Sunday, August 18, 2019

Episode 110: Battle of Valcour Island




Most of the summer of 1776 focused on New York City.  That was where Britain sent the bulk of its troops and that’s where most of the fighting took place.  As I discussed a few episodes back, Britain also sent a large contingent to Canada to secure that area.  When General Johnny Burgoyne arrived with 8000 regulars in the spring, General Guy Carlton did not even wait for the entire force to arrive before he brought his forces out of Quebec and chased the Americans out of Canada entirely.

But at the Quebec border, the offensive came to a halt.  The British could not easily transport their navy from the St. Lawrence River onto Lake Champlain.  General Benedict Arnold had built up a fleet of Continental ships on the lake.  Carleton did not want to challenge Arnold’s fleet until he could do so with overwhelming force.

Battle of Valcour Island (from Wikimedia)
As I discussed back in Episode 106, Burgoyne, who had led the reinforcements from Britain to Canada, did not share Carlton’s reluctance to attack.   Burgoyne grew frustrated sitting around all summer waiting for something to happen.  He spent most of the summer bad mouthing his superior to everyone he knew back in London.

But if the two top British generals in Canada did not get along, that was nothing compared to the infighting on the American side.  General Philip Schuyler still commanded the northern army in New York.  Congress had sent General Horatio Gates to command the army in Canada. But now that the Americans in Canada had retreated back to New York, both generals spent most of the summer fighting over who was really in charge. Schuyler was the senior officer, but Gates had received an independent command.

The junior officers also continued their own infighting.  General Arnold had spent most of the war making enemies of just about all the other officers he met.  Over the summer, he had gotten into the tussle over the court martial of Colonel Moses Hazen, which resulted in the court seeking permission to arrest Arnold for his expression of contempt for the court.

Gates refused to allow any such arrest because, the British were going to attack any day and Arnold was their best battlefield commander.  Next, Arnold had to fight to take back his command of the fleet after Schuyler had given command to Colonel Jacobus Wynkoop.  That fight led to Gates again backing Arnold and arresting Wynkoop.  So by the end of the summer of 1776, Arnold was once again in command of the fleet on Lake Champlain and ready to face the enemy.

The British Fleet

British General Carleton came from the same school of leadership as General William Howe in New York: take your time, don’t do anything risky, wait until you are in a position to overwhelm the enemy so there can be only one outcome.  While Howe used the late summer and fall of 1776 to nudge Washington’s army slowly out of New York, Carleton got an even later start.  His fleet did not leave St. Jean until October 4.  But when it did, Carleton was well prepared to defeat any Continental resistance on the lake.

The Thunderer (from JAR)
Carlton’s delay was the result of assembling a fleet of about 25 warships, either built at St. Jean or broken into pieces at Three Rivers, and then hand carried and reassembled at St. Jean.  The largest, the Thunderer was more of a floating battery, about 500 feet long.  Its six 12 pounder cannons alone made her the equal of any American ship on the lake, but Thunderer also had six 24 pounders as well as howitzers, meaning no other ship came close to her firepower.  Because the ship was so large and unwieldy, the presumed purpose was to float down to the forts at Crown Point and Ticonderoga to use as part of a siege.

Carlton had other ships ready for a full scale naval battle on Lake Champlain.  The Inflexible had sixteen 12 pounders and two 9 pounders. The Carleton had twelve 6 pounders and the Maria, named after Carleton’s wife had fourteen 6 pounders.  They also built a gondola called the Loyal Convert with six 9 pounders and a single 24 pounder.  In addition, the fleet included several smaller row ships with a single cannon mounted on the bow.  At least ten of these smaller ships had been built in Britain and sent across the Atlantic as kits to be reassembled on the lake.

In addition to the twenty-five warships armed with cannon, the fleet included troop transports as well as several hundred Indian canoes.  Most of the regulars remained behind, waiting until the fleet cleared the lake. But the fleet did take about one thousand regulars, as well as hundreds of Canadian militia and Indians prepared to do battle with any land forces they met along the shores.

The American Fleet

To counter the British fleet, the Continentals had assembled and built their own fleet.  The largest ships were the Royal Savage and the Enterprise, which Arnold had captured on the lake a year earlier.  They also had built the Revenge, the Liberty, and the Lee.  Most of these were armed with six or four pounder cannon, although the Lee had one 12 pounder.  Size really mattered with these cannons since the goal was to rip large holes in the enemy ships to sink them.  Larger cannon made bigger holes.  They could also usually be fired from a greater distance.

The Americans  put most of their heaviest guns on four large row gallies, the Trumbull, the Washington, the Congress, and the Gates, all of which had one or two 18 pounders, as well as a few 12 pounders and some smaller cannon.  In battle, these could be rowed into position easier than a sailing vessel, hopefully getting in some successful shots before the enemy could get into position to return fire.  The disadvantage of these gallies is that they required a lot of men to row them and were much slower in open water, meaning the enemy would have an easier time overtaking them. The Continental navy rounded out its fleet with eight smaller gunboats: the Philadelphia, the New York, the New Jersey, the Connecticut, the Providence, the New Haven, the Spitfire, and the Boston.  Like the gallies, each had to be rowed.  Each had at least one 9 or 12 pounder as well as a few smaller cannon.

Strategy

With the superior force, better trained crews, and far more resources, Carleton felt confident he could move down Lake Champlain, encounter the American fleet at any point of their choosing, defeat them and continue on down to Fort Ticonderoga at the southern tip of the lake.  He expected Arnold to confront his fleet at Cumberland point, one of the narrowest places on the lake, where the smaller Continental fleet would be at less of a disadvantage.

Map showing battle location (from Wikimedia)
Gates ordered Arnold to keep his fleet between Fort Ticonderoga and Carleton’s fleet and do his best to put up a defense.  The expected outcome to be eventually falling back to Fort Ticonderoga.  There, backed by the fort’s guns, they could put up a final defense against the fleet.

Arnold thought those were stupid orders, but did not bother to fight about it. Instead, he just ignored orders and implemented his own plan.  He knew that Carlton was too cautious to move until the winds were in his favor, and that Carlton would not leave an enemy fleet in his rear while proceeding down to Fort Ticonderoga.  Arnold wanted to lure Carlton into a fight at a point where the Americans would have the greatest advantage.

Valcour Island was a small island just off the west coast of Lake Champlain, just below Cumberland point.  The point of entry from the northern part of the island into the narrow water between the island and the western shore was too full of rocks and debris for most of the large British ships to enter.  Therefore, they would need to sail around the east to the southern part of the island and then tack north into Valcour Bay.  Since Carlton would have waited to set sail until he had a steady northerly wind to carry him down the lake, the wind would be against him as he sailed back up into Valcour Bay to meet Arnold’s fleet.

Arnold chained his ships together in an arc inside the bay.  That way, all his ships could concentrate fire on the British ships entering the bay, which they would have to do one or two at a time and against the wind.  That would give Arnold’s fleet time to demolish each ship as it entered without having to face the entire British fleet at once.

