Sunday, May 16, 2021

ARP201 Treason in Philadelphia

When the British left Philadelphia in June 1778, they took with them many of the loyalists who had worked with them during the occupation.  Those refugees had to leave behind virtually all of their property and begin a new life in New York or elsewhere in the British empire.  Many loyalists opted to remain in Philadelphia, and take their chances by appealing to the mercy of the returning patriots.

Military Governor Benedict Arnold

Philadelphia was under martial law. Major General Benedict Arnold took command of the city almost immediately after the British evacuation.  This was Arnold’s first command since Saratoga.  While Washington’s army endured Valley Forge, Arnold had been recuperating from his leg wound, suffering terrible pain and fighting off the attempts of doctors to amputate.  He spent several months in New York, then returned home to Connecticut.  In May, 1778, about a month before the British evacuation in Philadelphia, Arnold came to Valley Forge.

Benedict Arnold

Washington had been encouraging Arnold to remain home.  Due to his injury, Arnold’s leg was now several inches shorter, resulting in a permanent limp.  He was still in terrible pain and could not walk without crutches.  Even so, Arnold wanted to play a role in the spring campaign.  Washington, having just gotten through the Conway Cabal, was happy to have a top general whose loyalty he could trust, but he knew that Arnold’s body was not yet ready for the rigors of a military campaign.

Washington urged Arnold to take command at Philadelphia.  The Continentals needed to return the city to its former functionality.  Philadelphia had been a town of thousands of artisans, making all sorts of necessary military goods.

Arnold needed to restore order in the city quickly.  Washington also needed Arnold to prevent warfare from breaking out between the patriot radicals in the city, and the loyalists whom the British had left behind. 

Based on its Quaker tradition, many in the Philadelphia area avoided taking a vocal side in the conflict and just wanted to keep their heads down and continue to make a living.  They were not always happy with British policies, but believed they had a duty to obey the law.  When the Americans controlled Philadelphia in the early years of the war, they complied with the laws passed by the radical patriots.  But when the British took control, they were happy to comply with the new British authorities.  When the British left, radical patriots wanted these people punished as collaborators.  Much of the Continental leadership, however, wanted to put these civilian workers back to productive work.

One of Arnold’s first actions was to implement Washington’s orders to halt all trade out of the city, in order to prevent loyalists from removing valuable supplies, which would likely find their way to British-occupied New York.  Congress had placed a complete ban on the sale, transfer, or removal of all goods. General Arnold posted guards at key locations to enforce the restrictions.

For a region suffering from the deprivations of war, Arnold did not make a good first impression.  He arrived in Philadelphia in a coach and four, then proceeded to occupy the Penn Mansion, the former home of the colonial governor, and most recently occupied by General William Howe. 

Penn Mansion

The British had stripped the mansion on their way out, so Arnold spent a small fortune refurbishing the house, buying new furniture, and hiring servants.  For the people of Philadelphia, who were starving, and under a ban on engaging in any business, this extravagance seemed outrageous.

Arnold had been a wealthy merchant before the war.  But the intervening years had destroyed his business.  His fleet of ships was long gone.  Much of his personal funds, that he had spent on behalf of the army was never repaid.  Congress had not even bothered to pay his salary in the two and a half years that he had served. Arnold seems to have decided that he was entitled to make a little money from his position, and to resume a comfortable life.

There was a great deal of goods held in Philadelphia that the British had not removed or destroyed.  Because of Congress’ ban, much of it was still being held in warehouses.  Some enterprising merchants had purchased luxury items at pennies on the dollar from desperate residents or from British soldiers who had looted them and were leaving town.  Arnold made some questionable deals by granting a pass to one ship, whose owner had agreed to sell him thousands of pounds worth of goods at bargain prices.  

Arnold also cut deals with a number of Tories to buy certain goods not needed by the army but which were in danger of seizure by Pennsylvania officials.  Again, Arnold bought these goods at pennies on the dollar since the Tory merchants had to do that or lose everything to public seizure.  Once Arnold owned them, the goods were no longer Tory-owned and could not be seized by the state.

Later, some of these goods ended up at Little Egg Harbor in New Jersey.  Arnold received advance word of the planned British raid there.  He sent a train of teamsters using government wagons, to bring back to Philadelphia many of the personal items he had purchased, before the British could seize them.

In short, Arnold was using the power of his office for private gain.  While this would violate a whole host of ethics laws today, Arnold’s defenders argue that his actions were not illegal at the time.  The legality of much of it was debatable at the time.  Congress was continually on the look-out for war profiteers, especially people who benefited from holding a public office.  Delegates were in the middle of the Silas Deane Hearings at this time, investigating the former delegate to France for allegedly profiting while serving abroad. Other important leaders, including Congressional delegates like Robert Morris and Robert Livingston were already under scrutiny.  Arnold was playing a very dangerous game.

Reed and the Radicals

Congress was not, perhaps, Arnold’s greatest threat.  The radicals in the Pennsylvania state government were thirsting for some revenge.  Most of Pennsylvania’s patriots leaders lived in and around Philadelphia.  When the British took over, they took over all of the property left behind by known patriots.  The British looted and destroyed many of their houses as they evacuated.  This was not much different from the rest of Philadelphia, which saw most of the city in terrible condition from the British occupation.  The big exception to the destruction was the good neighborhoods where wealthy Tories lived.  These were wealthy men of substance, who made nice with the British leadership in an attempt to keep their families and properties intact.  Some of them hosted British officers, and largely were able to maintain their homes in good condition.

Patriots were not happy that some folks were so much better off because they had refused to stand up for the patriot cause.  One member of the Continental Congress proposed that everyone who had remained in Philadelphia during the occupation be put under house arrest and forced to pay a collective tribute of 100,000 to the cause.  Another suggested that about 500 Tories in the city be hanged and their property seized and sold.

The latter suggestion came from Joseph Reed, who was not only a delegate to the Continental Congress, but who also sat on the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania.  At the time, the Council did not have a President because Thomas Wharton died about a month before the British evacuation.  Vice President George Bryan served as acting President.  The entire Council though, seemed to be looking to bring some sort of punishment on what they regarded as collaborators, and also to raise some much needed cash in the process.

Joseph Reed 

Joseph Reed would be elected President of Pennsylvania in December 1778.  Even before his election, he became one of Benedict Arnold’s greatest adversaries.  You may recall that Reed was a former aide-de-camp to George Washington.  The two men parted ways a short time after Washington read a letter back in 1776 indicating that Reed had thought that General Charles Lee should replace Washington as commander in chief. 

Reed remained active as a colonel and played a pivotal role in the attack on Trenton.  Congress offered him a commission as a brigadier general, which General Washington urged him to take, but Reed turned it down.  Although Reed remained an officer in the Continental Army, he left active duty to serve both in Congress and in the Pennsylvania state government.

Reed quickly became a major player in Pennsylvania politics.  The former lawyer from Philadelphia turned down an offer to become the state’s Chief Justice.  As I said, he did take a position in the Continental Congress and on the Executive Council.  Reed also seemed to be a hard core idealist.  Like many leaders, he had lost a personal fortune as a result of the war.  General Howe had once offered Reed a £10,000 bribe to become an advocate for reconciliation, in other words, for the loyalist side.  Reed turned it down cold and reported the incident. Reed strongly supported the radical effort to punish any Tories who remained in Philadelphia.

Treason Trials

It wasn’t just the leadership that wanted punishment, the people of Philadelphia were demanding it.  Many of the wealthier families who got through the British occupation unscathed now found rocks being thrown through their windows, or being assaulted as they walked down the street. 

Many moderates were concerned that things could quickly spin out of control and into a reign of terror.  It seemed, though, that there would have to be some examples.  In the end, twenty-three men were indicted by a Philadelphia grand jury and put on trial for treason against the state by collaborating with the enemy. Ten others were indicted for other capital crimes.  

The courts, however, tended to be dominated by moderates.  Most of the accused were wealthy men who could hire good defense lawyers.  These lawyers knew who to put on the jury who did not want to see their neighbors die for doing what they had to do during the occupation.  In the end, only four were convicted of treason, and two of those were pardoned.  The unlucky two who were not were both Quakers: Abraham Carlisle and John Roberts.

Abraham Carlisle was one of the first defendants brought to trial. The prosecution accused the prosperous, elderly carpenter, of serving as a guard at the city gates during the British occupation.  This meant that he had accepted a commission, worked in the service of the British Army, and was therefore a collaborator and a traitor.

