The spy who was not there

Mar 11 11:22 2009 Onur Aksal Print This Article

John Howe's tale of his surveillance activities just before the Battles of Lexington and Concord has interested historians since it was published in 1827. McCue assesses the big question of whether the surveillance ever happened.

CONCORD,Guest Posting MASSACHUSETTS, in April 1775 wasn't a particularly friendly place for a British regular. The town seethed with seditious activity-the colonials were stockpiling munitions, printing incendiary tracts, and gathering nightly at alehouses to rail against the Crown. It was not exactly a town where 22-- year-old John Howe, a member of His Majesty's 52nd Regiment of Foot, would have felt comfortable, especially since his mission was to spy on colonial activities west of Boston.

Howe traveled among men who would have willingly helped him to a coat of tar and feathers if they knew his true identity, yet the young British soldier managed to mix with the locals and learn the location of provisions that would be key to any successful resistance to British rule. Howe so fooled the men of Concord that he was even invited to dinner by the colonial militia's second in command. These and other stories of espionage fill the pages of a volume printed under the lengthy title of A Journal Kept By Mr. John Howe While He Was Employed As A British Spy During The Revolutionary War; Also, While He Was Engaged In The Smuggling Business During The Late War. Published in 1827 by printer Luther Roby of Concord, New Hampshire, the story appealed to the young nation's unquenchable thirst for tales of the Revolution, especially in light of the not-so-distant War of 1812 (the "Late War" of the book's title). The journal seemed to be a trove of information about the days prior to the fateful encounters at Lexington and Concord, and historians often used it as a primary source for this seminal period of United States history. There was just one problem-John Howe may never have existed.

IN THE MONTHS leading up to the conflict at Lexington and Concord, the countryside around Boston roiled in discontent over Mother England's treatment of the colonies. Boston itself had weathered the Massacre in 1770, the Tea Party in 1774, and the resulting Coercive Acts enacted by Britain to punish its subjects' impertinence. The colonials hated these legislative punishments, including the closing of Boston Harbor, and called them the "Intolerable Acts."

Lieutenant General Thomas Gage stood in the eye of this gathering storm. The son of a viscount, Gage was commander in chief of British forces in North America as well as royal governor of Massachusetts. He professed a hatred of Boston, calling it a town full of "bullies." To make matters worse, both sides of the controversy held him in contempt. To the colonials he was a heavy-handed oppressor who enforced the Coercive Acts. They accused him of everything from alcoholism to pederasty, as well as the high crime of papistry (although a Protestant, Gage came from a long line of Catholics). On the other side of the Atlantic, the British faulted him for not dealing more forcefully with the colonials, particularly for not arresting ringleaders John Hancock and Samuel Adams.

Tensions had been simmering long before the fatal encounter at Lexington on April 19, 1775. A full eight months earlier Gage had tried to preempt mischief by ordering the removal of colonial gunpowder stores in present-day Somerville, Massachusetts, about six miles northwest of Boston. The following December Gage sought to reinforce ill-defended Imperial stores at Fort William and Mary in the harbor of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Paul Revere and other Boston rebels caught wind of the plan and reached Portsmouth by land before the king's men arrived by sea. The rebels mustered the local militia and took the fort, despite the efforts of the outnumbered defenders. The colonials removed the stores and dispersed them throughout the surrounding towns before British reinforcements arrived.

In February Gage again sent his men out of Boston, this time to remove a reported cache of field pieces to the north in Salem. When the British troops reached the drawbridge leading into town, however, they found the local residents blocking it. Eventually the British and the colonials reached a compromise-the troops were allowed to fulfill their orders by marching over the bridge into Salem and 50 yards down the road before turning back. One local woman taunted the redcoats from her open window, and a soldier pointed his musket at her. "Fire if you have the courage," she responded, "but I doubt it." By this time, many thought that further conflict between the king and his American subjects was inevitable.

ONCE SPRING ARRIVED and the roads were reasonably dry, Gage had the opportunity to strike deep into the heart of the nascent rebellion. The question was where to move first. Gage's sources told him that Worcester, a town about 50 miles west of Boston, harbored 15 tons of powder and 13 cannon. But the British general still needed to learn the store's exact location and reconnoiter the best approaches for his troops. So on April 5 Gage dispatched John Howe (described as both a private and a "civilian-soldier") "to examine the roads, bridges, and fording places" and determine the best route for the British to take to Worcester. Or so Howe's journal claimed.

Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, an officer of the 10th Foot, traveled with Howe on the spy mission. According to Howe, the two soldiers departed Boston outfitted in "Yankee dress"gray coats, leather breeches, and blue mixed stockings-under the guise of men looking for employment.

Howe and Smith ran into trouble almost immediately when they stopped for breakfast at an establishment in Watertown run by Jonathan Brewer, a dedicated Whig who would later lead men at Bunker Hill. A waitress at the tavern recognized Smith and warned the pair of what they could expect. "Smith, you will find employment enough for you and all Gage's men in a few months," she said. "This conversation about wound up our breakfast," Howe noted. It was certainly enough for Smith, who decided to return to Boston. "The last I saw of Smith he was running through barbary bushes to keep out of sight of the road," Howe wrote. Two weeks later Smith would enter history as the commander of the regulars at Concord.