The Battle

The plan actually seemed to work reasonably well.  As expected, Carlton waited for good weather and a favorable northerly wind before proceeding south on October 10.  That night, the British fleet lay at anchor just a few miles north of Valcour Island.

There is some dispute as to what actually happened.  Carlton, of course, issued a formal report after the battle.  But a year later, several of his subordinate officers wrote An Open Letter to Captain Pringle published in London that greatly contradicted many of the facts as Carlton presented them, and also accused Carlton of cowardice.  The three officers who filed this report were upset that Carlton had assumed command of the fleet, rather than allowing Burgoyne that honor.  They were also upset that Carlton had appointed Captain Thomas Pringle as fleet commander over the three of them who had seniority.  Therefore their anti-Carlton bias might have been as strong as Carleton’s bias to paint a picture that put himself in the best possible light.

American ships at Valcour Island (from Wikimedia)
Carlton said he had no idea that the American fleet was in Valcour Bay.  He fully expected to find them at Cumberland point. When he did not, he continued to sail south taking advantage of a strong northerly wind that morning, sailing past Valcour Island and down the lake.  The report by the dissenting officers said that he did know about the American fleet.  While Carleton had sidelined Burgoyne on Lake Champlain, Burgoyne had sent light infantry down the coast of the lake looking for the enemy.  They reported back that they spotted the fleet near Valcour Island on October 9.  The Open Letter said that Carlton knew about this and refused to act on the intelligence.

The truth is likely that there was some report of the enemy in the area two days earlier.  But Carlton, after not finding the enemy where he expected, simply assumed they were in full retreat down the lake as fast as they could go.  There is no evidence that Carlton received intelligence specifically showing the enemy’s exact position behind Valcour Island.  So Carleton let every ship sail at full speed in down the lake.

The Inflexible and Thunderer were far down the lake past the Island when Arnold began to fear that the fleet might just sail past him entirely.  This might have been a good thing since then Arnold could have come down on the British fleet from the rear, taking out the troop transports before the warships could turn around and defend them.  But Arnold wanted the fleet to attack him in Valcour Bay.  By late morning, as the fleet was moving south, Arnold ordered the Royal Savage and three of the row gallies to move south toward an intercept with the British fleet.

Guy Carleton (from Wikimedia)
As soon as the British spotted his ships, Arnold ordered them to turn around and return to the line.  He had gotten the attention of the British fleet and knew they would sail into his defensive lines now.  But while the row gallies could return to the American lines, the Royal Savage had trouble tacking against the wind.  The inexperienced crew was unable to get back to the lines as British gunboats surrounded and bombarded her, taking out most of her sails.  The British Inflexible soon came within range and used its heavy artillery to destroy the hull and rigging.  Soon the Royal Savage crashed into the coast of Valcour Island where the surviving crew abandoned ship and escaped into the island.  Some made their way back to the fleet, others would be captured by Indians who Carlton deployed on the island later that day.

A British boarding party was able to capture the Royal Savage and began using the cannon on the stranded ship to fire on the American fleet.  But the Americans soon focused their fire and forced the British to abandon the sinking ship.  Instead, they burned it down to its water line later that evening.  Although Arnold had not been aboard the ship that day, he did have his personal property and papers aboard ship, the loss of which would come to haunt him later.

The Royal Savage went down quickly in early fighting, giving hope to the British that this would be an easy fight.  The first British gunboats sailed into Valcour Bay along with the Carleton, and that is the ship Carleton, not to be confused with the Maria, where General Carleton was aboard. As the ship Carleton entered Arnold’s trap, all the American ships concentrated their fire.  The Carleton’s commander, a young Lieutenant named James Dacres took a hit in the head and was knocked unconscious.  At first the crew thought he had been killed, and were about to throw his body overboard, as was customary at the time.  Fortunately for Dacres, an alert midshipman named Edward Pellew, realized Dacres was still alive and prevented him from being thrown overboard.  Years later, both Dacres and Pellew would become British admirals fighting in the Napoleonic wars.  Pellew is known better by his later title, Admiral Lord Exmouth.

The Royal Savage (from JAR)
The Carlton was in danger of sinking or being captured.  With its rigging shot away, it could not even sail away from battle.  Midshipman Pellew had to climb into the rigging and while under fire, kick at a sail to get it to unfurl properly.  With the assistance of British gunboats, the Carlton eventually retreated from the line of fire and escaped with heavy damage.

Overall, Arnold’s plan was working well.  The British fleet could not attack him en masse.  His American gunners, despite little experience, effectively hit the few ships that made it into the bay.  The British Thunderer and Loyal Convert were too far downwind to make it back in time for battle at all that day.  The large square rigged Inflexible was not able to get into the Bay where it could effectively fire on the Americans.

With the Carlton out of commission, that left only the Maria and the smaller British gunships.  The Maria was not the largest ship in the fleet, but it was one of the fastest, and had the fleet commander Captain Pringle and General Carlton aboard.  As the Maria approached the bay, an American cannonball passed over the deck nearly taking off Carlton’s head.  Reportedly, Carlton simply turned to a colleague, Dr. Knox, standing next to him and also almost killed by the same ball, and asked him “Well doctor, how do you like a sea battle?”  But that shot was enough for Captain Pringle to order the ship to pull back and drop anchor, where the commanders could observe the fight from a safe distance.  This later resulted in charges of cowardice against Pringle.

Carlton ordered his Indians to land on Valcour Island and along the New York coast as well.  From there, the Indians fired on the American ships with muskets.  The fire was mostly distracting for a few ships closest to shore.  Arnold had prepared for such an eventuality by building wooden breastworks on the ships to shield the men from musket fire.

A few Indians attempted to row out to the ships and board them.  But effective use of swivel guns quickly dissuaded them from those attempts.  Mostly the Indians on shore prevented the Americans from any attempts to abandon ship and make their way overland back to Fort Ticonderoga.

Battle at Valcour Island (from British Battles)
Throughout the day, both the enemy and his own men observed General Arnold in the thick of the fighting, moving from cannon to cannon to direct fire.

By late in the day, the Inflexible finally got itself within range of the American ships.  With its superior firepower, it did some damage, but also took considerable fire from the Americans.  Before long, dusk ended the fighting, after about seven hours of battle.  Many of the American ships were running out of ammunition, as were many of the smaller British gunships.

Overall Arnold’s plan worked well.  He had forced the British to attack him with only a few ships at a time, and against the wind.  But Carlton’s advantage in numbers of ships, men, guns, and ammunition made it virtually impossible that the Americans would destroy or capture the British fleet entirely.

When the second day began, Arnold would no longer have the element of surprise.  He remained trapped in Valcour Bay.  Escape to the north was impossible given the rocks and impediments. Even if the American fleet could get through to the north, it would still be trapped between the British fleet and the British rear where 7000 British regulars were there to meet them.  Carlton’s fleet blocked a southern escape.  Hundreds of Indians patrolled the forests on both Valcour Island and the mainland, preventing Arnold from simply scuttling his ships and attempting an escape overland.

