Friday, June 10, 2011

The Benedict Arnold/Dr Benjamin Church Jr Confrontation- Part One

  Surprising as it is to many people, two of Revolutionary War America's  most notorious individuals, Benedict Arnold and Dr Benjamin Church, Jr., did meet and had a very brief, but troubled relationship. The circumstances surrounding their interactions are a little complicated and we need to set the scene.

Benedict Arnold


  On April 19th, 1775, as the British marched on Concord, couriers sent word of the outbreak of hostilities throughout New England and asked for support. When word reached New Haven, Connecticutt, the town leaders voted not to send any aid. However,  34 year old Benedict Arnold, ship's captain and prosperous merchant, defied them, mustered the Governor's 2nd Company of Footguards, all sixty three of them, of which he was Captain, seized the town's gunpowder and marched to the relief of Massachusetts. Arnold had been voted Captain of the Footguards by his men despite his inexperience in the art of war; but given his personal wealth ( much of which was probably the result of smuggling), his reputation as a staunch Patriot, and his high standing among New Haven's working class, he was the logical choice. Arnold had  been smitten with the "military bug" and had run away from home three times as a boy to enlist to fight in the French and Indian War.

   On the march from New Haven to the outskirts of Boston, Arnold had a brief but fateful meeting with Colonel Samuel Holden Parsons, a Connecticut Patriot who was returning from Cambridge to begin recruiting troops in Hartford. Parsons mentioned to Arnold that the Patriot force in Cambridge suffered from a shortage of a number of things, but especially cannon and other ordnance pieces. Obviously, this put the Patriots forces at a great disadvantage relative to the British, who were not only well supplied with artillery but could put the cannon of the British fleet, moored in Boston Harbor, to bear. Arnold, who had spent some time in northern New York during the French and Indian War, responded with an account of the state of Fort Ticonderoga and mentioned that the fort had a large number of cannon. This somewhat innocent exchange would prove to the source of some nasty problems for the Patriots after Arnold and Parsons, each going their separate ways, each decided that Fort Ticonderoga must be taken and the artillery pieces it contained seized and put to use for the Patriot cause.



   For over twenty years, Benedict Arnold had been traveling all over colonial America from Canada to the southern Caribbean by foot, horseback, stagecoach, and ship learning its harbors, roads and fortifications. Arnold pointed out to Parsons that in two forts in particular, Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point at the southern tip of Lake Champlain, there were hundreds of good cannon for the taking. A few hundred men could overpower the depleted guard forces in these forts, seize the artillery and then drag the guns to Boston for use against the British.
Dr Joseph Warren by John Singleton Copley

   Eight days after Lexington/Concord, Arnold and his well-dressed, resplendent Footguards strutted into the ragtag American camp at Cambridge cutting such a figure that they were immediately singled out to escort the body of a British officer mortally wounded at Concord through the lines to British HQs in Boston. The footguards uniforms were:

   "A scarlet coat of common length, the lapels, cuffs and collars of buff and trimmed with plain silver wash buttons, white linen vest, breeches and stockings, black half leggins and small, fashionable and narrow ruffled shirt." The coat was made with slide pockets but no flaps. Later, cartridge boxes, hats, cockades were adopted. The hair was clubbed behind, the side locks braided and powdered. The drummers were dressed in buff faced with scarlet and the fifers in scarlet with buff collars and cuffs.

Artemus Ward by Charles Wilson Peale

   After his return from Boston, Arnold was introduced to the Massachusetts Committee of Safety on April 30th, 1775. The Committee members had been inundated with schemes to fight the British. Arnold had sought out Dr Joseph Warren, then the powerful Chairman of the Committee, and it appears the two men hit it off.  Dr Church was the second most powerful. Arnold was brought in to explain to the Committee the ruined condition of the two New York forts, their depleted garrisons, and usable artillery. Warren asked Arnold to prepare a written proposal., which he did.

