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American Revolutionary War: British Sergeant John Howe

Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Leutenant Colonel Francis Smith of the 10th Regiment of Foot had seldom felt less dignified than he did on that April day in 1775. He was wearing an old-fashioned broad-brimmed hat and an old gray coat. Beneath his leather breeches were cheap blue stockings. His belongings were tied up in a handkerchief with a stick thrust through it and slung over his shoulder. And the man he was traveling with, John Howe, was not even an officer! But orders were orders, and General Thomas Gage had detailed the two men to pose as journeymen looking for work and to locate the supplies Gage knew the Whigs were collecting.

Smith was chosen for the mission because he would lead the column that would seize those supplies and forestall open rebellion in Massachusetts. Howe, a 22-year-old sergeant of the 52nd Foot, accompanied him because Howe had already made two previous spying expeditions. A few weeks earlier, Gage had sent Captain William Brown of the 52nd Foot and Ensign Henry De Berniere of the 10th Foot to map the roads to Worcester, where he suspected the American seditionists had cached a quantity of ammunition and weapons, including cannons. Brown had insisted on taking his batman, John Howe, and Howe proved to be an invaluable member of the team on that expedition and on a later one to Concord.

Smith and Howe set out before dawn. They had taken a rowboat to Cambridge, then walked west. Smith, called 'Fat Francis by his troops (when he wasn't around), was an old infantryman and did not mind walking. After traveling six miles on an empty stomach, though, he told Howe they were going to stop at a tavern for breakfast. The tavern belonged to Jonathan Brewer, an ardent Whig who would later command troops at the Battle of Bunker Hill. His employees shared his views.

A black waitress–whether she was a slave or a freedwoman is unknown–approached the Britishers. Smith, before ordering, asked her if she knew where they could find work.

Smith, the young woman replied, you will find employment enough for you and all of General Gage's men in a few months.

That reply, Howe later reported, about wound up our breakfast.

A hasty retreat from the inn would have confirmed any suspicions, so Smith tried to brazen it out. When the tavern owner came around to ask how they liked their breakfast, the colonel said, Very well, but you have got a saucy wench here. Brewer agreed she was a saucy wench; he also said that she had been living in Boston and had got acquainted with a great number of British officers and soldiers and might take you to be some of them. He told them they could probably find work up the road.

The two Englishmen paid their bill and got out of sight as quickly as they could. Hiding behind a stone wall, they agreed that it would be dangerous for Smith to continue. The colonel gave Howe his journal book, 10 guineas and letters from Gage addressed to various Tories. He promised the sergeant a commission if he got back alive. Then Fat Francis took off, as Howe later described it, running through the barberry bushes to keep out of sight of the road.

Howe continued on to Waltham, telling people he met that he was a gunsmith, expert at making and repairing all types of arms, but that he had not yet raised enough money for a shop of his own.

A farmer told him to go to Springfield, where they were in want of hands to work at that business. Springfield was about 100 miles away, suggesting to Howe that the provincial congress was expecting British thrusts deep into the heartland.

The farmer asked Howe if he would like a drink. The sergeant said he would greatly appreciate a New England and molasses. The drink, rum sweetened with molasses, was popular in New England, but (understandably) unpalatable to anyone from anywhere else. During that period of heavy immigration from England, accent was a poor indicator of nationality. A request for a New England and molasses, though, would be considered a sure sign that the asker was a local person.

Walking on, Howe met a trapper in Weston who, in the course of conversation, casually pointed out a large tree near a causeway and said the townspeople were going to cut it down to stop the regulars from crossing with their cannon. Howe wondered where he could find a drink, and the trapper directed him to two taverns. He recommended the first, kept by Joel Smith, a good tavern and a good liberty man; the other was kept by Captain Isaac Jones, a wicked Tory, where a great many British officers go from Boston.

Howe arrived at Smith's tavern at the same time that two teamsters from Boston came out to harness their teams. They had heard about the two suspicious journeymen in Watertown, and they gave Howe a hard look as he approached.

He looks like one of them rascals we seen in Boston, one of them said. Howe ignored them, went inside and ordered another New England and molasses. But one of the teamsters followed him in and told the landlord his new customer might be a spy. Howe remarked that he had actually come from the other direction–from Springfield, where he had been gunsmithing. He said he had grown tired of Springfield and trekked east, but his money was running low and he needed work. The landlord said that he didn't have any jobs himself, but suggested that the other tavern owner, Captain Jones, might give him temporary work.

That gave Howe a chance to deliver Gage's letter, but it was also a Patriot trap. If Howe lingered at the Tory's tavern, the Patriots would be sure that he was a spy. Jones had his hired man take the Englishman out the back door to the home of a Loyalist named Wheaton. Soon after, a party of Whigs called at Jones' tavern and unsuccessfully searched for the suspected spy.

When the Patriots had gone, Jones sent the hired man to Wheaton's and had him guide Howe to Marlborough, near Worcester, over back roads. Howe bedded down at the home of a Marlborough Tory named Barnes, unaware that he had been seen walking toward Worcester by a woman up with a sick child.

Barnes, unsuspected himself, heard the news at a local tavern. The next morning, he told the sergeant that he had better stay out of sight. After dark, Howe borrowed Barnes' horse and rode to Worcester, where he met another Tory and learned the location of gunpowder and weapons collected by the Whigs. The next night, he rode back to Squire Barnes' house.

Howe and Barnes conferred about Patriot preparations, then the Englishman composed a detailed account of the militia and ammunition from there [Boston] to Weston and from this place [Marlborough] to Worcester. Barnes pointed out a safe route to Concord across the lots and road.

