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, July 07, 2007

When British Spies Came to Framingham

On 22 Feb 1775, Gen. Thomas Gage (shown at left, courtesy of NNDB.com) ordered two British officers, Capt. William Brown of the 52nd Regiment and Ensign Henry DeBerniere of the 10th Regiment (both men’s surnames are spelled differently in different documents), to scout the road to Worcester while disguised as local civilians. They took an enlisted man as a servant, set out on foot, and were promptly recognized by a serving-woman at a tavern in Watertown.

Not letting such a little thing bother them, Browne and DeBerniere pressed on. Eventually they reached the town of Framingham. This is what DeBerniere later wrote about that night:

We arrived at [Joseph] Buckminster’s tavern about six o’clock that evening, the company of militia were exercising near the house, and an hour after they came and performed their feats before the windows of the room we were in; we did not feel very easy at seeing such a number so very near us; however, they did not know who we were, and took little or no notice of us.

After they had done their exercise, one of their commanders spoke a very eloquent speech, recommending patience, coolness and bravery, (which indeed they much wanted) particularly told them they would always conquer if they did not break, and recommended them to charge us cooly, and wait for our fire, and every thing would succeed with them—quotes Caesar and Pompey, brigadiers [Israel] Putnam and [Artemas] Ward, and all such great men; put them in mind of Cape Breton [i.e., the capture of Louisburg in 1745], and all the battles they had gained for his majesty in the last war, and observed that the regulars must have been ruined but for them.

After so learned and spirited an harangue, he dismissed the parade, and the whole company came into the house and drank until nine o’clock, and then returned to their respective homes full of pot-valour. We slept there that night and no-body in the house suspected us.
In his 1847 history of Framingham, William Barry repeated only the part about “a very eloquent speech, recommending patience, coolness and bravery.” He overlooked the fact that DeBerniere was writing sarcastically.

Later local historians have read this passage as evidence that Framingham’s militia was unusually large, but the numbers don’t support that assumption. In fact, “the whole company” managed to fit inside the tavern, so they couldn’t have been that numerous. DeBerniere and Browne admitted that “did not feel very easy at seeing such a number [of militiamen] so very near us,” but they were spies. Worrying about being suspected as Crown agents wasn’t the same as feeling nervous about whether your army could defeat rebels in battle. On that score, frankly, the officers seemed pretty confident.

Browne and DeBerniere’s report made no recommendation to Gage about whether an army column could march successfully to Worcester. Scholars have therefore had to guess why the general ordered a raid on Concord instead. The enthusiasm of the local militia is one factor people have suggested; others include how Worcester was much farther away, the road to it offered less shelter, and (my own pet theory) the field-pieces that Gage wanted to recover were in Concord. Browne and DeBerniere located those guns on their next scouting mission, a month later.


Anonymous said...

Isn't there a story of Gage traveling with Church or another scout where they arrived at a Tavern only to have the Tavern waitress refuse to serve them. Gage and Church (not sure it was him) were trying to spy, but everyone in the tavern knew who they were in which the waitress thus refused service to them. After asking for the bar keeper, he politely told Gage he knew how he was and should just walk out the door

J. L. Bell said...

You've heard a version of the scouting trip published under the name of "John Howe" in the 1820s. The senior officer in that tale is Lt.-Col. Francis Smith, the commander of the march to Concord, and not his boss, Gen. Gage. The scout is "John Howe."

It's a good story. Unfortunately, it's too good to be true. The "John Howe" narrative is a somewhat more entertaining rewrite of DeBerniere's report (published in Boston in 1779, reprinted by the Massachusetts Historical Society in the early 1800s).

Here's a Mass Moments article on the situation.

In the real narrative from DeBerniere, a serving-woman in Watertown tells him and his companion that she recognizes them from Boston. However, they press on. In the "Howe" version, Smith gives up, thus giving that episode a satisfactory outcome for American readers, but "Howe" goes on, thus allowing the narrative to continue.