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Spies in Revolutionary Rhode Island: An Interview with Author Christian M. McBurney

Spies in Revolutionary Rhode Island: An Interview with Author Christian M. McBurney

Espionage played a vital role during the American Revolution in Rhode Island. The British and Americans each employed spies to discover the secrets, plans and positions of their enemy. Continental navy lieutenant John Trevett dressed as an ordinary sailor, grew out his beard and went from tavern to tavern in Newport gathering intelligence. Metcalf Bowler became a traitor on the order of Benedict Arnold, as he spied for the British while serving as a Patriot leader in Providence. Disguised as a peddler, Ann Bates spied for the British during the Rhode Island Campaign. When caught, one spy paid with his life, while others suffered in jail. Author Christian M. McBurney, for the first time, unravels the world of spies and covert operations in Rhode Island during the Revolutionary War.

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Speakers: Benjamin Morris & Christian McBurney

Benjamin Morris:

Christian, thank you so much for joining us on Crime Capsule. We are so happy to have you.

Christian McBurney:

Thank you, Ben. Glad to be here.

Benjamin Morris:

So, you have been working on issues in Rhode Island history and Revolutionary War history for quite a long time. How did you get your start in this field?

Christian McBurney:

Well, I actually wrote a book about the history of my hometown, Kingston, Rhode Island, when I was 16-years-old. And then became a lawyer, moved to Washington D.C. area had kids, kids were growing up, they liked to play with me, and then suddenly, they got to an age where they didn't like to play with me.

So, I said, “Well, what am I going to do with my time?” And I said, “Ooh, I'll rewrite that book on the history of Kingston. I'll do the adult version,” which is what I did. And I liked writing, I liked the history.

So, I decided well, I love the Revolutionary War, always have. What can I do with Rhode Island and the American Revolution? And the outstanding action was the Rhode Island campaign and ending in the Battle of Rhode Island. So, I did that and then I said, well, what's the second most interesting thing?

I think it's the … well, during the British occupation of Rhode Island, I thought it was the capture of Richard Prescott. The Americans in Rhode Island secretly rode over, surrounded the house where the commanding general of the British army was, captured him, spirited him away, and got away. And then I said, well, that's not enough for a book by itself.

So, the reason they did that special operation was because they needed a major general to exchange for major general Charles Lee, who had been captured at a tavern in New Jersey. He was George Washington's number two. He had been captured at a tavern in New Jersey earlier.

So, I made that into a book. So, they all seemed to come together. And then well, spies, that's certainly interesting. Everyone loves spies. So, I did that book next: Spies in Revolutionary Rhode Island.

Benjamin Morris:

Let me just ask you one quick question. We have had a lot of guests on this show spies and we have been fascinated to hear the origin stories of their interests each time. You are, I think, the first of our authors who got their start at — I'm just going to make sure I heard this right, 16 as in one-six.

Can you just take us to that moment at which most kids growing up in Sophomore, Junior High School are out racing cars on dirt tracks and maybe getting into some other kind of mischief. And yet here you are in the archives writing a book?

Christian McBurney:

I don't know how to explain it. I was always interested in history. My parents got a house in Kingston built in 1809, very historic house. The town itself is very historic, has about 40 to 50 historic buildings and include George Washington visited there during the war even.

So, there was a lot of good history and there was also the bicentennial at the time. I was working as a summer camp counselor and came home, didn't have anything to do. So, I said, you know what, I’ll just go to the library and do some research on Kingston. And I don't know how I decided to do a history book, but it turned out that way.

Benjamin Morris:

Well, that is fascinating. I would love to know whether that early edition, the very first edition still exists, and whether you can put it side by side with the current editions of your work, what joy that would be.

Christian McBurney:

Well, there's definitely a teenager's view versus an adult view, which came out later.

Benjamin Morris:

And out of the mouth of babes, sometimes we find the truest wisdom.

Now, you write early on that Rhode Island had some of the most heated espionage of the entire Revolutionary War. And I think you're absolutely right that spies are just intrinsically interesting.

