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Spy Letter from Benjamin Church

Espionage, intelligence gathering, or "spying" is a necessary and vital part of any war. While today's methods are more technologically advanced, those used during the American Revolution were no less effective in achieving their goal: providing valuable information about the enemy. Both the British and American armies used extensive spy networks that employed a variety of clever methods. These spies were men and women, young and old, white and black, soldier and civilian.

Perhaps the best-known spies of the American Revolution were Benedict Arnold and John Andre (see the Image of the Month). However, there were many others whose stories will fascinate students. One of the lesser-known British spies was a Harvard-trained physician, an active member of the Sons of Liberty, and a participant in the Boston Tea Party. His name was Dr. Benjamin Church.

Dr. Benjamin Church was born in Newport, Rhode Island in 1734. After graduating from Harvard, he traveled to England, where he studied medicine and became a skilled and respected surgeon. Upon his return to Boston, Dr. Church became known for his patriotic writings. He was a close associate of John and Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere, and was the first physician on the scene of the Boston Massacre in 1770. Church was eventually elected to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, the popular assembly formed after the British suspended the legislature in the wake of the Boston Tea Party.

It was later discovered that Church had been working with the British since at least 1772, and may have even published loyalist articles under a different name. He may have been influenced by his English wife or his expensive tastes. His accounts indicate that he spent freely, but that his funds were always mysteriously replenished before they were completely depleted. Church's correspondence with British General Thomas Gage supplied the British with intelligence regarding American munitions in the early months of 1775. Several weeks before Lexington and Concord, Church had provided a detailed description of colonial military plans and equipment. So Dr. Benjamin Church could be held technically responsible for the march on Concord.

Despite a warning from Dr. Joseph Warren, another Boston physician, two days after the battles at Lexington and Concord, Church decided to return to Boston. He was determined to go and promised to bring back medicine for the wounded. Paul Revere became suspicious of Church upon his return after hearing that Church had been seen visiting General Gage's house. Church maintained that he had been captured by the British and forced to appear before Gage. Still, Dr. Warren and even General George Washington remained confident of Church's loyalty to the Patriot cause.

In fact, Washington made Church the first Surgeon-General of the Continental Army, but he only served for a brief period. In June 1775, Church was sent to Philadelphia to consult with the Continental Congress. After three failed attempts to convey information from his trip to General Gage, his fourth attempt was intercepted and reported to Washington. Washington had Church arrested and questioned. Church denied any wrongdoing, but the contents of the decoded letter proved otherwise. Church was charged with treason, court-martialed, and convicted.

Because Congress had not yet authorized the hanging of spies, Church was sentenced to life imprisonment, and was held in solitary confinement. Church became ill in prison and Congress ordered him exiled to the West Indies. However, the boat that Church was put upon suffered a disaster at sea and Dr. Church never reached his destination.

Following is a translation of the letter written by Dr. Church that was intercepted by American forces and which led to his arrest. Modern punctuation and capitalization have been added. You can see an image of the actual letter, written in code, on the Library of Congress's site:

To Major Cane in Boston,
On His Magisty's Sarvice—

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 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 clumsy 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 lye wounded. The chief will recover. They boast you have 1400 killed & wounded in that action. You say the rebels 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 [Stamford], 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 Kingsbridge 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 & other inhabitants in uniform, with 1000 rifle men and 40 horse who together made a most warlike appearance. I mingled freely & 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 & Lee at their head are no contemptible enemy. Adjutant General Gates is indefatigable in arranging the army. Provisions are very plenty. Cloaths are manufacturing in almost every town for the soldiers. Twenty tons of powder lately arrived at Philadelphia, Connecticut & 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 & New York. Volunteers of the first fortunes are daily flocking to camp. 1000 rifle-men (in 2 or 3 days recruits) are now levying to augment the army to 22 thousand men. 10 thousand militia are 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 & to the realm. Remember, I never deceived you. Every article here sent to 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 but for a little while to see what part Britain takes in consequence on the late Continental petition. A view to independence gr[ows] more & 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 & 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 capitol. To-morrow I set out for Newport 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 in my way. I wish you could contrive to write me largely in cypher, 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 gentleman of honour, you took the liberty to inclose that letter, intreating me to deliver it as directed, the person, you are informed, being at Cambridge. Sign some fictitious 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.

This article was written by Beth Burney, elementary school teacher, Atlanta, GA.