          Gentlemen:
You have desired me to state the number of cannon, etc. at Ticonderoga. I have certain information that there are at Ticonderoga eight pieces of heavy cannon, twenty brass guns, from four to eighteen: pounders, and ten to twelve large mortars. At Skenesboro, on the south bay, there are three or four brass cannon. The Fort Ticonderoga is in a ruinous condition and has not more than fifty men at the most. There are a large number of small arms and considerable stores and a british sloop of seventy or eighty tons on the lake. The place could not hold out an hour against a vigorous onset.
   Two days later, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety sent a subcommittee, headed by Warren, to confer with Major General Artemus Ward, who was in command of the American troops surrounding Boston. Ward was easily persuaded of the viability of Arnold's plan and Warren and Ward struck a bargain. The Massachusetts Provincial Congress was to give Arnold L100 in cash, and Ward would supply him with ten horses, two hundred pounds of gunpowder, two hundred pounds of lead, and a thousand flints - all he said he could spare. Because these supplies were so limited, Arnold was also authorized to draw on the financial credit of the Committee of Safety in obtaining "suitable provisions and stores for the army." Arnold was commissioned a Colonel in the Massachusetts Militia, appointed to a "secret service" and allowed to select two captains to assist him in recruiting up to four hundred soldiers. His orders were to take "possession of the cannons, mortars, stores, etc., upon the lake" and then return with  "serviceable" weaponry to Cambridge.

   It was Dr Benjamin Church, Jr. who signed Arnold's orders for the Committee of Safety. It appears that Dr Church had replaced Dr Warren as Chairman of the Committee in the early part of May.

   The next day, May 3rd, 1775, Arnold rode west with a few aides, totally abandoning his company of Connecticut Footguards. In addition to the men he and his aides would recruit in Western Massachusetts, Arnold planned on using Ethan Allen and his "Green Mountain Boys" in any attacks on British forts in northern New York.  Thus he  thought he would have  sufficient force to complete his mission.
Painting of Fort Ticonderoga as it may have appeared. The present Fort Ticonderoga has been reconstructed.

   Arnold, however, was not aware that Colonel Parsons had also been giving a lot of thought to the artillery at Fort Ticonderoga. After leaving Arnold, Parsons rushed into Hartford and contacted Silas Deane, a delegate to the Continental Congress from Connecticut, and convinced him of the merit of taking Ticonderoga as soon as possible. On no one's authority but their own, they drew L300 from the Provincial Treasury and picked captain Edward Mott to lead an expedition to capture Ticonderoga. They also found Heman Allen, Ethan Allen's younger brother, and sent him off to the New Hampshire Grants (Vermont) to enlist the services of his older brother and the Green Mountain Boys. Mott and his small raiding party started north on Saturday, April 29th, the very day Captain Arnold and his Footguards marched into Cambridge.

   It should be noted that Ethan Allen was born in Connecticutt in 1737 or 1738 and had lived there until 1770. His brother Heman operated a general store in Salisbury, Connecticutt so the family was well known in the state. At this time, the Allens, who held numerous land grants in Vermont, were in an ongoing struggle with New York State which also claimed title to the same lands. The Allens hoped that by involving the Green Mountain Boys in an attack against the King's property in New York, while acting the part of disinterested patriots, they could solidify their rights to their land. . On May 3rd, the same date that Arnold began his journey across Massachusetts, the Mott force, augmented by about fifty volunteers from Western Massachusetts,  made contact with Ethan Allen in Bennington, Vermont.

Ethan Allen


   Our story continues in Part Two.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Porter Decode

  I failed to note in my post on the Gerry/Porter Decode that at the October 3, 1775 Council of War  General George Washington convened at his headquarters in Cambridge to discuss the Church letter, he laid the Samuel West deciphered text before the generals he assembled to discuss the matter. No mention was made of the Gerry/Porter decoded letter. Attending that Council of War were Washington;  Major Generals -  Artemus Ward, Charles Lee, and Israel Putnam; Brigadier Generals -  Joseph Spencer, William Heath, John Sullivan, Nathaniel Greene, John Thomas; and, Adjutant General Horatio Gates.