Howe continued to Worcester alone. While judging the suitability of a stretch of road as an artillery crossing point, he attracted a passerby's suspicions, which he deflected by claiming to be in search of a medicinal root. He proceeded to elicit colonial plans to block the road should the regulars turn out, and he learned the whereabouts of a "wicked Tory" who kept a local tavern-exactly the man Howe sought.

He proceeded to the Tory's establishment, the Golden Ball Tavern. (It still stands in Weston, Massachusetts.) There he handed the tavern keeper a letter from General Gage. According to Howe, the keeper, Captain Isaac Jones, "informed me that it would not do for me to stay over night, for his house would be mobed [sic] and I should be taken." So Howe spent the night on the outskirts of town. The next day Jones provided him with a guide to Marlborough, further along the way to Worcester. Howe dutifully noted the roads and byways, reaching his next sanctuary, the home of a "Mr. Barnes," at 2:00 A.M. He reported that the locals had somehow caught wind that a spy was in the neighborhood, and he had to lie low the next day, allowing him time to refine his notes.

Given a horse, Howe sped on his final leg to Worcester. He used Gage's network of Tories again when a "Mr. ****"-thought by historians to be none other than the notorious turncoat Benjamin Church-quartered Howe and showed him the location of the colonials' military stores in Worcester.

His mission complete, Howe returned to his haven in Marlborough to share some brandy with Barnes and discuss Gage's designs on Worcester. Their dinner ended abruptly when a party of colonials arrived, demanding to search the house for suspected provocateurs. "I hoisted the window, leaped upon the shed, which being covered with snow, my feet flew up and I felI flat on my back in the garden," Howe recounted. Stumbling through the snow, Howe happened upon a "Negro's house" where he claimed to be a gunsmith "making guns to kill the Regulars." The owner took him in and later accompanied Howe to Concord, where the spy met local leaders and protected his gunsmith cover by repairing several firearms. Major John Buttrick, second in command of the colonial militia, invited Howe to dinner and afterwards showed him a "quantity of arms, flour, and ammunition."

Howe then took his leave of Concord, claiming that he was off to collect his gunsmith tools. When he arrived back in Boston, he removed his "Yankee dress" and proceeded to Gage's headquarters, where he warned the general of the tone and preparation of the Americans, concluding that "to go [to Concord] with one thousand foot, to destroy the stores, the country would be so alarmed, that the greater part of them would get killed or taken."

A few days later Gage sent Howe north of Boston to tell Tories of a new plan. The English general had abandoned his idea of moving on Worcester and settled instead on Concord. The town was a colonial arms dump only half the distance from Boston as Worcester, and Gage also knew that Concord was likely the place where Adams and Hancock had taken refuge.

While on this second mission, Howe heard of the fighting at Lexington and headed off to rendezvous with Smith's men at Concord. At this point the young spy resolved to defect to the Americans, though he does not explain why. His journal then details his exploits as an Inthan trader on the Great Lakes, a spy for the Americans against the Canadian Army in 1812, and later as a smuggler with loyalty to no one but himself.

JOHN HOWE'S JOURNAL was published 52 years after the battles at Lexington and Concord. Its printer, Luther Roby, had earned a reputation for his work on elaborate family Bibles and school texts. He had also published the journal of Robert Rogers, leader of the famed Rangers in the French and Indian War. Roby's other business pursuits included a granite quarry and a canal-- building concern, and he was eventually elected to New Hampshire's General Court. When Roby published the Howe journal, it seems no one questioned its authenticity.

Indeed, many creditable historians have taken Howe's journal at face value. It was reproduced several times after its 1827 publication. Robert A. Gross cited it in his book The Minutemen and Their World. John Bakeless devoted a chapter of Turncoats, Traitors, and Heroes to Howe and lamented the way this agent who "succeeded brilliantly" was forgotten while his supposed companion, Lieutenant Colonel Smith, eventually achieved the rank of general. Ester Forbes lauded the "quick-witted Private Howe" in her Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, though she did add, "There is no reason to believe all Howe said, but his amusement value is high."

Howe's journal, however, has suffered under further scrutiny. Examining the text from the perspective of an expert of early nineteenth-century literature, Daniel E. Williams, professor of English at the University of Mississippi, concluded in 1993 that the journal was no more than a calculated hoax, created by Roby or another party as a "commodity intended for an American literary marketplace." Williams noted that the journal used literary devices such as character development, suspense, and humor and employed notorious villains-Smith in the Revolutionary War portions and General William Hull, whom American readers of the time reviled because of his perceived cowardly surrender of Fort Detroit during the War of 1812.

Allen French, the renowned scholar of the opening days of the Revolution, criticized Howe's journal as a narrative of no historical value. David Hackett Fischer, in his 1994 book Paul Revere's Ride, dismissed Howe's journal as being of "doubtful" origin. John Alden of Bowling Green State University in an essay on the march to Concord, doubted that Howe could have kept a journal while he was spying and stated that, at the very least, the work must have been edited prior to publication.

