It was March 1775, and Ensign Henry DeBerniere of His Majesty’s 10th Regiment of Foot thought that his disguise was perfect. Hadn’t he walked by several of his fellow officers on his way out of Boston without being recognized by any of them? Surely none of these Colonial country folk would spot him as a British officer. He was just a land surveyor if anyone were to ask him why he was carefully noting the details of the countryside.
When a black serving woman brought him his dinner in the tavern that evening, he decided to start a casual conversation to see what he might learn about the area.
“It is a very fine country you have up here,” he said.
“Yes it is,” she replied, “and we have got brave fellows to defend it, and if you go up any higher you will find it so.”
Apparently, his cover needed some more work.
The previous day DeBerniere and his companion, Captain John Brown of the 52nd Foot, had been ordered on this mission by Lt. Gen. Thomas Gage, commander in chief of British forces in North America. During October 1774, a Provincial Congress had assembled against Gage’s orders and seemed to be making vigorous preparations for outright rebellion against the Crown. Since the fall, militia companies across the region were drilling once a week or more. More disturbing, the congress was secreting military stores around the countryside.
Determined to prevent a war if possible, Gage decided that the best strategy would be to disarm the potential rebels by seizing Colonial arsenals as they were identified. He had already carried out two raids with no loss of life but mixed results in finding the military stores. The success of future raids seemed to depend on more accurate intelligence on his objectives.
Enter Brown and DeBerniere. Bored with garrison duty, the officers leapt at this mission. Their first assignment was to survey the route to the suspected arsenal at Worcester. They set out, as DeBerniere described it, “disguised like countrymen, in brown clothes and reddish handkerchiefs round our necks.” They went on foot, so as not to call attention to themselves.
Their attempt at small talk with the woman at the inn that first evening had not been encouraging, so the spies decided to spend the night somewhere else. They called for the bill and looked even more out of place thanks to their confusion about the exchange rate between British sterling and Massachusetts “old tenor” currency.
After leaving the inn, they conferred with John, Captain Brown’s servant, who accompanied the officers. He explained that the woman had approached him separately and said she knew Brown by sight from having previously worked in Boston. She had also seen their map spread out on the table at dinner and said she “knew their errand was to take a plan of the country.” DeBerniere noted that she also advised Brown “not to go any higher, for if we did we should meet with very bad usage.”
In spite of their failure to achieve anonymity, this abortive first foray had been a useful learning experience, and the two Britons remained determined to go on with the mission. Many brother officers were jealous of them because they had been chosen for this assignment, and they would look foolish if they turned back after their first day abroad. They also decided, however, to avoid being observed surveying if they could help it—no spreading of maps on the table. Most important, they would take their meals with the servant John rather than consigning him to another table as officers usually did with enlisted men.
That evening they covered another six miles, arriving at a tavern in Weston. They weren’t sure if they would stay there that night until Mr. Jones, the landlord, made a point of offering them either coffee or tea. Since the imposition of the tea tax, and especially since the “Boston tea party” in December 1773, no self-respecting Whig landlord would offer his guests tea. The innkeeper was telling them he was a Tory. After that, he advised the officers which taverns in the area were run by like-minded men.
The next two days of mapping and hiking to Worcester were reasonably uneventful. The officers arrived at a recommended inn on Saturday night, and once again the innkeeper offered tea, which DeBerniere recognized as “an open confession what he was.”
The spies stayed in the tavern all day Sunday, since the sight of them sketching the countryside, rather than attending church on the Sabbath, might draw too many questions from the locals. They went out to do their sketching that evening, retiring to the inn before dark.
The following day the spies started back to Boston by a different road, carrying food with them so they could avoid stopping at taverns filled with inquisitive locals. Their trek was uneventful until they stopped at another inn for the night. Shortly after their arrival, the local militia company began drilling outside the inn’s windows. “We did not feel very easy at seeing such a number very near us,” the officers reported, but they sat tight and listened to the “very eloquent speech” the militia captain delivered at the drill’s end. The captain exhorted the company to be courageous but stressed that it was discipline that would carry the day; that with “patience, coolness, and bravery… they would always conquer.” He followed this with quotes from Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great, as well as Massachusetts Militia Brigadiers Israel Putnam and Artemus Ward. Of the worthy brigadiers, the captain said that in the last war “the regulars must have been ruined but for them.” When the captain had finished, he dismissed the company, which to a man entered the inn and drank for the rest of the evening.