Rhode Island occupies a unique position in the war. Two questions for you, and maybe flip sides of the same coin, Christian.

First, why was there so much espionage in Rhode Island? And second, what were the stakes regarding Rhode Island's strategic position in the war?

Christian McBurney:

Sure. I'd say the number one reason was Narragansett Bay. Narragansett Bay is one of the best perhaps the best freshwater port for large ships on the East Coast. So, it was crucial for the British Navy, could come in there and have its ships refitted and away from storms.

Newport, Rhode Island was the main town on Aquidneck Island was called, and because it was an island, it could be easily occupied by the British, not only the town of Newport, but the rest of the island; Portsmouth and Middletown to the north. So, it was easy.

Navies were really important in those days and Britain had the control of the sea, so to speak, for most of the time. So, that was why Newport and Narragansett Bay were so important.

There were a few times when the war could have ended, when the British occupied Newport from December 1776 to October, 1779, and the French got involved with helping the Americans first at Newport.

The fleet arrives and the British burned a bunch of their 32-gun frigates too and they're scared that the French can take them over. And if the Americans joined military operation with the French can take over Newport and capture the British Garrison of more than 5,000 troops, that could have ended the war.

It didn't succeed for a variety of reasons although The Battle of Rhode Island is very interesting. And then after that, the British left, and then the French arrived, Rochambeau and the French fleet and 6,000 French soldiers just waiting around for the right time to help, and finally, they did.

They marched down to — and during that time, of course, there was a lot of spying being done both times. But then finally in June of 1781, Rochambeau’s and Bow’s troops start marching down to Yorktown and Washington and Rochambeau jointly capture Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown, which leads to the end of the war and American independence security.

Benjamin Morris:

It is a remarkable journey and I think we forget just how many steps there were along the way towards securing independence and this is such a critical one.

One of the tensions that you draw out in your book and you're very upfront about this, and it's a very moving sort of thread that you weave throughout the account, as you write the Revolutionary War was not just a war of occupier versus occupied or colonizer versus colonial citizen. It was a civil war. You had divided loyalties all throughout the land.

Can you describe for us the tensions that were felt between Patriots and Loyalists in Rhode Island at the time?

Christian McBurney:

Sure. Most of Rhode Island was Patriot supporters, definitely one of the colonies that had the highest percentage of Patriot supporters. But there was a good number of Loyalists, especially in Newport, the most important city in Rhode Island. There were a number of successful merchants and others tied to merchants who supported the crown, they didn't see any reason to leave it.

And curiously, in a place called North Kingstown, there was a hotbed of Loyalists there. And it really was a civil war in many ways, definitely dominated by the Patriots. And the Loyalists, by spying, they could help out the British and they certainly did that a lot.

But both sides had ancestors going back to the very founding of Rhode Island in the 17th century. I mean, these names are the founders names of Rhode Island and yet they were going at each other's throats.

And by the end of the war, after the war, a number of Tories left the Rhode Island and never came back, and they lost their estates. Some of them tried to come back and reclaim their estates but that did not succeed. So, it was painful for them.

Benjamin Morris:

Now, one of the issues that arises, of course, in a state that has such sort of fraught tensions socially — I was really struck by this as I read your account, it's just how intimate the relationships were between, say merchants and buyers or between ship captains and crew, between neighbors who had previously been on the same terms and then these tensions spilled over, and it causes this conflict.

And one of the things that made spying exceptionally dangerous in Rhode Island was that everybody knew everybody, as we say, or if you were known, you were very likely to be recognized, even if you were under deep cover in some form. So, it’s tense.

Christian McBurney:

It gives rise to one of the spies John Trevett. He was a from Newport originally, but Newport was taken over by the British. But he wound up going on a ship that went to Newport for an exchange of prisoners. And when you do that, you got to be very careful.

But he decided, oh, well, I've grown out my beard maybe no one will recognize me, and I'll just walk around Newport and see if I can gather some intelligence. Well, highly, dangerous thing to do, everybody knows him. He's from Newport, and they all know each other, like you said.