Yet perhaps the most damning evidence against the Howe journal is the existence of another similar account, published earlier than Howe's and penned by a verifiable source. That source was a British officer named Henry De Berniere. Appointed an ensign in the 10th Regiment in 1770 and made a lieutenant 13 days after the Battle of Bunker Hill, De Berniere is listed in the records of British troops who marched on Concord. He also drew a much-published map recounting the action at Bunker Hill. During the confusion of the British evacuation of Boston, De Berniere had to abandon his baggage, including his journal, and the locals seized it. John Gill published the journal in 1779. To Gill it must have seemed a measure of poetic justice. Gill was a member of the secret Sons of Liberty who had participated in the Boston Tea Party. He printed many antiBritish pamphlets, including the rebel newspaper the Boston Gazette. Because of his actions the British imprisoned him after the Battle of Bunker Hill.

De Berniere's journal recounted two secret missions that he and Captain William Brown of the 52nd Regiment undertook. According to De Berniere, Gage charged him and Brown with "taking a sketch of the country... also the situation and nature of the country" in late February 1775, more than a month before Howe supposedly undertook his mission. The two officers immediately set out from Boston in the company of Brown's batman (an orderly assigned to an officer) named John. (Some historians have jumped to the conclusion that John was none other than John Howe.)

At their first stop, the same Watertown tavern where Howe said he and Smith dined, De Berniere's party was confronted by apparently the same waitress and received a similar warning. De Berniere assumed she had seen the sketches of the route the spies had out on their table, but the batman announced that the waitress recognized Brown as an officer from Boston. Quickly pushing on, the trio next stopped at a tavern "at the sign of the golden ball," the same Golden Ball Tavern Howe visited.

The Tory Captain Jones welcomed the British agents and told them of progovernment refuges along the road to Worcester. They proceeded as far as Framingham the next day, performing their reconnaissance duties along the way. After lodging at Buckminister's Tavern they continued on to Worcester with little incident other than a wrong turn at which they "were obliged to turn back a mile to get on the right road."

The officers were unable to travel during the strictly observed New England Sabbath, so they spent the day working on their notes. They dared take to the roads only after dusk, doing what work they could in twilight. After the British spies returned to Worcester for the night, two men, likely Loyalists, called upon them. Choosing discretion, the British agents told their host to turn them away.

The trip back to Boston proved to be more difficult. As they began their return, a lone horseman, much to De Berniere's concern, "examined us very attentively, and especially me, whom he looked at from head to foot as if he wanted to know me again." The trio remained unmolested during their second stay at Buckminister's, but they witnessed a disturbing display of the local militia's drilling prowess, followed by an "eloquent" and "spirited" speech by the militia's commander. Upon their return to the Golden Ball, the agents decided to scout an additional route to Worcester. Against Jones's advice, De Berniere and Brown decided to double back, while the batman would forge ahead to Boston with their notes and sketches, so they wouldn't fall into the wrong hands.

The two officers set off the following morning in ankle-deep snow, only to encounter another horseman who asked them very pointed questions about the nature of their business. Marlborough residents, no doubt forewarned by the inquisitive horseman, turned out in a raging snowstorm to scrutinize the two men when they reached town. In a lastminute change of plan the officers stopped for the night at the home of Mr. Barnes-also a stop for Howe. There they learned that a throng of "liberty people" had gathered the night before at the home where they were expected, and their altered schedule had saved them from the mob. A deserter who "knew [Brown] too well, as he was a man of his own company" and was now hiding in town, had likely identified the two spies.

Suddenly word came that the locals planned to storm the house and take its occupants. De Berniere and Brown hurried out, having rested at Barnes's house for only 20 minutes. After putting a safe distance between themselves and Marlborough they dined in the woods on some bread they had taken, using snow "to wash it down."

Finally, after passing by four ominous horsemen, the pair ended their 32-mile trek back at the tavern of Captain Jones. They made an uneventful arrival in Boston the next day. When they happened on their commander General Gage, he was fooled by their ragtag costumes and did not recognize them.

Gage dispatched De Berniere and Brown into the countryside again on March 20, this time to assess the situation in Concord. Along the way they made note of geographic features that the colonials would later use to their advantage. They reached the town without incident, but the pair found it necessary to provide an armed escort back to Boston for their Concord host, who had received death threats.

The situation in Massachusetts was teetering on the edge of the abyss by then. Gage made his move on April 18. "Having received intelligence, that a quantity of Ammunition, Provisions, Artillery, Tents and small Arms, have been collected at Concord, for the Avowed Purpose of raising and supporting a Rebellion against His Majesty," he wrote in his orders to Colonel Smith, "you will March with a Corps of Grenadiers and Light Infantry, put under your Command, with the utmost expedition and Secrecy to Concord, where you will seize and distroy all Artillery, Ammunition, Provisions, Tents, Small Arms, and all Military Stores whatever." The following day Smith's soldiers clashed with minutemen at Lexington and Concord. The American Revolutionary War had begun.

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