To the British, and probably to most American officers, it looked like Arnold’s choices the following morning were surrender, burn the ships and surrender, or fight it out as the British fleet crushed the Americans.  Any of these results would be reasonable.  Arnold’s fleet has served its purpose.  It had delayed the British attack on Fort Ticonderoga for nearly the entire 1776 fighting season.  If the British captured the fleet, it would mean a few hundred prisoners, about the same as when the British captured Montgomery and Arnold’s attack force at Quebec nine months earlier. It was an acceptable sacrifice for keeping 12,000 British and allies from taking the Hudson Valley and linking up with British forces in New York City that year.

Despite his position though, Arnold was not ready to surrender yet.  That night, at a council of war, he revealed his plan to escape from the British fleet.

Next Week, Arnold attempts to escape from the British fleet.

- - -

Next Episode 111: Retreat from Lake Champlain

Previous Episode 109: Great fire of NY & Hanging Nathan Hale



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Further Reading

Websites

Ray, Stephen, The Battle of Lake Champlain: http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/essays/before-1800/the-battle-of-lake-champlain

Barbieri, Michael "The Battle of Valcour Island" Journal of the American Revolution, Jan. 2, 2014: https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/01/battle-valcour-island

Barbieri, Michael "The Fate of the Royal Savage" Journal of the American Revolution, May 2, 2014:
https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/05/the-fate-of-the-royal-savage

Gadue, Michael "The Thunderer, British Floating Gun Battery on Lake Champlain" Journal of the American Revolution, April 4, 2019: https://allthingsliberty.com/2019/04/the-thunderer-british-floating-gun-battery-on-lake-champlain

Gadue, Michael "The Liberty, First American Warship Among Many Firsts" Journal of the American Revolution, June 10, 2019: https://allthingsliberty.com/2019/06/the-liberty-first-american-warship-among-many-firsts

Valcour Bay Research Project: http://www.historiclakes.org/vbrp/vbr1.htm

Pippenger, C.E. "Recently Discovered Letters Shed New Light on the Battle of Valcour Island"  Journal of the American Revolution, Oct. 11, 2016: https://allthingsliberty.com/2016/10/recently-discovered-letters-shed-new-light- battle-valcour-island

Seelinger, Matthew Buying Time: The Battle of Valcour Island, 2014: https://armyhistory.org/buying-time-the-battle-of-valcour-island

Hubbard, Timothy W. "Battle at Valcour Island: Benedict Arnold As Hero" American Heritage Magazine, Vol. 17, Issue 6, Oct. 1966: http://www.americanheritage.com/content/battle-valcour-island-benedict-arnold-hero

Videos

C-Span: author James Arnold discusses his book, Benedict Arnold’s Navy (2006): https://www.c-span.org/video/?193388-1/benedict-arnolds-navy

Benedict Arnold's Legacy: Tales from Lake Champlain, Center for Research on Vermont (2016): https://archive.org/details/Benedict_Arnold_s_Legacy_-_Tales_from_Lake_Champlain

Free eBooks
(from archive.org unless noted)

Carrington, Henry B. Battles of the American Revolution, 1775-1781, A.S. Barnes & Co, 1876.

Force, Peter American Archives, Series 5, Vol 3, M. St. Claire Clarks, 1837.

Hill, George Benedict Arnold: A Biography, Boston: E.O. Libby & Co. 1858.

Kingsford, William The History of Canada, Vol. 6,  Toronto: Roswell & Hutchinson, 1887.

Palmer, Peter Battle of Valcour on Lake Champlain, October 11th, 1776, Lake Shore Press, 1876.

Smith, Justin Our Struggle for the Fourteenth Colony: Canada, and the American Revolution, Vol. 2, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1907.

Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*

Atkinson, Richard The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777, Henry Holt & Co. 2019.

Fleming, Thomas 1776: Year of Illusions, W.W. Norton & Co., 1975.

Hatch, Robert Thrust for Canada, Houghton-Mifflin, 1979.

Martin, James Benedict Arnold: Revolutionary Hero, NYU Press, 1997.

Randall, Willard Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor, William Morrow & Co. 1990.

Darley, Stephen, The Battle of Valcour Island: The Participants and Vessels of Benedict Arnold's 1776 Defense of Lake Champlain, CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2013 (book recommendation of the week)

Wheeler, Richard Voices of 1776: The Story of the American Revolution in the Words of Those Who Were There, Plume Publishing, 1997.

* This site is a registered Amazon Associate.  Please help support this site by purchasing any of these books, or any other Amazon product, via the links on this site.  If you start by clicking on a book link above and then browse to buy something completely different on Amazon, American Revolution Podcast will get credit for your purchase.


Sunday, August 11, 2019

Episode 109: Great Fire of New York & Nathan Hale




By mid September, 1776, the Continental Army held onto the Harlem Heights at the northern tip of Manhattan, and Fort Washington along the Hudson River.  The British controlled the remainder of the island.  General Lord Percy, who you may remember from his dramatic rescue of the British Army at Lexington, commanded a force posted just north of the city on the east side of the Island.  General Lord Cornwallis, who had sailed to America only to fail miserably under General Henry Clinton at Fort Sullivan in South Carolina, still served under Clinton.  After their success at the Battle of Long Island, commanding General William Howe posted them with the command of front lines, just south of Harlem Heights, but with strict instructions to stay put and not advance on the enemy.

Howe himself settled into a comfortable estate at Mount Pleasant, north of Kip’s Bay but still well back from the front lines.  There, he wrote dispatches to Lord Germain and others in London about their successful capture of New York.  Once again, following his victory, Howe would pause for several weeks, giving the enemy time to regroup and plan their next steps.

On September 19, General Howe issued another decree to the public urging the American people to return to their old allegiance to the King and bring the violence to an end.  This proclamation got little attention since only a few loyalist newspapers in New York and New Jersey published it.  Some Americans then under the direct occupation of the British army swore allegiance, but mostly because any patriots living in those areas had already fled.  The Howes somehow seemed convinced that they could get the patriots to lay down their arms without a long and terrible bloodletting.  But that was not going to be the case.  The proclamation, much like others before it and after it went largely ignored.

This is not to say no one flocked to the Tory cause.  With the greater New York City area now firmly under the British Army’s control, local Tory leaders began to recruit locals to join Tory militia units to assist the British in retaking the colonies for the King.  Militia General Oliver De Lancey raised a brigade of about 1500 on Long Island.  Major Robert Rogers raised a provincial corps of Tories known as Rogers Rangers, resurrecting a name he also used during the French and Indian War.

The Great Fire

While much quieter now though, some local New Yorkers remained loyal to the patriot cause and were willing to cause trouble for the occupying army.  Just after midnight on September 21, 1776, alarm began to spread through New York that the city was on fire.  There were no alarm bells since the Continentals had taken all bells before leaving the city.  Word spread by shouts that much of the city was engulfed in flames.