Just as he was about to leave, Howe heard a strange voice saying, Esquire, we have come to search your house for spies. Fortunately for Howe, the spy hunters had not thought to surround the house. Clambering out of a second-story window, he jogged across the snow to a swamp. Looking back at the house, he saw lights dodging at every window. He heard horses' feet in the road, as if great numbers were collecting at the Esq's house.

Hastily pushing on, he stumbled across a house in the middle of the swamp, knocked on the door and found that it was occupied by a black couple. They invited him to stay the night, but he offered to pay them if they could put him on the road to Concord.

The householder asked what business could possibly be so urgent that he had to travel through a swamp on such a cold night. Howe said he had to go to Concord to make guns to kill the regulars. He said he had heard that they would be out of Boston in a few weeks.

The woman said she had heard there had been a number of regulars around Squire Barnes' house a day or two earlier.

Is Squire Barnes a Tory? Howe asked. Indeed he is, said the woman. A wicked Tory. Then I hope they catch him and hang him, said Howe.

The black man then offered to guide the sergeant to Concord. He borrowed a canoe, paddled Howe across the Concord River, and took him to a tavern, where Howe spent the night. He was introduced to a Patriot named Weatherly, who, on April 11, took him to a Major Buttrick in Concord and introduced him as a gunsmith. Buttrick told Howe he was just the man he wanted to see and brought him several gunlocks. These, Howe reported, I repaired with neatness and dispatch, considering the tools I had to work with.

Convinced that Howe was what he claimed to be, the Americans took him to their munitions dumps and asked for his expert opinion on the readiness of their guns and powder.

Howe told the gullible Patriots that he had to go down east to get his gunsmith tools so he could set up shop in Concord. He went to Lincoln, looked up a Tory named Gove and wrote notes on what he had learned, including Gove's report that the Whigs were planning a new armory in Concord. The next night, Gove drove the agent to Charlestown, and by 2 a.m. he was across the river and safe in Boston.

At dawn, Howe put on his uniform and Smith took him to see Gage. Upon seeing his written report, Gage promised the sergeant a 50-guinea reward–but no commission. Gage gave Howe one guinea immediately, saying: Take that, John, and go and get some liquor. You are not half drunk enough for officers' company.

At 11 a.m., Howe returned and delivered an oral report to the staff. Gage asked if British troops could reach Worcester. Howe, impressed with the Patriots' preparations, reported that 10,000 men could not do it.

Fat Francis Smith burst out, Howe has been scared by the old women.

The opening was too good for Major John Pitcairn, the marine who would command the van of Smith's expedition to Concord.

But not by a black wench, eh, John?

The officers roared.

On April 18, Lt. Col. Smith got his orders from General Gage. That night he would march with the corps of Grenadiers and Light Infantry put under your command with the utmost expedition and secrecy to Concord, where you will seize and destroy all the artillery and ammunition you can find.

At Lexington, the British encountered colonial militia who tried to bar their progress. A shot was fired, followed by more. The British scattered the Whigs and marched on, only to be repulsed by a larger, more determined group of militia at Concord. Although no one realized it at the time, Gage's attempt to seize ammunition from the local Whigs had set off a powder keg. The American Revolutionary War had begun.

This article was written by William Weir and originally published in the December 1995 issue of Military History magazine.

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4 Responses to “American Revolutionary War: British Sergeant John Howe”

  1. 1
    cameron says:

    william howe and benedict arnold

  2. 2
    cameron says:


  3. 3
    tay tay says:

    okay boring

  4. 4
    Harold Titus says:

    None of what is chronicled in \The Journal Kept by Mr. John Howe while He Was Employed as a British Spy,\ published in 1827, is true. It wasn't until I was close to finishing my novel \Crossing the River\ that I discovered this.

    Because John Howe’s activities up to and including April 19 had been mentioned in several of my secondary sources and because Howe’s Journal seemed to be a primary source, I had believed initially that he was genuine. However, as I tried to make believable certain scenes and events of his that strained credulity — Howe being interviewed by General Gage and Howe and Colonel Smith (of all people) being sent out on a spying mission – I began to doubt. Two or three secondary sources that I came upon afterward questioned outright Howe’s authenticity. Other historians, I discovered, skirted the issue, never mentioned him.

    My thinking became, “He’s too interesting a character and too vital to my story to be deleted. I am writing a historical novel, for God’s sake. I am permitted to use semi-fictitious characters. Entirely fictitious characters, if need be.” All the while, I maintained the hope that John Howe had been what his “journal” asserted.

    In early 2002 I came upon this one-page article on the internet — http://www.museumofhoaxes,com/spy.html.

    A book titled \The Journal … a British Spy\ was published in 1827. It purported to offer the life story of John Howe …[who] led a fascinating life. Unfortunately, however, he never existed. He was the creation of a printer in Concord, Massachusetts named Luther Roby.

    Roby (or someone he hired to do the writing) based Howe’s early experiences on the exploits of a real figure, Ensign Henry DeBerniere, who had spied for General Gage, and whose journal had been published in 1779 as General Gage’s Instructions. Roby essentially Americanized the character of DeBerniere, making him craftier and more representative of the American ideal of the self-made man.

    Roby’s motive in presenting Howe as a real character was undoubtedly financial, since he recognized that readers would be more interested in the adventures of a real Revolutionary war hero, rather than a fictional one, but his imposture proved so successful that Howe was long treated as an actual, historical figure. As late as 1976, the historian Robert Gross referred to Howe as a “quick-thinking English civilian-spy” in The Minutemen and Their World. Even the 1983 biographical dictionary American Writers before 1800 contained an entry about Howe. The writer of the 1983 biographical entry, Daniel Williams, later realized that Howe was fictitious and exposed the hoax, 165 years after it had been perpetrated.


    Williams, Daniel E. “Specious Spy: The Narrative Lives — And Lies — of Mr. John Howe’. Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 1993 34(3):264-286.

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