So, he goes, winds up at a few taverns and talks to the tavern keeper. He knows he's a Patriot, the Patriot's scared to death, he's going to be recognized. There is one guy, he sees on the street, William Crossing, a notorious Tory. He goes around the corner and avoids him.

He's walking again and then a prestigious merchant, John Watton calls out Trevett's name. He knows Trevett's a Patriot and he's an officer of the Continental Marines in the Continental Navy. But Trevett ignores him and goes back to the ship, and ultimately, is not caught, fortunately for him.

Benjamin Morris:

So, Trevett’s story raises some fascinating questions about the intelligence activity of the time and to my mind, Christian, Trevett’s experience really brings to the fore the issues surrounding movement. So, there's movement across a landscape in which you have sort of traversing Narragansett Bay and the many inlets and bayous and coves.

And then you have the overland routes, which have checkpoints, and which have sort of military installations and topography that you have to navigate. Movement itself is not straightforward. We definitely see that in Rhode Island.

So, that's one aspect of the difficulty of collecting intelligence. The other aspect, as you say, is moving around town. So, surely you must have encountered some remarkable sources that describe how movement actually worked in this time where things were so close up and personal.

Christian McBurney:

Well, you know, John Trevett could not be a spy. So, any spies had to be in disguise. And because people knew each other, especially, there weren't as many spies on Aquidneck Island because they knew people knew each other or the British had it pretty tightly controlled. Some of the most successful spies were the ones who you wouldn't expect.

So, men of color African-American servants and enslaved people and women as well. So, those are two examples of people. Well, they're just not capable of being spies, we don't have to worry about them. But that turned out not to be the case and there was some useful information gained from both of those types of sources.

Benjamin Morris:

And when you realize that that level of familiarity, which exists everywhere, one thing that struck me is a bit of trade craft, actually, that comes into it.

So, you write on, I believe that you have an interesting account of the countersigns that were being used, signs and countersigns that were being used between different military personnel in order to establish sort of friend or foe, are you on our side and so forth.

Can you just explain to our listeners who may not be aware what signs and counter signs are?

Christian McBurney:

Sure. The British army would have patrols up and down the coast on Aquidneck Island and the soldiers would be given a countersign that evening. Maybe it would be for King and country, that would be the countersign.

And if you didn't know it and then you were caught on the road, you could be in — it looked like you might be a spy, you could be in trouble. But at one time, a deserter left Rhode Island, which hundreds did, especially German deserters.

And at one time, they told some people/civilians in Little Compton what the countersign was that night. And so, those guys, “Oh, well, we can take advantage of that.” So, they went across Sakonnet River, went onto Aquidneck Island, and used the countersign successfully, and walked around Newport and came back with some intelligence.

Benjamin Morris:

Dangerous, of course. I mean, if they had been apprehended, perhaps they would've been — we would not have ever learned about their story.

Christian McBurney:

Absolutely. Going back to your, how do you move as a spy? I think the outstanding example of that was Isaac Goodman, how he immigrated to Newport in 1774. He was a German-Jewish doctor, so he wasn't known. He was hardly known at all, especially outside of Newport.

And when the British occupied Newport, they were looking for spies and Goodman, he didn't have enough time to be infused with that independent renowned spirit. So, he agreed to become a spy and he went to Providence.

But his problem was, he still had a German accent, which in Providence at that time, was very unusual. So, they said, "Who's this guy with a German accent?” They put him in a prison, but prisoners do have rights. He had to come up for trial within a certain time.

When he came up for trial, no one came to say, "Ooh, you're a spy.” So, they let him loose. But they didn't send him back to Newport. And so, he hung around and he hung around in taverns. Taverns were a great place to pick up information.

And he found about a secret expedition that the Americans were planning. This was the first major expedition by the Americans to take over Newport. And surprisingly, it was called Spencer's Expedition after the U.S. American Commander Joseph Spencer of Connecticut, his base was in Providence.

