Title: The Cavalier Spy
Author: S. W. O’Connell
Publisher: Twilight Times Books
About the Book:
1776: His army clinging to New York by a thread, a desperate General George Washington sends Lieutenant Jeremiah Creed behind British lines once more. But even the audacity of Creed and his band of spies cannot stop the British juggernaut from driving the Americans from New York, and chasing them across New Jersey in a blitzkrieg fashion. Realizing the imminent loss of one of the new nation’s most important states to the enemy, Washington sends Creed into the war-torn Hackensack Valley. His mission: recruit and train a gang of rogues to work behind British lines.
However, his mission takes a strange twist when the British high command plots to kidnap a senior American officer and a mysterious young woman comes between Creed and his plans. The British drive Washington’s army across the Delaware. The new nation faces its darkest moment. But Washington plans a surprise return led by young Creed, who must strike into hostile land so that Washington can rally his army for an audacious gamble that could win, or lose, the war.
“More than a great spy story… it is about leadership and courage in the face of adversity…The Cavalier Spy is the story of America’s first army and the few… those officers and soldiers who gave their all to a cause that was seemingly lost…”
~ Les Brownlee, former Acting Secretary of the Army and retired Army Colonel
“Secret meetings, skirmishes and scorching battles… The Cavalier Spytakes the reader through America’s darkest times and greatest triumphs thanks to its powerful array of fictional and historical characters… this book shows that courage, leadership and audacity are the key elements in war…”
~ F. William Smullen, Director of National Security Studies at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School and Author of Ways and Means for Managing UP
Despite its narrow defeat at the battle of Harlem Heights on September 16th, 1776, Lord William Howe’s army of British and German professionals consolidated its stranglehold on General George Washington’s Continental Army, now firmly entrenched on the high ground at the northern extreme of the Island of New York (Manhattan). As soon as the wind and tide at the treacherous Hellegat (Hell Gate) channel provided an opportunity, Howe, the British general commanding in North America, launched a series of amphibious landings along the coast of the Bronx. His goal was to threaten the American line of supply from Westchester to New England. An initial thrust at The Frog’s (Throg’s) Neck on October 12th was stopped by a few regiments of expertly positioned American riflemen. This forced the British re-embark and land farther north, at a place called Pell’s Point.
Washington maneuvered his forces a few miles north to block Howe. However, Howe’s maneuver forced Washington to withdraw. He moved his army north along the Bronx River positioning it in the central Westchester hills to protect his line of supply to New England and New Jersey.
On the 28th of October, Howe launched a surprise attack on the Americans, whom he caught before they could properly position themselves near the village of White Plains. Despite the small tactical victory achieved against the Americans, Howe once again failed to exploit his success. Instead, he turned south and moved to invest Fort Washington, a powerful defensive position at the northern end of the Island of New York, otherwise known as Manhattan.
Washington realized that he would have to abandon the Island of New York before the British could trap the American defenders there. However, his most capable officer, Brigadier General Nathaniel Greene, convinced him that Fort Washington could still be defended with a few thousand men, allowing the rebels to maintain a foothold on the island. Although conflicted, Washington finally acceded to Greene’s suggestion. He left the small garrison to fend for itself and moved the remainder of the army across the North River to the highlands of New Jersey.
Howe now had the initiative and all the advantages of eighteenth century warfare: interior lines; control of the waters; and overwhelming force. Washington’s strategy now was to avoid defeat, keep his army intact, and continue to threaten the British while maintaining communications between New England and the Middle Atlantic states. The erstwhile “war of posts” had also become a war of waiting… but waiting for what?
Harlem Heights, New York, September 1776
Lieutenant Jeremiah Creed slept fitfully. It was that sleep which comes when one is far past being overtired, and one’s best efforts result in a certain numbness of both mind and body. The young officer’s bed was a makeshift pile of pine needles with a piece of canvas tenting spread across them. The canopy of orange and red leaves from a tall oak tree provided protection from the heat of the morning sun, this being a particularly warm Indian summer. Creed rested his head on his saddle, which, covered by a worn gray woolen blanket, formed his pillow. Not far away, his horse, a light brown gelding named Finn, nibbled at the sweet autumn grass on the gentle hillside. While Creed slept, Privates Jonathan Beall and Elias Parker, Creed’s companions and members of his very small command, had cooked a batch of dough balls in a small pan of used bacon grease. To them, the smell and crackle of the meager repast had the makings of a great feast. For the last three days, they had nothing to eat but hard tack biscuits and deer jerky purchased from one of the many suttlers that supplemented the Continental Army’s woeful commissariat. During that time, Creed and his men had been constantly on patrol or in combat. Their ordeal ended with the burial of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton, leader of the elite ranger unit to which they had been attached during the battle for Harlem Heights.