The British officers remained inconspicuous and retired to their room. The following day they traveled back to the Weston tavern, where Mr. Jones cautioned them they should return directly to Boston, as the countryside was becoming restless. The spies, however, were determined to map one more road. They sent John back to Boston with the maps they had completed so far and set out the next day for Marlborough.
It started to snow, and for much of the 16-mile hike the slush was up to their ankles. When they arrived at Marlborough, the officers reported, “The people came out of their houses (though it snowed and blew very hard) to look at us.” A baker in particular approached them, questioned them and then, when they asked about a known Loyalist, gave them directions to Barnes’ home.
When they arrived at Barnes’ residence that evening the British identified themselves and told him about the baker’s interrogation. Barnes told them that the man was a “mischievous fellow” who had deserted from the British army the previous month, and they should consider themselves discovered. At that moment, a knock at the door called Barnes away. It was the local doctor inviting himself to dinner, even though he had not visited Barnes in more than two years. Barnes told the doctor he couldn’t entertain him, as he already had other guests. The doctor tried to peer beyond Barnes into the house and questioned one of Barnes’ children as to who the guests were before Barnes hustled him out.
After that intrusion, the officers decided to eat rapidly and press on. Within 20 minutes of the doctor’s departure, one of Barnes’ servants told them that a mob of liberty men was forming in town with the intention of seizing the spies in Barnes’ house. The officers immediately fled, stopping only to “eat a little bread…and eat a little snow to wash it down.” Now afraid for their lives, they tried to avoid all human contact on the road that night. They finally arrived back at Jones’ tavern after walking 32 miles through snow in 24 hours.
The following day the spies returned to Boston by back roads. As they came through the city defenses on Boston Neck, they ran into General Gage and his staff, who didn’t recognize the bedraggled officers.
DeBerniere and Brown were able to personally thank Mr. Barnes for his late night warning a few days later when he visited Boston. Barnes told the officers that after their departure, the local committee of correspondence had come to his house, demanded that he produce the spies and searched the house from cellar to attic. Finding no one, the Whigs told Barnes that if they had found any strangers in the house “they would have pulled it [down] about his ears.”
Gage was pleased with the intelligence the officers brought back, but concluded that Worcester was too distant for surprise to be achieved in a raid. Concord seemed a more promising target. His intelligence told him that there was a large arsenal there, and his troops could get there and back in a day. He commanded Brown and DeBerniere to “set out for Concord and examine the road and situation of the town.”
The officers set out on March 20, again disguised and on foot. They walked through Boston Neck and overland to Concord via the Concord Road. DeBerniere observed that the road could be very dangerous to a marching army, as it “was woody in most places and very close and commanded by hills frequently.”
They arrived at Concord and noticed a number of armed guards posted throughout the town. Unfamiliar with the town, they asked a woman for directions to the house of Daniel Bliss, Concord’s leading lawyer and a firm Loyalist. Bliss welcomed the officers and shared with them what he knew about the town’s hidden military stores. Over dinner, the officers offered the opinion that the militia wouldn’t fight if it came to a confrontation with the regulars. Bliss disagreed. He pointed to a man passing outside the house, and said, “There goes a man who will fight you in blood up to his knees.” It was his brother, Thomas.
While they dined, the woman who had given them directions came to Bliss’ house in tears. She told them that a gathering mob threatened her that if “she did not leave the town, they would tar and feather her for directing [the disguised officers to] the Tories.” Shortly thereafter, a message was delivered to Bliss himself from the mob that “they would not let him go out of town alive that morning.”
The officers offered to escort Bliss back to Boston, “as we were three and all well armed.” Bliss agreed and showed the officers a different route out of town. The party quickly made its way along the Lexington Road, which the officers reported was “very open and good” relative to the road they had arrived on.
On their return the officers strongly recommended to General Gage that the Lexington Road was the best approach to Concord. In consequence, that was the route assigned to Colonel Francis Smith when he led his column toward Concord on April 19, 1775.
Ensign DeBerniere accompanied the force as a guide to direct a company to Colonel Barrett’s farm in Concord, just over the North Bridge, where some artillery was reported hidden. This assignment put him amid the shots heard around the world.
Originally published in the November 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.