The defense argued that the prosecution could not produce a written commission.  But several witnesses testified that that had seen him guarding the gate.  A jury found Carlisle guilty and sentenced him to be hanged.  He appealed his case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which upheld the conviction. Later, several people, including Chief Justice Thomas McKean petitioned the Supreme Executive Council to commute the sentence.  But the Council refused to do so.

The grand jury also indicted a miller named John Roberts, charged with recruiting men to join the British army. The defense argued that the prosecution could not produce one person who actually enlisted as a result of Roberts’ efforts.  But Roberts had confessed that he tried to recruit people and other witnesses testified to his efforts.  A jury found Roberts guilty and sentenced him to death.  Like Carlisle, he appealed to the Supreme Court unsuccessfully, and petitions to the Supreme Executive Council were denied.

On November 4, 1778. Both men were brought before a large crowd in the center of town.  They were led to a public gallows and hanged.

Both Carlisle and Roberts were older men and who were well known and liked in their communities, politics aside.  Their guilt seems pretty clear, but was not terribly different from perhaps hundreds of other men.  It seems they were chosen as examples, in part to mollify the radicals in the city.  Following their executions, cries for more treason trials fell off.  

The Shippens of Philadelphia

In this climate, many families who had successfully steered through the British occupation were concerned about what would happen to them.  One such family was the Shippen family.  

Edward Shippen was a well established jurist, and member of the Philadelphia establishment.  He was a direct descendant of a different Edward Shippen who helped establish the city with William Penn and served as its first mayor.

Edward Shippen
Before the war, Shippen tried to stay out of politics.  Although he was opposed to mob actions, he also made every effort to bend when the public demanded it.  During the Stamp Act, Shippen suspended his legal practice in order to avoid being attacked for using the stamped paper necessary for such practice.  At the same time, he was part of the colonial government establishment.  He sat on the Admiralty Court for a time, and also served on Pennsylvania’s Provincial Council under colonial Governor John Penn. Shippen also worked with Benjamin Franklin in founding the Junto discussion group, the city’s first subscription library, and the American Philosophical Society.

When the war began, Shippen’s positions in the colonial government targeted him as a potential Tory.  He tried to lay low, even moving out of Philadelphia to a country home in New Jersey for a time.  Shippen was not an outspoken Tory, but he did refuse to sign a loyalty oath to the radical new State Constitution in 1776.  As a result, he once again had to suspend his legal practice.

Shippen had one son and four daughters.  One of his daughters, Elizabeth was engaged to a Continental officer who was a British prisoner in New York.  All of his children, in their late teens or early twenties, were still living at home when the war began.  In December 1776 Shippen’s son, also named Edward, traveled to Trenton, New Jersey in an attempt to join the British army.  He was there at Christmas when the Americans attacked the city and took him prisoner.

George Washington personally freed the boy and allowed him to return home, but the incident did nothing to weaken suspicions about the family’s loyalist tendencies.  When the British army arrived in Philadelphia in 1777, Shippen used his prior position in the colonial government to stay on good terms with the British.  Judge Shippen did not stick his neck out or play any role in the occupation that would get him targeted as a collaborator. 

However, his youngest daughter Peggy, who was age 17 at the time, became active in the Philadelphia social scene, going to dances and other events with young British officers.  She ended up spending a concerning amount of time with a dashing British captain by the name of John AndrΓ©.

The Shippen girls were, by all accounts, attractive and active in Philadelphia society.  Shippen complained that Peggy spent the inflation-adjusted equivalent of well over one million dollars on clothes in just one year.  Like her sisters, Peggy was well-educated and well-read in matters of poetry, philosophy, and even politics.  She was comfortable among the social elites and enjoyed an exciting social life.  

That all ended for Peggy when the British evacuated.  Once again, patriots looked at the Shippens as loyalists.  While none of them had done anything that would bring criminal indictments, the fear of property confiscation or other random attacks by the public still loomed.  In the three years following the British evacuation, the state named 487 families accused of loyalism.  A few were imprisoned, but most had their property seized and were expelled from the state.

Recognizing how precarious his position had become, Shippen agreed to take the Pennsylvania loyalty oath. Beyond that, he needed to cultivate some connections with powerful patriots to provide cover against potential attacks. 

Arnold and Peggy

General Arnold had dined at the Shippen home before the occupation.  He knew Judge Shippen and had met Peggy when she was just sixteen.  His wife had died in 1775 and his three children were being raised by his sister in Connecticut.  

Peggy Shippen
Once Arnold became military governor, his sister and children joined him in Philadelphia.  Arnold held teas and other social gatherings for all of Philadelphia’s elite society, including those who were suspected loyalists.  Shippen welcomed the relationship, even after Arnold proclaimed his love for the 18 year old Peggy in September, 1778.  Shippen was reluctant to allow such a relationship, but did not stand in the way of it.

Arnold’s relationship with the Shippens and other suspected loyalists may have given some cover to the loyalists, but it greatly damaged Arnold’s reputation among radical patriots.  They saw Arnold as a corrupt leader, enriching himself from his government position, and providing protection to Tories who had collaborated with the British just a few months earlier.

Arnold, in turn, grew to despise the radicals, who he saw as persecuting good people, mostly because they were wealthy and had made efforts to protect their property in these difficult times.  On November 3, 1778, the night before the hanging of Carlisle and Roberts, Arnold held a public reception at City Tavern, personally inviting leading Quakers and accused loyalists to attend.  

In some ways, Arnold may have been oblivious to the local politics and the trouble brewing against him.  As a military officer in the Continental Army, he did not have to answer to state officials.  Arnold was focused more on his next career opportunity.  He was exploring the idea of being appointed an Admiral in the Continental Navy, and sailing off to the Caribbean to capture some island colonies for America.

This was not actually as far fetched as it might sound.  Even though he was an army general, Arnold had captained several ships in battle already, during the Valcour Campaign, and might very well have made a good naval commander.  Further, navy captains kept a share of the capture of prize vessels, which might have provided Arnold with a legitimate way to earn some money. The Continental Congress did not dismiss the idea because of any lack of faith in Arnold’s ability. Rather, the delegates figured that the French would handle all naval issues and there was no need to spend more money on building up a Continental navy with the related costs.  Further, France was planning to capture British colonies in the West Indies for itself.  Any plans for the US to begin capturing islands might have led to a rift in the alliance.

I only mention that to show where Arnold’s head was at the time.  He was looking to his own personal career future, which had nothing to do with the radicals in Philadelphia who complained about his ethical behavior.

Besides, there were many Pennsylvania leaders who supported Arnold.  Conservative patriots, including militia General John Cadwalader, Congressional Delegate Robert Morris, and Chief Justice Thomas McKean spoke approvingly of Arnold’s efforts to restore order in the city and protect the wealthy from what they saw as mob rule.  But to radicals like Joseph Reed, Timothy Matlack, or Thomas Paine, Arnold was a corrupt counter-revolutionary who was standing in the way of real reform and true republican government.

Arnold, of course, used to controversy and criticism continued to act as he saw fit.  Meanwhile the radicals only grew in power.  In December 1778, Joseph Reed took office as President of Pennsylvania.  One of his primary missions seemed to be to bring down Benedict Arnold.  The fighting would only grow between the two factions through 1779, but that will have to be the topic of a future episode.

Next week: We return to upstate New York where Tories and Iroquois warriors stir up more fighting at the Cherry Valley Massacre.

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Next Episode 202 Cherry Valley Massacre (Available May 23, 2021)

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Further Reading


Abraham Carlisle and John Roberts Trials, 1778:

Maxey, David W. “TREASON ON TRIAL IN REVOLUTIONARY PENNSYLVANIA.” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 101, no. 2, 2011, pp. i-212. JSTOR,

Larson, Carlton F. W. “The Revolutionary American Jury: A Case Study of the 1778-1779 Philadelphia Treason Trials” SMU Law Review, Vol. 61, Issue 4, 2008.

Kimsey, Kenneth The Edward Shippen Family: A Search for Stability in Revolutionary Pennsylvania, Univ. of Arizona (dissertation) 1973:

Shippen Family of Philadelphia:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Bancroft, George Joseph Reed; a Historical Essay, New York, W. J. Widdleton, 1867. 

Hill, George Canning Benedict Arnold. A Biography, New York : Worthington, 1884. 

Kimsey, Kenneth Roeland The Edward Shippen Family: A Search for Stability in Revolutionary Pennsylvania, Univ. of Arizona (dissertation) 1973 (borrow only, see link under websites for downloadable version).  