The Great Fire of NYC 1776 (from Wikimedia)
Civilians and soldiers worked through the night to control the fire and extinguish the flames.  They tore down several houses as fire breaks to keep the fire from spreading, and formed bucket brigades to bring water to the burning buildings.  Actually, most of the military working on extinguishing the fire were marines from the navy.  Some soldiers may have acted independently, but General Howe did not deploy any soldiers until the following day.  Instead, Howe kept his soldiers on alert all night just in case the fire was an attempt to distract him as part of a daring night invasion.  That, of course, never happened.

Some thought the arson attacks specifically targeted the Church of England.  Much of the area burned was the area around Trinity Church, including the church itself.  The area was mostly residences, as well as Holy Ground, where the prostitution and night life was most active.  The commercial areas and dockyards mostly survived intact.  Though many had already fled the city before the British Army arrived, the army’s arrival had created a major housing shortage.  The loss of so many buildings left many families homeless, with nowhere to go.

Though no one seems certain how the fire started, rumors shot around, probably correctly, that it was the work of patriot saboteurs.  The fire seems to have started in several places at once, and spread very rapidly, in part thanks to a strong wind blowing north.  General Howe’s reports indicate that several arsonists were caught and killed on the spot, but gives little detail.  Other accounts give gruesome stories of arsonists being pinned to walls with bayonets, hanged from lampposts.  One report says that soldiers who caught an arsonist in the act picked him up and threw him in the burning building he had just set on fire, to be burned alive.

Some patriots accused the occupying army, mostly the Hessians, of starting the fire in order to cover their looting of the city.  There were some accusations of soldiers looting burning buildings.  But the notion that the British or Hessians started the fire seems to be propaganda with no factual basis.

Whatever the accuracy of any of these stories, it is clear that the British believed the fire was a deliberate act of sabotage to deny them use of the city.  The fire ended up burning about one thousand buildings, about one-fourth of the city.  Only a shift in winds prevented it from destroying much more.

Map showing area burned in red (from Wikimedia)
There is no evidence that Washington had anything to do with the fire.  Congress had instructed him not to destroy the city and Washington was not the type of man to defy Congress, even when he thought privately that its decision was foolish.  The majority in Congress seemed to think the patriots would retake the city and that it would be a waste to destroy it.

Washington wrote to Congress the following day to report the fire, which he described as an accident.  Again, it would be highly out of character for Washington to lie in a report to Congress.

However, in private correspondence, Washington did make clear he was not sorry about the fire.  He wrote to his cousin that if he had been allowed to use his own judgment, he would have burned the city to the ground before leaving it.  He also commended “providence, or some good honest fellow, has done more for us than we were disposed to do for ourselves” with the fire.

Following the fire, the British increased vigilance to prevent any further cases of arson.  Howe decided to keep the city under martial law rather than returning Governor William Tryon and Mayor David Mathews to power.  Instead of returning the King’s peace to the city, it remained an armed camp under military control.

The British Army also went to great efforts to find the culprits responsible for setting the fire.  They rounded up and questioned over 200 suspects.  One reason to question the rumors of unnamed saboteurs being killed during the fire is that no one was caught in the act and arrested.  If several people were captured, one would think not all of them would be killed and some would be arrested.  The 200 suspects arrested in the following days all faced questioning and were eventually released.  The British never even found enough evidence to bring anyone to trial.

Nathan Hale

One unlucky victim of the fire was Continental Army Captain Nathan Hale.  A few weeks earlier, before the British invaded Manhattan, Washington had asked for volunteers to cross over to Long Island and gather intelligence on the enemy.  Hale volunteered for the mission.

As a former schoolteacher from Connecticut, Hale decided his best cover would be to play a schoolteacher from Connecticut looking for work before the beginning of the school year somewhere on Long Island.  He had to go back to Connecticut and take a boat across to the northeastern part of Long Island on September 12, about three days before the British landed at Kip’s Bay.

Nathan Hale hanged as a spy (from Today in Conn. History)
Hale made his way across Long Island down toward New York, paying attention to the enemy’s troop deployments and numbers.  He took detailed notes and drew sketches to record what he found.

Sadly for Captain Hale, he had missed some critically important Spying 101 classes.  He wrote down lots of notes, but did not bother to use any code or invisible ink, both in common use by other spies during this period.  He did not have any local contacts or safe houses along the way, nor anyone local he could trust.  He also had no way to get any information back to the American lines unless he returned with the information himself.

We don’t know exactly what information Hale discovered, because he never returned any reports to the Americans.  He wandered across Long Island while the British crossed the East River at Kip’s Bay, captured the city and set up defenses against the Americans at Harlem Heights.  Somehow, he made his way across the river into New York City.  He was there on September 21 when the fire swept across the island.  The morning after the fire, he made his way north towards the front lines.

As Hale waited on the coast, the British ship Halifax came ashore.  Hale apparently approached the landing party, thinking they might be Americans.  Aware of the fire and seeing Hale was nervous, the British crew arrested him, thinking he might be one of the arsonists.  They found his notes and sketches in his clothing and took him to General Howe as a suspected spy.

Hale admitted to being a Continental officer.  Since he was caught behind enemy lines and out of uniform, Howe could treat him as a spy rather than a prisoner of war.  He could be hanged immediately and without trial.  Although there does not appear to be any reason to believe Hale was involved in the New York fire, Howe was in no mood to offer clemency.  Although not required, accused spies normally would at least receive a court martial.  Having spent the whole night prior dealing with the fire and hunting for suspected arsonists, he ordered Hale hanged as a spy without trial.
Hanging of Nathan Hale (from Fine Art America)

Howe turned over Hale to the Provost Marshall, William Cunningham, a Tory who had fled Boston a year earlier and who had been the victim of patriot mob attacks in New York before the British arrived.  Cunningham was in no mood to show any kindness or sympathy to any rebel who fell into his hands.  He scheduled the hanging for the following morning.  He also denied Hale his last requests of having a clergyman present, or access to a Bible.

The next morning, during a delay as they prepared the gallows.  The Chief Engineer John Montresor took Hale into his tent and had a short conversation.  He also provided Hale with paper and ink so that he could write two final letters: one to his brother and the other to his commanding officer.

Famous Last Words

Once the gallows were ready, guards led Hale to his execution.  Montresor recorded Hale’s famous last words “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”  The phrase came from a popular play of the day: Cato by Joseph Addison.  It was about a Roman politician who committed suicide rather than living under a tyrannical emperor.

Another officer McKenzie, also present at the execution noted that Hale showed bravery and commented that it was the duty of every soldier to obey the orders of his commander, but did not record Hale’s supposed famous last words.  His failure to note them has led to some debate as to whether Hale actually uttered the phrase for which he is remembered.

On September 22, 1776 at around 11:00 AM, the British hanged Hale and buried his body.  Montresor turned over the two letters he had written to the Provost, who promptly destroyed them.  Later that evening, Montresor went over to the American lines as Harlem Heights under a flag of truce in order to discuss a prisoner exchange.  While there, he revealed to the Americans that the British had hanged Hale as a spy that morning, and passed along his famous last words.

