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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Monday, September 20, 2010

A Spy Network Doomed from the Start

When I said yesterday that the Washington-Carnes spy network had been infiltrated from the start, I wasn’t even talking about how one link in the communications chain, Lt. Col. Loammi Baldwin, was best friends with a secret British agent.

For years Baldwin had traded scientific knowledge with Benjamin Thompson, later known as Count Rumford (shown here). Thompson went over to the British on 13 Oct 1775, became Lord Germain’s favorite and secretary, and eventually commanded dragoons on Long Island near the end of the war.

Nevertheless, Baldwin continued to see Thompson as a friend. He probably influenced the early American portrayals of Rumford as a talented man who would gladly have worked for the cause of liberty if only his New Hampshire neighbors hadn’t been too suspicious to give him a chance.

Twentieth-century scholars found that in early May 1775 Thompson sent Gen. Thomas Gage a secret report about the New England army written in invisible ink. Thompson’s neighbors were right to be suspicious.

In his diary, Baldwin recorded that Thompson had visited him in Chelsea on 4 June, and went home to Woburn on 13 June. Sometime after 23 July Thompson sent Baldwin designs for epaulettes to distinguish the American sergeants and corporals, so the two friends were in touch that summer. Of course, Baldwin may never have told Thompson about the intelligence assignments he received at the end of that month.

But there’s clear documentary evidence of infiltration by another British agent. The letter that Joseph Reed sent to Baldwin to pass on to a Mr. Tewksbury to give to a waterman to deliver to the Rev. John Carnes inside Boston was written by Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr.

As a Massachusetts official in early 1775, Dr. Church gave inside information to Gen. Gage. By the summer he was medical director of the American army, and still sending messages to the royal authorities. In late July, maybe slightly before this letter, Church tried to send a letter into Boston through his mistress, who had contacts in Rhode Island.

Even if Reed and Gen. George Washington never told Church who their man inside Boston was, the doctor could have used his letter to expose that agent to his British army contacts, or done other mischief. Or he could simply have piggybacked on the Washington-Carnes communications chain; it seems to have worked better than his Rhode Island channel.

Given that situation, it’s not really a surprise that the British military detected Carnes corresponding with Gen. Washington, as the minister’s family recalled.

TOMORROW: In fact, the whole enterprise was riddled with security breaches.


Prof.A.Balz said...

Benjamin Thompson,yes,a most unsavory fellow.....perhaps the Benedict Arnold of Woburn ?

J. L. Bell said...

I don’t think enough people (besides Loammi Baldwin) trusted Thompson in the first place for his defection to be a betrayal like Arnold’s. Dr. Church really deserves that title for all of Massachusetts.

Anonymous said...

Yes,it does seen strange that Baldwin remained a friend of Thompson's after the conflict began.Although they seem to have many common interests,one would think that the vast political divide would be more significant.
It remains a puzzle to me.Thompson was a genuine scoundrel.