Apropos of nothing, Nathaniel Greene, who went on to win much acclaim, was a personal favorite of Washington as was his vivacious wife, Caty, who was one of Washington's favorite dancing partners. Caty was also very close to Martha.

Nathaniel Greene of Rhode Island

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Committee of Safety


   Here from the journal of the Second Provincial Congress is the resolution, dated May 19,1775  authorizing a Committee of Safety and ratifying all of the acts of its predecessor Committee of Safety that had been established by the First Provincial Congress.

   And it is also Resolved, That [Hon John Hancock, Esq., Doct Joseph Warren, Doct Benjamin Church, Capt Benjamin White, Col Joseph Palmer, Mr. Richard Devens, Mr Abraham Watson, Mr. John Pigeon, Col Azor Orne, Hon Benjamin Greenleaf, Esq., Mr. Nathan Cushing, Doct Samuel Holten, Hon Enoch Freeman, Esq.,] be a committee of safety for this colony hereafter, until some further order of this, or some future congress or house of representatives of this colony shall revoke their, or either of their appointments.
   And it is also Resolved, That the said committee of safety shall be, and hereby are empowered, when they shall think it necessary, in defence of the lives and properties of the inhabitants of this colony, to assemble such and so many of the militia thereof, and then to dispose and place where, and detain so long, as the said committee of safety of this colony shall admit of it; and the officers of the said militia are herby enjoined to pay strict obedience to the orders and directions of the said committee of safety.  
   And it is also Resolved, That the said committee of safety shall be, and herby are empowered, to direct the army of this colony to be stationed where the said committee of safety shall judge most conducive to the defence and service of the colony; and the general, and other officers of the army, are required to render strict obedience to such orders of said committee: provided always, that it shall be in the power of this, or any future congress, to control any order of the said committee of safety, respecting this or any other matter.
   And, whereas, the former committee of safety were, by a resolve of this congress, empowered to nominate persons to this congress, to be commissioned to be officers in the army now establishing for the defence of this colony, and said committee having already given orders to a number of persons, to enlist men for that purpose: Resolved, that the committee of safety now appointed, proceed in that matter, that such officers, where the regiments are completed, may be commissioned by this Congress; and if any regiments should be nearly completed, and the officers thereof ready to be commissioned, agreeably to the resolve of this Congress, during the time between the dissolution of this Congress and the meeting of the next, the said committee shall have power to fill up and deliver out commissions to them, and blank commissions, signed by the president of this Congress, and attested by the secretary, shall be delivered to the said committee for this purpose.
   And it is also Resolved, That any five of the said committee be a quorum, with full power to transact any business which the committee, by the resolves above, are empowered and vested with the authority to do.

   The Committee members were listed in order of importance. This resolution was enacted after Lexington/Concord and before Bunker Hill.
Samuel Holten House, Danvers, Massachusetts. Holten gave up his medical practice to serve the revolution. He later became a judge, signed the Articles of Confederation and became an early member of Congress.

The ancestral home of Colonel Azor Orne in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Col Orne was with Elbridge Gerry in Weathersby's Tavern on April 18/19, 1775.




Monday, June 6, 2011

The Gerry/Porter Decode

   We dealt previously with the fact that  George Washington furnished a copy of Dr Church's letter to The Reverend Samuel West, who was known to have an interest and perhaps an expertise in cryptography, to be deciphered. West was able to accomplish that task with some rapidity and had a fully decrypted letter in Washington's hands quite expeditiously. But Washington furnished another copy of Church's cipher letter to Elbridge Gerry,* a delegate to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and a member of the Committee of Safety. Gerry allegedly accomplished that with some assistance from Elisha Porter, another delegate to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress; or, that is as historians have reported it over the years. But Gerry's participation in the decoding of the letter and whether or not he had been entrusted with that task by Washington is somewhat less clear when the circumstances surrounding that decoding are examined.

