- Historic Sites
1775 Two Hundred And Twenty-five Years Ago
Author, Doctor, Soldier, Spy
October 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 6
On October 4, Dr. Benjamin Church, the chief medical officer of the Continental Army, was convicted by court-martial of “holding criminal correspondence with the enemy.” Church had supported the colonial cause ever since the Stamp Act, but all the while he had secretly backed the royal government, first with anonymous articles and then with valuable confidential information. He was exposed in late September when a letter he had written found its way into Gen. George Washington’s hands. When decoded, it proved to contain a summary of the recent Continental Congress’s acts and data on Continental troop strength, dispositions, matériel, and campaign plans. Church was thrown in jail and kept confined until 1778, when he was allowed to sail for the West Indies. His ship disappeared, and he was never heard from again.
On October 10, four months after the debacle at Bunker Hill, Gen. Thomas Gage was replaced as commander in chief of His Majesty’s troops in Massachusetts. Gage’s good points have been charitably summed up by the American historian Mark Boatner: “He was an honorable man in a day when this quality was not common; he was more than competent as a military administrator.” The nineteenth-century British historian George Otto Trevelyan characterized Gage more harshly: “He played, for a very small man, a material and prominent part in the preparation of an immense catastrophe.”
His replacement, Gen. William Howe, was a much better soldier than Gage, despite having led the redcoats at Bunker Hill. Unfortunately, he suffered from the fatal defect of halfheartedness. Besides being a general, Howe was a member of Parliament, and during the 1774 campaign he had predicted that the American colonies would never be subdued by force. Unlike Robert E. Lee, a similarly reluctant general in a later war, Howe was plagued by timidity and a disinclination to kill his countrymen, faults that would be aggravated by his appetite for high living in the Tory strongholds of New York City and Philadelphia.
On October 18, a pair of military actions took place, with one win for each side. At Chambly, Quebec, a force of 50 American invaders and 300 Canadian sympathizers overran a British fort. They took possession of 169 prisoners (81 of them women and children) as well as the Continental Army’s first enemy colors of the war. They also captured large amounts of food, powder, arms, and ammunition, which would serve them well in the successful attack on nearby St. John’s two weeks later.
Meanwhile, the Royal Navy, frustrated by the depredations of American rebels (especially the seizure of the sloop Margaretta in June), decided to punish coastal towns with a series of raids. On October 7, a British fleet had fired on Bristol, Rhode Island, for an hour and a half until the inhabitants agreed to provide them with 40 sheep. On October 18, the British made a much more terrible example of Falmouth (now Portland), Maine, by shelling it heavily from 9:00 A.M. until 6:00 P.M. Landing parties set fires to make sure the destruction was as complete as possible. The residents had been warned in advance to evacuate, so no lives were lost, but 417 buildings were destroyed, 4 ships taken, and 11 others burned.
Six days later, British forces were less successful in trying to give the same treatment to Hampton, Virginia. In September the British sloop Otter had taken shelter there during a storm, and local patriots had stolen her guns and burned one of her boats. On October 24, Capt. Mathew Squires, bent on revenge, returned and sent six armed tenders into Hampton Creek to fire on the town. Colonial riflemen drove them off and repulsed a landing party. The next morning, when the British renewed the attack, they encountered 100 militiamen who had ridden all night from Culpeper County, in the northern part of the state. The British losses were 2 men killed, 2 wounded, and 8 vessels lost. The rebels suffered no casualties.