And they had this plan of we're going to raise by draft about 10,000 American soldiers or militia — not Continental Army, just New England militia, which they did mostly from Massachusetts but also Rhode Island and Connecticut. And most of them showed up in Little Compton, Tiverton.

They were hiding in the woods. The British had no idea they were there, no idea the danger they were in. As a matter of fact, they only had a garrison of about 3,500 and they were about to send 650 of those soldiers to raid New Bedford.

And then suddenly, Goodman arrives unexpectedly. No one knows who he is, takes actually a day for him to get to the British commander. But then he tells the British commander on the very day that the Americans were going to invade the island, tells him about the planned invasion.

And he had very accurate information and the British were able to reinforce their post. They started firing some cannon at some boats, American boats that started going down the river. And the invasion that night just didn't go off.

So, Goodman was definitely one of the most successful spies, not only in Rhode Island theater but any theater during the American Revolution. And it was at large because no one knew who he was, he was a stranger.

Benjamin Morris:

That is incredibly pivotal to actually sort of ward off an entire front from ever occurring. We can debate back and forth over which actions are consequential and which are not. But I think that one clearly stands in the former camp, doesn't it?

Christian McBurney:

Yes. A lot of the spying you hear, it's interesting stuff and it's dangerous, no question about that. Any spies put their lives in danger, but it doesn't necessarily have a consequential effect, like you said, this one definitely did.

Benjamin Morris:

So, as part of your discussion of the context of Goodman's work, you also introduce a very interesting set of intelligence agents a father and son duo, the Taggart’s. William Taggart Sr. and William Taggart Jr. Now, they went on some adventures, and they had a unique story to tell. Tell us about the Taggart’s.

Christian McBurney:

William Taggart Sr was a substantial farmer. His farm was north and east of Newport near the coast. And across the river was Little Compton and Tiverton, Little Compton, both of which were — that's where the American soldiers were hiding.

And William Taggart Sr. said, “Well, I'm going to send a message to my son, William Taggart Jr. who's one of the officers in the American Army, and ask him to come visit me in my home in east of Newport in Middletown,” which the son did.

Dangerous obviously, to do that, especially, well, there're Patrols all the time. And the father said, I will give you intelligence of British locations of the regiments and which ones are where and what their numbers are, and they agreed. So, the son did do that.

The son went back, talked to General Spencer. General Spencer was thrilled to have that kind of intelligence. And there was intelligence going back and forth where the son would visit the father and be told about troop locations and regiment locations.

So, valuable information before the invasion, but just on the day of the invasion which Isaac Goodman had spoiled. They were all on the coast getting ready to be signaled. They were actually going to be taken.

The father and son were going to be taken across the river to safety. But the invasion never happened, so the father decided to leave. Now, before then, interestingly, Isaac Goodman, you remember the doctor spy, he told the British, there is a spy on the island, and he knows all of the movements, and he knows where the troops are located, and he's on the coast.

Well, that was William Taggart Sr. So, some blabber mouth in a tavern probably told Dr. Goodman about that spy, probably it had to be an officer of the American Army. But fortunately, the British didn't catch him before he left.

But after he left, tragically, the British found out about it, and just had German soldiers just plunder and level his house by removing all the boards and just plowing it. There was nothing left, but dirt.

Benjamin Morris:

There's a through line here between what happened with the Taggart’s and what happened to many of the families whose names came up in our interview with Bill Bleyer, your fellow History Press colleague who wrote a book about George Washington spying on Long Island.

Here on Long Island, we see so many occasions of the British retaliating against patriot landowners, patriot farm owners, by not just plundering but absolutely raising their properties to the ground as a result of their political sensibilities, shall we always say. There was an echo of that.

Christian McBurney:

Yes. No insurance in those days either.

Benjamin Morris:

No. Who do you go to?

Christian McBurney:

If you were bankrupt, you'd be thrown to jail. So, it was not easy.

