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The Spies Who Went Out In The Cold

May 2024
17min read

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.


Browne and De Birniere set out the next day, Thursday, February 23, “disguised like countrymen.” They would find that it took more than brown garments and red bandannas to make British officers look like Yankee farmers. Fortunately, they had along Captain Browne’s servant, an enlisted man named John, who appreciated that fact. Without him the mission might have ended the first day.

From the ferry landing in Charlestown the three spies walked past Breed’s and Bunker’s hills, past the lane to Phipp’s farm (where the redcoats would land on the night of April 18), through “Cambridge, a pretty town, with a college built of brick,” and on to Watertown, where the Charles was first bridged. De Birniere noted that Watertown (which had over a thousand inhabitants in 1775) was “a pretty large town for America, but would be looked upon as a village in England.” So far, no one had bothered them. A little beyond Watertown they stopped to eat at Brewer’s tavern.

This is the first indication of how little information they had about country they were passing through. Jonathan Brewer, the landlord, was a staunch patriot who knew all about British officers; he had commanded a ranger company under General James Wolfe at Quebec in 1759. The two officers sent John off to eat in the kitchen; this must have marked them at once as strangers in democratic New England. Playing their role of surveyors, Browne and De Birniere spread out their maps on the table and called for dinner, “which was brought in by a black woman” whose politeness soon turned to suspicion. One of the “surveyors” observed to her that it was very fine country thereabout, to which the black woman replied: “So it is, and we have got brave fellows to defend it, and if you go up any higher you will find it so.”


This disconcerted us a good deal,” De Birniere admitted. He and Browne decided not to stay at Brewer’s that night. Then they blew the last remnants of their disguise by paying, without argument, an outrageously overpriced bill. Once outside, John told the officers that the woman had told him that she knew Browne was an officer, because she had seen him in Boston five years earlier, and that John himself was a regular. According to De Birniere, John denied it, “but she said she knew our errant was to take a plan of the country; that she had seen the river and road through Charlestown on the paper; she also advised him to tell us not to go any higher, for if we did we should meet with very bad usage.”

What to do? They knew now that their disguise would not fool the yokels, and the black woman could have come no closer to stating their mission if she had read Gage’s orders. But more than the threat of “very bad usage” from the Americans, they feared that “if we went back we should appear very foolish, as we had a great number of enemies in town, because the General had chose to employ us in preference to them.” Armies have always relied on the fact that most men fear the derision of their messmates more than they do the enemy. So they pushed on another six miles. Part of the way they got a ride in a farm wagon, but the teamster and his companion (who they thought was a British deserter) aroused their suspicions by offering to take them all the way to Worcester. They pleaded the need for a drink and got off at the next tavern, the Golden Ball in Weston.

Here their luck improved. The landlord, Isaac Jones, “was not inquisitive.” Better yet, when they asked for coffee, Jones replied they could have “what we pleased, either tea or coffee.” “Tea” was a kind of Loyalist password, for no patriot would ever offer the hated brew (nor would a Tory, if he had not been sure of his men). Jones put them up for the night and recommended taverns in Framingham and Worcester. He probably also warned the soldiers to be careful about revealing their identities, for Jones had already been given a rough time by the local patriots.

The next day was rainy and sleety, but the spies set out for Framingham, nine miles away. The bad weather helped, for few others ventured out. The soldiers made slow progress, because part of the road passed possible ambuscades that had to be carefully sketched. By the time they arrived at Buckminster’s tavern, the three were so wet and dirty that their identities were not so obvious as they had been the day before. Furthermore, they had learned not to send John off to the kitchen, “for we always treated him as our companion, since our adventure with the black woman.” They felt safe in Buckminster’s inn, so they probably did not know that Joseph Buckminster was a member of the Framingham Committee of Correspondence, a kind of executive committee for the town patriots.


Saturday, February 25, dawned fine. The travellers resolved to push on all the way to Worcester, about thirty miles farther. They took along a lunch of boiled tongue and cherry brandy so that they could avoid going into any tavern where questions might be asked. They made good time, for most of the country was open, and it was not until they were four miles from Worcester that they had to stop to sketch a dangerous pass.

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.

No one disturbed the spies in Framingham, nor as they walked back to Weston on Tuesday, February 28, “having fine weather and a beautiful country to travel through.” Their spirits were so heightened that when they got to the Golden Ball tavern and their friend Mr. Jones, they ignored “several hints from the family not to go any more into the country.” Perhaps they felt sheepish because a passing horseman had frightened them off the Marlborough road. Perhaps “pot-valour” worked on British officers as well as on American militiamen. They decided that, after all, they should examine the main Boston-Worcester road through Sudbury and Marlborough, to the point where they had left it ten miles outside of Worcester.