Word of Hale’s last words circulated among the army, but Washington did not choose to publicize the matter at the time.  Washington may have been embarrassed at the great risk and lack of support to which he subjected Hale.  He may have also been concerned about publicizing his use of spies at all.  Washington was already preparing to send other spies, though with greater protection and training.  Reports of Hale’s famous last words did not appear in newspapers until months later.

Ebenezer Leffingwell

The same day the British hanged Hale, the Continental Army prepared an execution of its own, Ebenezer Leffingwell.  During the battle of Harlem Heights, Col. Joseph Reed encountered Leffingwell headed away from the front lines.  Reed thought Leffingwell was deserting and confronted him.

Joseph Reed

I’ve mentioned Joseph Reed in passing a few times, but since he will be important in several future events, it might be worth a little more background now.  Reed was a Philadelphia lawyer who had accompanied Washington from Philadelphia to Cambridge back in 1775 when Washington first took up command of the Army.  Reed had not intended to follow Washington all the way, but got so swept up in the moment that he found himself in Cambridge with the Army.  He provided some clerical assistance to the new commander but then insisted he needed to return home and resume his legal practice.  Washington begged him to return and claimed he could not function well without him.  Reed became Washington's first adjutant and remained close to the commander.  Washington was always a very closed and private man, but did seem to open up to a very small number of trusted associates.  Reed apparently became one of those trusted confidants during the early war.  While we will see later that Reed would lose Washington’s confidence and trust, at this time the two remained very close.  Reed carried Washington's confidence and authority.

Leffingwell’s Execution

 So on September 16, Reed was on his horse, delivering orders for Washington during the battle when he encountered Leffingwell.  According to Reed, Leffingwell was clearly afraid and running away from battle.  Reed ordered Leffingwell to return to the front lines, but soon found him doubling back and running in the other direction.  Reed rode after the soldier and confronted him again.  At that time, Leffingwell pointed his gun at Reed and pulled the trigger.  The gun either misfired or was not loaded.  Reed attempted to shoot Leffingwell on the spot, but could not fire his gun either.  He slashed at Leffingwell with his sword, injuring the soldier, but not seriously.
Joseph Reed (from Geni)

After that encounter, Reed had Leffingwell arrested on charges of desertion and mutiny.  Leffingwell, however, told a very different story at trial.  He said he was following the orders of his commanding officer on the front lines to go to the rear to get more ammunition.  While on this mission, Colonel Reed confronted him and ordered him to return to the front lines.  Leffingwell said he informed Reed that he was under orders to obtain more ammunition, but that Reed did not believe him.  Reed drew his sword and threatened to kill him unless he immediately returned to the front lines.  Fearing for his life, Leffingwell cocked his gun and pointed it at Reed.

On September 19, three days after the encounter, a court martial found Leffingwell guilty and sentenced him to be shot by firing squad.  Washington, eager to enforce discipline against deserters, approved the sentence to be carried out on September 22.  Much of the army, however, was greatly upset at this decision.

On the morning of the execution, a firing squad led Leffingwell in front of the assembled army, lined up and pointed their guns at the condemned prisoner.  At the last minute, a chaplain announced a last minute reprieve from Washington, and Leffingwell’s life was spared.

Washington had hoped to make an example by shooting a deserter.  Conventional wisdom of the time was that such examples helped keep the troops in line during battle.  But it seems Washington wisely listened to the grumbling of his soldiers on this day.  The army seemed deeply against this execution.  Carrying it out might only have the effect of harming morale and increasing the number of desertions.  Sparing Leffingwell, avoided this.  There is also some evidence that Colonel Reed lobbied Washington to spare Leffingwell, though it is not clear if this was for humanitarian, or practical purposes.

Joseph Plumb Martin

I should also mention that much of what we know about this incident comes from Joseph Plumb Martin, a soldier who was fighting with the Continental Army during this time.  Martin was a Connecticut soldier who joined the Continental Army during the call for volunteers just before the British invasion of New York.  Martin joined the army as a private, eventually rising to sergeant and serving through the remainder of the war.  He never became an officer.  Though he appears to have fought honorably and remained in the army for almost the entire war, there is nothing in particular that stands out about Martin’s service that would not apply to thousands of other soldiers during the war.
Joseph Martin & Wife
(from Wikimedia)

What makes Martin noteworthy and of special interest to history is that after he survived the war, returned home, and grew into old age, Martin wrote an account of his participation in the war.  In 1830, he published a book called A Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier.  The book provides a unique perspective into the life of an enlisted man during the war.  While there exist many “common soldier” books from later wars, this is the only one from the Revolution that covers more than a short period.

The book never got much attention from historians until they rediscovered it in the late 20th Century.  Because of its unique perspective, focusing on the lives of enlisted men rather than the generals, it has become an important source for anyone learning about the Revolution.  If you are so inclined, I strongly recommend giving it a read.

Next week: While we wait for Howe to give Washington another nudge, we check back with Generals Carleton and Burgoyne as they finally make their move from Canada into Lake Champlain in their push toward Albany, NY.
- - -

Next  Episode 110: Battle of Valcour Island (available August 18, 2019)

Previous  Episode 108: The French Connection



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Further Reading

Websites 

Ross, Tara This Day in History: New York City and the great fire of 1776, Sep. 20, 2016: http://www.taraross.com/2016/09/this-day-in-history-new-york-city-and-the-great-fire-of-1776

The Great Fire of 1776 in NYC: http://www.thehistorybox.com/ny_city/nycity_fire_1776_article1046.htm

Perilous Night: The Great Fire of 1776 - Bowery Boys Podcast (Oct. 2, 2015): http://www.boweryboyshistory.com/2015/10/perilous-night-the-great-fire-of-1776.html

Joseph Reed: http://www.revolutionary-war.net/joseph-reed.html

The Enigma Of General Howe, by Thomas Fleming, American Heritage, Vol. 15, Issue 2 (Feb. 1964): http://www.americanheritage.com/content/enigma-general-howe

Nathan Hale: Military Leader, Spy: https://www.biography.com/people/nathan-hale-9325477

Joseph Addison’s Cato: Liberty on the State, by Eric Sterner (JAR) (2016):
https://allthingsliberty.com/2016/11/joseph-addisons-cato-liberty-stage

George Washington Convenes a Firing Squad, by Joshua Shepherd (JAR) (2016): https://allthingsliberty.com/2016/02/george-washington-convenes-a-firing-squad

Proceedings of a General Court-Martial, Sept. 19 1776: Trial of Ensign Macumber and Ebenezer Leffingwell: http://amarch.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A100162

General Orders, 22 Sept. 1776, confirming Court Martial of Ebenezer Leffingwell: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-06-02-0285

Joseph Plumb Martin: http://www.history.com/topics/american-revolution/joseph-plumb-martin

Joseph Plumb Martin: Soldier-Author, by Robert Carver Brooks (JAR) 2015:
https://allthingsliberty.com/2015/09/joseph-plumb-martin-soldier-author

Free eBooks
(from archive.org unless noted)

The Detail and Conduct of the American War, under Generals Gage, Howe, Burgoyne, and Vice Admiral Lord Howe, (original reports and letters) The Royal Exchange, 1780.