Oberholtzer, Ellis Paxson Robert Morris, Patriot and Financier, New York: Macmillan Co. 1903. 

Reed, William Bradford Life and Correspondence of Joseph Reed, Vol. 1 & Vol 2. Philadelphia: Lindsay and Blakiston, 1847. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Foner, Eric Tom Paine and Revolutionary America, Oxford Univ. Press, 1976 (book recommendation of the week).

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

Rappleye, Charles Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution, Simon & Schuster, 2010. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

AR-SP09 Jack Kelly - Valcour

Hello, and thank you for joining this special edition of the American Revolution.  I had the opportunity to speak with Jack Kelly, author of the new book Valcour: The 1776 Campaign that Saved the Cause of Liberty.

Kelly’s earlier works include Band of Giants, which is a more general look at the Revolutionary War, as well as another on the history of gunpowder.

His latest work on Valcour, just released in April 2021, looks at the effort to prevent a British invasion of New York from Quebec after the British had pushed the Americans out of Canada and back into New York.  

I spoke with Mr. Kelly over a remote call.

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Michael J. Troy (MJT) Jack Kelly, welcome to the American Revolution Podcast.

Jack Kelly (JK)  Thank you, Mike. It's great to talk to you.

MJT  So we're here today to talk about your new book Valcour, which, of course is about the Battle of Valcour Island, the battle that Benedict Arnold fought with the British - naval battle in 1776.

JK  Yeah, and Mike I always emphasize, it's really about the campaign, beginning from July until November was the entire campaign, all parts of it, or significant the battle's obviously, the high point.

MJT  So what drew you to the topic of Valcour to begin with? I know you've written on a wide variety of things, what stood out about Valcour?

JK  A number of years ago, I wrote a book called Band of Giants. And I tried to give a overview of the Revolutionary War and sort of an intro to the war, focusing on different personalities. And I came across the battle of Valcour Island, and sort of I'd heard of it. And I began to think like, why is it so often neglected in so many histories of the Revolutionary War? The more I looked into it, the more puzzling it became that it wasn't covered more, that it wasn't featured more as part of the effort in that year of 1776. And I usually cite David McCullough's book 1776, which was about the war in that year. Of course, David McCullough was a great historian, a great narrative historian. And he never mentioned the Battle of Valcour Island. He never mentioned the northern campaign. He didn't slight it or neglect it, he just didn't mention it. I found that puzzling, and I just thought it was a aspect of the war that needed more attention. 

MJT  My suspicion has always been that one of the reasons was that it was one of General Benedict Arnold's greatest moments and of course, because of his later, bad acts, shall we say, a lot of his early heroism in the war tends to get erased by historians and others. In this campaign. Benedict Arnold, who is an army officer came to command the naval fleet on Lake Champlain,

JK  The situation in 1776, coming into July, was that the northern army had been fighting in Canada since the previous fall, and were badly defeated and had retreated all the way from Quebec City all the way down to where they started, in Fort Ticonderoga. The British were focused on this corridor, that water corridor from Quebec City down the lakes, down the Hudson River.  They sent an army to each end of that corridor. The army in New York was about 40,000 men.  The army in Canada was almost 10,000 men. And they planned to make that the focus of their strategy and to invade from the north and to essentially eliminate Washington's army down in New York City. 

So to stop them, they didn't feel that Ticonderoga, at that time, was strong enough and that the army was prepared to really meet the British if they came down the lakes. And they thought that maybe if they were to fight them on the lake, it would have a chance of stopping the invasion. And so Benedict Arnold, who, as you mentioned, was an army officer. And the whole operation was really run by the army since there was no navy at the time. Arnold had been a sea captain before the war, and he knew about sailing, he knew about boats, and he was familiar with the area. He traded a lot in Canada and had gone down Lake Champlain as part of his business before the war. So he's familiar with the area. So he was a logical person to take over this building of a small fleet and then confronting the British on the lake.

MJT  Arnold had famously seized Fort Ticonderoga back in 1775, along with Ethan Allen, and almost immediately after the seizure of the Fort, he jumped on a boat and began seizing several ships along Lake Champlain. He went up to the edge of Canada where there was a British shipbuilding area, and also in Skenesboro, where he seized a ship, I think that made up the bulk of at least the larger ships in this fleet. Correct?

JK  Correct, at the beginning of the summer of '76, they had taken a slope from the British, actually in Canada. They had captured what was really just a schooner from a guy named Philip Skene in Skenesboro and put guns on it. So neither of those boats were very formidable.  They were better than nothing. And the British really, at that point that had no ships on the lake, mounted with cannon, and so it began, especially an arms race, to see who could build the biggest fleet quickest.  

MJT  Arnold as commander of the fleet during that year or so did have quite a few internal problems. One, of course, was the beginning of what would become a very large dispute between General Horatio Gates and General Philip Schuyler. As you noted, the Americans had invaded Canada and then they were pushed back out of it. General Gates had been given command of the forces in Canada about the time that they were forced out of Canada. And so he kind of thought he should be able to take command of those Canadian troops that were in New York and Philip Schuyler thought, No, I'm the commander of troops in New York, and there was a good bit of battling between the two men over command. Benedict Arnold was not known for his political skills in the army. How did he handle this dispute and make his way through it?

JK  I think we, a lot of times, underplay that divisions within the patriot movement, and particularly regional divisions.  The really early avid promoters of the revolution where in New England.  People in New York were much cooler towards the idea of breaking with England. Gates was a radical himself and he identified with the New England faction. General Schuyler is not a very well known general actually n the whole scope of the war. But he was one of the first, I think there were four major generals appointed immediately when they formed the Continental Army. And he was one of them.  Of course, a lot of it had to do with his influence and wealth, living in Albany and being familiar with the north. 

Gates always had an overblown view of his own ability. So when he came in, having been appointed, as you mentioned, the head of army in Canada, that kind of needed clarifying. And once they were out of Canada, then he was back under Schuyler.  But he thought, he wanted to interpret it differently. 

Arnold was really was caught in the middle between the two of them. His inclination was, he admired Schuyler, more than Gates because Schuyler, Schuyler was very much like Benedict Arnold in the sense that he was a very wealthy businessman, somewhat conservative. And I think that just that the aura of one of the featured families of Albany captivated Benedict Arnold, even though Arnold was a notoriously prickly character, difficult to get along with.  He made an effort to straddle the rivalry between Gates and Schuyler. It really came up and sort of came and went for the two years that's both 1776 and 1777, of him trying to juggle this relationship between Gates and Schuyler, somewhat successfully, even in spite of his reputation as not having political tact. He was fairly successful in getting along with both of them, and particularly in 1776, when he was such an essential part of the war effort. They both somewhat deferred to him. Gates particularly, said that I know nothing about nautical l affairs. And so he depended on him, Benedict Arnold to handle that aspect of the campaign.

MJT  Many of our listeners are familiar with the Gates-Arnold divisions that had existed by the time of Saratoga, where they most certainly did not get along. But, in this time, Gates, it seemed, actually was rather helpful to, and protective of, General Arnold, especially during the incident involving the court martial of Moses Hazen. In that case, Benedict Arnold sought the court martial of Hazen for the loss of some property during the Quebec campaign. The men who made up the court martial, pretty much absolved Hazen of any wrongdoing. And Arnold was very upset about this and essentially attack the court martial as being somehow illegitimate or biased or whatever. And then the court martial went after Arnold and tried to strip him of command. And at that point, Arnold really had to rely on Gates to bail him out of the mess.

JK  Arnold almost literally challenged the entire court martial to a duel. I don't know if he was going to face them all at once. That was a very clear manifestation of Arnold's lack of tact and his tendency to get involved in what we're really relatively petty disputes. He would always be drawn into it as a matter of honor. And it got him into trouble repeatedly. He made enemies from the first day that he started operating as a soldier when, as you mentioned, the takeover of Fort Ticonderoga that led to a lot of animosity for different people there. 

He was up in Canada.  He started out seeming to be friendly with Hazen, but Hazen, he was a grasping type.  He was one of the Americans who had gone up and tried to take advantage of the British presence in Canada. He bought several estates that came with their own peasants, laborers, and, and just largely a grasping the type of person. Arnold came into conflict with him and those animosities went on for the entire part of Arnold's participation of the war, repeatedly kept coming up.  He always took the bait and entered into the dispute when it could have just ignored them. But that was not his character.

