The Hickey

Minutes of the
Committee for
Detecting Conspiracies

Enoch Crosby
Describes His
Career As A Spy


Dr. Edward


Other Spies


The Burr

Alien and
Sedition Acts—



End Notes

The American Revolution and the
Post-Revolutionary Era:
A Historical Legacy


From 1774 to 1783, the British government and its upstart American colony became locked in an increasingly bitter struggle as the Americans moved from violent protest over British colonial policies to independence. As this scenario developed, intelligence and counterintelligence played important roles in America's fight for freedom and British efforts to save its empire.

It is apparent that British General Thomas Gage, commander of the British forces in North America since 1763, had good intelligence on the growing rebel movement in the Massachusetts colony prior to the Battles of Lexington and Concord. His highest paid spy, Dr. Benjamin Church, sat in the inner circle of the small group of men plotting against the British. Gage failed miserably, however, in the covert action and counterintelligence fields. Gage's successor, General Howe, shunned the use of intelligence assets, which impacted significantly on the British efforts. General Clinton, who replaced Howe, built an admirable espionage network but by then it was too late to prevent the American colonies from achieving their independence.

On the other hand, George Washington was a first class intelligence officer who placed great reliance on intelligence and kept a very personal hand on his intelligence operations. Washington also made excellent use of offensive counterintelligence operations but never created a unit or organization to conduct defensive counterintelligence or to coordinate its activity. This he left to his commanders and to committees established in the colonies.

When the Revolution was over and a new nation emerged, there continued to be ample opportunities to create a counterintelligence service. Spy scares, conspiracies and European meddling occurred repeatedly. But it isn't until the Civil War period that an effort is made to create a federal agency to conduct counterintelligence.

This chapter provides the legacy for America's use of counterintelligence in future years.


Probably the first patriot organization created for counterintelligence purposes was the Committee (later called a Commission) for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies. It was made up of a series of groups established in New York between June of 1776 and January of 1778 to collect intelligence, apprehend British spies and couriers, and examine suspected British sympathizers. In effect, there was created a "special service" for New York which had the power to arrest, to convict, to grant bail or parole, and to jail or to deport. A company of militia was placed under its command to implement its broader charter. John Jay has been called the first chief of American counterintelligence because of his role in directing this Committee's work.

Nathaniel Sackett and Colonel William Duer were particularly successful in ferreting out British agents, but found their greatest success in the missions of one of the dozen or so agents of their own, Enoch Crosby. Crosby, a veteran of the Continental Army, had been mistaken by a Westchester County Tory as being someone who shared his views. He confided to Crosby that a secret Tory military company was being formed and introduced him to the group. Crosby reported the plot to the committee and was "captured" with the group. He managed to "escape" and, at Committee direction, infiltrated another secret Tory unit. This unit, including Crosby, was also taken and he "escaped" once more. He repeated the operation at least two more times before Tory suspicions made it necessary for him to retire from counterintelligence work.

Another successful American agent was Captain David Gray of Massachusetts. Posing as a deserter, Gray entered the service of Colonel Beverly Robinson, a Tory intelligence officer, and became Robinson's courier. As a result, the contents of each of Robinson's dispatches were read by the Americans before their delivery. Gray eventually became the courier for Major Oliver DeLancey, Jr., the head of the British secret service in New York. For two years, Gray, as DeLancey's courier to Canada, successfully penetrated the principal communications link of the British secret service. Upon completing his assignment, Gray returned to the ranks of the Continental Army and his name was struck from the deserter list, where George Washington placed it at the beginning of the operation.

Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge, a senior intelligence officer under Washington, is credited with the capture of Major John Andre, who preceded DeLancey as chief of the British secret service in New York. Although Tallmadge declined to discuss the episode in his memoirs, it is said that one of his agents had reported to him that Major Andre was in contact with a "John Anderson" who was expecting the surrender of a major patriot installation. Learning that a "John Anderson" had passed through the lines "en route to" General Benedict Arnold, the commander at West Point, Tallmadge had Anderson apprehended and returned for interrogation. "Anderson" admitted to his true identity—he was Major Andre—and was tried, convicted and executed as a spy. Arnold, learning that Andre had been taken and that his own traitorous role no doubt was exposed, fled West Point before he could be captured, and joined the British forces.

General Washington demanded effective counterintelligence work from his subordinates. On March 24, 1776, for example, he wrote: "There is one evil I dread, and that is, their spies. I could wish, therefore, the most attentive watch be kept ... I wish a dozen or more of honest sensible and diligent men, were employed . . .in order to question, cross question etc., all such persons as are unknown, and cannot give an account of themselves in a straight and satisfactory manner ... I think it is a matter of importance to prevent them obtaining intelligence of our situation."