Carrington, Henry Battles of the American Revolution, 1775-1781, A.S. Barnes & Co. 1876.


Babcock, James, Memoir of Captain Nathan Hale, Hale Memorial Assoc. 1844.

Force, Peter American Archives, Series 5, Vol 3, Washington: St. Claire Clarke, 1837.

Holloway, Charlotte Nathan Hale. The martyr-hero of the revolution, with a Hale genealogy and Hale's diary, Perkins Book Company, 1902.

Johnston, Henry The Campaign of 1776 Around New York and Brooklyn, Long Island Historical Society, 1878.

Johnston, Henry Phelps Nathan Hale, 1776; biography and memorials, New York: Privately Published, 1901.

Martin, Joseph Plumb The Adventures of a Revolutionary Soldier, 1830 (This is a copy of the original print, but in poor quality.  You can borrow a better quality copy or listen to a free audio copy of the book).

Reed, William Life and correspondence of Joseph Reed, military secretary of Washington, at Cambridge, Vol. 1, Lindsay and Blakiston, 1847.

Root, Jean Christie Nathan Hale, New York: MacMillan Company, 1915.

Reed, Henry Sparks, Jared (ed) The Library of American Biography, Vol. 8: The Lives of Charles Lee and Joseph Reed, Little & Brown,1834.

Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*

Atkinson, Richard The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777, Henry Holt & Co. 2019 (book recommendation of the week).

Daughan, George C. Revolution on the Hudson: New York City and the Hudson River Valley in the American War of Independence, New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 2016.

Ellis, Joseph Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.

Fleming, Thomas 1776: Year of Illusions, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1975.

Gallagher, John J. Battle Of Brooklyn, 1776,  Da Capo Press, 1995.

McCullough, David 1776, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Schecter, Barnet The Battle for New York, New York: Walker Publishing, 2002.

* This site is a registered Amazon Associate.  Please help support this site by purchasing any of these books, or any other Amazon product, via the links on this site.  If you start by clicking on a book link above and then browse to buy something completely different on Amazon, American Revolution Podcast will get credit for your purchase.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Episode 108: The French Connection




One of the arguments for declaring independence in July, 1776 was the hope of encouraging foreign assistance for the war effort.  Since local production in America would never meet demand, Congress would have to make alliances overseas that would facilitate an international arms trade.  The problem with that was that any country that would engage in such a trade would incur the wrath of Britain and would likely have to go to war with Britain.

King Louis XVI of France
(from Wikimedia)
America’s best bet for an ally in Europe was France, which of course seemed to be at war with Britain more often than not over the prior century or two.  The former British colonists would have to move past their gut reaction of hating the French.  New Englanders especially, had grown up hating the French and going to war with French colonists for most of their lives as well as the lives of their parents and grandparents.  Most British colonists thought the French monarch King Louis XVI was even worse than King George III when it came to guaranteeing the rights of his subjects.  The language barrier and the fact that the French were all Catholics did not help much either.  But going under the theory that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, Congress reached out to France to see if they could find a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Back in March 1776 Congress sent Silas Deane to France to see what he could do about a French alliance, see Episode 83.  Deane had been a delegate from Connecticut to the Continental Congress, but did not speak French, and had never been to Europe before.  I’m not even sure if he had ever left the colonies.  Dean was the son of a blacksmith.  He received a good education, well as good as you can get from a local school like Yale College, and became a lawyer.  He married the widow of a wealthy trader, which may have given him the opportunity to travel to the West Indies.  But he had no diplomatic experience nor much of any idea how he was going to sail across the Atlantic Ocean and convince the King of France to form an alliance and support American independence.

Arthur Lee

Fortunately for Deane, others had already been reaching out to France and getting the Ministry at Versailles to start thinking about what it could do to make Britain’s situation more miserable in America.  Arthur Lee was a Virginian who had lived much of his adult life in Britain, actually much of his childhood too since he got shipped off to British boarding school at age eleven.  He studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, and studied law in London.  He had been practicing law in London since about 1770.

Arthur Lee
(from Stratford Hall)
Lee’s entry into British society came from the fact that he was from one of the most prominent and wealthy families in Virginia.  He was the brother of Richard Henry Lee, who had been a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses.  In fact, Arthur had four brothers who served either in the Continental Congress or the Virginia House of Burgesses.  A fifth brother had moved to Britain and served as an alderman for the City of London.

Arthur had a legal practice in London.  He had been an outspoken advocate for colonial rights in the years leading up to the war.  He wrote radical articles, not only about colonial rights but also as an anti-slavery advocate. Lee had become involved with the Committees of Correspondence, writing regularly to Samuel Adams in the years leading up to the war, providing information on how London was reacting to colonial resistance.  Lee also knew Benjamin Franklin before Franklin returned to America in 1775.

Despite his pedigree, Arthur Lee had a proclivity for paranoia and backstabbing.  Part of this may have been from the fact that his older brothers had cheated him out of his inheritance when his father died while he was still a child.  Lee still had a working relationship with his powerful and influential brothers, but he developed a cynicism at an early age that everyone is out for themselves, and you should probably screw others before they can screw you.

Although Franklin went out of his way to assist Lee with his career in London, Lee never appeared to trust, nor even respect Franklin.  Instead, he seemed to want to trample over Franklin and push him out of the way.  Franklin held several colonial representative positions in London that Lee wanted for himself.  When Franklin returned to America, Lee took over many of these roles and took an active role courting other Englishmen in support of protecting colonial rights.

Beaumarchais

In early 1775, Lee had attended a dinner party at John Wilkes’ home.  Recall that Wilkes was a radical Whig, on bad terms with the King and strong supporter of colonial rights.  He did have a popular following in Britain and was at the time Lord Mayor of London.  At Wilkes’ dinner party Lee met the French playwright Pierre-Augustin de Caron, better known by his stage name, Beaumarchais. The party happened shortly after word of Lexington and Concord had reached London.  The outbreak of a shooting war in New England was a hot topic of conversation.

Pierre Beaumarchais
(from Wikimedia)
Beaumarchais had been in town for some time to do some dirty work for King Louis.  A French spy in London had been threatening to release papers showing that France had planned an invasion of England a few years earlier.  It turns out that the spy who had been a French soldier for many years, and who had even disguised himself as a woman to perform a covert mission in Russia years earlier, might actually be a woman.  No one was sure until after this person’s death. The story of this person, Charles, chevalier d’√Čon de Beaumont, is a fascinating story in itself, especially if you are interested in transgender historical figures.  But I don’t want to get too distracted from the story at hand.