   But first let's examine just who Elbridge Gerry and Elisha Porter were and what they were doing in September and October of 1775.

   Elbridge Gerry was born in July 1744 in Marblehead, Massachusetts, the son of of an English merchant who emigrated to the United States and "married into substantial mercantile circles." Elbridge enrolled in the Harvard class of 1762 at the age of fourteen and graduated with his class. He gave up his original intention of studying medicine and, instead, went into business with his father and two brothers and became quite successful at it. As the conflict between Massachusetts and the Crown heated up, the Gerry family became opponents of the Stamp Act and Sugar Act and their anti-British tone was influenced by the nature of their business, international trade, which was being circumscribed by the British.  Gerry became a very partisan Whig and was elected in 1772 to the Massachusetts House where he befriended Samuel Adams and the two of them developed an extensive correspondence.  In 1773, he was appointed Secretary of the Marblehead Committee of Correspondence and a member of the Provincial Committee of Correspondence. After an incident in which an inoculation hospital Gerry owned with three other individuals was burnt down (an incident not really germane to our inquiry), Gerry refused re-election to the House, but the passage of the Boston Port Bill soon brought him back into politics. Using his ships and his connections as a merchant, Gerry was active in obtaining supplies for the port closed Boston and he set the women of Essex County to making military clothing for the militia. In October 1774, Marblehead sent him to the First Provincial Congress and that Congress selected him to serve on the committee of seven that sat during the recess.
An 1876 Library of Congress engraving of Gerry as a younger man. I know of no contemporary portraits of him during the Revolution.

   Most importantly, Gerry was appointed to the Committee of Supply. Contemporary Americans, so familiar with our current Constitution and the separation of powers, do not fully appreciate the importance of The Committees of Safety  and Supply which had extensive executive powers. In 1774 and 1775, the Crown retained executive powers in the colony through its appointed Governor and other officials. The Massachusetts Provincial Congress had no executive; so it formed special committees which had executive powers. The Committee of Safety could, as an example, give military orders, deploy troops, requisition and purchase arms, ammunition and other military supplies - activities that under, our Constitution, would be performed by the executive.

   On the evening of April 18th, 1775, Gerry, along with two other Marblehead patriots, was in Weathersby's Black Horse Tavern on the road between Lexington and Concord and observed the British forces as they marched by. Suddenly, Gerry and his companions noticed a contingent of British soldiers break off from the column and head towards the tavern. The three Marbleheaders, still dressed in their nightclothes, rushed out the back door of the tavern and hid in a cornfield until the British troops passed by.  The Provincial Congress next named Gerry as the Chairman of the Committee of Supply of the Committee of Safety, a charge that made him almost singlehandedly responsible for the supply of the Massachusetts militia. There was a desperate need for all kinds of military supplies, but especially gunpowder. Gerry sank a great deal of his personal fortune into this endeavor.

   During the Third Provincial Congress, Gerry lodged in the same chamber with Dr Joseph Warren at Watertown since they had become close friends. Warren bade farewell to Gerry as he left to fight at Bunker Hill. When Washington arrived at Cambridge, Gerry was appointed to the committee of welcome. And Washington would have had intimate contact with him given Gerry's responsibilities.

  Let's now turn our attention to Elisha Porter. Porter was born in Hadley, Massachusetts**, located about 100 miles west of Boston,  either in 1741 or 1742, the fourth son of his parents. Admitted to Harvard with the class of 1761, he went to Yale but transferred to Cambridge in his sophomore year. Returning to Hadley, Porter practiced law and was commissioned a captain of militia in 1773. In 1775, Porter was commissioned Sheriff of Hampshire County and as a Colonel of a Hampshire County Regiment, he activated his regiment upon the general alarm of April 19th, 1775 and appeared in Cambridge on April 25, 1775. He was assigned the task of placing the incoming regiments and, when it turned out that there were more colonels than regiments, he offered to resign.