Benjamin Morris:

Well, so since you mentioned the German mercenaries, I think it's absolutely worth mentioning the other aspect of the Taggart tale, which is this man named Cujo who was working alongside them. And I think it is easy for us (those of us who are a little far removed from our American history classes) to forget that part of this conflict was fought through foreign mercenaries.

Both the union … excuse me, sorry (previous interview with a civil war) — both the Patriot and the Loyalist armies absolutely relied on outside help to master their forces and to bolster their attack strength and so forth.

The Hessian mercenaries played a pretty important role here. And Cujo who was working with the Taggarts managed to gain some intelligence from them. Tell us what happened there?

Christian McBurney:

Cujo was an enslaved man/enslaved people. Sometimes, they gain their freedom by joining the British and serving as spies as well. But that was obviously very dangerous for a enslaved person to do. But there were examples of that.

And on the other hand, some helped the American cause. And Cujo did the latter. He knew a tavern keeper in Newport and she was a German immigrant. And as you said, a large part of the British army in Newport were German regiments. A lot of them from the state of Hessians were known as Hessians and not all of them, but they were just known. All of them were known colloquially as Hessians.

And the German female timekeeper spoke German, so she could speak German and overheard the Germans talking. And Cujo would occasionally go down and visit Helka and gain information just by talking to her and just not exactly — she wasn't necessarily a spy for the Americans, but she was just talkative.

And the two would be talking and, “Oh, this is what I heard, isn't that interesting?” And Cujo would bring that back. Because he was an enslaved person, he was not suspected of being someone who could be a spy. So, interesting.

Benjamin Morris:

It is a fascinating account. And do we know what happened to Cujo after the war?

Christian McBurney:

We don't, unfortunately. I mentioned the capture of General Prescott by the Americans. He had a enslaved person at the house in which he was staying, the Overing House, John Overing.

And he served as Prescott's barber, cut his hair several times, but then he escaped, and he told the Americans some great information intelligence about how often Prescott would stay at that farmhouse and who were the British troops, how many were there, where they would stay. So, very valuable intelligence. And he was rewarded with his freedom after that.

Benjamin Morris:

That's fantastic. There's another throwback to Bill Bleyer's interview in which we have, in lower Manhattan, there's a fairly prominent tailor who was making uniforms for the British.

And he was able to capture some fairly important intelligence about British plans and so forth as he was sewing clothes and cutting cloth and so forth. So, the barbers, the tailors, the folks who are in the unassuming positions, those are the ones you always have to be most careful about, don't you?

Christian McBurney:

That's right. Definitely.

Benjamin Morris:

So, you have described thus far for the most part, spying activities that were successful in which intelligence was gained, secured retrieved and returned to the officers who could act upon it and then make decisions and so forth.

There is no shortage, of course, of the other kind of spies, the ones who did not make it home. And one of the ones you write about in your book is a man named John Hart, and he met the same end as some of the other figures that we know well of from the Revolution such as Nathan Hale. Tell us about John Hart.

Christian McBurney:

Sure. It looks like he came from Little Compton, Rhode Island. So, he was a native, but he somehow was in New York City after the British took it over. And the British had this program where they were manufacturing, producing counterfeit money in each of the states, and they were going to send spies around to circulate that money.

There were two purposes, one, to help out Loyalists so they could pay their taxes and use the counterfeit money and secondly once the counterfeit money was determined that there's counterfeit money circulating that would tend to hurt the economy, local economy.

And the British were bold enough, they actually put in an advertisement in a British-controlled newspaper in New York City for people to come and help out with this plan. So, George Washington found out about it and he was outraged. But John Hart was one of the guys-

Benjamin Morris:

Smart move to advertise your intentions in the newspaper, I love it

Christian McBurney:

Not good Spycraft.

Benjamin Morris:

No, we've seen better instances.

Christian McBurney:

So, John Hart got all of that money went to Newport. He was introduced — he had a letter of passage from the former governor of New York, who was a very prominent Tory. So, he got right in front of commander-in-chief of the British Army in Newport at the time, Earl Percy, and started working as a spy.

