The Spies Who Went Out In The Cold

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In late February, 1775, three men in what they thought was Yankee farmers’ dress, “brown cloaths and reddish handkerchiefs round our necks,” boarded the ferry at the foot of Prince Street in Boston, bound for Charlestown, a half mile across the Charles River. At the ferry dock on the Charlestown side one of the “countrymen” dashed forward and muttered something to the redcoat standing sentry (probably “Don’t salute, mate!”), for he, like the sentry, was an enlisted man of the 52nd Regiment of the British army; the other two brown-clad figures were officers, Captain William Browne of the 52nd and Ensign [second lieutenant] Henry De Birniere of the 10th. They were bound on a secret mission for Lieutenant General Thomas Gage through what could only be called “enemy country,” although fighting had not yet begun. [See “Men of the Revolution— II ” in the October, 1971, AMERICAN HERITAGE .]

Gage, who served simultaneously as royal governor of Massachusetts and commander in chief of the British army in North America, had exercised since October, 1774, neither civil nor military control over anything outside of Boston, at that time virtually an island connected to the mainland only by a neck of land about a hundred yards wide. Effective government was in the hands of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, which was setting about building an army, collecting war materiel, and nullifying the Coercive Acts passed by the British Parliament to punish Massachusetts for the Boston Tea Party.

 

Gage’s situation was humiliating. No courts had functioned in the colony for a year. When the Worcester County court had tried to convene in the fall of 1774, thousands of armed men stopped it, and Gage did not dare send troops to Worcester to protect the court and judges. The “friends of government” (Tories, as they were called by most colonists) were frightened either into silence or out of their homes to army protection in Boston. In the meantime English politicians like the Earl of Sandwich wondered why Gage hesitated to move against such “raw, undisciplined, cowardly men.” The Earl told the House of Lords that “the very sound of a cannon would carry them off … as fast as their feet could carry them.” But Gage knew better. He had been in America for twenty years and had seen the Americans in action; indeed, Gage knew that he owed his life to the Virginia militia when he, leading the vanguard of General Edward Braddock’s ill-fated army, was ambushed by the French and Indians in 1755. Gage had a good little army of some four thousand men in Boston, but he said he needed five times as many to be sure of subduing New England. The British government, however, ridiculed his opinion. The General was well aware that he would have to break out of Boston early in the spring of 1775 or he would soon find himself in involuntary retirement.

 

Gage saw what he had to do. He had already, in September, 1774, sent a raiding party to Charlestown that seized a large portion of Massachusetts’ powder supply. But Charlestown was just across the Charles River from Boston, and although no shots were exchanged, the expedition had barely re-embarked when twenty thousand New Englanders were armed and marching toward Boston. Now Gage’s informers told him that large supply dumps had been gathered at Concord, eighteen miles away, and Worcester, forty-seven miles from Boston. They were obvious objectives for the decisive blow Gage knew must soon be struck; for to remain bottled up in Boston, or, worse yet, to mount an unsuccessful offensive, would simply encourage the men Gage was already calling “rebels.”

Gage’s informers had served him well, for the supplies in Worcester and Concord did exist. What he desperately needed, however, was the kind of information that only trained soldiers could give him: locations of roads, river crossings, fortifiable points; sites for encampments; the availability of provisions; and, above all, ways to avoid ambush. Lieutenant General Gage had not forgotten the hard lesson learned by Lieutenant Colonel Gage on the banks of the Monongahela two decades earlier.

For this reason, on January 8, 1775, Gage asked for volunteers “capable of taking sketches of a Country.” Most of the junior officers sent in their names. It is not recorded why the two finally chosen were Captain William Browne of the 52nd and Ensign Henry De Birniere of the 10th. Their regiments had come to Boston from Quebec only at the end of the previous October. Browne, however, had probably served in one of the regiments that occupied Boston from 1768 to 1770, and we know that De Birniere was an excellent map maker—his is the best of the maps of the Battle of Bunker Hill. De Birniere also kept a journal, and it is from his careful account that this story is taken.

The General issued orders to Browne and De Birniere on February 22, 1775, to “go through the counties of Suffolk and Worcester [one hopes Gage knew Middlesex County lay between them], taking a sketch of the country as you pass.” He suggested that they pose as surveyors and that many “particulars may be learned of the country people,” which would seem to be a bad overestimation of Yankee credulity. Otherwise, Gage’s orders show a keen grasp of the need for topographical information.