   Hadley elected Porter to the Third Provincial Congress which, in turn, appointed him to Elbridge Gerry's Committee of Supply and he was very active in attempting to obtain gunpowder. He reportedly left the Congress to participate in the battle of Bunker Hill where he was reported to have lost his gun. Porter, also served on the welcome committee for Washington who, in a later letter to General Philip Schuyler, called Porter "an exceeding active man."

   As best as can be reconstructed, it appears that Washington sent  copies of Church's letter to Samuel West and to the Committee of Safety where it was received by Porter. It is unclear as to whether Washington was sending the letter over for informational purposes or whether he intended to have it deciphered. Given Washington's subsequent reaction after the letter was deciphered by Porter and Gerry, I believe that he was sending it over for informational purposes. After all, he had already sent a copy to West whose reputation in cryptography Washington undoubtedly gleaned. In any event, Gerry states that Porter was an expert in "decyphering" and that he (Gerry) himself was " somewhat acquainted with decyphering." Porter deciphered the letter, with assistance from Gerry ( according to Gerry), and sent the result to Washington's Headquarters. There is no information in any record to indicate just what Porter's and Gerry's interest or expertise in "decyphering" was, but there is no doubt that Porter possessed some knowledge and talent since his deciphered message was virtually identical to the one prepared by West.

   Washington became very upset when Gerry sent a copy of Church's letter to a member of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia and, of course, it quickly became the talk of the Congress. Washington felt that Gerry had no authorization to violate the confidentiality with which he wished to treat this matter and, further, Washington had not forwarded his own report about Church to Philadelphia. Gerry was quite defensive when Joseph Reed, Washington's secretary, sent a note to James Warren, President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, complaining about Gerry's action, but reiterated that he felt he had done nothing wrong. One gets the feeling that Gerry couldn't wait to be the first one to notify the Congress of this affair, but I feel Washington was being a little naive if he thought he could just send over a cipher letter to the Committee of Safety without some specific instructions. Washington was newly installed as Commander of the armies assembled around Boston and was a Virginian operating in the somewhat foreign land of New England and in a highly charged political atmosphere. He perhaps should have known better. Washington, understadably, was always prickly about his position. In any event, none of this had any real bearing on the real issue of Dr Church's alleged treachery.

   Gerry went on to have a very long and distinguished career, accumulating a number of enemies along the way. He became a delegate to the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention. He became an anti-Federalist and Governor of Massachusetts. He became Vice President in 1812 and died in office two years later at the age of 70.

   In January of 1776, Porter was named as colonel of a regiment to be raised in Hampshire and Berkshire counties for the purpose of reinforcing the Continental Army in Canada and became part of that ill-fated expedition. A diary he kept is one of the better accounts of the end of the Canadian Campaign. Porter served throughout the war and in the Saratoga Campaign. In fact, he was ordered to escort General Burgoyne to Boston after his surrender and went by way of Hadley, camped his company in the town street, and lodged and entertained Burgoyne in his family mansion for several days. In 1788 he was appointed Brigadier of Militia and was elected to the convention called to consider ratification of it. He spoke strongly in favor. During Shay's Rebellion in Western Massachusetts, Porter commanded a Regiment of Massachusetts Militia under General William Shepard.

   Porter died in Springfield Massachusetts in May of 1796.

   * Gerry is pronounced with a "hard G." The modern term of "gerrymandering", which is named after Gerry, is commonly pronounced with a "soft G." It should be pronounced with a "hard G."

   ** Hadley, Massachusetts is also the birthplace of Joseph Hooker, Union General who suffered a concussion at the Battle of Chancellorsville knocking him senseless and allowing Robert E. Lee to win his "most famous victory." Hooker was the grandson of a Captain who served in Col Porter's regiment that responded to Cambridge after the battles of Lexington and Concord.