After Knowlton’s simple burial, a saddened Creed had a confrontation with Colonel Robert Fitzgerald, the commander-in-chief’s intelligence advisor. Officially just another of Washington’s many staff officers, Fitzgerald assisted Washington in one of the most critical of matters facing the army: figuring out what the British would do while also cloaking American actions from the British. This was no easy feat, as there was no American intelligence service to speak of. Washington took a personal interest in such things, both for reasons of security and practicality. However, the commander-in-chief had many other issues facing him and relied on his advisor to attend to all but the most sensitive matters. Fitzgerald worked tirelessly to establish a system of intelligence and counterintelligence that was less dependent on leadership from the headquarters. But when young Lieutenant Jeremiah Creed asked to return to normal service with his regiment, the First Maryland Continental Line, the outcome was never in doubt. Fitzgerald, over a strange combination of whiskey and chess, convinced Creed to become the first official intelligence officer in the Continental Army.
“So, Elias, do we have any salt left? We should really try to add some flavor,” Jonathan Beall spoke sarcastically.
Meager and humble as the concoction was, the smell of the dough balls crackling in the bacon fat was driving him wild.
“I added the last crumbs of burnt bacon to the mix so there will be flavor enough for the likes of you, but I will gladly take your portion if it is too bland for your mountain boy’s taste!” Elias Parker laughingly replied.
After weeks of campaigning and more than a few life and death experiences, the two were closer than brothers. But like brothers, they chided each other mercilessly when not covering each other’s back. Both men were in their mid-twenties and sturdily built. Beall came from a small farm town in the Maryland piedmont, a place called Frederick, situated at the edge of the verdant Catoctin Mountains. Parker, partly of Indian extraction, was a waterman from fishing stock in Maryland’s tidewater region.
“Should we wake Lieutenant Creed yet?” Beall asked, although he already knew the answer.
“Seeing as every time we wake him it leads to a patrol or some other comfortless duty I would say no,” Parker retorted, only half joking.
Unlike Beall, Parker was not an original member of Creed’s former unit, the Light Company, First Maryland Continental Line. During the Battle for Long Island, First Maryland’s acting commander, Major Mordecai Gist, transferred Parker from a line unit along with several other stalwart Marylanders. Since that day in August 1776, his life became one of constant fatigue and danger. During the ensuing weeks of patrolling and skirmishing, most of the original command of more than thirty men had been killed or wounded. Parker and Beall were the only active members left and now they were permanently reassigned from the First Maryland to the commander-in-chief’s Escort, also called his Life Guard.
“Wonder when we’ll get a chance to escort His Excellency now that we are escorts,” Beall said.
Parker suspected their future would not involve much escort work. “I don’t care where we serve, or what we do, so long as it helps end the war. I want to get home to my family. I miss my wife Marie and our newborn, little Meg.” Parker held a small charcoal sketch his sister had drawn. “Have you seen anyone more beautiful?”
Marie, like Parker, was part Indian and little Meg showed it, as well.
“Must take after her mama,” Beall said.
Parker smiled. “Sure does. My Marie has the same copper skin. And just look at that head of shiny dark hair. Hoped to have a miniature of them made before I departed with the regiment, but there was no time. Thank God this charcoal sketch came with my last letter before the fight on Long Island.”
Despite the longing for home, Parker was proud to be working with Creed and to be on “the Escort,” as they sometimes referred to it. And he was proud to be serving His Excellency. This was heady stuff for a humble sailor and fisherman from the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.
When Creed had returned from his last meeting with Colonel Robert Fitzgerald, he seemed a changed man. There had been a new intensity added to his normal Irish good humor. And there was something odd in his comment to them before turning in to sleep.
“Well boys, Colonel Fitzgerald has convinced me that the only way to checkmate a king is to keep him in check until he has no options. And the best tool for that is the knight—in this case a ‘White Knight.’ Ah, but we shall talk of all that later.”
The bacon grease sizzled and a piece of burned bacon rind and dough splattered and seared Beall’s wrist in one of those intense but fleeting burns. “Damn! Damnation!”