Paul Revere and the Mechanics
The first patriot intelligence network on record was a secret group in Boston known as the "mechanics." The group apparently grew out of the old "Sons of Liberty" organization that had successfully opposed the hated Stamp Act. The "mechanics" organized resistance to British authority and gathered intelligence. In the words of one of its members, Paul Revere, "In the Fall of 1774 and winter of 1775, I was one of the upwards of thirty, chiefly mechanics, who formed ourselves into a Committee for the purpose of watching British soldiers and gaining every intelligence on the movements of the Tories." According to Revere, "We frequently took turns, two and two, to watch the (British) soldiers by patrolling the streets at night."

Through a number of their intelligence sources, the "mechanics" were able to see through the cover story the British had devised to mask their march on Lexington and Concord. Dr. Joseph Warren, chairman of the Committee of Safety, charged Revere with the task of warning John Adams and John Hancock at Lexington that they were the probably targets of the enemy operation. Revere arranged for the warning lanterns to be placed in the Old North Church to alert patriot forces at Charleston, and then set off on his famous ride. He completed his primary mission of notifying Adams and Hancock. Then Revere, along with Dr. Samuel Prescott and William Dawes, rode on to alert Concord, only to be apprehended by the British en route. Dawes got away, and Dr. Prescott managed to escape soon afterward and to alert the patriots at Concord. Revere was interrogated and subsequently released, after which he returned to Lexington to warn Hancock and Adams of the proximity of British forces. Revere then turned to still another mission, retrieving from the local tavern a trunk belonging to Hancock and filled with incriminating papers. With John Lowell, Revere went to the tavern and, as he put, during a "continual roar of Musquetry . . . we made off with the Trunk."

Fortunately, when interrogated by the British, Revere did not have his travel orders from Dr. Warren; the authorization was not issued to him until two weeks later. And when Paul Revere filed a travel voucher for his famous ride, it was not until August, some four months later, that it was approved—and when it was approved, his per diem payment was reduced from five shillings a day to four.

Paul Revere had served as a courier prior to his famous "midnight ride," and continued to do so during the early years of the war. One of his earlier missions was perhaps as important as the Lexington ride. In December of 1774, Revere rode to the Oyster River with the intelligence report that the British, under General Gage, intended to seize Fort William and Mary. Armed with this intelligence, Major John Sullivan of the colonial militia led a force of four hundred men—all in civilian clothing rather than militia uniform—in an attack on the fort. The one hundred barrels of gunpowder taken in the raid were ultimately used by the patriots to cover their retreat from Bunker Hill.

Benjamin Church 1
In late 1768, British troops commanded by General Thomas Gage occupied Boston, Massachusetts to curb the widely separated incidents of mob disorder that troubled the city following the enactment of the Townsend Acts. The Acts, which levied custom duties on the import of glass, lead, paints, paper and tea, was the latest in a series of burdensome taxation measures the British Parliament tried to impose on the colonies. Skirmishes occurred between Gage's troops and the civilian population in opposition to the tax. On 5 March, 1770, five men, "the first to defy and the first to die," were felled by British gunfire in what is termed the "Boston Massacre." From that moment, wrote Daniel Webster, "we date the serverence of the British empire."

Benjamin Church

Paul Revere's now famous engraving of the incident stirred emotion of protest in the hearts of the colonists, and Samuel Adams' well-orchestrated propaganda effort made the men martyrs and a symbol of the patriot cause. In response to the growing anger, General Gage strengthened the Boston garrison. When 1775 began, Gage had almost forty-five hundred soldiers in the city. The patriots were not idle during this time frame. They raised and drilled additional militia units throughout Massachusetts and continued to gather arms, ammunition and other military supplies which they cached at secret storehouses in the countryside.

Gage was aware that continued flare-ups between the British and the colonists could ignite into a war and he wanted to avoid precipitating such action. He also knew that to avoid a fight he needed military intelligence on the militia units within Massachusetts. Gage, who also served as colonial governor of Massachusetts, established a network of spies among the patriots. These spies provided information, sometimes in great detail, on the military preparations of the patriots. For example, in March 1774, one of his secret agents reported the patriots had stockpiled weapons and ammunition at Cambridge. On 1 September that year, the British successfully raided the Cambridge warehouse. The patriots, knowing that they needed information to avoid losing their munitions, created a small surveillance committee within the Sons of Liberty in Boston. The Sons of Liberty were secret organizations within the colonies, started in 1765, to organize opposition to the Stamp Act.

During the winter of 1774-75, the 30 members of the surveillance committee met regularly at the Green Dragon Tavern on Union Street in Boston. Members of the group regularly patrolled Boston's streets at night to detect British military preparations and other activity. They constituted an early warning system for the patriots by identifying possible British raids into the countryside which would allow their colleagues to move their military stores to new secret locations before British troops arrived. For example, in December 1774, the committee acquired intelligence that General Gage arranged to fortify a British arsenal at Portsmouth, New Hampshire with two regiments, intelligence that drove the Sons of Liberty to raid the installation before the British arrived and haul off about a hundred barrels of gunpowder and several cannons.