He would go over in small boats, the British Navy would drop him off at various points. And at one point he was going to try to kidnap some members of the state legislature. Another time, he wanted to kidnap George Wait Babcock from Wickford.

And he actually is the captain of the ship of my latest book, which is called Dark Voyage: An American Privateer’s War on Britain’s Slave Trade. So, Babcock is the captain of the ship, Marlboro, which privateer and it’s funded by John Brown of Providence, and it goes to Africa and attacks British slave ships and is very successful.

But Babcock started out as he formed this unit in, outside of Wickford, which is now Wickford, Rhode Island. And basically, that unit went around searching for Tories, and so John Hart wanted to capture him, and he actually had some British sailors with him at the time, but it didn't turn out.

But ultimately, George a spy in New York, escaped from a British prison. Not a spy, just a prisoner, American prisoner, went to Washington and he said, “I overheard that John Hart is going to Rhode Island and is going to circulate counterfeit money. So, you might want to do something about that.”

Washington did send out some letters. And then at a time when Hart was actually on the mainland in Rhode Island, General James Varnum of the Continental Army was out there. And what's the best way to get information? It's to find people you know who are Tories and threatened to blow their brains out and rough them up, and ultimately-

Benjamin Morris:

Shake them down.

Christian McBurney:

Oh, definitely. No civil rights there. And somebody spilled the beans that he was at a certain house, at an interior town, Exeter in Rhode Island. They surrounded the house, they captured him. And he was brought to Providence.

And the key decision was, we're not going to try him in a civilian court, we're going to try him in a military tribunal as a spy. And once that decision was made, his fate was sealed. Within 24 hours of his arriving in Providence, he was hanged. Quick justice.

Benjamin Morris:

Now, you write that he nearly got away though, didn't he? There was a sort of a rescue skiff that was sent out to try to grab him from his assigned pickup location, and yet, in his hour of need, his need failed.

Christian McBurney:

Yes. The British Army sent out a force to agreed upon place to take him off the coast. But the American guards were there. It couldn't happen. So, he was on his own. And so, he tried to stay at homes of people he knew who were Tories.

But one theme of the book here is that everyone knows everything. So, the Tories knew all about this spy was staying at a small house in Exeter. I don't know how they all knew that, but that's what it was in those days.

Benjamin Morris:

I think those of us — Christian yourself and myself, who come from small states, we just kind of understand that intuitively, don't we? Just everybody's all up in your business all the time. You just kind of get used to it.

Christian McBurney:

Yeah, Rhode Island is one big, small town.

Benjamin Morris:

Absolutely. Well, there's one more intelligence agent that I would like to ask you about, because I would say he, but it's not a he, it's a she — was one of the few female spies in the theatre war. And she was a spy for the British, actually. She was not a spy for the Americans.

You tell us the story of Anna Bates. Why was she so effective at her trade?

Christian McBurney:

Well just to give it a little background, she never actually appeared in Rhode Island, but she was a spy just before the Rhode Island campaign, which was the outstanding military action during the war in Rhode Island.

And she came from Philadelphia. She became involved with a British soldier, and then she became involved with this guy who was involved with spies, British spies. She moved to New York, and this guy who was handling some spies for the British befriended her and went to the main British, Duncan Drummond, the main British spy handler in New York. Said, “Hey, she could be an effective spy.”

She disguised herself as a peddler, so just selling small goods. And she went into the American camp. of Continental Army soldiers. They had moved from outside of Philadelphia Valley Forge. They had moved to White Plains in New York, possibly to help with the Rhode Island campaign. And indeed, they were sending divisions out under Lafayette for one, and others as well.

So, she was in as a peddler, selling little buttons and pieces of thread and that kind of thing, small items. She looked like a very insignificant woman, an insignificant person. But again, that's who some of the best spies are, being a woman and being just a mere peddler who can be worried about her?

And she actually did come up with some valuable information, and she would go back and forth. She'd have to go through checkpoints, as you said, she'd have to go through Continental checkpoints and that was certainly nerve-wracking.