Beaumarchais had led the life of a french aristocrat wannabe who never quite made it.  He had been a tutor to King Louis XV daughters and used that relationship to become close to a wealthy man of influence named Joseph Paris-Duverney.  Paris Duverney had been a successful arms merchant.  The two men formed a close relationship.  Some evidence indicates they were homosexual lovers, even though Paris-Duverney was about 50 years older than Beaumarchais.

After the death of Paris-Duverney in 1770, Beaumarchais found himself the subject of lawsuits and criminal prosecution for fraud.  At the time, of course, France did not recognize homosexual relationships.  Paris-Duverney had given many gifts to Beaumarchais that were hard to explain outside of such a relationship.  Beaumarchais could not reveal such a relationship as homosexual activity was a capital offense in France at the time.  As a result, Beaumarchais did not receive any of the estate and actually had to give back many of the gifts he had received. In 1775, he hoped to get back in the King’s favor by helping the King with the transgender spy d’Eon who was in London threatening to release documents that might bring Britain and France into another war.  That was how Beaumarchais found himself in London, having dinner with Arthur Lee at the home of John Wilkes.

Convincing France

It was during that effort that Beaumarchais met Arthur Lee in London.  The two men immediately began working out a plan to funnel arms covertly from France to America.  Neither man seemed concerned with the fact that neither had any authorization from his country to do anything.  Lee considered himself a secret agent working on behalf of the Continental Congress.  In fact, Congress had done nothing more than send him a letter asking if there were others in London friendly to the cause with whom they should correspond.  Beaumarchais only had a very unofficial and covert request from the French ministry to deal with the d’Eon matter before it became a public scandal, nothing more.  But unofficially, Lee had close connections with the Continental Congress, and Beaumarchais was an experienced arms dealer with at least some contacts in the French foreign ministry.
Chevalier D'Eon
(from Wikimedia)

The two men began working out plans to create a private company in France that would purchase arms, then smuggle them across the Atlantic to the Continental Army.  America would pay for the arms with Virginia tobacco.  Both men also seemed to think they would make a fortune in commissions from these transactions.

Their secret plans did not remain secret very long.  Although Arthur Lee tended to be very paranoid, one of the few men he took into his confidence was a man named Paul Wentworth, who seems to have made a living as a con man.  Wentworth almost immediately sold information of this deal to the British ministry, meaning London knew about the plot before anyone in Philadelphia or Versailles knew about it.  The British did not break up the cabal though.  Instead, they continued to use Wentworth as their inside man so that they could keep tabs on what was happening.

For much of the next year, Lee and Beaumarchais continued their talks, hatching plans to covertly trade arms for tobacco, making both of them rich.  Beaumarchais began lobbying the French Ministry in Versailles, excited at the idea of getting in on the ground floor of a major covert arms operation.  All he had to do was convince his government to start a major covert arms operation and make him the key figure to run it.  He began by sending several proposals to King Louis.

Beaumarchais argued that France had a self interest in supporting the colonial rebellion in America.  At the time, the rebellion had become a major distraction for Britain.  But eventually, one of three things would happen, either Britain would crush the rebellion and then have more time, money, and resources to capture more French colonies in the West Indies.  A cash strapped Britain needed these colonies to pay off its debts from the French and Indian War.  A second possibility was that Britain and its colonies would come to a settlement, in which case their combined military power could be used to take French colonies in the West Indies.  If a settlement with the North American colonies meant Britain could not raise revenue there, they could raise it by exploiting former French colonies in the West Indies.  Third, and this was the least likely, the colonies could win independence, in which case they would become a new power in America that could also threaten, you guessed it, the French colonies in the West Indies.

Therefore, it was in France’s best interest to keep the dispute between Britain and its American colonies going as long as possible.  This would divert British attention, and resources toward securing the North American colonies and not give it time or resources to think about acquiring others.  An extended rebellion lasting years would weaken Britain and improve France's relative position against its age-old enemy.

On the other hand, if Britain found out that France was meddling in this rebellion, it would consider that an act of war.  Britain and France would find themselves in yet another expensive war.  Britain could use that war as an excuse to seize more French colonies in the West Indies.  France really did not want to start another war.  But, if they could provide a little assistance in secret, it could keep Britain distracted, which would be to France’s benefit.

comte de Vergennes
(from Wikimedia)
French Foreign Minister Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes, did not even pass along these proposals to the King, nor did he allow Beaumarchais to be granted an audience with the King.  Starting covert military aid was a dangerous game.  Besides, Vergennes wanted Beaumarchais to focus on cleaning up the d’Eon spy scandal in order to prevent that war with Britain, not hatch a whole new arms deal that could start a different war with Britain.

Even if cautious, Vergennes saw the possible benefits of distracting Britain in an ongoing rebellion.  Recall that in late 1775, Vergennes had very quietly sent Julien-Alexandre Achard de Bonvouloir to Philadelphia to speak very unofficially with the Continental Congress and get an idea what was going on there.  I discussed this in more detail back in Episode 71.

Vergennes received inflated reports from both Bonvouloir and Beaumarchais that Washington had amassed an army of nearly 40,000, with thousands more militia available to back him up.  Of course, Washington had nowhere near those numbers, but since Vergennes had nothing else to go on, he saw the rebellion as a credible problem for the British.

In March 1776, Vergennes began to raise the issue with the King and other top officials.  Small amounts of aid that could not be traced back to the France government might prolong the rebellion and weaken Britain.  France had already begun rebuilding its army and navy, but was not ready for war now.  At some point, war with Britain was inevitable, but the American distraction could delay that war and could also weaken Britain when war finally came.

Roderigue Hortalez & Company

After some debate, King Louis decided in May to provide some covert assistance.  Beaumarchais created a trading company called Roderigue Hortalez & Company.  This would be a front for the covert arms smuggling that France was considering.  Vergennes had convinced the King that it was in France’s interest to prolong the fighting in America in order to sap the military and economic strength of Britain.  France had no interest in American independence, and certainly did not want to promote the idea that it was okay for subjects to engage in armed rebellion against a King if they did not like his policies.  But if America became more of a distraction for the British over the next few years, that would be just fine.

The French ministry indirectly gave 1 million livres (about $8 million in modern inflation adjusted currency) to the Roderigue Hortalez & Company.  Later, they would get the King of Spain to kick in another million, and would raise a third million from private investors.  Beaumarchais would use about half the money to purchase used arms all over Europe and used the other half to establish credit for the Americans.  When America shipped tobacco in exchange, the money would be repaid and returned to the various investors.

Deane Arrives in France

All of this was already in play before anyone in Europe even knew that Silas Deane was still slowly making his way across the Atlantic.  Congress appointed Dean in March 1776.  He did not arrive in France until June.  It then took him another month to reach Paris in July.  Deane’s cover story was that he was a was a private trader looking for commercial opportunities in France.  As soon as he stepped off the ship, British agents began tailing him, suspecting he was up to no good.