The leadership of the Mechanics, as the Green Dragon group is now sometimes called, consisted of Dr. Joseph Warren, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere, Dr. Benjamin Church, and one or two others. It is believed that Warren, a prominent Boston physician and later a major general who was killed at Bunker Hill, was leader of the group. Church, another physician and political leader, was also a member of the Boston Committee of Correspondence and Safety, the latter body responsible for control of the militia. A minor poet as well as a medical man, Church was a prolific author of Patriot propaganda and was famous for the oration he delivered in commemoration of the Boston Massacre on the third anniversary of that event.

Dr. Church was also one of General Gage's informers, a British double agent and probably the most valuable spy the British had in America at the time. Church was a native of Newport, Rhode Island. He graduated from Harvard in 1754 and went to England to study medicine at the London Medical College. Possibly in 1768, he returned to America with an English wife and began practicing medicine in Raynham, Massachusetts. Still accustomed to living a life of indulgence, which he acquired in London, Church kept a mistress and built an elaborate summer home. His penchant for free spending did not match his income from his medical practice. To compensate and obtain additional money, Church added spying to his professional resume.

No one knows when Church began his double agent career. "Whether he was driven by his debt or by doubt that the patriots could win, Church had apparently begun spying in 1771, while Samuel Adams was struggling to keep the cause alive. The next year, Thomas Hutchinson 2 had passed along gratifying news to Francis Bernard 3 in London that the man 4 who had written insultingly against Bernard had come over to the government's side."5 Another writer states "It is not possible to pinpoint the exact date that Church began his spying for Gage, but a reasonable guess is 1774. In that year, Paul Revere was aware that the activities of his secret group, of which Church was a part, were known to General Gage. According to Dr. Savage of Barnstable, Massachusetts, who was training with Church at the same time, the latter's finances suddenly improved. Previously, Church had been financially pressed, built a mansion in Raynham which appeared beyond his means and acquired a mistress; classic indicators for counterintelligence."6

Paul Revere, who had his own spies within General Gage's command, knew that the Mechanics had been penetrated. Revere received information in November 1774 from his source that the proceedings of at least one meeting at the Green Dragon were known to Gage within 24 hours after the meeting. The only problem was the source could not provide Revere with the identity of the traitor. "We did not then distrust Dr. Church," he later remembered, "but supposed it must be some one among us." The only security measure the Mechanics adopted was to have each member swear on a Bible at every meeting at the Green Dragon that he would not divulge the group's secrets; an admirable procedure but hardly counterintelligence.

On April 14, 1775, Lord Dartmouth, British secretary for the colonies, sent secret instructions to Gage pressing him to take some forceful action against the patriots, such as arresting their leaders, before the situation in Massachusetts reached "A riper state of Rebellion." Gage ignored Lord Dartmouth's direction. Instead, Gage decided to capture the patriot military stockpile that Dr. Church and several other agents reported were located in Concord. In fact, the General's intelligence was so comprehensive he knew the exact location of the military stockpile within the town. Gage issued secret orders to Lt. Col. Francis Smith to proceed with a 700-man force to destroy the patriot ammunition and supply stores.

The surveillance committee obtained information on the destiny of the troops and sent Paul Revere and William Dawes to alert the patriots. They were later joined by Dr. Samuel Prescott. On the way to Concord, they encountered a mounted British patrol. Dawes escaped but had to return to Boston, Revere was captured and taken to Lexington where he told the British everything and then was released. Prescott managed to evade the patrol and get the message to Concord.

When Col. Smith and his troops arrived at Concord, he found 70 Minute Men waiting for him on the Common. Ordered repeatedly to leave the Common area, the Minute Men began to leave but ignored a British order to leave their weapons behind. A shot was fire from within the British ranks, followed by a volley from the British platoons. The gunshots killed eight patriots and wounded 10 others. Only one British soldier was wounded in the return fire. Smith destroyed a few military supplies in Concord and then began his return to Boston.

On his way back, he encountered patriot militiamen who continually assaulted his troops. British reinforcements at Lexington saved Smith and his troops from a complete disaster but it wasn't until all the British troops arrived in Charlestown, where British men-of-war were in the harbor, that Smith could feel comfortable. The British lost 73 killed, 174 wounded and 26 were missing while the American militia suffered 93 dead, wounded or missing. Following the battles of Lexington and Concord, the American militia men surrounded Boston and began a siege, which lasted until March 1776.

