. Research over the past hundred years, especially after Gen. Thomas Gage’s intelligence files became available, has shed more light on the doctor’s activities. It’s clear now that Church was disclosing sensitive information to Gage before the war began. But how long before? How much did he reveal? What were his motives, and did they change?

John Nagy has gone back over all the evidence that’s come out about Church. This is the first commercial book to use my study’s revelation that Dr. Church’s mistress, who betrayed him under pressure from Gen. Washington, was most likely Mary (Butler) Wenwood of Marblehead, estranged wife of Newport baker Godfrey Wenwood. The book is sure to be thorough.

And who knows? More information may yet surface. At his blog Ed Witek has just shared images of the doctor’s younger brother Edward and his family. Edward is the doctor’s only close blood relative for whom we have a portrait, so peering at his face is the closest we’ll probably come to looking Dr. Benjamin Church in the eyes.

2 comments:

John said...

I haven't read the book yet, but Mr. Nagy gave a talk about it at the American Revolution Roundtable in New York City a few weeks ago which was well received. (The Coffee House on W. 44th Street) He spent a lot of time in Boston researching it along with time at the University of Michigan where the papers of Thomas Gage reside. (not sure how Gage's papers got to Michigan - possibly a topic for a blog post in future)

J. L. Bell said...

When he left the job of Massachusetts royal governor and active military service, Thomas Gage took his office files home with him, as was common at the time. They remained in the attic of the Gage family's country mansion for decades.

An American industrialist named William L. Clements got interested in collecting historical material in the late 1800s. He bought the Gage papers from the general's descendants, as well as papers from Henry Clinton, Nathanael Greene, Lord Germain, and Lord Shelburne.

Then Clements gave his alma mater, the University of Michigan, a specialized library to process and house those papers. It's a fine institution, now undergoing some important renovations.