George Washington Papers

To George Washington from the Pennsylvania Board of War, 31 March 1777

From the Pennsylvania Board of War

Pennsylvania War Office Philadelphia March 31st 1777


By Appointment under the new frame of Government established in this State, we succeed the late Council of Safety in the Military Department, of course your Excellency’s letter of the 28th Inst. came before us, and from our knowledge of the late Council,1 we can assure your Excellency that it was thro’ inadvertency that they infringed upon the powers invested in you by Congress, and not by design. Amidst the great variety and multiplicity of Business they were necessarily engaged in, we do believe that Resolve of Congress escaped their attention and that the public Service was the only motive that influenced them to proceed to the Arrangement of the Field Officers of the Regiments to be raised in this State, and that they had such a respect for the Congress that they would fully aquiesce with any resolution of theirs especially in a matter that was so obviously calculated for the safety of the United States, as the investing your Excellency with the powers you allude to. We have immediately on receipt of the said letter dispatched Orders by Express to Colonel Hand and the Field Officers of the eighth Regiment to repair to their respective Regiments without delay.2 And we shall compleat the Arrangement of the Subalterns, which has been already nearly accomplished, and shall make a return of them to your Excellency as soon as possible.

We sincerely congratulate your Excellency on the favourable Accounts from Doctor Franklin at Paris, the late great Arrival of Arms &c. in Boston, and the happy discovery of a dangerous Conspiracy in this City, the following persons were concerned in it. A certain Molesworth under a Lieutenants Commission from General Howe, one Collins, lately a Clerk in General Mifflins’ Office, one Keating, a Clerk in the City Vendue Office, and one Sheppard who kept a Livery Stable. The first of whom was convicted of engaging Pilots to go to Lord Howe to assist in bringing the English Fleet up our River, had contrived to have our Fort Guns spiked and the Posts and ropes of the Ferries destroyed—He was Executed this day agreeable to the sentence of a Court Martial. The three latter have absconded we have sent several Officers after them, the bearer of this Captain Proctor is one of them, who has the best description of their persons we can obtain, not doubting your Excellency will order him all necessary assistance to apprehend them.3 By Order of the board I am Your very humble Servant

Owen Biddle Chairman

LS, DLC:GW. This letter is in Biddle’s handwriting. The addressed cover includes the notation: “per Capt. Proctor.”

2For the Pennsylvania Board of War’s orders of this date to Col. Daniel Brodhead of the 8th Pennsylvania Regiment to join his regiment, see Pa. Archives description begins Samuel Hazard et al., eds. Pennsylvania Archives. 9 ser., 138 vols. Philadelphia and Harrisburg, 1852–1949. description ends , 1st ser., 5:283.

3James Molesworth, a native of Staffordshire, England, who before the war had been a clerk in the Philadelphia mayor’s office, was tried and convicted of spying on 29 Mar. by a court-martial headed by General Gates, and he was hanged on this date on the commons near Philadelphia (see JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 7:210, and the examinations of witnesses, 25–28 Mar., in Pa. Archives description begins Samuel Hazard et al., eds. Pennsylvania Archives. 9 ser., 138 vols. Philadelphia and Harrisburg, 1852–1949. description ends , 1st ser., 5:270–79). Molesworth says in his confession of 27 Mar. that “a fortnight ago this day he went . . . to New York. He was introduced to Mr. [Joseph] Galloway & afterwards to Lord Howe, who asked him some questions about the state of the City [Philadelphia]. He received at New York a commission as Lieutenant in the Army, which he accepted. . . . He returned to Philada to get a Pilot by Direction of Lord Howe, who instructed him to get one or two Pilots, & particularly a Cheveaux de Frize Pilot, to bring the vessels up Delaware Bay. Lord Howe expected him to return as fast as he could to New York with the Pilot. The Questions asked him by Lord Howe were concerning the Fort & the Gallies . . . . He came to this City [Philadelphia] this day week. Lord Howe authorized him to stand on no cost, but did not fix any sum; his Lordship gave him no money. The Ext went to Mrs O’Briene’s [Sarah O’Brien’s boardinghouse] where he saw [John] Eldridge the Pilot, & proposed to him to go to New York, but he said it was rather hazardous, and refused to go. Spoke also on the same subject to Higgins [Andrew Higgons] the Pilot, who said he could get another Pilot to go. Mrs [Abigail] McKay introduced him to Higgins. The Examinant had desired Mrs McKay on monday to speak to some Pilots, & told her he wanted a Pilot to go to New York & Pilot the fleet. She said she believed some of the Cape May Pilots would do it. He told Mrs McKay Pilots wou’d receive a handsome Present and enter into Pay. Yesterday afternoon Mrs McKay told him Sneider [John Snyder] & Higgins wou’d be at her house. The Examint met Sneider & Higgins at Mrs McKay’s at 7 o’Clock. He asked Sneider if he would go? Sneider said he had an elderly mother, & must have money to leave with her. Sneider asked one hundred pounds. The Ext told them he would consult some body about it. The Ext then walked up Street, & down again, but went into no house. He then returned, and they agreed to take Fifty pounds; he paid them fifty Pounds, which was all he had. He had the money in his Pocket when he first met Sneider & Higgins, but went out to recollect himself” (ibid., 276–77).

Thomas W. Collins, a customs clerk in Philadelphia, was captured by 19 April 1777 (see GW to Owen Biddle, 14 April, n.2). “Keating” was Luke or John Caton (Katon), a native of Maryland who used the alias “Warren” during his involvement with Molesworth. He piloted the ship Rebecca between the Chesapeake Bay and Philadelphia in 1776, and he apparently helped to pilot the British fleet up the Chesapeake Bay in August 1777 and died aboard Lord Howe’s flagship Eagle (see Palmer, Biographical Sketches of Loyalists description begins Gregory Palmer. Biographical Sketches of Loyalists of the American Revolution. Westport, Conn., and London, 1984. description ends , 449). William Shepard, a native of England who had settled in Pennsylvania as a farmer in 1768, found refuge with the British army and returned to Philadelphia with it in the fall of 1777 as a deputy commissary of forage. After the evacuation of Philadelphia the following spring, Shepard fled to New York (see ibid., 779; see also the Pennsylvania Board of War to Benjamin Lincoln and to Israel Putnam, this date, Pa. Archives description begins Samuel Hazard et al., eds. Pennsylvania Archives. 9 ser., 138 vols. Philadelphia and Harrisburg, 1852–1949. description ends , 1st ser., 5:281–82).

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