On April 21, 1775, after the patriots had driven the British troops back into Boston, Church crossed the patriot lines at Cambridge and entered the besieged city to meet with Gage. It is probable that Church ignored the security risks to his espionage role for Gage because he was more concerned about maintaining contact and getting paid. Paul Revere recalled 23 years after this happened that Church told the Committee of Safety that he was going into Boston. Dr. Warren, the president of the committee, told Church that the British would hang him if he was caught but Church was adamant about going. Warren then told Church that he needed to have a cover story for being in Boston and both men devised the story that Church was there to obtain needed medicines.

According to Revere, Church returned in a few days to Cambridge. He told the committee he had been arrested, taken before Gage, and then held for several days for interrogation but set free. Revere said that after Church's arrest later by Washington, Revere met with Deacon Caleb Davis and the two of them began to discuss Church. Revere said that "He (Davis) received a Bilet for General Gage-(he then did not know that Church was in Town)-when he got to the General's House, he was told the General could not be spoke with, that He was in private with a gentleman; that He waited near half an Hour, when General Gage & Dr. Church came out of a room, discoursing together, like persons who had been long acquainted." Davis further added that Church "went where he pleased, while in Boston, only a Major Caine, one of Gage's Aids, went with him." Revere also said that he "was told by another person, whom I could depend upon, that he saw Church go into General Gage's House, at the above time; that He gout out of the Chaise and went up the steps more like a man that was acquainted than a prisoner."7

On May 24, 1775, Dr. Church wrote to Gage advising him that the Massachusetts Provincial Congress was sending him to consult with the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. His mission was to appeal to the Congress to embody the various New England militias, currently laying siege to Boston, as its own army. Neither Gage nor Dr. Church saw the opportunities presented by having a British double agent handle such an important and sensitive assignment. Church was in a unique position to spread havoc within the patriot ranks by feeding false or misleading information to the Continental Congress and/or working to defeat the assignment. The only thing Church complained about to Gage was that he would be prevented from reporting to Gage for some time.

Church's handling of the Provincial Congress was so successful that soon after his return to Cambridge, the Massachusetts militias laying siege to Boston were converted into the Continental army under the command of George Washington. So impressive was Church that the Continental Congress appointed him director general of the army's hospital at Cambridge and chief physician of the Continental army at a salary of four dollars per day and granted him the authority to hire four surgeons and other medical staff.

In espionage and counterespionage, luck plays an important role. For Church his luck began to run out when he received a letter in cipher from his brother-in-law, John Fleming, a Boston printer and bookseller. In his letter, Fleming urged Church to repent his rebellion against the British government and return to Boston, where Fleming believed Church would be pardoned for his crime. Fleming told Church to reply no matter what his decision and to write his response in cipher, addressing the letter in care of Major Cane (one of General Gage's aides) and send it via Captain Wallace8 of the H.M.S. Rose, a British warship then stationed near Newport, Rhode Island.

Church replied, but it is not clear whether he believed he was writing to his brother-in-law or to General Gage. Since all communications between Church and Gage ceased when Church departed for Philadelphia, it is possible Church saw Fleming's method of communication as a secure means of resuming his profitable espionage role with the British commander-in chief. In his response to Fleming, Church provided some exaggerated information on American military strength and some inaccurate reports of military plans, all framed within an impassioned plea to the British to adopt a more reasonable colonial policy.

Unable to take the letter directly to Newport, Church asked his mistress to take it there. Church told her to deliver the letter to Captain Wallace of the H.M.S. Rose, or to the Royal Collector, Charles Dudley. If neither of these men were available, she was instructed to give it to George Rome, a known Tory and a rich merchant and ship owner. Not familiar with the Newport environs, the mistress went to Godfrey Wainwood,9 a local baker, whom she had known in Boston and believed to be a Tory.

She asked Wainwood to take her to any of the three individuals but he made an excuse not to do so. Exasperated, she then asked Wainwood to deliver the letter for her. Wainwood agreed but deposited the letter on a shelf and forgot about it until late September 1775, when he received a pressing inquiry from the woman expressing her concerned that "you never Sent wot yo promest to send." Realizing that only the British could have known that the letter was not delivered, Wainwood became suspicious.

Some historians claimed that part of Wainwood's suspicions is based on the fact that the letter was in cipher, but cipher was used by many people, including Thomas Jefferson for personal letters during the colonial days. What caused Wainwood's suspicions is the British officer as the recipient of the letter. Instead of doing as the woman requested, Wainwood took the letter to Henry Ward, Secretary of the Colony, who wrote a letter of introduction and sent Wainwood with Church's letter to General Nathaniel Green, commander of the Rhode Island contingent of the Continental army. Greene, accompanied by Wainwood, went to see General Washington.