MJT  Arnold, despite all these internal divisions and fighting amongst themselves, was working to build a fleet because as you said, Fort Ticonderoga was not particularly defensible, and they really hoped to keep the British off Lake Champlain entirely if they could. Although Arnold did face one other challenge his command, I believe Schuyler appointed a man named Jacobus Wynkoop, who was commanding the fleet, and Arnold tried to take command of it from him and Jacobus refused?

JK  Yeah, that was a little contratemp during the summer. Arnold was an extremely energetic person.  He was not only overseeing to a certain extent the construction of the fleet, but he was also leading patrols up the lake, trying to get supplies. just constantly busy.  During this time, this Wynkoop, who had been the commander of the fleet in the period before the Canadian Army came back from Canada, and was a friend of Schuyler. Interesting thing that I came across in doing research is Schuyler spoke Dutch at home. Almost everybody in Albany spoke Dutch, and you would rarely hear English. And the same was true in Kingston, where Wynkoop was from. It was totally a Dutch speaking community. And so they had this connection. And it was part of the sort of the network that Schuyler had with these Dutch merchants and people that had various skills.  Wynkoop had been a sea captain himself. And so Schuyler appointed him as what Wynkoop called the "Commodore of the Lake." 

I think it was just largely a fault of Arnold that he tended to ignore other people's feelings, let's put it that way. And so he ordered boats to go out and look into what they thought was maybe a raid up the lake.  Wynkoop fired a cannon across the bow of one of his own ships to stop them. And then Arnold had to be rolled out to Wynkoop's flag ship, and tell him off and threatened to arrest him, and actually, I think did arrest them. But the interesting thing was that later, when this reached Horatio Gates, who really had to make the decision on what to do with Wynkoop, Arnold suggested that he be lenient with him. By that point he had cooled off, and he probably saw that he was wrong. He didn't say he was wrong, but he was more temperate for this action.

MJT  So as divided as the Americans were, it seems like the British also had their own divisions. We have General Carlton, Guy Carlton, as the commander in Quebec, and his second is General Johnny Burgoyne, gentlemen Johnny, as he was called. And those two did not get along particularly well, either. 

JK  Yeah, I think that Burgoyne, in a way, was like Horatio Gates.  He had a very high opinion of his own abilities. And he had ideas about how things should be run when he came over there. And he didn't take into consideration the totality of the conditions in Canada. Carlton had been there for years.  He had been the governor of Canada.  He came up with what was really an effective policy for how the British should rule Canada:  Be lenient with the French, who were the preponderance of the population with French Catholics. How do we handle these people and maintain a stable rule of Canada?  He had then faced the American invasion the year before, and been pushed all the way back to Quebec City until he that was his only territory that he controlled, was that small fortified city. 

Fortunately for him, the arrival of the British fleet in the spring, which Burgoyne was the leader of that army faction, saved him but he tended to be cautious. You know, he knew he wanted to use a lot of Burgoyne's to army to occupy Canada and secure Canada, not to throw the whole army into the invasion. Burgoyne had different ideas about strategy. I think that caution won out, just because Carlton was the man in charge, and he was commander and he had the final say.  Many people have criticized Carlton for being overly cautious. And I think it's a very valid criticism.

MJT  I think we see that a lot in the British Army, the top commanders tend to be the most cautious. They want to go in when they have almost 100% assurance of winning the battle overwhelmingly.  Their lower officers tend to want to be more aggressive risk takers. Johnny Burgoyne is known as kind of a gambler always wanted to take such risks. I think that's part of the way you got ahead in the army.  You were always saying, I could do a better job, we just worked a little harder, we'd gain so much more than the commander on top of me wants. 

Burgoyne was very good at that. He was also a very good politician. The reason he brought the fleet back to Quebec was because he had gone to London the year before, and basically tried to convince Germain, Secretary of State of American Affairs, George Germain, and others that he could do this job and he could do it better. He was very good, the politician.  Of course, Germain and Carlton really hated each other, too. So that whole dynamic really didn't work well.

JK  Yeah that was an obscure, had some obscure cause to it. But it was a very, very hot feud between the two of them.

MJT Yeah, the French and Indian War and the Battle of Minden or something. Carlton had criticized his performance there. Well, everybody criticized Germain's performance. He got kicked out of the army for it. So it's kind of a hot topic for him. So yeah, there's a whole lot of politics going on on both sides that we see. It's quite apart from the war and has a lot more to do with egos and who should be in charge and who should be running things. 

So during this time, when the Americans are controlling the lake and the British are controlling the area around Quebec and effectively push the Americans out of Canada, Carlton's trying to build up a fleet so that he can take the offensive and go after the lake and eventually get Fort Ticonderoga back.

JK  As soon as the army got there, they were ready to move down the lake. The transports - the boats they would use for transporting the troops - they already had a lot of them and they could've hammered them together in a matter of days. But the danger was that it would be totally vulnerable while they're on the water. And if the Americans had ships with cannons on them, even if they were relatively small cannons, that would prevent that army from going out down the lake. So they wanted to build some more ships. And they prepared for it. They had brought over with the fleet that brought the British Army over, they had about a dozen gun boats. And then they were essentially kits they were easily put together. These were like the American gunboats they were, essentially, oversized row boats. And they had one sail in the British had one good sized cannon, some of them were actually 24 pounder cannons, in the bow of these gunboats, and they built another eight or nine gunboats from scratch there. 

They also had schooners that they thought that they could just sail up the Richelieu River. But there are rapids, in the section of the Richelieu river between the St. Lawrence and St. John's, which is pretty much at the level of Lake Champlain. And the water was low enough that they couldn't get these boats up there, even dismantling, taking the cannon off, taking a lot of equipment off that they weren't able to drag them up. So they had almost totally dismantle them to get them up, and then put them back together. All that was completed fairly quickly, though.

It was Carlton's caution that you mentioned, that Carlton wanted more, he wanted to make sure that he was had overwhelming advantage. The main manifestation of that was that in September, they dismantled a frigate, that had been under construction up at Quebec City, all the parts down and reconstructed it at St. John's. This was vastly bigger than anything that the Americans had, anything that had ever been seen on Lake Champlain.  It had a powerful broadside, 12 pounder canon, three mastered square rig, really an ocean going ship. 

And the problem was it took time to do it. And even though they work day and night, they completed the whole thing in a month. That was a month lost. And I think the difference if you look at compare Carlton and Benedict Arnold is the sense of time that Arnold had was always very keen.  It's like you want to get the initiative.  Waiting until you're totally ready is likely to be a disadvantage. And he saw that.  He moved up in the northern part of Lake Champlain in August with incomplete fleet. He had, I think, six gunboats, and a schooner and a couple other small boats, but he wanted to take that initiative and to jump on the enemy, whereas Carlton it was, wait and give me more, give me more until I'm sure. And as it turned out, in the battle itself, that frigate was pretty much useless, and it was just time wasted was far more important than what he gained from it.

The Thunderer

MJT  Your talking about the Thunderer right? 

JK  No, this was the Invincible.  The Thunderer was, again, the Thunderer was more with the idea - that was like a barge with a lot of heavy guns on it. That was, the idea I think of that was that once I got down to Ticonderoga, they would use that to bombard the fort.  They had mortars, large mortars and a lot of 24 pounders. 

MJT  Yeah, I got the feeling that wasn't very maneuverable that it was really designed for use against Fort Ticonderoga. 

JK  Yeah, I'm not really a sailor. But I understand that in the age of sail, and when you're talking about sailboats, and keel is very important. You have to have the balance the sail versus the keel. The American gunboats had no keels, they were totally flat bottom. The Thunderer was also essentially flat bottom too. So if the wind is from behind you and sails fine, if you're trying to go sort of angle to the wind, it becomes very difficult to maneuver. 


MJT The British did have this massive fleet, but you're right, it took them until the fall essentially to get it onto the lake and ready for use, and they did lose a lot of valuable time there.  Once they did though, it really looked like defeat was inevitable for the Americans, not only for the fleet, but for Fort Ticonderoga as well.  My understanding was that General Gates instructed Arnold to stay between the British fleet and Fort Ticonderoga and just slowly retreat back as best he could to the fort. Arnold decided those orders were stupid and wanted to do, well, what he wanted to do. 

JK  Gates's orders were ambivalent.  He really didn't know what to tell him. Arnold was the expert. Arnold was up there. Gates knew very little about the terrain and the lake. And so he gave him orders that were, stay and meet the enemy, but don't risk too much, things like that, that you could interpret either way, which was fine with Arnold because he really wanted to make all the decisions himself.  