Beall had taken to swearing since he joined the army back in the spring. His exposure to toughs from the backwoods, Chesapeake watermen, Baltimore laborers and Annapolis stevedores provided exposure to a wide assortment of expression and habits—some good, but most bad. He had promised himself he would break this one habit before he returned home.
The sounds of the sizzling fat and Beall’s loud expletive stirred Creed. He sat up and rubbed his eyes. The pain in his head and the rawness on his tongue were not strangers, but a just few cups of whisky never had this effect before. Creed reckoned he was getting old. He was barely twenty-two.
“Cannot let a man sleep in peace for long, can ye? Just as well, but you will now pay the price and share those victuals with your victim.”
Creed grinned despite the stiffness he felt in every joint and the dull pain in his head. He stood up, pulled on his boots, and excused himself to perform his morning ablutions. Creed’s routine, whenever possible, included a plunge into the closest body of water and a shave. In this case, he took advantage of a nearby well in the garden of the Morris Mansion, General Washington’s headquarters. The garden, once a picturesque combination of flowers and fruit trees, was now part of the commander-in-chief’s headquarters, replete with the tents and equipment of his personal Life Guard, aides de camp, couriers and an array of cooks, servants, and transient officers. He returned fifteen minutes later and dug into his share of the repast: a half dozen of the “belly sinkers,” a mug of black coffee, and a couple of large, freshly plucked pears.
“Quite good stuff, lads.”
“How is the coffee, sir?” Beall asked
Creed replied. “As you well know, I favor tea, but I have accustomed myself to the American and Dutch penchant for the Arabica bean. It often proves more bracing, if not more refreshing than tea.”
Parker snickered. “Even after a third time boiling! I swear we live lower than field hands.”
Creed smiled and nodded. “Too true, but often a necessity in this army of ever dwindling supplies.”
He finished eating and helped himself to a second tin full of the bitter black brew. “Now, in a bit, lads, I shall have to meet again with the good Colonel. Before I do, we must talk. When I am finished I will ask you to either join with me or return to the First Maryland and forget our discussion and everything we have done in the past several weeks. Fair enough?”
Beall and Parker both nodded, almost mindlessly. Neither could tell whether Creed’s comments were a form of trust, distrust, or humor, but since neither of them had any intention of leaving his command after all they had been through with him, they heard him out patiently.
Creed looked intently at them as he spoke, his eyes narrowed and his voice lowered both for security and for effect. He needed for them to understand the gravity of the situation.
“My discussions last evening with the good Colonel were sobering, although they took place with no insignificant amount of whisky.”
Beall thought he saw the mildest trace of the Creed smile form for a fleeting second, then disappear as his eyes narrowed again. “We played a game of chess. Somewhere in my kit I have a set. Does either of you lads play? Well, never mind that now. The point is this: both he and I are agreed that this war will be long and difficult. We face a brutal and stubborn monarch who commands the greatest forces in the world and commands its commerce through a powerful navy. This king can march or sail his army at will, at least wherever there is sufficient water.”
Beall thought he saw Creed’s eyes lighten for a fleeting moment.
“So, ye see, the initiative belongs to ‘His Majesty.’ General Washington cannot likely hope for a great victory to end this conflict quickly and to our advantage. So his strategy has got to be one of avoiding defeat. Nibble away at the British until they are worn down and are forced to concede our freedom and independence. However, to do this the Continental Army needs to survive and it must present a threat to the British until… well…”
“Until what, sir?” Beall interrupted like a school boy.
Creed glanced left and right. “Well, there is considerable speculation that Congress can perhaps gain us allies to force the British hand. This is as much a political fight as a military one. In that sense we have some advantages.”
“Now what might those be, Lieutenant?” Parker asked skeptically. Parker was a simple fisherman and seaman but a shrewd and practical man in his own right. He for one could find no advantages in the army’s, or the nation’s, situation.
“Well, the cause itself, of course. And the people as well. Certainly, there are many Americans who are loyal Tories, but most are not. Many are still undecided. However, so long as there remains a General Washington and a Continental Army there remains hope. Where the British Army does not occupy, the patriot cause, the American cause, lives. We are closer to our people and to their sentiments. And where we are not, strong measures need be taken. We know the land and can draw people and sustenance from it. Many in England, Scotland, and Ireland are favorably disposed to the colonies and their grievances, so perhaps we shall have a political solution over the objections of King George. But there is one ingredient essential to the successful outcome of this enterprise.”