When Washington examined the letter he saw that it was dated July 22, (1775) on the outside and when unfolded showed it addressed to Major Cane in Boston. The ciphered contents were unreadable. Wainwood explained that before the outbreak of hostilities between the British and the Americans, he had fraternized with the woman, who was of easy virtue. Upon Washington's orders, the woman was seized and brought to Washington's Headquarters.

"I immediately secured the Woman," Washington reported in a letter to the president of the Continental Congress, "but for a long time she was proof against every threat and persuasion to discover the Author, however at length she was brought to a confession and named Dr. Church."10 Washington told James Warren and Major Joseph Hawley the details of the woman's story and ordered them to go to Cambridge to arrest Church and get his papers.

In a few hours, Church appeared under guard and submitted to questioning. According to Washington's letter, he "readily acknowledged the Letter. Said it was designed for his Brother Fleming and when deciphered wou'd be found to contain nothing Criminal." Church offered no justification why he tried to send the letter to Boston by way of a British warship off Rhode Island when he have easily sent it under a flag of truce into the city from Cambridge. He also could not explain why he wrote it in cipher and refused to provide the key to decipher the message.

Washington informed the Continental Congress that a search of Church's papers failed to find the cipher key or any other incriminating evidence, but added that he was told that a confident of Church had been to Church's home and probably removed all the incriminating items before Washington's men arrived to conduct the search. Washington then turned his attention to finding the key to the cipher letter.

An amateur cryptanalyst stepped forward in the person of Reverend Samuel West, who happened to have been a Harvard classmate of Church. A second person, Elbridge Gerry, a member of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and the Committee of Safety, who would later be the fifth vice-president of the United States, teamed with Colonel Elisha Porter, a colonel in the Massachusetts militia, to conduct a separate cryptanalytic attack on the cipher.

Church had used a type of cipher known as a monoalphabetic substitution, one of the easiest ciphers to solve (Edgar Allen Poe explains the technique in his short story The Gold Bug). Both West and the Gerry-Porter team provided Washington with identical translations of the letter: (see insert entiled West and Gerry-Porter Letter Translation).

West and Gerry-Porter Letter Translation

To Major Crane in Boston, on his Magisty's Service

I hope this will reach you; three attempts have I made without success. In effecting the last, the man was discovered in attempting his escape, but fortunately my letter was sewed in the waistband of his breeches. He was confined a few days during which time you may have guess my feelings. But a little art and a little cash settled the matter.

Tis a month since my return from Philadelphia. I went by the way of Providence to visit mother. The committee for Warlike Stores made me a formal tender of 12 pieces of cannon, 18 and 24 pounders, they having to a previous resolution to make the offer to General Ward. To make a merit of my services, I sent them down and when they received them they sent them to Stoughton to be out of danger, even tho' they had formed the Resolution as I before hinted of fortifying Bunker's Hill, which together with the cowardice of the clusmy Col Gerrish and Col Scammon, were the lucky occasion of their defeat. This affair happened before my return from Philadelphia. We lost 165 killed then and since dead of their wounds, 120 now lie wounded. The chief will recover,. They boast you have lost 1500, I suppose, with equal truth.

The people of Connecticut are raving in the cause of Liberty. A number from this colony, from the town of Stanford, robbed the King's stores at New York with some small assistance the New Yorkers lent them. These were growing turbulent. I counted 280 pieces of Cannon from 24 to 3 pounders at King's Bridge which the committee had secured for the use of the colonies. The Jersies are not a whit behind Connecticut in zeal. The Philadelphians exceed them both. I saw 2200 men in review there by General Lee, consisting of Quakers and other inhabitants in uniform, with 1000 riffle men and horse who together made a most warlike appearance. I mingled freely and frequently with the members of the Continental Congress. They were, united, determined in opposition, and appeared assured of success. Now to come home; the opposition is become formidable; 18 thousand men brave and determined with Washington and Lee at their head are no contemptible enemy. Adjutant General Gates in indefatigable in arranging the army. Provisions are very plenty. Cloaths (sic) are manufacturing in almost every town for the soldiers. Twenty tons of powder lately arrived at Philadelphia, Connecticut and Providence. Upwards of 20 tons are now in Camp. Salt Petre is made in every colony. Powder Mills are erected and constantly employed in Philadelphia and New York. Volunteers of the first fortunes are daily flocking to camp. One thousand riffle men in 2 or 3 days recruits are now levying to augment the army to 22 thousand men. Ten thousand militia are now appointed in this government to appear on the first summons.

The bills of all the colonies circulate freely and are readily exchanged for cash. Add to this that, unless some plan of accommodation takes place immediately, these harbours will swarm with privateers. An army will be raised in the middle Provinces to take possession of Canada. For the sake of the miserable convulsed empire, solicit peace, repeal the acts or Britain is undone. This advice is the result of warm affection to my king and to the realm. Remember, I never deceived you. Every article here sent you is sacredly true.