As a strategy, which for somebody who had almost no military training, I think it's quite remarkable that Arnold came up with this idea just on his own, that he would hide the fleet in this protected bay behind Valcour Island, between Valcour Island and the New York shore. And then when the British came down the lake, he would let them go by.  He assumed correctly, that they wouldn't sail down without the wind coming from the north, so it would be at their back. He, I think intuited, this was a mysterious aspect of the battle, he intuited that Carlton would assume that he had left because the logical thing for him to do was to do what you just described, start pulling back down the lake, get closer to Ticonderoga, not meet the fleet head on, particularly that far north. 

I think Carlton probably did have that idea. He had plenty of long boats, he had canoes. You could have had a lot of scouts out, a cloud of scouts in front of his fleet, looking into these bays looking into the inlets. There were a lot of places to hide and that part of Lake Champlain, many, many islands and coves and inlets and so forth. I think Carlton felt that Arnold's running, I've got to catch up with them, and they were in a big hurry. And so they came down.  They went right past Valcour Island, Arnold then sent out some ships to essentially provoke them, and lure them back up, going northward into the bay between Valcour Island and the mainland. That's where the battle is fought.

MJT  Right. And it worked out very well, at least for the first day. Because Arnold basically had all his ships chained together in a defensive line. The British could only really enter the area, one ship at a time and against the wind. So Arnold could defeat each ship as it came in. And that's what most of the first day was.

JK  Well, yeah, the British had 22 gunboats. Each of them had one cannon. Americans had eight gunboats, and he had three cannons. So they're pretty even in terms of firepower from these gunboats. And on both sides, the boats were maneuverable, didn't matter so much, you just put your sail down and row. So it didn't matter which way the wind was blowing for the gunboats.  

Of the British larger ships, they had two schooners, the Thunderer that you mentioned, and the Invincible frigate, they never got into the battle. They essentially were spectators for the battle, except for one schooner was able was just sort of a fluke of when to get up into the bay, and being unsupported, then all the American gunboats focus their fire on that schooner, and that took a very bad meeting. And so otherwise, the British main ships were outside the bay, just watching what was going on. The main battle is between the gunboat on both sides,

MJT  The battle went reasonably well for the Americans, given how outmatched they were by the fleet. The next day was going to be a major problem for Arnold though.  The Native Americans who were friendly with the British had occupied the land around the Valcour Bay, so they couldn't really just jump off the boats and run away without being captured by Indians. 

They were out of gunpowder. One of the consistent problems, especially for the Continentals earlier in the war was they never had enough powder to fight a war. And artillery more than anything takes a lot of gunpowder. They didn't really have enough to fight an entire battle over the course of another day. So Arnold had really to come up with a plan to get out of there.

JK  When the battle of first day was over, when it got dark about 5:30. Arnold called a council of war on his flagship.  It looked like their option was either to destroy the ships so the British couldn't get hold of them and make a run for it on land, which, as you say, was the British had light infantry on the New York shore.  The Indians were on the island side.  

They could have just surrendered the fleet.  It was unlikely they were going to be able to successfully resume the fight.  Even if the wind held from the north, and there was some indication that it might be shifting around.  It was certainly very possible it would shift around which, in fact, it did. And so with a wind from the south, the British could have taken that frigate in and destroyed the American fleet. 

He came up with this idea of escaping.  During the time that Arnold had been in the northern part of Champlain, he had insisted, he himself and the captains of the gunboats, spent a lot of time learning the lake and taking soundings of different bays and different inlets, and knowing the terrain of the lake. So that paid off that night, because they were able to go along in New York shore.  They knew exactly how close to get to the shore, whereas the British were unfamiliar with the area. And they wanted to stay well off the shore in order to avoid running aground. So the Americans were very quietly, single file lines, sneak out, even though the British fleet was between them and Ticonderoga, and they were supposedly on the alert for them. 

But I'd have to say that another attribute that Benedict Arnold had was, he had an imagination. General Carlton was a competent soldier, but not very imaginative. So he didn't think there was another option. He thought, either they'll surrender or will blast them to pieces.  He didn't think well, there's a third option. So they essentially let their guard down. And when the sun came up and the bay was empty, the British were flabbergasted. Just couldn't believe it. And Carlton went into a rage and then they spotted the American fleet well down the lake and started the next phase of the battle.

MJT  The idea of being able to sail past the entire fleet unnoticed was a pretty unexpected thing. And actually, I believe Carlton the next morning initially thought that the American fleet must have escaped to the north. He actually turned his fleet or at least part of the fleet around and started sailing north in pursuit of the Americans before they finally realized that, no, they were way down to the south already had gotten past him. So that begins the end phase of this campaign, which is that now the British really do know where the American fleet is.  The American fleet's badly damaged, almost out of ammunition. And General Carlton wants to come in for the kill.

JK  Yeah, and the Americans had a head start, but the British ships were much faster than the Americans. So the next day and all the next night they rowed, heading south on the lake in the morning of the 13th. October 11, was the original battle. October 13. The British caught up with Americans, well down the lake, began another battle, captured one of the Americans larger ships with about 100 men, took 100 men prisoner. A few of the American ships did make it down to Ticonderoga. 

Arnold took a stand with four gunboats, and one of these larger sailing ships, and essentially fought the British for two and a half hours with what he had left of gunpowder and ammunition. Finally ordered the fleet into a small cove called Ferris Bay.  They ran their boats around, set them on fire, so the British couldn't get ahold of them, and were able to walk out. So he saved his men that, you know, they didn't have to be taken prisoner.  A number were killed, but he saved most of his crews. 

One interesting thing about that was that Ferris Bay where they landed those ships was later renamed Arnold Bay. As far as I know, it's the only place in the United States that's named in honor of Benedict Arnold.

MJT  Yeah, again, that was Arnold. really knowing the territory well, and knowing where he enter were the British couldn't pursue and able to get out of there. 

I really feel bad for Captain Hawley. He commanded the Royal Savage on the first day, which of course sank, and then they gave him command of the Washington, which was first large ship that the British managed to capture on the second day. So he actually managed to lose two ships during the battle. But it really wasn't his fault. I mean, the British targeted the Royal Savage in the first day and there wasn't much you could do about that. And the second the Washington was almost sinking and having problems escaping anyway, that's why it was moving so slowly, and it was being attacked by ships that have far larger range than he did. So poor Captain Hawley's ship gets captured.  

Most of the fleet itself is destroyed, but the men get away. As you say, Arnold is able to beach the ships, to get the men off before any British land troops can get down to where they are, and march them quickly back to, first Crown Point and then Ticonderoga. 

There was one incident that happened during the landing of the ship that I guess Arnold took some criticism for later, there was one wounded lieutenant aboard a ship, I believe his name was was Lieutenant Goldsmith, who was supposed to be taken off the ship, but in the confusion wasn't. And when the ship blew up, everybody watched his corpse fly into the air and then collapse. And Arnold was criticized for abandoning his officer on the ship. And I think that was a bit unfair. But that was something that came back to bite him later.

JK  I looked into that incident.  I didn't mention it in my book, because it just - the sources were a little dubious. And there were so many of those stories about Arnold that were cooked up after he went over to the enemy, to make him look bad. Or they would either put an interpretation on the events or just invent them from whole cloth. There were reports of exactly what you said. But it was hard to come to a conclusion whether it had happened or not. So I just left it out. He certainly wasn't the type to - he wasn't callous about his manner at all. And he never was during his career.

MJT  No and Arnold said at the time, he had actually ordered that the man be taken off and somebody had disobeyed his orders. So it more than likely wasn't Arnold fault. But you're right, Arnold had a lot of enemies at the time. And so they would say anything horrible about him. And then of course, after Arnold betrayed his country, everybody was looking for anything horrible to say about anything he ever did. 

So Arnold and his men finally do make it back to Fort Ticonderoga and they're waiting the final assault and you know, this giant Thunderer is going to come down and blow them all away. And they kind of wait and wait and wait for days, and then a couple of weeks, and then nothing happens. 

JK  The Americans were mystified. They figured that this was going to be it.  A big battle is about to take place. And as you say, they just waited and nothing happened. The British were at Crown Point, which is about 12 miles north of Ticonderoga. Carlton decided that it was too late in the season. How much the effect of the fighting, what effect the fighting had on his mind as to the shock of these seemed like fanatical Americans standing up for the Royal Navy. The loss of time from the battles as people always point out, it's only two or three days that they spent fighting on the lake. 