“Good food and dry powder!” Parker said sarcastically.
“Yes, indeed!” Creed answered reflexively. “No, what I meant was information. That is, intelligence. This war will turn on that to a great deal. Colonel Fitzgerald has asked me to take part in that aspect of the enterprise. With no small amount of reluctance, I have agreed. I am not yet fully sure what that means, but gather he wants to form a unit to collect information on the British and Loyalists, to assist General Washington.”
“Are we to be spies?” Beall asked.
“In a manner of speaking, yes. And we must detect spies, too. The way the good Colonel and His Excellency see it, failure to collect intelligence could lose a battle, but failure to detect a spy could lose the war, and thus the nation. So, if you follow me, when, not if, we are caught it shall be a swift journey to the gallows… if we are lucky. Do ye lads understand what I am saying?”
Beall and Parker looked at each other. They did not fully grasp everything Creed had said.
“Not everything, sir. But it makes no matter to us. You are our leader and we trust your judgment.” As Parker spoke the words a sickening feeling told him he would not see his family again.
After a pause, Beall spoke. “Sir, I joined the regiment to support the cause and to be with Simon. If he were here, he would stand with you sir, so now I fight for two!”
Creed fought to hold back the tears welling in his eyes. “Good lads! You are most honorable. I am proud to be among you.”
* * *
Creed arrived at Fitzgerald’s office in the Morris Mansion. It was a clean, bright room, not large. But it contained a nice bed and had a large desk covered with Fitzgerald’s many papers and a map. In the corner there stood a small chest of drawers. On it sat a small wash basin of elegant but not elaborate white porcelain. For the first time, Creed noticed the room was decorated with fine wallpaper instead of paint. This must have been a lady’s room, he thought, perhaps a daughter.
Fitzgerald offered Creed a glass of port. Creed declined as he still felt some of the effects of the previous night. Fitzgerald pushed away stray strands of his hair, which he had tied back in a queue and strangely enough, powdered white.
“Well, Jeremiah, His Excellency has need of your services once more. Your task is both complex and dangerous.”
“Not unlike previous engagements, sir.” Creed smirked.
Fitzgerald ignored the witticism. “Worse, I am afraid. He would like you to find our lost spy.”
“Beg your pardon, sir?” Creed thought he had misunderstood him.
“Find our lost spy. As you know, we sent a young captain of the unfortunate Colonel Knowlton’s battalion to spy behind British lines on Long Island. But now he may well be in New York. His name, I can finally reveal, is Nathan Hale. From Connecticut. A place called Coventry, I believe. Seems so many of our bravest lads come from Connecticut.”
As a Marylander, Creed bristled at the remark but Fitzgerald went on. “Hale was to advance across Long Island and find the rear of the British Army. To obtain information on unit strength from patriots and unsuspecting Tories. Also to report on their morale, supply, and if possible, British plans.”
Creed winced. “Perhaps you should have asked him to capture Lord Howe to boot.”
Fitzgerald nodded. “I know. It seems foolish now and it was, urumph, is. Truth be told, I advised against it. Nor am I in favor of sending you after him. But His Excellency insists we try. However, I am adding to your woes with a secondary mission, although between us it is, in actuality, your primary mission.”
Creed cocked his head slightly and placed his index finger against his cheek. “My God, sir, just two missions behind British lines? Hardly worth the trip, should I say?
Creed’s feigned English accent had the desired effect of annoying Fitzgerald.
“Please refrain from sarcasm, my dear boy. These are desperate times. The curtain is closing on the city of New York, and perhaps the entire island. We may not have another opportunity to infiltrate someone there for many months. Once the British consolidate their gains and establish forces loyal to them, access to the city may well be hopeless, and it most certainly will be dangerous. What I want is for you to contact one of the men given up to our late departed British spy, Jan Braaf.”
Jan Braaf, a lawyer and active Whig politico in Brooklyn, had spied for the British and betrayed the American army, helping cause its defeat on Long Island. He died from a wound received while trying to get to New York under Creed’s protection. Dying, he had confessed his treason to Creed and Fitzgerald, who obtained the valise provided by his British spymaster, Major Sandy Drummond. The valise contained “spy paraphernalia” which included codes, special chemicals for secret writing, and the names of contacts, one of whom had access to a bank account for Braaf. Posing as the escaped murderer of British soldiers, Braaf was supposed to obtain a civilian post near or with the rebel army, and report on its activity.
