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, April 11, 2007

Who Tipped Off Paul Revere?

Next week brings the anniversary and commemoration of the Battle of Lexington and Concord (not in that order), so I’ll devote some postings to mysteries and myths of that event. And just as I’ve previously defined “myths,” I should explain what I mean by “mysteries”: basically, stuff I’d like to know more about. These questions seem significant to me, though they might have had little bearing on how things turned out.

And the first mystery to ponder is: Who was Paul Revere’s counter-counterspy in November 1774? In 1798, the founder of the Massachusetts Historical Society asked Revere about his experiences in the months, days, and hours leading up to the war. In his reply, Revere described how he and other craftsmen collected information on the British military, and how a counterspy seemed to relay their intelligence to Gen. Thomas Gage:
In the Fall of 1774 and Winter of 1775 I was one of upwards of thirty, cheifly mechanics, who formed our selves in to a Committee for the purpose of watching the Movements of the British Soldiers, and gaining every intelegence of the movements of the Tories.

We held our meetings at the Green-Dragon Tavern [owned by the St. Andrew’s Lodge of Freemasons]. We were so carefull that our meetings should be kept Secret; that every time we met, every person swore upon the Bible, that they would not discover any of our transactions, But to Messrs. [John] HANCOCK, [Samuel] ADAMS, Doctors [Joseph] WARREN, [Benjamin] CHURCH, and one or two more.

About November, when things began to grow Serious, a Gentleman who had Conections with the Tory party, but was a Whig at heart, acquainted me, that our meetings were discovered, and mentioned the identical words that were spoken among us the Night before. . . . We removed to another place, which we thought was more secure: but here we found that all our transactions were communicated to Governor Gage. (This came to me through the then Secretary [Thomas] Flucker; He told it to the Gentleman mentioned above). It was then a common opinion, that there was a Traytor in the provincial Congress, and that Gage was posessed of all their Secrets.
The full letter is transcribed on the M. H. S. website.

Revere devoted lots of space in this letter to Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., who he and other Massachusetts Patriots had sadly come to believe was Gage’s double agent. In late 1775 the doctor was caught sending coded letters into Boston. The Americans didn’t have enough evidence to be certain of his guilt, though, so the next year they banished him from America. Church sailed away, and his ship disappeared at sea. Not until the 1900s, when Gen. Gage’s intelligence files came to the University of Michigan and were opened to scholars, did Americans have definitive evidence that Church was indeed passing information to the British commander in early 1775, and perhaps in the fall of 1774 as Revere believed.

But who alerted Revere and his comrades that Gage was onto them? Obviously, Revere knew and trusted that man, but in his letter he took pains not to state his name. Instead, he left these clues:
  • “a Gentleman who had Conections with the Tory party, but was a Whig at heart”
  • “This came to me through the then Secretary Flucker; He told it to the Gentleman mentioned above.”
Flucker (shown above) was number three in the Massachusetts royal government’s executive branch. I’ve found a couple of other anecdotes of him gossiping. But in this case he revealed a very important secret, and must have trusted the man he spoke to. Who was he?

A number of authors have posited that that gentleman was Henry Knox, who in June 1774 had married Flucker’s daughter Lucy. When I first read this hypothesis (I think it was in Esther Forbes’s Paul Revere and the World He Lived In), I thought it was an interesting possibility, but also perhaps an example of picking out the most interesting possibility from all the equally likely possibilities. Was it like spotting a familiar face in a crowd and focusing on it, ignoring all the other faces? We remember Henry Knox; we don’t remember other gentlemen whom Flucker might have spoken to. And didn’t most people write of Knox as a firm Whig? If Flucker knew his son-in-law was on the opposite political side, why would he have revealed this news?

But the more I’ve read about Knox, the more I lean toward accepting this theory. We’ll probably never know, but he does seem like the most likely candidate. He had the family connection to Flucker. He also had an appointment as a militia officer, and his London Book-Store was said to have customers from the royal government and army as well as the Whig upper class.

And was Knox known as a Whig before the war? He doesn’t appear on any of the surviving lists of politically active men: the North End Caucus, the Boston Committee of Correspondence, even the far-too-lengthy lists of men at the Tea Party. Knox was at the Boston Massacre, warning Capt. Thomas Preston not to have his men fire, and testified for the prosecution (i.e., the Whig side) in Preston’s trial. But his testimony was so helpful to the captain that when the soldiers went on trial their attorneys called him as a defense witness.

All in all, I think in late 1774 Knox’s political views may not have been obvious. He was still only twenty-four years old. He hadn’t held public office. His business relied on upper-class patronage. He’d connected himself by marriage to a top government appointee, which meant that under the Crown’s system of patronage politics he might eventually have been in line for some royal appointments himself. Given his son-in-law’s position, Flucker might well have felt safe speaking candidly to him.

After the war started, Henry and Lucy Knox slipped out of Boston. The exact date is uncertain, but the earliest biography of him (published by Francis S. Drake in 1873) says the couple arrived at the provincial lines one year after their marriage, meaning 16 June 1775. At that point, Henry had committed himself to the Patriot cause. His wife never saw the rest of her family again.

Knox had a remarkable rise in the Continental Army after leaving Boston. Drake says he volunteered his services to Gen. Artemas Ward on the day of the Battle of Bunker Hill and, though not involved in that fighting, “was actively engaged in reconnoitering service.” By 5 July, Knox was laying out fortifications in Roxbury and had met Gen. Charles Lee and the newly arrived commander-in-chief, Gen. George Washington. In November, Washington recommended that Congress make Knox colonel of the artillery regiment, appointing him above the regiment’s senior officers, most of them older and more experienced, and other hopefuls.

Part of Knox’s rise was no doubt due to his intelligence and charm. The artillery regiment had demonstrated a lot of dysfunction, so appointing someone totally new turned out to be a good idea. But Knox’s strongest support came from Massachusetts Whigs, as seen in John Adams’s letters to James Warren on 23 July 1775 and to Knox himself on 11 Nov. Did those men see Knox as committed to their cause and deserving of support for a reason they couldn’t spell out? Had he quietly provided crucial intelligence before the war?

If that was so, why would Revere have still kept his informant’s name secret in 1798, after the war ended and Flucker died, both in 1783? By then Knox was a retired Secretary of War, managing large tracts of land in Maine that Lucy had inherited from her father. It may have seemed unseemly to describe Knox as taking advantage of his father-in-law’s trust. But perhaps Revere’s dropped Flucker’s name in his letter as a clue that he expected contemporaries to pick up.


Nathan Munson said...

This is a great blog. For anyone with an interest in the Revolutionary War era this place is a must. I enjoyed your views on Knox who I find to be a most interesting personality.

Anonymous said...

Good story....JM