But the cold in Canada was something that Carlton was very familiar with. And he was afraid that if he invested Fort Ticonderoga and laid it under siege, that the lake would freeze behind him. Somebody pointed out to me that this is still in what they call the "Little Ice Age." So the winters that we imagine - Lake Champlain occasionally freezes over but not as often now.  Back then it always froze over solid in the winter. And that would have been disastrous for the British. 

Again, his caution won out and he decided to go back.  Burgoyne was pretty disgusted by it and General Phillips, who was the artillery commander for the British also felt they should at least try to do something around Ticonderoga, and Carlton overruled him and took the fleet and the army and went home.

MJT  I think Carlton feared that if he went and put up a fight and the Americans resisted, then he left it would have looked more like a loss than if he didn't try it all.

JK  Yeah, and I think that it's important to keep in mind that from the beginning of in the spring, when Carlton controlled one city in Canada - to win back all of Canada, which is a huge area, and then to defeat the Americans and wipe their fleet off the Lake Champlain, he thought that was a great accomplishment. It was like, Oh, I succeeded beyond my hopes. And so why risk pushing it a little farther?

MJT  And this was the same thing that General Howe was doing in the south. They didn't want to risk even a small loss. They wanted to prove that the British Army was invincible. And whenever they went into a battle, they won a battle and they won it overwhelmingly and without question, and I think he was hoping to keep up those appearances. So you're right. Carlton reported back to London that he had won a great victory, that he defeated the fleet, and that Lake Champlain was now open, and that for Ticonderoga would be an easy hit in the spring. 

But a lot of, as you say, his own officers, including Burgoyne, disagreed with that, thought it was not ambitious enough. And of course, we're going went back to London that winter to lobby again for a command of his own and, of course, famously got it and we get into the Saratoga Campaign at that point. I can't help but think that Carlton was kind of laughing a bit and Quebec saying yes, see when you're a little aggressive, take risks, see what happens?

JK  A lot of people mentioned that, and it's obvious, leading from Valcour. Island, to Saratoga Campaign for the next year. I always try to direct attention to the New York Campaign of that year. To me the real significance of Valcour Island had to do with Washington's losses down in New York.  That Washington, in December, I think he wrote to his brother and he said, "I think the game is pretty near up." This was it. If they had not prevailed on Lake Champlain, it's very possible that that would have happened.  The war would have been over that season, as the British had hoped and planned for. 

Once the British went back to Canada, the American Horatio Gates and Arnold took 600 men down to join Washington's army in Pennsylvania. Washington, while he was trying to decide what to do there,  and there's no record of what factors he considered, but he knew the threat from the north was now neutralized.  He had these 600 additional men, and then he made the decision to cross Delaware and attack the Hessians in Trenton. That, I think, is an important contribution that the northern campaign made. Maybe he would have gone anyway. But, certainly, it reassured him that he wasn't going to have the British taking Albany or coming at him from behind.

MJT  I said before on my podcast, and I think you make the argument in your book as well, that the actual fighting between the ships was not what the victory was. The victory was that just building the fleet in the first place and delaying a British attack until winter of that year is what saved the Continental Army. Again, it was all timing.  They managed to force the British Army to spend months trying to build this fleet to defeat them overwhelmingly, and that wasted the entire fighting season.

JK  Yeah, and as you know, that was true in so many campaigns and battles in the Revolutionary War. Americans had very few big victories, but they had many holding campaigns, delaying campaigns, General Greene's campaign in the south, he didn't have many victories, but he just wore the British out. And this was the beginning of that strategy, really, in 1776. It hadn't really become the strategy for the American army yet. George Washington certainly didn't have the impulse to fight a defensive battle, but he saw that he had no choice.

MJT  So Arnold's reputation coming out of this battle, I guess, is mixed. A lot of people saw it as very impressive, but a lot of others were critical of the fact that he essentially fought the British and lost, and lost a huge fleet to the British. Do you think this was more a matter of political spin for people who hated Arnold anyway? Or do you think it was more people just didn't understand the larger strategy of war in this case?

JK  I think it was probably a combination of both. Maybe some of the people were sincere that criticized them but George Washington, Horatio Gates, people who understood the war really didn't. And it wasn't just Benedict Arnold.  Without Schuyler having the wide business connections he had in order to get the supplies up and build the fleet, and without Horatio Gates rebuilding the army at Ticonderoga. I think all three of those components came together. Strangely enough, because none of those generals are considered to be brilliant generals among the patriots.  But at that time, they came together and succeeded. I think that the people in the know really understood that was the case.

MJT  Yeah, I think that's true. I mean, obviously later the word Arnold for obvious reasons, lost a lot of respect and Gates of course because of his involvement in the Conway Cabal and later and in the south created a mess. He kind of killed his reputation too. Schuyler I always thought it was, as you said, a brilliant logistics officer. But let's face it, logistics never gets respect from the leadership, right? 

JK  Yes, exactly. And Schuyler's had the bad fortune now of his daughters have become more famous than he is because they were starring in the musical Hamilton the Schuyler sisters were in. He didn't even get into the play. 

MJT  Right. But I guess as a strategist, he married his daughters off very strategically well for future fame. Of course, Schuyler wasn't present at Fort Ticonderoga when it finally fell to the British the next year, but he was the overall command of the region. And he ended up getting court martialed, and resigning as a result the following year. So that pretty much ended his military career, although he did go on to serve in the Continental Congress and did a lot of great work there as a politician.

JK  And one thing I would mention, Mike, is that another thing that Schuyler accomplished during that summer was that he spent a month out in German Flatts negotiating with the Iroquois. And he was very concerned that the Iroquois maybe combined with loyalists and some British troops, would attack Fort Ticonderoga from the rear. They would be cut off in the north. And so it was a very delicate negotiation, took a lot of time. And he put in the time and effort to do that, while he was doing everything else. He was spending time doing that. So another aspect of his career, he was an Indian commissioner, accomplished that as well,

MJT  Right, absolutely. The Iroquois Confederacy generally sided with the British and the fact that he was able to convince at least the Oneida and Tuscarora to join the Continentals and for a great many others to at least remain neutral was a huge accomplishment and really turn the tables there.  

JK  Exactly

MJT  What do you think, really is the legacy of what happened at Valcour, the Valcour Campaign?

JK  The main thing that it accomplished, and I think most historians would agree, 1776 was the best opportunity they had to win the war outright. The Americans were least prepared. The British had the preponderance of force. The Americans had no allies.  You know, the French wouldn't come in for another year. And if they were going to do it, that was really the best chance they had of the entire war. The fact that this campaign on Lake Champlain delayed that, and prevented that from happening that year.  People say, well, they came down the next year.  But that year, it gave the patriots that breathing room, and events unfolded in a way that favored patriots as time went on. So I think that that delay, and largely it was a delay, not a victory, was the real legacy of Valcour Island Campaign.

MJT  Yeah, I think that's right. The British, as you noted, had maybe 50,000 men in America in 1776. Today, we don't think of that as a huge number. I mean, by the Napoleonic Wars, we're talking about armies in the millions. But in America, and in the pre-Napoleonic era, where we mostly had very expensive professional soldiers, mounting that sort of army was not an easy thing to do. The entire size of the British Army, throughout the entire British Empire wasn't even 50,000 people just before the war began. So the British really did mount a huge effort to come in and shock and awe the Americans into immediate submission. They really wanted to end this rebellion very quickly. 

And as I said, I guess the Americans were neither shocked, nor awed.  They pushed back.  They held on as best they could. And they waited for French assistance when they could finally get it. And certainly the Valcour Campaign was a big part of that. This is, I think, an important part of the war. And it's just a really interesting adventure story, to me, at least. I agree with you it has been less covered than it probably deserves. I really appreciate you putting out this book to make it better known to people who are interested in the war.

JK  Yeah, I would point out that one of them gunboats from the campaign sat at the bottom of Valcour Bay for 159 years, was raised in the 1930s.  The Philadelphia is now in the Smithsonian Institute.  You can actually go there and see that gunboat, see the guns fired at the British. It's one of the most poignant artifacts of revolutionary war, the oldest American naval vessel existence.

MJT  Yeah, I've seen that. It's really impressive. Alright, well Jack, I thank you for joining us today. Thanks for telling us about Valcour.

JK  Well, thank you, Mike. I appreciate the job you're doing with the podcast. You know, I try to attract people to get interested in the war. And I think you've had a similar mission of podcasts. The more people we can draw into this, the better. 