The papers will announce to you that I am again a member for Boston. You will there see our motley council. A general arrangement of offices will take place, except the chief which will be suspended buy for a little while to see what part Britain takes in consequence of the late continental petition. A view to independence grows more and more general. Should Britain declare war against the colonies, they are lost forever. Should Spain declare against England, the colonies will declare a neutrality which will doubtless produce an offensive and defensive league between them. For God's sake prevent it by a speedy accommodation.

Writing this has employed a day. I have been to Salem to reconnoitre, but could not escape the geese of the Capital. Tomorrow, I set out for Newport on purpose to send you this. I write you fully, it being scarcely possible to escape discovery. I am out of place here by choice; and therefore, out of pay, and determined to be so unless something is offered my way. I wish you could contrive to write me largely in cipher, by the way of Newport, addressed to Thomas Richards, Merchant. Inclose it in a cover to me, intimating that I am a perfect stranger to you, but being recommended to you as a gentlemen of honour, you took the liberty to inclose that letter, intreating me to deliver it as directed, the person, as you are informed, being at Cambridge. Sign some fictional name. This you may send to some confidential friend in Newport, to be delivered to me at Watertown. Make use of every precaution or I perish.

Washington confronted Church with the deciphered text. In response, Church said he only sought to impress the British with the strength and determination of the Patriots and wanted to discourage General Gage from carrying on further military action. He asserted the letter was not an intelligence report. General Washington was not persuaded by his explanation, particularly since the last line read "Make use of every precaution, or I perish."

Washington convened his officers to discuss what to do with Church. They all agreed that the issue should be presented to the Continental Congress. Washington noted in his letter that he wanted Congress to review the 28th article of war to determine if it applied to Church."11 On orders of the Continental Congress, Church was confined at Norwich, Connecticut.12 Within a year or two-there is some confusion over the date in the record-he was released and permitted to depart on a schooner for the West Indies. Neither the ship nor the doctor was heard from again. Presumable both were lost at sea.

The full extent of Church's espionage activities on behalf of the British remained a mystery to Washington and the other patriot leaders. The only evidence they had was the intercepted letter. From the letter they could surmise that Church had previously provided intelligence to Gage but they did not know how much or on what topics. It was only when historians found Church's earlier reports among General Gage's papers did Church's double agent role become clear.

It appears Church may have been a volunteer walk-in or a defector-in-place, not a well-planned recruitment operation by Gage. Fortunately for the patriot's cause, Gage was mainly interested in the military intelligence Church provided. Gage failed to see the political importance Church offered to the British. For in Church, Gage had a penetration of the Patriot's inner circle in Massachusetts, a spy who sat at the secret meetings of the Committee of Correspondence and Safety, who was a trusted member of the Mechanics, and who even served briefly as liaison with the Continental Congress, but was never exploited for his political reporting or used to conduct political sabotage. It was a major shortsightedness of Gage. Church's espionage did have one positive benefit for counterintelligence, it lead to the enactment of the first espionage law in the colonies.

Intercepting Communications

The Continental Congress regularly received quantities of intercepted British and Tory mail. On November 20, 1775, it received some intercepted letters from Cork, Ireland, and appointed a committee made up of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Johnson, Robert Livingston, Edward Rutledge, James Wilson and George Wythe "to select such parts of them as may be proper to publish." The Congress later ordered a thousand copies of the portions selected by the Committee to be printed and distributed. A month later, when another batch of intercepted mail was received, a second committee was appointed to examine it. On the basis of its report, the Congress resolved that "the contents of the intercepted letters this day read, and the steps which Congress may taken in consequence of said intelligence thereby given, be kept secret until further orders..." By early 1776, abuses were noted in the practice, and Congress resolved that only the councils or committees of safety of each colony, and their designees, could henceforth open the mail or detain any letters from the post.

James Lovell is credited with breaking British ciphers, but perhaps the first to do so was the team of Elbridge Gerry, Elisha Porter and the Rev. Samuel West who successfully decoded the intercepted intelligence reports written to the British by Dr. Benjamin Church, the Director General of Hospitals for the Continental army.

When Moses Harris reported that the British had recruited him as a courier to carry messages for their Secret Service, General Washington proposed that General Schuyler "contrive a means of opening them without breaking the seals, take copies of the contents, and then let them go on. By these means we should become masters of the whole plot..." From that point on, Washington was privy to British intelligence pouches between New York and Canada.

Deception Operations

To offset British superiority in firepower and troops, General Washington made frequent use of deception operations. He allowed fabricated documents to fall in the hands of enemy agents or to be discussed in their presence. He allowed his couriers—carrying bogus information-to be captured by the British, and inserted forged documents in intercepted British pouches that were then permitted to go on to their destination. Washington even had fake military facilities built. He managed to make the British believe that his three thousand man army was outside Philadelphia was 40,000 strong! With elaborate deception, Washington masked his movement toward Chesapeake Bay—and victory at Yorktown—by convincing the British that he was moving on New York.