Some people she knew because they were British deserters who had deserted from the British army and joined the American army. And there was one in particular, somebody who she knew. And that person, after the third time, she was circulating the camp, she heard about that he was in the camp, so she decided not to go back anymore.

Now, she filed an application for a pension in London from the British government. And Duncan Drummond, the British spy handler said she was one of the very valuable, and what she says was true. She really helped the cause and helped the British defeat the American army.

I actually think you go through exactly what she did and what she claimed, it doesn't all quite hold water, but still, very impressive that she could act in this manner and risk her own life and perform like this.

Benjamin Morris:

You know, there's a certain amount of historiographic cleaning up work that you are doing throughout your book. I mean, where you're sort of saying, “Here's what we know, here's what we don't know. Here's where other folks have kind of gotten it wrong, or things have been tweaked over time.” And that's going to be the case with so much of this field, military intelligence.

Christian McBurney:

Absolutely, there's a lot of myth. There's a lot of myth out there and actually, the entire Revolutionary War, I try to be very accurate in my history working with original sources, countering a number of myths. But there's still so many fascinating stories that are true in this book that doesn't hurt to say there are a few myths out there.

Benjamin Morris:

You know, what is amazing in Anna's case is that you reproduce an image of the page from the British officer's journal, where he describes her activities, counting canon and counting troop strength in Washington's army. And you can't really argue with that when it's in his own handwriting. It's really something.

Christian McBurney:

Yeah, I held that notebook. It's in the Library of Congress manuscript division. I held it in my hand. So, that was fun.

Benjamin Morris:

Well, I just have sort of one more main question for you about the research and writing for this book.

But before I ask you that, we have charted sort of the onset of the British invasion in Rhode Island, and we have seen how these agents are moving throughout the landscape, gathering intelligence, reporting on troop size, seeing where the concentrations are, what the faints are, what the retreats are, and so forth.

And the stage is sort of being set for a major conflict, which becomes known as the Battle of Rhode Island. Would you just set that stage for us, and we're going to let our listeners have the pleasure of reading about it in your book, but would you just get us kind of right up until that point where the conflict breaks out?

Christian McBurney:

Sure. The French Navy arrives from France. They have secretly declared war on Britain. And when they arrive on the coast down in the Delaware River, they were trying to trap Howell’s army there and Navy, but that did not work out. So, they wound up in there against the bay.

There's a British garrison there, let's join with the Americans and seize Newport and take it over. And the key is that the British before had always controlled the waters, because their navy was very powerful, and the American Navy was weak.

But now, the French had more powerful battleships, ships of the line, gun ships with those 60, 70, 80, 90 cannon. And now, they controlled the sea. And so, they could have invaded the south side of Newport, the Americans could have invaded from the north. And the British really had little defense, if the French had been able to land some forces to the south.

And it looked like the British were done for, they were definitely concerned. But then suddenly, Admiral Howell shows up with his Navy, and he put together, scrapped together as many ships as he can. He's not quite as powerful as d'Estaing, but he's powerful enough for d'Estaing to take notice of him.

And d'Estaing says, “You know what, I'm in there against the Bay, I'm about ready to …” they were about ready to land and invade Newport, but instead he says, “I got to go and attack that fleet. I can't have it hanging around there.” So, he sails after it. What does Howell do? He doesn't stand and have a discrete battle, he runs away.

He's leading the French fleet away from Newport. So, now, only the American army is in Newport, and that's not enough really to take over Newport. They need the French. But then Howell, after running away for two days, he's circular or he's maneuvered. So, he's got the so-called weather gage.

So, he's got the wind and can come at the French Navy, and he's doing just that. And there's about to be a battle, but then a hurricane crops up, and it's a tremendous hurricane. It dismissed the French flagship, and harms other ships, harms some British ships. The French are hurt worse.

There are some battles that are described in my book as well, some ship battles. But the French said, you know what, we have to go back to Boston, not Rhode Island, and refit and get our fleet back in shape, so they can't help the Americans now.

