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The Remarkable American Count
Brilliant Benjamin Thompson won world fame as Count Rumford the scientist but never dispelled his countrymen’s suspicions
December 1956 | Volume 8, Issue 1
The troublous times, indeed, soon ruffled Thompson’s serenity despite his big white house on the Merrimack and his new consequence in the community. He has often been pictured as an upright man caught in the developing Revolutionary movement with his guard down and pushed by overzealous patriots into the Tory camp. But this was not the case. Long before the Battle of Lexington, he had accommodated his outlook to that of the Governor and his loyalist friends. He engaged in activities which opposed the efforts of the patriots, but in common with thousands of other loyalists he could believe, “I never did any action … that may have the most distant tendency to injure the true interests of this my native country.”
In 1775 he was haled before the local Committee of Safety on suspicion of getting British regulars to round up deserters and send them back to General Thomas Gage in Boston. This was exactly what he was doing, but because it was impossible to prove, he was released. Nevertheless, the cloud of distrust hung so heavy about him that he fled from his wife, his infant daughter, and his fine home to seek refuge in his native Woburn. There his activities became treason if they had not been so before. Open loyalty to the Crown was scarcely reprehensible, however the patriots might complain, but Thompson sent secret intelligence reports to Gage while at the same time he denied every charge brought against him. One still existing letter, written in secret ink, constitutes damning and irrefutable evidence of his guilt, although it was not available to the Massachusetts Committee of Correspondence at the time when it weighed new accusations of treason. Once again he was cleared. But once again his position had become untenable.
Thompson rode to Narragansett Bay where he boarded a frigate of the Royal Navy and was conveyed within the British lines at Boston. He then wrote out a brilliant and detailed report on the “State of the Rebel Army” which did much to recommend him to those who read it, including the colonial secretary in London, Lord George Germain. Indeed, when Thompson found his way to London, he so impressed Germain that he found a new patron and one with even greater powers than the Governor of New Hampshire. The American spy rose rapidly. First assigned posts within the Colonial Office, he was soon appointed secretary of the Province of Georgia and in 1780 became undersecretary of state for the Northern Department. London rumors whispered that his manifold positions now yielded him the princely income of nearly £7,000 a year.
Despite his numerous official duties Thompson found time to continue experiments in explosives and heat which he had begun in America. His primary objective was to increase effective firing range, and it was in connection with this aim that Germain arranged a cruise on H.M.S. Victory, which was later to become Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar. While aboard, he observed the hopelessly inadequate system of signaling in use by the fleet and designed a better one. The Navy actually adopted and for a time used Thompson’s signaling system. In the year of his cruise, he was also welcomed into the scientific fraternity with election as a fellow of the Royal Society.
Meanwhile, Thompson found his great successes threatened with disaster. Rumors plagued him throughout his life, and the gossip mongers now held that he was somehow involved with the celebrated French spy La Motte, who was publicly drawn and quartered. This time the evidence is not conclusive, but it appears that there was some fire at the source of the smoke. Germain apparently protected his protege by bringing pressure and threats in the proper quarters, but Thompson’s enemies were not appeased. For a third time he had to run away.
Germain was still in office when “the Woburn lad” gave up his rich living and sailed for America to serve as lieutenant colonel of a regiment of the King’s American Dragoons which had not yet been raised. Although New York was his destination, Thompson found himself marooned in Charleston, South Carolina, when his ship put in there and then sailed away before he could get back aboard—all a plot of his English enemies, he felt. Arriving after the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, he served for a time under General Alexander Leslie in South Carolina. There was nothing in his background to suggest that he had the makings of a competent cavalry officer. But his superior writes of him as “an enterprising young officer with an uncommon share of merit and zeal,” and his opponent, “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, describes in his Memoirs how Thompson’s dragoons surprised and almost annihilated a much larger American force in the High Hills of the Santee.
When he did reach New York, the problem was to raise the regiment to which he was assigned. From nowhere, he collected his horsemen and even brought the unit to lull complement. Quartered in Huntington, Long Island, during the winter of 1782-83, he revealed another facet of his character and earned the undying hatred of that town. He stabled his horses in the local church and located his camp in the cemetery. Reputedly, he also had bread baked on the tombstones so that the inscriptions showed on the undersides of the loaves.