At Yorktown , James Armistead, a slave who joined Lafayette's service with his master's permission, crossed into Cornwallis' lines in the guise of an escaped slave, and was recruited by Cornwallis to return to American lines as a spy. Lafayette gave him a fabricated order that supposedly was destined for a large number of patriot replacements—a force that did not exist. Armistead delivered the bogus order in crumpled dirty condition to Cornwallis, claiming to have found it along the road during his spy mission. Cornwallis believed him and did not want to believe he had been tricked until after the battle of Yorktown. Armistead was granted his freedom by the Virginia legislature as a result of this and other intelligence services.

Another deception operation at Yorktown found Charles Morgan entering Cornwallis' camp as a deserter. When debriefed by the British, he convinced them that Lafayette had sufficient boats to move his troops against the British in one landing operation. Cornwallis was duped by the operation and dug in rather than march out of Yorktown. Morgan in turn escaped in a British uniform and returned to American lines with five British deserters and a prisoner!

The Hickey Plot 13

On 21 June 1776, General George Washington authorized and requested the Committee to Detect Conspiracies to arrest David Matthews, the Tory mayor of New York City, and confiscate his papers. Matthews, accused of distributing money to enlist men and purchase arms for the British cause and corrupting American soldiers, was residing at Flatbush, on Long Island, near General Greene's encampment. Washington transmitted the warrant drawn by the Committee to General Greene on the 21st with directions that it should be executed with precision exactly at one o'clock of the ensuing morning by a careful officer. Greene dispatched a detachment of men who took Matthews into custody but found no incriminating papers.

Matthews' arrest was the result of hearings conducted from 19 to 21 June 1776 by the Committee to Detect Conspiracies under the able leadership of John Jay. Until Jay was appointed to head the Committee, it had put off real efforts to uncover any information concerning activities or persons still loyal to the king.

During the hearings, conducted at Scott's Tavern on Wall Street, the Committee first heard testimony from Isaac Ketchum, a counterfeiter who had been arrested and was incarcerated in the City Hall jail. Ketchum wanted to work a deal with the Committee; in exchange for his information he wanted to be set free. The Committee agreed.

According to Ketchum, two prisoners by the name of Thomas Hickey and Michael Lynch, who were in jail on suspicion of counterfeiting, attempted to recruit him for the British. Hickey and Lynch both said they abandoned the American cause and secretly joined the British side. They indicated that others had also secretly agreed to serve the British. Ketchum further told the Committee that Hickey and Lynch were recruited to the British cause by an individual name "Horbush." The Committee at first was unable to identify Horbush but soon realized that Ketchum probably meant "Forbush," which is a variant of the name Forbes. The Committee then quickly identified Forbes as Gilbert Forbes, a well-known gunsmith who owned "The Sign of the Sportsman" shop on Broadway. The Committee also determined that Hickey was a sergeant in Washington's personal guards.

Two days after Ketchum's testimony, the Committee heard from William Leary, a prominent local businessman. Leary told the American authorities that he was in the city hunting for a runaway indentured worker of his who had disappeared. Leary successfully found the worker but later lost him. As he was walking around the city, he accidentally met another former employee James Mason. Mason, believing that Leary had left the company, asked Leary if he was in New York to join the other men. Leary, not knowing what Mason was discussing, feigned agreement. Mason, joined by several others, began to recruit Mason into a conspiracy but suddenly stopped when they became suspicious of him.

The Committee interviewed Mason who provided additional details about the Loyalist plot. He informed the Committee that men were being recruited to join a special Tory corps and had received pay from Governor Tryon. A Sergeant Graham, an old soldier, formerly of the royal artillery, had been recruited by Tryon to prowl around and survey the grounds and works about the city and Long Island. Based on his information, a plan of action was conceived. Upon arrival of the fleet, a man-of-war would cannonade the battery at Red Hook. While doing so, a detachment of the army would land below the cannonade and by a circuitous route surprise and storm the works on Long Island. The ships would then divide with some sailing up the Hudson River and the others up the East River. Troops were to land above New York, secure the pass at King's Bridge and cut off all communications between the city and the country. Upon a signal, artillerymen who were conspirators were to turn their cannon on the American troops, the ammo stores were to be blown up and King's Bridge was to be cut to prevent the Americans from escaping.