So, the Americans are on the island and they're setting siege to Newport. And the British have defensive fortifications. This also brings to mind some of the interesting spy stories at this point. The British had no spies at that point. So, what did they do?

They sent sailors in small boats to parts of the mainland in Rhode Island, and they would capture them and bring them back. And they got incredibly accurate information from this one woman in Jamestown, an island. She said, “Well, the Americans have about 10 to 15,000 troops. They're going to invade in several days. There're going to be three points of invasion.”

She named them accurately, and she said that the French are eager to invade right away, but the Americans are slow and gathering all their troops. That was all accurate. It was amazing. It just goes to show how information circulates throughout the communities, accurate information. Some of it wasn't always accurate, but a lot of it was accurate.

Other times, the British sent out soldiers and they would kidnap picket, American pickets and try to get information from them. So, it was interesting how desperate they were to gain intelligence. That set up the battle of Rhode Island which was an underrated battle.

The Americans did hold off. The British, it was very well-fought action on the American side and the British as well. There was a black regimen that performed very well as well from Rhode Island. So, that's part of my Rhode Island campaign book.

Benjamin Morris:

Well, we're not going to spoil the ending. Everybody knows the ending, of course, because we're sitting here in independent America talking about it. But we're not going to spoil the ending of that particular moment.

I can assure our listeners that your storytelling is as good on the page as it is in person, Christian. And I have to say, I feel like I paid for the whole of my seat, but I only needed the edge. So, thank you for that. So, that was a brevier performance in getting us to that moment.

The last question that I have for you is, you researched so many cases of spying and intelligence and agents risking their lives for both sides, and for what they genuinely believed in. We always try to humanize the people we talk about here.

Was there any one particular case that just, I don't know, stood out for you, or struck you in some way, or surprised you as you read about it and then wrote about it?

Christian McBurney:

Well, it's difficult to pick just one. We talked about the Isaac Goodman case. Another one that's fairly well known is an American spy who was on the island of Newport when the British were there. And he would signal his spymaster across the river about what was going on. Very dangerous.

But he was very successful. I mean, I came across 38 letters to the American commander containing intelligence that he had. But I'd have to say the outstanding one was — my favorite one anyway, occurred during the French occupation of Newport. And before they went to Yorktown, they sent one other expedition, naval force into Chesapeake Bay.

And somehow, the British got there first. So, when the French arrived, and they were actually going to try to capture Portsmouth, Virginia, which was occupied by Benedict Arnold, who had turned traitor. So, this was one of his first actions after he turned traitor, the Americans had an army around Portsmouth, small army. So, the French were going to try to capture him.

And the French left, the British were trying to prevent some French ships from leaving, but there was a stormy day. They left but the British got there first. How did this happen?

Well, I found out that there was a Newport spy who was a Tory, prominent Tory, and he got to the British Admiral and told him about the plan before the French even left. So, that's how he was able to send his ships and get there first. So, that was pretty shocking.

Benjamin Morris:

Yeah. And another consequential action there too, wasn't it?

Christian McBurney:

Definitely, definitely, definitely.

Benjamin Morris:

This has been such a journey. I can only exhort our listeners to go … there is so much more in the pages of your book about this campaign that we have only scratched the surface at the tip of the iceberg. I mean, there is so much more. So, I absolutely encourage our listeners who want to learn more to go and find Revolutionary Rhode Island.

Christian McBurney:

Spies in Revolutionary Rhode Island, yeah.

Benjamin Morris:

That's the one. Spies in Revolutionary Rhode Island. I was so flabbergasted, I left off the most important word in the title, but thank you so much. This has been remarkable. And if listeners want to find out more about you and your work, where should they do so?

Christian McBurney:

They could go to my book website, christianmcburney.com.

Benjamin Morris:

There we go. There you have it. Well, we hope to have you back on again. And in the meantime, stay undercover if you can — loose lips sink ships, right?

Christian McBurney:

Just anyone around you could be a spy, so be careful out there. But it’s been a real pleasure, Ben.

Benjamin Morris:

Be careful.


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