Drinking. Disease. Filth. Prostitutes. Secret plots.
All this, and the constant, growing, ominous dread of a coming attack that could annihilate the entire army.
For George Washington, the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental army, his time in New York City must seem like a descent into darkness.
His whole life, Washington has been guided by a sense of honor, and a gentleman’s code of virtue. Yet here, in New York City on the verge of war, those values seem to sink into the muck on the streets. His polished Virginia manners and wholesome morals are out of place; they seem woefully inadequate—or at least they do right now. His army seems mired in disorder. They’re sick, sullen, and undisciplined.
To survive, Washington can only focus on what he knows.
He knows the fortifications in the city. He knows the redoubts and the barricades, the armaments and the artillery. He knows his officers and his regiments, his arms and his supplies. He can focus on the endless specific concrete tasks that lie before him, and before his men, to prepare for war. He can work, work, work tirelessly, endlessly, and push everyone around him to work as hard or almost as hard as he does.
He knows what he believes: that the “Glorious Cause” is just; that he is fighting for noble ideals; that the people of the colonies have placed their trust in him, and that honor demands he shoulder the extraordinary burden of leadership with every ounce of his will.
Those are all things he knows. But then there are things he doesn’t know.
The deception, the disloyalty. The clandestine plots and schemes. The hidden dangers, emanating not from his military foe across the ocean, but from enemies right here, all around him, sometimes in the shadows, sometimes in disguise.The deception, the disloyalty. The clandestine plots and schemes. The hidden dangers, emanating not from his military foe across the ocean, but from enemies right here, all around him, sometimes in the shadows, sometimes in disguise.
So much of it seems to come from one place—that dark ship, the Duchess of Gordon—where Governor Tryon resides. Or at least, so much of it seems to come from there, part of a shadowy, unknowable web.
When it comes to all the confusing enemy plots circulating around his army, Washington describes them this way: “The encouragements given by Governor Tryon to the disaffected, which are circulated no one can well tell how; the movements of this kind of people, which are more easy to perceive than describe.”
It’s these mysterious movements—“more easy to perceive than describe”—that seem to surround the city, that create a constant feeling of uncertainty and menace.
Washington can read the reports, he can study the intelligence. He can review the interrogations, he can intercept correspondence, he can gather facts and confer with his new top-secret committee.
But even so, there are things that George Washington doesn’t know—things almost impossible to imagine.
On many nights, Washington and his men travel at sundown from his headquarters at One Broadway, in the heart of the busy southern tip of the city, to his quiet secondary quarters in the woods near the Hudson, almost two miles to the northwest.
Along this route from city into country, Washington probably doesn’t even notice that he passes close to a tavern called Corbie’s. The tavern isn’t far from the manor house where he sleeps. In fact, it’s close enough that Washington’s staff and personal guards from the residence could walk to Corbie’s if they wanted.
Washington doesn’t know that one night in late spring, in the last days of May or the first days of June, two men at Corbie’s begin a conversation. Their mugs are full. The proprietor of the tavern, Mr. Corbie himself, is probably nearby, serving other customers ale or rum.Gilbert Forbes and the soldier continue to talk in hushed tones, as if everything they say is a closely guarded secret. By the end, they seem to be in agreement, as if they’ve made a deal.
The two men speak quietly, in hushed, serious tones.
One of the two is the gunsmith Gilbert Forbes. He has in his possession, either at home or with him that night, a stack of money given to him by the Governor, William Tryon, by way of the Mayor, David Mathews.
The other man is a soldier. Other patrons in the tavern wouldn’t know this because tonight he wears civilian clothes.
He’s no ordinary soldier, as he has explained to Forbes.
He has special responsibilities and serves George Washington directly. In fact, he is sometimes in close personal proximity to Washington, meant to protect him.
He’s a member of the Life Guards.
Gilbert Forbes and the soldier continue to talk in hushed tones, as if everything they say is a closely guarded secret. By the end, they seem to be in agreement, as if they’ve made a deal.
Then, the two men raise their mugs.
They raise their mugs—and drink to the King.
On June 6, 1776, George Washington returns to New York after a two-week trip to confer with the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
In Philadelphia, John Hancock, John Adams, and several dozen other delegates met with him to discuss every facet of the war plan, trying eagerly to grasp the colonies’ prospects for the coming British offensive in New York City.
After this exhausting trip, Washington no doubt feels the familiar pressure: All these politicians, almost none of them with any military experience, are relying on him and his ill-equipped army to somehow succeed against the greatest military force in the world. They’re relying on him to provide hope and inspire confidence despite the staggering odds.
At the time of Washington’s return, reports confirm that the British fleet has officially departed from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and is sailing toward them. Many more vessels are en route from England, including the Hessian reinforcements. The latest intelligence suggests that the first arrival of the fleet could be as soon as two weeks.
Now back at his headquarters, Washington throws himself into the many endless tasks and responsibilities associated with the defense of the city. He personally visits and inspects the forts, barricades, and brigades spread all over Manhattan, western Long Island, and eastern New Jersey. A steady stream of messages and instructions flow to and from his headquarters about weapons, gunpowder, provisions, transportation, housing, logistics, training, battle plans, and chain of command.
All the while, Washington remains preoccupied by the continued threat of “intestine enemies” trying to organize against him and subvert his fragile army.