“We were fortunate Braaf took a bullet on that boat ride with you, Jeremiah. And a British bullet at that.”
“I daresay, sir, we were more fortunate that he had some semblance of a conscience and confessed his sin before he died.”
“I believe it was more from good questioning and his eternal connivance. I believe he wanted to keep his family out of future trouble. Well, it worked to our advantage, but now we must follow up.”
Creed frowned. “What do you mean, sir?”
Fitzgerald swirled the remaining port in his glass. Its ruby color reflected the sunlight that radiated through the open window. They were on the second floor so nobody could eavesdrop, at least not very easily.
“I mean, the ‘spy Braaf’ must try to contact the British of course. Since you deftly hid his body there is no corpus delecti, so we can assume they do not suspect his demise. But they must surely expect contact from him.”
“Of course, young man, we are at war. But the contact will be perfunctory. Just enough so they know he is active and has successfully placed himself near the American camp. By doing so I hope to buy us some time until I decide how best to pursue this case. And in any event, we may delay them sending another in his place.”
“And I suppose I should find this Captain Hale while I am at it?”
Fitzgerald grinned complacently. “That is correct. His Excellency would be most pleased with the return of his spy. Captain Hale by all accounts seemed a very decent and honorable officer, not really spy material at all.”
Creed once again ignored the barb. With a coy wink, Fitzgerald downed the last drop of port and smacked the glass on the desk. He then removed some papers from the “treasure trove” of codes and contacts taken from Braaf. It provided the name of two men established by the British as Braaf’s contacts in the city.
The older officer pulled another wisp of his white hair away from his pale Irish face and looked intently at Creed. “Now here is what I propose…”
* * *
When Creed returned from his meeting with Colonel Fitzgerald the concern on his face was obvious. He removed his tri-cornered hat and ran his fingers through his dark hair. He then took a deep breath and sat under one of the pines.
“Why so glum, sir?” Beall asked.
“Not glum, Jonathan, concerned. We have a hard task ahead… get through British lines, find a lost spy, and convince the British that our friend Braaf is alive and well. Oh yes, and return alive of course.”
Creed went over the plan in detail. When he finished, his men questioned him. “Do we rehearse this one, Lieutenant?” Parker asked.
Creed shook his head. “Not this time, much as it disturbs me to say. We have no time. We depart immediately.”
“Right now?” Beall asked.
Creed nodded. “We must gain entry to the city before the British restore order and tighten security.”
Parker looked incredulous. “You mean they haven’t, sir?”
Creed replied, “Not fully. I hope to exploit the chaos that always ensues when one army supplants another in an area of occupation. Many Whigs and Patriots have already fled the Island of New York.”
“So most of the Americans who stayed in New York will be hostile to the patriot cause,” Beall said.
Creed nodded. “Or neutral and indifferent. We shall have to rely on our guile and the occupation’s initial confusion to get through.”
Beall knew there was something else. “Sir, we have done more than this before. You seem disturbed by something. Something more than this.
Creed lowered his head. “Our orders, the part that disturbs me, are stark. Should one of Braaf’s contacts become suspicious, I am to kill him.”
Beall’s eyes widened. “Just like that?”
Creed nodded. “His Excellency was staking much on deceiving the British, and Fitzgerald wants nothing to frustrate the effort. We are also authorized to reveal the existence of the other spy, Hale, to help establish Braaf’s credibility, proof of his validity as an agent.”
Parker interjected, “Now let me get this straight, sir. We are to save this spy, Captain… Hale? While using knowledge of his existence to convince the British that Braaf operates in the American camp. Makes no sense at all, sir!”
“Precisely my initial thought.” Creed grinned and scratched himself on the lobe of his ear.
“However, after some reflection, I realized there is a devilish madness to this. General Washington wants his man back, but he also wants to use Braaf against the British. He sees this war now as an intelligence struggle as much as a military struggle. And he may well be correct. Our forces need time to bring themselves to where they can face the British on equal terms. That day will come, he is convinced, but until then he must preserve the army and keep the British off balance. Intelligence will be indispensable to the success of this strategy. We are merely pawns in all this.”
Beall corrected him. “You mean knights, sir, do you not? White Knights, to be exact.”
Creed laughed and grabbed Beall firmly by the shoulder. “Yes indeed, Private Beall. Thank-you so much for remembering that for me; tis the White Knights we are now.