- Historic Sites
The Spies Who Went Out In The Cold
February 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 2
They had left just in time. A few weeks later, when Barnes himself was forced to flee to Boston, he reported that Dr. Curtis had returned with the rest of the Committee of Correspondence and demanded to see the British officers. Barnes said they were not officers, but some of his wife’s relatives from Penobscot, headed for Lancaster, and besides, they had already left. The committeemen “searched his house from top to bottom, looked under the beds and in their cellars, and when they found we were gone, they told him if they had caught us in his house, they would have pulled it about his ears.”
In the meantime Browne and De Birniere were making the best speed they could while “it snowed and blew as much as ever I see it in my life.” They got as far as the causeway at Sudbury, where they went off into the woods to “eat a bit of bread that we took from Mr. Barnes’s and eat a little snow to wash it down.” This is undoubtedly how they missed being spotted by one of the horsemen sent out on every road when it was discovered that the officers had left Barnes’s. Back on the road they walked but a hundred yards when a man came out of a house and said to Browne: “What do you think will become of you now?” They were sure they were caught, especially as they still had to cross the causeway. Then they were certain they would be stopped in Sudbury village. They “met three or four horsemen, from whom we expected a few shot,” but as they drew near, the riders “opened to the right and left and … let us pass through without taking any notice.” Either they were concealed by the blowing snow or, more likely, those particular horsemen were not among the ones looking for the two British officers.
At last they got back to the Golden Ball in Weston, “very much fatigued, after walking thirty-two miles between two o’clock and half after ten at night, through a road that every step we sunk up to the ankles, and it blowing and drifting snow all the way.” Mr. Jones was glad to see them. He was sure they would run into trouble, he told the soldiers, “as they had been watching for us sometime,” but had not thought it proper to give more than hints as warnings. The weary travellers “went to bed and slept as sound as men could do,” when they have walked thirty-two miles through a snowstorm and finished off” a bottle of mulled Madeira wine.
The next morning, Thursday, March 2, Browne and De Birniere set off for Boston. This time they crossed the Charles, so that they could avoid going through Watertown again, and arrived at the fortifications on Boston Neck at noon. General Gage and his aides were at Boston Neck, but they did not recognize Browne and De Birniere, nor did several of their friends when they finally got into town. Eight days on the road in the hypervaried weather of late winter in New England had, at least, perfected their disguise.
General Gage must have found their sketches and reports satisfactory, for on March 20 Browne, De Birniere, and probably John as well were ordered on a similar mission to Concord. They got to Concord, by way of Roxbury, Brookline, and Weston, “without any kind of insult being offered to us.” They were not, however, unobserved. They asked a woman to direct them to the home of Daniel Bliss, one of the town’s leading Tories. Shortly after they arrived at Bliss’s, the woman “came in crying, and told us they swore if she did not leave town, they would tar and feather her for directing Tories in their road.” Bliss, himself, had just the opposite problem: “they had sent him word they would not let him go out of town alive that morning.” Bliss had collected a great deal of accurate information about where cannon and provisions were stored in Concord. The soldiers assured him that “if he would come with us we would take care of him, as we were three and all well armed.”
Bliss gratefully accepted and showed the soldiers another road, through Lexington. De Birniere noted that the road out of Concord was “very open and good for six miles, the next five a little enclosed (there is one very bad place in these five miles).” They passed through Lexington, then Menotomy (Arlington), and Cambridge, and so on to Boston without trouble.
The next time Ensign De Birniere travelled that route was on April 19, 1775. He was guiding a column of redcoats, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, that had as its objective the stores in Concord that Browne and De Birniere had learned about a month earlier. De Birniere saw Captain John Parker’s minutemen lined up on Lexington Green, saw them fall under a hail of fire from British muskets. He helped destroy some stores at Barren’s farm beyond the North Bridge in Concord, although “we did not find so much as we expected,” and returned to the bridge to find that the American Revolution was now a shooting war. De Birniere saw his troops begin “to run rather than retreat in order” when they came to the “one very bad place” outside of Lexington he had noted in March. Here the remnants of Captain Parker’s company repaid the redcoats with interest, as they poured a withering fire from Pine Hill.