Before he left for Philadelphia, Washington had provided instructions to his top generals—specifically, Nathanael Greene, stationed on Long Island, and Israel Putnam, Washington’s second-in-command in New York City—to pursue aggressive action against the Loyalist plotters, particularly those rumored to be organizing on Long Island.
He encouraged them to consult with the new secret committee of the New York Provincial Congress—the Committee on Conspiracies—to round up suspects and help make arrests.Washington is right to worry. The plots against him are growing deeper and wider.
Upon his return, he is disappointed to learn that little has actually been done on this front. The threat persists, no matter how hard he tries to combat it.
On June 10, 1776, four days after his return, Washington writes to John Hancock about this lingering fear:
I had no doubt when I left this city for Philadelphia but that some measures would have been taken to secure the suspected and dangerous persons of this Government before now, and left orders for the military to give every aid to the civil power; but the subject is delicate, and nothing is done in it; we may therefore have internal as well as external enemies to contend with.
Washington is right to worry. The plots against him are growing deeper and wider. It’s not just the Loyalists on Long Island or upstate New York who have fallen in with Governor Tryon’s scheme.
They’re in Manhattan now, much closer to him than he thinks. His enemies are with him at his downtown headquarters—and even near where he sleeps at night.
In fact, though Washington doesn’t know it yet, Tryon’s plot has infiltrated his own army, reaching those in whom the general has placed his greatest trust.
The secret committee.
Aka the “Committee on Intestine Enemies”
Aka the “Committee on Conspiracies.”
The name has changed a few times, but the mission of this elite new team has crystallized: uncover and investigate plots, conspiracies, and espionage efforts waged against the colonies and/or the Continental army.The name has changed a few times, but the mission of this elite new team has crystallized: uncover and investigate plots, conspiracies, and espionage efforts waged against the colonies and/or the Continental army.
Originating with an idea from George Washington, and comprised of carefully selected members of New York’s Provincial Congress, this committee is a dedicated intelligence and counterintelligence unit—and one without precedent in the history of the colonies.
Based on the many reports and rumors of Loyalist plots circulating in and around New York City, the focus of the group is on “internal enemies”—that is, spies, traitors, and schemers operating within the colonies, undermining the war effort against Great Britain.
In early June, the congress drafts a series of resolutions establishing the methods and guidelines for the committee.
They have authority to arrest suspected persons, based on their own warrants.
They can detain and interrogate these suspects, as needed.
They have a dedicated budget.
They will share intelligence directly with the Commander-in-Chief.
With George Washington’s permission, they have access to Continental soldiers to conduct raids or track down dangerous suspects.
Above all else: They must operate in total secrecy.
On Thursday, June 13, the congress also formally appoints to the committee the thirty-year-old lawyer and former delegate to the Continental Congress, John Jay. Soon, he will take a leadership role, guiding the committee through extraordinary circumstances. For now, he is one of nine members tasked to undertake something none of them has ever done before.
The next day, Friday, June 14, Jay is among the new members to swear a ceremonial oath before the New York Provincial Congress, an oath crafted specially for this unusual committee. One by one, each of them walks to the front of the City Hall chamber and swears on a Bible to “diligently, impartially, without fear, favor, affection, or hope of reward, to execute and discharge the duties imposed on them.”
In the previous two weeks, while the first resolutions were being debated and finalized, the committee had already started planning its work. Among the first tasks was to draw up a “List of Suspected Persons” on whom the committee can focus its efforts.
Divided by region, the list includes every person in the colony of New York, from any station of life, who is known or suspected of bearing traitorous designs against the colonies. The committee members have assembled these names—a few hundred of them, and growing—from the past few months of reports, rumors, and information about Loyalist plots in the region. The list will form the basis of where the committee will direct its resources and efforts.
Whose name is first on the list? The most obvious: “William Tryon, on board the Ship of War Duchess of Gordon.”
The committeemen clearly believe Tryon to be the mastermind of some or all of the plots uncovered thus far, and consider him a profound threat. There is nothing they can do to actually arrest or apprehend Tryon—he is totally unreachable on the Duchess of Gordon—but nonetheless the Governor looms large over the committee’s mission.
Another name near the top of the list is that of New York City’s Mayor, David Mathews. Interestingly, before this point the colonial authorities had so far focused little attention on Mathews, despite his known loyalty to Tryon. Perhaps this is because Mayor Mathews has kept a low profile in the city, spending much of his time at his home in Flatbush, across the East River in Kings County. In any case, by including Mathews’s name on the list, the committee now acknowledges him as a potential enemy.
Filled with these and other prominent officials, the list goes on with scores of other names, divided geographically. There are “suspected persons” listed from New York City, Kings County, Queens County, Nassau County, Westchester County, Dutchess County, and other areas of the colony.
The “List of Suspected Persons” will provide a starting point for the secret committee’s work. The members can make arrests, conduct raids, interrogate suspects, gather intelligence, and unmask spies and traitors.
Whatever plots are rife around the city, the secret committee will seek to uncover and stop them.
The problem is, it may already be too late.
Excerpted from THE FIRST CONSPIRACY: THE SECRET PLOT TO KILL GEORGE WASHINGTON by Brad Melzter and Josh Mensch. Copyright © 2019 by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.