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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Friday, September 22, 2017

Elias Boudinot’s Story of Gunpowder and Spying

In his memoirs of the Revolution, New Jersey politician Elias Boudinot included this ancedote, headlined “Scarcity of Powder at Boston”:
When our Army lay before Boston in 1775, our Powder was so nearly Expended, That General [George] Washington told me that he had not more than Eight Rounds a Man, Altho’ he had then near 14 miles of line to guard, and that he dare not fire an Evening or Morning Gun.

In this situation one of the Committee of Safety for Massachusetts, who was privy to the whole secret, deserted and went over to Genl [Thomas] Gage, and discovered our poverty to him.
This was apparently how Boudinot understood the story of Dr. Benjamin Church’s treachery. Church had indeed been a member of the Massachusetts Committee of Safety, and in that position had shared crucial information with Gen. Gage in early 1775. (I wrote about his disclosures in The Road to Concord.)

However, Church didn’t cross to the British side of the siege lines with news of the gunpowder shortfall. Instead, he was exposed and confined in Cambridge around the end of September.

Dr. Church had sent written messages into Boston during the siege, including one that traveled by Washington’s own secret communications channel. But it appears that Church never informed Gage about the Continentals’ gunpowder problem. In the letter that was deciphered and exposed him, Church told a British contact exactly the opposite, exaggerating the Continental supply:
Twenty tons of powder lately arrived at Philadelphia, Connecticut & Providence. Upwards of 20 tons are now in camp. Salt petre is made in every colony. Powder mills are erected and constantly employed in Philadelphia & New York.
Church even used those words at his trial to argue that he was trying to fool the British command, concealing the harmful information. However, Church had written that letter in July, weeks before the gunpowder shortage was recognized.

Of course, Washington and his fellow generals had to wonder if Church had disclosed their crucial secret in another way. Furthermore, Benjamin Thompson, who had been traveling around the siege lines, did desert to the British that fall; he didn’t know about the gunpowder, but the Continentals didn’t know he didn’t know. So Washington had to assume the worst and hope for the best, waiting for the British to act.

Here’s how Boudinot continued the story:
The fact [of the gunpowder shortage] was so incredible, That Genl Gage treated it as a stratagem of war, and the informant as a spy: or coming with the express purpose of deceiving him & drawing his Army into a snare, by which means we were saved from having our Quarters beaten up.—
There was no way for Boudinot or Washington to know how Gage responded to Church’s messages, Thompson, or any other intelligence source. They were, after all, on opposite sides of the war. Boudinot’s story about Gage looks like an assumption made to explain why the British weren’t more aggressive in the fall of 1775.
I was the chairman of the Committee of safety at Elizabeth Town, and had about six or Seven Quarter Casks of Powder, which on urgent application from Genl Washington were sent to Boston, with what could be spared from New York.
Boudinot could thus feel good about helping to prevent the British from “beating up” the Americans around Boston. But in fact by that time both Gage and his successor, Gen. William Howe, had given up on breaking out of Boston by land. Washington feared an attack that would never come, based on a disclosure that never happened.

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