Time To Catch The Spy
Conflict: American Revolution
Type of Action: Espionage Operation
Location: Massachusetts & Rhode Island, New England
Forces: Not Applicable
In the months following the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the English Army remained bottled up in Boston, surrounded by the Rebel Army of militia units which had flocked to Massachusetts in response to the British attacks. During this siege of Boston, the English commander, General Thomas Gage, was forced to rely upon a net of spies to inform him of the disposition of Rebel forces beyond Boston and the intentions and determination of the Rebel leaders. This network of informants was extensive, having been formed when Gage had been searching for the Rebel arsenals. Foremost among these informants was a man placed high within the Rebel leadership, Doctor Benjamin Church. Church was the patriot surgeon general a member of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, and had the trust of Washington himself. Yet Church had long been sending intelligence to Gage by means of ciphered letters. Church had an even greater opportunity to reveal Rebel intentions when in June of 1775 he was sent to Philadelphia with dispatches for the Continental Congress.
Upon his return Church made three failed attempts to report to Gage what he had learned on his trip to Philadelphia. All failed and on one occasion Church was forced to smooth talk and bribe the messenger free from his captors before his message, sewn into his waistband, and mission could be discovered. The difficulty Church faced was that the roads between the Rebel headquarters and the English positions in Boston were closed once open Rebellion began. Though letters could pass the front-line, they were subject to perusal, something Church could not risk. In July, Church engaged the services of a young woman in Cambridge, Washington's headquarters, whom he thought could be trusted. She was to travel to Newport, Rhode Island, where she had previously lived and had contacts, there to deliver the letter either: to Sir James Wallace, Captain of the H.M.S. Rose; Charles Dudley, royal customs collector; or noted Tory George Rome, ship owner and merchant who was engaged in the supplying of the English forces in Boston. Whichever gentleman she brought the note to was to forward it to the addressee, a British Officer on the staff of General Gage in Boston. Obviously Church had had enough of the land route to Boston and sought to circumvent the front lines by sea through still peaceful Newport.
Church's reliance upon his young messenger was ill placed. Although she was loyal she suffered from poor judgment. As her contact in Newport she chose an old romantic interest, a baker named Godfrey Wenwood. She obviously believed she still held sway with him but this was not the case. When she came to him seeking help to contact three enemies of the Rebel cause, he at once became suspicious. He also was eager to see her off, as he was now engaged and had no urge to explain this girl's presence to his fiancee. Wenwood promised to deliver the letter for her and sent her on her way. Together with his friend, schoolmaster and patriot Adam Maxwell, Wenwood pondered the letter. Maxwell, opening it discovered it was ciphered. For some reason, perhaps some lingering concern for the girl or a hesitation to make her known to his fiancee, they then let the matter drop despite correctly guessing it's treasonous nature. They put the letter aside and forgot about it.
In September Church must have had communication from Gage and learned thereby that his July letter was not received. The girl then wrote to Wenwood, asking him why he had not delivered the letter and asking him to come to Cambridge to meet "a certain person here". Presumably she wanted him to explain to Church why the message was not sent. Perhaps Church had doubted that she had taken steps to deliver it at all and had scolded her. Perhaps Church wished to question Wenwood to determine what had happened to the letter, for its loss must have worried Church since it could betray him. Whatever the purpose of her message, it was Church's undoing. Wenwood and Maxwell were now prompted to take the letter to Henry Ward, patriot secretary of Rhode Island, who instructed them to take it to Cambridge.
Wenwood soon found himself being brought before Washington by General Nathaniel Greene to tell his tale. The woman was ordered arrested and she revealed Church's identity after a brief but brave resistance. Stunned, Washington had Church brought before him, who denied treason but admitted sending the letter. Church proffered no explanation for his surreptitious route of mailing nor for the cipher, other than he had been indiscreet. Perhaps he thought to explain the missive as one to a mistress, which would explain its secrecy and his hesitance to speak of it. Perhaps he could think of nothing better to say. In any case, Washington was not persuaded and he ordered that the letter be decoded and that Church be held under guard.
Washington received the decoded message on October 3, 1775 and found it to contain a description of Church's trip to Congress. It included a statement of Congress' intentions to resist England and a description of the Rebel forces Church had seen in New York as well as those before Boston. The letter also described the account of the Doctor's three prior failed efforts to send this information to Gage. This was hard evidence of Church's perfidy.
Before a Court Martial, Church admitted the contents of the letter but attempted to describe it as an attempt to mislead the enemy, an overstatment of Rebel force in an attempt to bluff the English. Dr. Church did not admit treason, but was found guilty of it and imprisoned.
This happenstance capture was clearly a great tactical and strategic victory for the Rebel cause. With Church's capture, the English lost their most valuable intelligence asset of the time. If Church had remained undiscovered, it is certain that the war might have developed quite differently. Essential to Washington's strategy throughout the war was to avoid the loss of his Army in a major engagement with the English. Had Gage been able to maintain an agent at the level Church held, let alone what he might have attained, Gage or his successors could conceivably have had enough intelligence to bring just such an action. Thus in some fashion American independence may well be owed in part to the actions of a young Baker, Godfrey Wenwood, who, after two months delay, finally decided it was time to catch the spy.
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Sources: Spies of The Revolution, Katherine and John Bakeless, Scholastic Book Services, 1962, New York, NY; The Standard American Encyclopedia, Standard American Corporation, 1937, Chicago