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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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Shock for Gen. Washington

If Gen. George Washington’s arrangement to receive intelligence about the British forces from the Rev. John Carnes had been secure, I wouldn’t be able to write much about it.

I wouldn’t be able to quote the 28 July 1775 letter from Washington’s secretary Joseph Reed laying out the communication network. I wouldn’t be able to cite Lt. Col. Loammi Baldwin’s notes from mid-August that reports were about to arrive from Carnes. I wouldn’t be able to document rumors circulating out of Cambridge that confirm news from “Parson Carnes” in Boston.

But the security for Washington’s first espionage effort was as full of holes as one of the sieves that steward Timothy Austin bought for the headquarters kitchen. The general took care not to write in his expense notebook the name of the man who had agreed “to go into the Town of Boston; to establish a secret correspondence for the purpose of conveying intelligence of the Enemy’s movements & designs.”

However, Reed put that man’s name into the letter to Baldwin, who did not need to know it. Baldwin’s only job in this network was to give a letter to a local man named Tewksbury, and to send any reply to headquarters as quickly as possible.

Furthermore, the wording of Reed’s letter suggests that he contacted Baldwin out of the blue simply because he was the American officer in command at Chelsea. There’s no hint of any preceding discussion in person about intelligence matters, either for Washington and Reed to evaluate Baldwin’s reliability and discretion, or for those officers to establish understandings so they wouldn’t have to put all their crucial information in writing.

Furthermore, Ezekiel Price’s diary makes clear that the intelligence John Carnes sent out of Boston spread quickly, with the man’s name still attached: “this morning a woman got out of Boston, who brought a letter from Parson Carnes…” British agents wouldn’t have needed to infiltrate the little American spy network to learn Carnes’s name. They could simply have kept their ears open. Indeed, on 26 August a Customs official at Newport sent “intelligence of much importance…from the Rebel Camp” to Gen. Thomas Gage.

And, as I noted yesterday, Dr. Benjamin Church had already inserted himself into the communications chain. It’s not certain he ever told his British handlers about Carnes, but the royal authorities did apparently learn that the man was writing to Washington and told him to leave Boston.

In early October 1775, Washington and Reed learned that Dr. Church had been sending secret messages to people inside Boston through a different route. That revelation came as a huge surprise to everyone in the American forces. The Massachusetts Whigs were shocked because they had worked closely with Church for years. Washington and Reed must have been shaken to realize that their trust in the doctor had left their agent Carnes completely vulnerable.

Back at the start of this series of postings, I quoted Washington papers editor John C. Fitzpatrick on how the general chided a later intelligence chief, Col. Benjamin Tallmadge, for mentioning an informer in a letter. But Washington and his staff weren’t nearly so careful in 1775. Washington apparently learned about the need for strict security from the nearly disastrous failure of his first spy network.

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