MJT  Thanks. I think so too.  All right, Jack Kelly of Valcour. Thank you for joining us on the American Revolution Podcast.

Further Reading

Jack Kelly's book Valcour: The 1776 Campaign That Saved the Cause of Liberty, St. Martin's Press, released in April 2021. 

It is available in hardcover, Kindle, and audio editions.

Visit Jack Kelly's website for more information about the author:

Other Books by Jack Kelly:

The Edge of Anarchy: The Railroad Barons, the Gilded Age, and the Greatest Labor Uprising in America, St. Martin's Press, 2019.

Heaven's Ditch: God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal, St. Martin's Press, 2016.

Band of Giants: The Amateur Soldiers Who Won America's Independence, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014

Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, And Pyrotechnics: The History Of The Explosive That Changed The World,  Basic Books, 2004.

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Sunday, May 9, 2021

ARP200 Culper Spy Ring


By the fall of 1778, it seemed clear that the British garrisons at New York City and Newport, Rhode Island were going to remain where they were for the foreseeable future.  The Continentals maintained armies nearby both garrisons in case they ventured out for any reasons.  But the Continentals could not take either garrison while the British navy controlled the waters around them. 

Washington had hoped that the arrival of the French fleet under Admiral d’Estaing would assist in the recapture of these cities.  But as I’ve already discussed, d’Estaing declined to attack at New York and ended a planned coordinated attack on Newport after the British fleet arrived and a storm damaged both fleets.  After that, d’Estaing went to Boston for repairs.  In November 1778, per his instruction from Versailles, d’Estaing took the French fleet down to the West Indies, where the winter was the prime fighting season.

As a result, Washington knew the standoff would remain in place at least over the winter.  He had to wait for another opportunity to fight in coordination with the French Navy.

Early Espionage Efforts

To keep tabs on the British in New York, Washington realized he needed a better intelligence system, so that he could respond to British raids, or any military builds ups or redeployments.  This was not Washington’s first attempt at intelligence.  The Continentals had made attempts to deploy spies and build spy networks since the war began.  Their lack of experience in such matters , meant that they had trouble getting intelligence, or agents, such as Nathan Hale, ended up hanging from a tree.

Washington had engaged Nathaniel Sackett to build up a civilian spy ring in and around New York City to provide intelligence on the British there.  Sackett was a merchant who lived in Fishkill, more than fifty miles north of the city.  As a young boy, Sacket had served an apprenticeship in the city, learning the merchant trade in his uncle’s shop.  He had many contacts in the city.  

In the early years of the war, Sackett had served in the New York Provincial Congress’ Committee for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies, which tried to reveal British spies, collect intelligence, and out any loyalists trying to keep a low profile.  As part of his work, Sackett had developed some experience in writing in cyphers and using secret codes. His work on that committee with William Duer and John Jay led them to recommend him to Washington.

In early 1777, Washington paid Sackett to develop a civilian network in and around the city. Sackett recruited a number of people, but never really got Washington the intelligence that he needed.  After getting frustratingly little information about General Howe’s decision to begin the Philadelphia campaign in the summer of 1777, Washington terminated Sackett that fall.  Sacket returned to his real life’s work as a merchant, serving as a sutler for the Continental Army.

Over the fall and winter, Washington’s focus was not on New York but on Philadelphia.  New York intelligence became less of a priority.  After the British abandoned Philadelphia and Washington moved his army back to northern New Jersey, intelligence from New York City became more of a priority again in the spring of 1778.  

Charles Scott

Rather than turning to another civilian for help, Washington turned to his officers.  He made General Charles Scott his new chief of intelligence.  Scott had been commissioned as a brigadier in the spring of 1777.  Since then, his career seems to have been, to put it charitably, mixed.  General Scott had served under General Adam Stephen at Germantown.  His troops got out of position and ended up firing on another Continental unit.  Scott placed the blame on General Stephen, who ended up being kicked out of the army.  Again, at Monmouth, Scott precipitated the retreat that infuriated General Washington, but once again blamed his superior, General Charles Lee, who also was removed from command following a court martial.

Washington, however, still had faith in Scott, and put him in a key position out in front of the Continental Army.  Scott’s brigade would deploy in West Chester, just north of the enemy lines.  In addition to acting as the front line of defense for the Continentals, Scott was assigned the task of collecting intelligence.  Some of this would be sending out scouts or interrogating deserters or other prisoners.  It also involved use of civilian agents.  It was under Scott’s command that the Culper Spy Ring was created.

Scott, however, was not keen on use of civilian agents, especially when he could not confirm their identity or how they got their information.  He was concerned about the validity of their reports, and often refrained from providing timely information to Washington while he tried to confirm intelligence.

Washington sent Scott several letters critical of the lack of good intelligence.  It was during this time that the British surprised the Continentals with the Kingsbridge and Old Tappan raids, as well as the massive foraging offensive into Bergen county that I discussed a couple of weeks ago.  In that same episode, I mentioned that British Spy Ann Bates had been identified as a British spy. When caught, she appealed directly to General Scott, fed him a lie, and got the general to write her a pass, allowing her to return to the British lines.  Scott also sent at least three undercover scouts behind enemy lines in September, all of whom were captured and hanged.

Scott was also fighting with Washington about what to do with a large portion of his army that had enlistments expiring on December 1.  Scott wanted to let them return home for the winter so that they would be more inclined to rejoin the army  in the spring.  Washington wanted Scott to pressure them to remain in the field. 

As a result, Scott was not happy with his position and in October, requested to resign.  In addition to his problems, Scott was complaining about some sort of illness that had been afflicting him for some time.   Washington responded that only the Continental Congress could accept his resignation.  Rather than go to Congress, Scott instead requested a furlough to return home to Virginia.  In November, Washington granted Scott his requested furlough and turned over his much reduced command to Colonel William Russell

Benjamin Tallmadge

Although Russell took over command of the front lines in the army, the take over the military intelligence aspect of Scott’s work, Washington turned to Major Benjamin Tallmadge.  Major Tallmadge was the son of the Reverend Benjamin Tallmadge, a minister in Setauket on Long Island.  After growing up on Long Island Tallmadge graduated from Yale College in 1773, and took a job as the superintendent of Wethersfield High School in Connecticut.

Benjamin Tallmadge & Son
When the war began, Tallmadge did not rush off to enlist.  In late 1776, one of his friends, John Chester, received a commission as colonel and offered Tallmadge a commission as a lieutenant in the regiment that he was raising.  Tallmadge fought with distinction during the New York Campaign.  At one point, after being evacuated from Brooklyn in the night evacuation.  Tallmadge actually borrowed a ferry and went back to Brooklyn to recover the horse that he had left behind.  He managed to find it and get it aboard the boat just as British troops advanced to his position and fired at him.  In December, he received promotion to captain in a dragoon regiment and returned to Connecticut to recruit a new company.  He spent the winter there raising and training his company.  He returned to the main army in the spring, receiving a promotion to major and providing conspicuous service in the Philadelphia Campaign.  

Part of Major Tallmadge’s duty as a dragoon was to gather enemy intelligence, in part by just riding out toward enemy lines to observe the enemy.  Officers, of course, were encouraged to find intelligence by whatever means they could.  In his memoirs, Tallmadge recounts entering a tavern to meet with a woman who had just been to British-occupied Philadelphia and wished to pass along some information.  The tavern was close enough that the enemy saw him enter the tavern in uniform.  The British attempted to capture him, but he jumped on his horse with the women and rode away, galloping for several miles while exchanging shots with his pursuers.  

After the British evacuation, Tallmadge found himself back near New York City under the command of General Scott.  In his memoirs, Tallmadge notes that he “opened a private correspondence with some persons in New York.”  Tallmadge does not really talk about his espionage activities in his memoirs, but it was at this time, in the summer of 1778 that he began to run what would become known as the Culper Ring.

Abraham Woodhull

Tallmadge had quite a few friends from his time growing up in Setauket, Long Island.  Many of these people were still living there behind enemy lines.  One of the problems that Tallmadge observed with earlier intelligence efforts was that a person crossing between lines would be subject to scrutiny by the enemy, making the gathering of more information more difficult.  Tallmadge realized it would make sense to have one group of people gather the intelligence, then pass it off the trusted couriers to get it where it needed to go.  That way, the spies could act in perfectly normal ways and not raise any suspicion when they observed British movements or spoke with British soldiers.