Silas Deane (from Wikimedia)
Congress had provided Deane with a few contacts in France, and letters of introduction.  One was for Edward Bancroft, a Massachusetts born doctor then living in London.  Bancroft and Franklin had known each other in London.  Bancroft’s connections might help Deane talk to the right people. Deane invited Bancroft to visit him in Paris where the men could discuss their plans. Bancroft agreed to help and the two men met with Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg, a French arms dealer.  Dubourg, in turn, arranged a meeting with Vergennes in the foreign ministry.

Vergennes took the meeting, he moved it away from the main offices of the foreign ministry, to an isolated location where he hoped there would be little attention.  The cautious Vergennes did not reveal to any of the men at the meeting that the King had already decided to provide covert assistance.  Instead, he told them that France was obligated to remain neutral and could not assist them.

However, Vergennes did suggest that Deane meet with a private merchant named Beaumarchais who now ran the large trading firm of Roderigue Hortalez & Company. Dubourg told Deane later not to contact Beaumarchais, who was mostly known for writing plays like the Barber of Seville and the Marriage of Figaro.  He was not a player in the international arms trade, or even known as a merchant at all.  So, Deane decided not to speak with Beaumarchais and continue to work with Dubourg.

A few weeks later, Vergennes again suggested Deane speak with Beaumarchais.  This time, Deane took the hint and set up a meeting.  Of course, Beaumarchais who was secretly financed with the King’s money, offered Deane extremely generous terms of credit and promised boatloads of supplies to be shipped in short order.  The two men worked out all the details, with Bancroft acting as translator.

The Spy

A few weeks after making the initial arrangements and with Beaumarchais busily making purchases and filling up ships to send to America, Bancroft returned to London.  Deane offered to pay Bancroft £300 a year to help keep track of what was happening in London and for any intelligence he could provide.
Edward Bancroft
(from Wikimedia)

Shortly after his arrival in London, Bancroft met with the British foreign ministry and told them everything that Deane and Beaumarchais were doing in France.  Bancroft accepted an offer of £500/year from the British government to continue spying on Deane’s activities in France.  So, the double agent was collecting a nice salary from both sides.  The British had an inside man to everything France was doing to funnel arms to America.  However, they could not confront France without jeopardizing their source.  For the time being, they would simply collect intelligence and wait for an opportunity to use it.

So despite British knowledge of the arms trade from the very beginning, French assistance began to flow to America.  By August 1776, Roderigue Hortelez had purchased 200 tons of gunpowder, 20,000 small arms, and a number of cannon, mortars, and other equipment needed in America.  The company had considerable trouble with shipments making it to port, as British spies were informing French police, who had to stop these illegal shipments.

The British Ambassador to France, Lord Stormont, complained directly to Vergennes about the operation.  Vergennes of course denied any involvement. He was shocked, shocked, that illegal arms smuggling was going on, and promised to look into the matter.  The Ambassador knew Vergennes was lying since he had Bancroft giving him all the details. But because the British were not ready to reveal their source, they kept their complaints vague

Aside from the British, Dubourg, upset about being cut out of the deals, began attacking Beaumarchais as a con artist who was enriching himself without the ability to deliver on his promises. Arthur Lee, who was upset about being cut out of all the arms deals, became even more of a problem. He started badmouthing Deane to his friends and family in the Continental Congress. Lee travelled to Paris to see if he could still get involved in the deals now moving forward.

Among other things, Lee created a list of Americans who he considered disloyal to the Patriot cause, including several members of the Continental Congress.  Lee wanted Deane to send this list to Congress.  Deane refused, saying he was not going to defame the reputation of good men on speculation without solid proof.  For Lee, this seemed to indicate that Deane was part of the conspiracy to destroy the patriot cause.

Despite making enemies though, and despite the efforts of British spies, Dubourge, and Lee, Deane and Beaumarchais began shipping much needed supplies to America.

Next Week: New York City burns, and Nathan Hale gives but one life for his country.

- - -

Next  Episode 109: Great Fire of NY & Nathan Hale

Previous  Episode 107: Kip's Bay and Harlem Heights



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American Revolution Podcast is distributed 100% free of charge. If you can chip in to help defray my costs, I'd appreciate whatever you can give.  Make a one time donation through my PayPal account. Also, see the very bottom of this page to see how you can support this podcast by making purchases you would make anyway on Amazon.  Thanks, Mike Troy


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Further Reading

Websites 

John Wilkes: http://www.thejohnwilkesclub.com/discover-wilkes/wilkes-timeline

Riggs, A. R. “Arthur Lee, a Radical Virginian in London, 1768-1776.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 78, no. 3, 1970, pp. 268–280.  http://www.jstor.org/stable/4247578.

Arthur Lee: http://www.stratfordhall.org/meet-the-lee-family/arthur-lee

Beaumarchais and the American Revolution: https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/kent-csi/vol14no1/html/v14i1a01p_0001.htm

The Rise and Fall of Silas Deane: https://connecticuthistory.org/the-rise-and-fall-of-silas-deane-american-patriot

Silas Deane: Forgotten Patriot, by Elizabeth Covart, Journal of the American Revolution (2014): https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/07/silas-deane-forgotten-patriot


Edward Bancroft: https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/kent-csi/vol5no1/html/v05i1a07p_0001.htm

America’s First Black Ops, by Bob Ruppert, Journal of the American Revolution, Sept. 5, 2017:
https://allthingsliberty.com/2017/09/americas-first-black-ops

Roderigue Hortalez et Cie, A Very Helpful Trading Firm: http://w3r-us.org/history/hortalez.htm

Free eBooks
(from archive.org unless noted)

Dean, Silas The Dean Papers, Vol. 1, New York Historical Society, 1887.

Hazard, Blanche Evans Beaumarchais and the American RevolutionGeneral Society of the Daughters of the Revolution, 1910.

Homberg, Octave D'Eon de Beaumont, His Life and Times, London, M. Secker, 1911.

Ingraham, Edward D. (ed) Papers in Relation to the Case of Silas Deane, Philadelphia: Seventy-six society,  1855.

Kite, Elizabeth S. Beaumarchais Vol.1 & Vol. 2, Gorham Press, 1918

Lee, Richard Henry Life of Arthur Lee, Vol 1 & Vol 2, Wells and Lilly, 1829

Sparks, Jared The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution, Vol. 1, N. Hale and Gray & Bowen, 1829.

Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*

Dull, Jonathan Diplomatic History of the American Revolution, Yale Univ. Press, 1985.

Fleming, Thomas 1776: Year of Illusions, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1975.

Isaacson, Walter Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004

Paul, Joel Richard Unlikely Allies: How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American Revolution, Riverhead, 2009 (book recommendation of the week).

Unger Harlow Giles Improbable Patriot: The Secret History of Monsieur de Beaumarchais, the French Playwright Who Saved the American Revolution, Univ. Press of New England, 2011.

* This site is a registered Amazon Associate.  Please help support this site by purchasing any of these books, or any other Amazon product, via the links on this site.  If you start by clicking on a book link above and then browse to buy something completely different on Amazon, American Revolution Podcast will get credit for your purchase.