The next morning was “very cloudy and threatened bad weather.” March 1 would get a great deal darker and more threatening for Browne and De Birniere before it was over. They put their papers in order and sent John off with them to Boston, “so that if they did stop and search us, they would not get our papers.” This was a wise precaution, of course, but it deprived the officers of John’s common sense and ability to talk to the local people.


At noon it began to snow, but Browne and De Birniere had an early lunch anyway, “in hopes the weather would clear up.” Had they been Yankees, the spies would have recognized the signs of that spectacular phenomenon of New England meteorology, the northeaster. At two o’clock the snow let up a little, so they decided to set out for Marlborough, about sixteen miles away. “We found the roads very bad, every step up to our ankles,” but that at least kept other travellers inside. They passed through Sudbury and over a “causeway … across a great swamp,” and, as it was snowing hard again, escaped notice until a horseman overtook them three miles outside Marlborough. Where were they coming from, he wanted to know. Weston. Did they live there? No. Where did they live? “As we found there was no evading his questions, we told him we lived at Boston; he then asked us where we were going, we told him to Marlborough, to see a friend, (as we intended to go to Mr. Barnes’s, a gentleman to whom we were recommended, and a friend to government;) he then asked if we were in the army, we said not, but were a good deal alarmed at his asking us that question.” After a few more “rather impertinent questions,” the horseman rode off toward Marlborough to spread word of their arrival.

When they entered the town, “the people came out of their houses (tho’ it snowed and blew very hard) to look at us.” A baker asked Captain Browne: “Where are you going master?” Browne replied, “to see Mr. Barnes.” That, if nothing else, would have tipped off their sympathies. Henry Barnes, a prosperous applejack distiller and merchant, was a notorious Tory who had been on the outs with the local patriots ever since he broke the nonimportation agreement in 1770.

At Barnes’s, Browne and De Birniere started to apologize for arriving unannounced and “discovering to him that we were officers in disguise.” Barnes stopped their explanation. Not only he, but everybody else in town, knew who they were. In fact, on Monday night, a hot welcome had been prepared for them by “a party of liberty people” who had been warned by Captain Bigelow, the horseman who had looked De Birniere over so carefully. Was there a safe tavern where they could stay? No, Barnes answered, the town was very violent and his was the only house where they were not sure to meet trouble. Had they spoken to anyone when they entered town? They told Barnes about Browne’s encounter with the baker. That was bad. The baker was an ardent patriot and had a deserter living in his house. Browne asked the deserter’s name. It was Swain, a drummer. That tore it. Browne “knew him too well”; less than a month ago Swain had been Browne’s own company drummer! “We asked Mr. Barnes if they did get us into their hands, what they would do with us; he did not seem to like to answer; we asked him again, he then said we knew the people very well, that we might expect the worst of treatment from them.” Barnes did not have to elaborate; every Tory and redcoat knew about the “modern punishment,” tar and feathers.


At this point Barnes was called to the door. His caller was Dr. Samuel Curtis, a member of the local Committee of Correspondence. Curtis casually said he had dropped by for a bite of supper, though he had not been in Barnes’s house for two years, and a high Son of Liberty was unlikely to be making a social call on the town’s leading Tory. Barnes said he was sorry, but he had company. Then Dr. Curtis asked one of Barnes’s children who her father’s visitors were. “The child innocently answered that she had asked her pappa, but he told her it was not her business.” That was all Curtis needed. He hurried off to tell his fellow committeemen.

Browne and De Birniere decided that Marlborough was too hot for them. They would rest for two or three hours, then sneak out of town at midnight. But just as they were sitting down to supper, Barnes rushed in to tell them that his servants reported a delegation of townspeople on its way. No time even to eat. Snatching up a bit of bread, the spies rushed out the back door past the stables and fled down a back lane that would take them again to the Sudbury road a quarter mile out of town. They had been in Barnes’s house for twenty minutes.

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.


De Birniere survived the rout of Gage’s only real attempt to break out of Boston and the slaughter at Bunker Hill in June. When the British left Boston forever, on March 17, 1776, among the things they left behind were De Birniere’s maps, his plan for a military post in Worcester, and his account of his days as a spy. The last was “printed for the information and amusement of the curious” by J. Gill of Court Street, Boston, in 1779. Nearly two hundred years later it should remind us that the American Revolution was not something that started on April 19, 1775—that was merely the shooting phase. The “hearts and minds of the people,” as John Adams was fond of saying, were already made up.

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