Page from Culper Code Book
Tallmadge had the advantage of being able to reach out to his boyhood friends, young men who he knew he could trust.  For one of his key recruits, Tallmadge did not even need to sneak into Long Island to make contact.  Abraham Woodhull was being held in a Connecticut prison.

Woodhull was the only son of Judge Richard Woodhull.  Although Abraham supported the patriot cause, he did not enlist because his parents needed help with the family cabbage farm.  In 1778, Woodhull attempted to bring some of his crops to New York to sell for specie.  A patriot ship intercepted him on Long Island sound and arrested him for attempting to trade with the enemy. Tallmadge met with Woodhull and agreed to get him released and returned to Setauket so that he could begin gathering intelligence.

Initially, Washington was skeptical.  He saw Woodhull as a smuggler.  It had been Washington’s experience that smugglers liked to use espionage as a cover for their smuggling activities so that they had a get out of jail free card when caught.  Their primarily focus was on making money, not providing intelligence.  Tallmadge vouched for Woodhull and said he would be a good agent.

At the same time, Woodhull was concerned for his own safety.  He really did not want to end up hanging from a tree.  Tallmadge had to assure Woodhull that his identity would only be known to himself and a courier, someone who was also an old mutual friend.  Even Washington himself would not know Woodhull's true identity.  He gave Woodhull the code name “Samuel Culper.”  Samuel was the name of Tallmadge’s father.  Culper was a shortened version of “Culpepper, Virginia” where Washington had spent time as a young man.

Since Woodhull lived in Setauket, miles from the city, he would develop agents who lived in New York to keep their eyes and ears open, make note of troop movements, and listen in on tavern conversations.

Initially, Woodhull would take cabbages into the city for sale, as cover to make contact with his agents.  In order to reduce the suspicion of pickets about a military age man travelling into the main British camp, Woodhull would take along an older woman with him on his trips.  

Anna Strong lived on a nearby farm with her ten children.  Her husband was a British prisoner, by some accounts aboard the prison ship Jersey. Woodhull and Strong would travel to New York, sell their cabbages, and collect the information, then bring it back to Setauket.  After several trips, Woodhull got skittish about traveling into the city.  He recruited a courier named Austin Roe to carry the messages between New York and Setauket.

Caleb Brewster

Once he had intelligence, Woodhull needed another courier to bring the information from Long Island to the Continental Army in Connecticut.  A man named Caleb Brewster took on that difficult role.

Before the war, Brewster worked as a seaman, mostly aboard local ships in Long Island Sound that transported goods around the area.  He had been a member of the patriot militia.  During the first year of the war, he played a prominent role in the militia and had signed an oath to resist British authority.  When the British captured Long Island, that made him a target.  

Brewster fled his home in Setauket to become a war refugee in Connecticut.  There, he helped other refugees, transport their families and possessions from Long Island to Connecticut.  During much of the war, the area of Long Island Sound became a dangerous area, full of smugglers and criminals who took advantage of the no man’s land where neither the British nor the Continentals had secure control.

Brewster obtained a lieutenant’s commission in the Continental Army, but seems to have spent most of his time running whaling boats across Long Island Sound.  Tallmadge recruited his old friend as part of his spy network.  He actually recruited Brewster before Woodhull.  At first, Brewster just kept his eyes open while sailing around Long Island Sound and reported anything noteworthy.  Later, he became the courier between Woodhull and Tallmadge.

Passing Messages

According to local lore, Anna Strong acted as a messenger between Woodhull and Brewster.  She would hang a large black petticoat on her clothesline whenever either man needed to make contact.  That she would hang between one and six handkerchiefs on the line to indicate which of six coves the meeting should take place.  

Woodhull would sometimes write out intelligence for Brewster to collect.  Other times, he would simply pass it along orally.  Brewster would then carry the information to Connecticut to Major Tallmadge. If Tallmadge received written intelligence, he would rewrite it in his own handwriting in order to ensure it could not be traced back to Woodhull.  Tallmadge would then brief Washington about any useful intelligence.

Over time, the ring expanded.  Woodhull used a number of confidential sources in New York, including his sister and her husband.  He later recruited Robert Townsend, who owned a partial interest in a tavern.  British officer John Graves Simcoe had taken Townsend’s farm as his headquarters.  As a result, Townsend had unusual access to British officers and became a prime source of intelligence, getting the code name of Culper, Jr.  

Woodhull recruited other agents as well.  Most of these were ordinary people in New York who might just come across some helpful information.  Many of them are only known by their code names to this day, and have never been identified.

The British became aware that there was some spying going on around Setauket.  Once, a British officer discovered Brewster hanging around on Strong’s farm.  Brewster knocked the man unconscious and robbed him in order to convince the officer he was a common criminal and not a spy. On another occasion, the British intercepted a letter from Washington to Culper, but could not identify the real name of the recipient.

Even so, the British did identify Brewster as a likely Continental agent, probably from local Tories who knew him.  They knew Brewster was working with others, but never identified Woodhull’s role in the ring.

The agents used coded messages and invisible ink to hide communications.  They also used a series of dead drops to avoid meetings that might arouse suspicion. Very quickly, Washington was pleased with the level of information that he received.  It was specific and accurate.

Despite their efforts at secrecy. The British came to suspect Woodhall’s involvement in the ring.  At one point, Colonel John Graves Simcoe of the Queen’s Rangers came looking for Woodhull at his farm.  Woodhull was in New York at the time, but Simcoe roughed up his father, trying to get information out of him.  It was after that incident that Woodhull decided to lay low for a while and his dispatches fell off.


Sometimes Washington would request that the ring investigate specific questions that he had. Other times, the ring would simply report information that it happened upon.  Much of the information was fairly routine, the size, location, and movements of troops.  It might include build up of supplies, or other facts that might indicate planning for an upcoming action.  Washington was able to keep a better picture of British activity in New York as a result of this intelligence.

Other times the information was of more immediate importance.  In 1780, the ring learned that the British intended to ambush the French fleet at Newport.  In response, Washington made it appear that he was planning an offensive against New York.  This forced the British to cancel deployments of soldiers from New York to Newport, so that they would be available to defend the city.  

On another occasion the ring learned that a top American officer was in discussions with the British leadership about defecting.  They did not learn until too late the identity of that officer as Benedict Arnold. Late in the war, the ring obtained a copy of the British Navy’s flag signals.  That information allowed the French fleet to read British signals and anticipate their moves, which became a critical element just before Yorktown.

The Culper Ring remained active until the end of the war.  It largely remained a secret, even after the war ended.  Washington developed spy rings in other times and places as well, but the Culper ring was the largest and longest running of the war.  Over the course of the war, his appreciation for the value of such intelligence grew.  The commander spent more time focusing on obtaining it, and also developed better experience in running an intelligence agency.

Next week: we return to Philadelphia where local patriots recovering from British occupation look to provide some payback on the loyalists who remained behind.

- - -

Next Episode 201 Treason in Philadelphia 

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Further Reading


The Founding Fathers of US Counterintelligence:

Nathaniel Sackett:

American Spies of the Revolution:

Benjamin Tallmadge:

The Culper Spy Ring:

Culper Spy Ring:

Schellhammer, Michael “Abraham Woodhull: The Spy Named Samuel Culper” Journal of the American Revolution, May 19, 2014:

Foley, Robert Caleb Brewster in the Revolutionary War:

Caleb Brewster and the Culper Spy Ring:

Anna Smith Strong:

Based on a True Story Podcast: A look at AMC’s Turn! and the Culper Spy Ring:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Prather, Michael S. George Washington, America's first director of military intelligence, Monterey: Dudley Knox Library, 2002. 

Simcoe, John G. Simcoe's Military Journal: a history of the operations of a partisan corps, called the Queen's Rangers, commanded by Lieut Col. J.G. Simcoe, during the war of the American Revolution, New York: Bartlett & Welford, 1844.  

Tallmadge, Benjamin Memoir of Col. Benjamin Tallmadge, New York: T. Holman, 1858. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Daigler, Kenneth Spies, Patriots, and Traitors: American Intelligence in the Revolutionary War,  Georgetown Univ. Press, 2014. 

Kilmeade, Brian & Don Yaeger George Washington's Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution, Sentinel, 2013. ng, Bantam, 2006. 

Ward, Harry M. Charles Scott and the "Spirit of '76", Univ of Virginia Press, 1988. 

Welch, Richard F. General Washington's Commando: Benjamin Tallmadge in the Revolutionary War, McFarland, 2014. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.