Under pressure of interrogation, Mason revealed the names of several of Washington's guards: Hickey, William Green (drummer), James Johnson (fifer), and a soldier named Barnes. Gilbert Forbes was the paymaster, giving the men ten shillings a week. Mason also said New York mayor Matthews contributed 100 British pounds to the plot. Mason also identified three taverns as favorite hangouts of the conspirators; The Sign of the Highlander, Lowrie's Tavern, and Corbie's Tavern. Corbie's Tavern, near Washington's quarters, was a rendezvous site for the conspirators. Thomas Hickey was supposedly recruited here. Hickey recruited Green the drummer and Johnson the fifer. According to a conversation overheard at Corbie's Tavern, Washington was to be assassinated when the British army landed, as part of a plan for a surprise attack on the core of the Continental Army.

The Committee halted further depositions and went to notify Washington. The information was sufficient for Washington to issue the warrant for Matthews' arrest. Since Hickey and Lynch had already been returned to Washington's Headquarters, they were arrested by Washington's troops. A Court-martial was convened on 24 June 1776 and Hickey was charged with "exciting and joining in a mutiny and sedition, and of treacherously corresponding with, enlisting among, and receiving pay from the enemies of the United Colonies." Hickey pleaded not guilty.

The army produced four witnesses to testify against Hickey. Greene confirmed that Hickey had accepted funds to enlist in the Loyalist plot. Gilbert Forbes also said that he gave Hickey money. Ketchum repeated the hearsay evidence he presented to the Committee and a fourth person, William Welch said that Hickey had tried to recruit him. The only defense Hickey offered was that he was trying to cheat the Tories out of their money. As to having his name placed on board the British warship, he said he agreed to it as a precaution should the British defeat the Americans and he was taken prisoner, then he would be safe.

After a short deliberation, the officers found Hickey guilty as charged and sentenced him to death. On 27 June, Washington and his Council of Officers met. They reviewed the transcript of the trial and agreed with the sentence. On 28 June 1776 Hickey was hanged. He was the only conspirator to be executed; 13 others were imprisoned. Matthews was held as a prisoner but escaped to London. After the war he testified he had formed a plan for taking Washington and his guard but it was never realized.

Minutes Of The Committee For
Detecting Conspiracies

(Fishkill), December 23rd, 1776

Present: Leonard Gansevoort Esqr. Chairman; John Jay, Zephaniah Platt, Nathaniel Sacket, Esqrs.

Resolved that Enoch Crosby assuming the name of do forthwith repair to Mount Ephraim and use his utmost art to discover the designs, places of resort, and route, of certain disaffected persons of that quarter, who have formed a design of joining the enemy, and that for that purpose the said Enoch be made acquainted with all the Information received by this Committee concerning this plan, and that he be furnished with such passes as will enable him to pass there without interruption, and with such others as will enable him to pass as an emissary of the enemy amongst persons disaffected to the American Cause.

Resolved that Enoch Crosby be furnished with a horse and the sum of 30 dollars in order to enable him to execute the above resolution.

Resolved that Mr. Nathaniel Sackett be requested to give such instructions to Enoch Crosby as he shall think best calculated to defeat the designs of the persons above mentioned.

Ordered that the Treasurer pay Enoch Crosby 30 dollars for secret services. . .

Resolved that Nathaniel Sacket Esqr. be requested to furnish Mr. Enoch Crosby with such clothing as he may stand in need of.


1. This article was written by Frank J. Rafalko, Chief Community Training Branch, National Counterintelligence Center.

2. Thomas Hutchinson came from a prominent New England family. In 1737, despite his family's admonishment to him about going into politics, he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. He later served as Chief Justice of the colony and then royal governor.

3. Francis Bernard was the nephew of Lord Barrington, the secretary of state for war in London. Barrington arranged for Bernard to be appointed as royal governor of New Jersey, but after two years Bernard moved to Massachusetts to become royal governor there. He was recalled to London in 1769.

4. Dr. Benjamin Church.

5. A.J. Langguth, Patriots The Men Who Started the American Revolution, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1988, p. 311.

6. Edmund R. Thompson, ed., Secret New England Spies of the American Revolution, The David Atlee Phillips New England Chapter, Association of Former Intelligence Officers, Kennebunk, Maine, 1991, p. 17.

7. Allen French, General Gage's Informers, Greenwood Press, New York, 1968, p. 166-167.

8. Capt. James Wallace.

9. Godfrey Wainwood or Wenwood, Letter from Washington to the President of Congress, October 5, 1775.

10. Letter from George Washington to the President of Congress, October 5, 1775.

11. The 28th article of war provided that anyone caught communicating with the enemy should suffer such punishment as a court martial might direct. Unfortunately for those who favored hanging Dr. Church, article 51 stated that such punishment was limited to thirty-nine lashes, or a fine of two months pay, and/or cashiering from the service.

12. Letter from George Washington to Governor Jonathan Trumball, November 15, 1775 in which Washington inserted the resolve of Congress he received from John Hancock regarding Church.

13. This article was written by Frank J. Rafalko, Chief Community Training Branch, National Counterintelligence Center.


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