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, July 27, 2020

“As we intended to go to Mr. Barns’s”

On Sunday, 26 Feb 1775, Capt. William Brown, Ens. Henry DeBerniere, and their bodyservant were in Worcester. They were all soldiers in the British army, but undercover in civilian dress.

Because New England colonies had laws against traveling from town to town on the Sabbath except for emergencies, the two officers stayed in their inn all day. DeBerniere later reported that “we wrote and corrected our sketches” of the roads out from Boston to Worcester. When the sun set, they went out to the hill around town and sketched some more.

Worcester was one of the places that the Massachusetts Provincial Congress had started to gather cannon for its army. The officers had seen some of those guns in town. Their mission was to spot such weapons and collect information that Gen. Thomas Gage would need in planning a march to seize them.

That same day in Essex County, Lt. Col. Alexander Leslie led just such an expedition to capture other cannon being prepared for the congress in the north part of Salem. He couldn’t move fast enough and withdrew empty-handed.

News of that confrontation appears to have riled up the Patriots of Worcester. About eight o’clock some men came to the inn to ask about Brown and DeBerniere, eventually telling the landlord they knew his guests were “officers of the army.”

Brown and DeBerniere decided to leave the next day at dawn, buying some roast beef and brandy from their landlord for the journey. Traveling east on foot, they were overtaken by a horseman who looked at them narrowly before riding off along the Marlborough road. Later generations identified this man as Timothy Bigelow, a Marlborough native who had become a successful blacksmith and political activist in Worcester.

The officers chose to turn off to Framingham, where they got to see a militia company drill outside their tavern. The next day they moved on to Isaac Jones’s Golden Ball Tavern in Weston, where they had also stayed on their hike west (shown above). Brown and DeBerniere sent their sketches back to Boston with their servant. Then they decided that, since no one had bothered them for a couple of days, it was safe to keep scouting the roads.

A snowstorm kept the officers indoors until two in the afternoon, but finally they set out for Marlborough. It was snowing again as they arrived about three miles from the center of town. DeBerniere wrote:
a horseman overtook us and asked us from whence we came, we said from Weston, he asked if we lived there, we said no; he then asked us where we resided, and as we found there was no evading his questions, we told him we lived at Boston; he then asked us where we were going, we told him to Marlborough, to see a friend, (as we intended to go to Mr. Barns’s, a gentleman to whom we were recommended, and a friend to government;)
Henry Barnes may have made peace with his Marlborough neighbors in 1770, but he was still a Loyalist. The British command in Boston expected he would provide a safe house for these scouts. So, however, did his suspicious Patriot neighbors.

The rider eventually came out and asked Brown and DeBerniere if they “were in the army.” They said they weren’t, but “were a good deal alarmed at his asking.” After some more “rather impertinent questions,” the man rode on into town.

The officers guessed that horseman intended “to give them intelligence there of our coming.” Indeed, as the two men reached the more thickly settled village, “the people came out of their houses (tho’ it snowed and blew very hard) to look at us.”

A baker asked Brown were they were going (addressing the captain as “master” to butter him up). Brown dropped Barnes’s name. That doesn’t seem like very good spycraft, but the captain probably figured everyone was watching where they would go anyway.

TOMORROW: Inside Henry Barnes’s house.


RFuller said...

Sure is nice to read this story without the insertion of "Our Man John", whose tale fooled both Vincent JR Kehoe and David Hackett Fisher...

J. L. Bell said...

The officers’ enlisted servant was indeed named John, so he’s in this version of the story. But I’m not using the fictionalized version attributed decades later to “John Howe” that you’re referring to, or the overly dramatic details in it. The original report from DeBerniere is dramatic enough.