- Historic Sites
The Spies Who Went Out In The Cold
February 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 2
It was five o’clock when they got to their recommended inn in Worcester. The landlord, another Isaac Jones and a relative of the Weston innkeeper, “seemed a little sour” when they entered. And well he might have been. On January 27 the Worcester County Convention had “earnestly recommended” that the inhabitants of the county “shun his house and person, and treat him with the contempt he deserves.” Jones soon became friendly, but neither he nor the soldiers directly disclosed their sympathies. When asked what he could offer for breakfast, Jones answered “tea or anything else we chose—that was an open confession what he was; but for fear he might be imprudent, we did not tell him who we were, tho’ we were certain he knew it.”
The next day presented a new obstacle: the Sunday blue laws. New Englanders either went to all-day church services or stayed indoors. Anyone who dared step out was questioned by the town watch, “so that thinking we could not stand the examination so well, we thought it prudent to stay at home, where we wrote and corrected our sketches.” In the late afternoon, after services were finally over, Browne and De Birniere ventured out around the town and the hills surrounding it, “sketched every thing we desired, and returned to the town without being seen.” De Birniere, in fact, drew up plans for a fortress and encampment on one of the hills commanding Worcester.
At about eight o’clock that night Jones came to the soldiers’ room to say two gentlemen wanted to speak to them. Who were they? Jones replied that they “wou’d be safe in their company.” Still clinging to his cover, De Birniere said they didn’t doubt it, as they hoped that gentlemen “who travelled merely to see the country and stretch our limbs” would be treated civilly as long as they behaved themselves. An hour later Jones returned to say the two visitors had gone away, “but had begged him to let us know, as they knew us to be officers of the army,” that all the Loyalists in the town of Petersham had been “disarmed by the rebels, and that they threatened to do the same at Worcester in a very little time.” Even after the landlord shared a bottle and talked politics with them, the soldiers did not drop their guard. When he “told us that none but a few friends to government knew we were in town,” the officers replied that they did not care “whether they did or not, tho’ we thought very differently.” Obviously, Browne and De Birniere were frightened; if they had not been, they would certainly have seized the opportunity to pick up information from Worcester residents. They decided to get out of town at daybreak.
The spies had entered Worcester on Saturday by way of Grafton; they left on Monday by the Shrewsbury road. They passed through Shrewsbury without being seen, but were then “overtaken by a horseman who examined us very attentively, and especially [De Birniere], whom he looked at from head to foot as if he wanted to know [him] again.” Then the horseman “rode off pretty hard and took the Marlborough road.” Alarmed by this, the soldiers switched back to their previous road to Framingham, rationalizing that it would probably be the one the army would use anyway. It was lucky they did, for the horseman was Timothy Bigelow, a Worcester blacksmith who was a captain of the minutemen and a member of the Provincial Congress. Bigelow warned the Marlborough patriots to be on the lookout for three men who walked like soldiers.
When the three spies arrived back at Buckminster’s tavern in Framingham, about six o’clock, they found a company of militia drilling outside. “VVe did not feel very easy at seeing such a number so very near us,” De Birniere admitted, “however, they did not know who we were, and took little or no notice of us.” After they completed their drill, the commander, to De Birniere’s great amusement, addressed his troops. He advised them to exercise patience, coolness, and bravery (which, De Birniere noted, they were much in need of) and “particularly told them they would always conquer if they did not break, and recommended them to charge us cooly, and wait for our fire, and every thing would succeed with them—quotes Caesar and Pompey, brigadiers Putnam and Ward,∗ Israel Putnam and Artemas Ward were veterans of the French and Indian War who commanded the armies of Connecticut and Massachusetts, respectively. Ward commanded the American Army until George Washington took over in July, 1775. and all such great men; put them in mind of Cape Breton, and all the battles they had gained for His Majesty in the last war, and observed that the regulars must have been ruined but for them.—After so learned and spirited an harangue, he dismissed the parade, and the whole company came into the house and drank until nine o’clock, and then returned to their respective homes full of pot-valour.”
De Birniere might have been less amused if he had reflected that the New Englanders had captured the French citadels at Port Royal and Louisbourg in three different wars or that the advice given by their commander was perfectly sound. Furthermore, although De Birniere took several opportunities to show his regular’s scorn for American militia, if he found anything funny about the Framingham company’s drill, he did not write it down. Seven weeks later every man of Framingham’s three companies was on hand to harass the redcoats, De Birniere and Browne among them, as they fled from Concord back to Boston.