Enoch Crosby: Cobbler, Farmer, Soldier, Spy

In this installment of Profiles in History, we see that spies like Enoch Crosby made an important contribution in the Revolutionary War.
Enoch Crosby: Cobbler, Farmer, Soldier, Spy
A colonial shoemaker had an important part to play as a spy for the Americans during the Revolutionary War. (Ritu Manoj Jethani/Shutterstock)
Dustin Bass
11/30/2023
Updated:
11/30/2023
0:00

Two days before Christmas Day 1776, a young 25-year-old soldier stood before the Committee of Safety in the military encampment of Fishkill, New York. The committee of four―Leonard Gansevoort and Zephaniah Platt, both lawyers turned revolutionaries; Nathanael Sackett, George Washington’s chosen spymaster; and John Jay, head of America’s first counterintelligence agency, the Committee for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies―examined the young man and listened to his story. They quickly discovered he was just the type of man they needed. His name: Crosby. Enoch Crosby (1750–1835).

Enoch Crosby, 1830, by William Jewett. National Portrait Gallery. (Public Domain)
Enoch Crosby, 1830, by William Jewett. National Portrait Gallery. (Public Domain)

Crosby was assigned his first official mission in counterintelligence. From Fishkill, he would “repair to Mount Ephraim and use his utmost art to discover the designs, places of resort, and route, of certain disaffected persons of that quarter, who have formed a design of joining the enemy.” Fishkill, the New Jersey town east of the Delaware River was in close proximity to Philadelphia, the fledgling nation’s capital.

Provided with a new name (Levi Foster), a horse, $30, and “passes as will enable him to pass … without interruption, and … will enable him to pass as an emissary of the enemy,” Crosby was officially entering the world of espionage as a double agent. Why the Committee confidently chose him for such a task was easy: He had done it before.

The Shoemaker Spy

When Crosby was 16, he became a shoemaker’s apprentice in Kent, Connecticut. Upon completion of his apprenticeship, he began his cobbling business in Danbury. While in Danbury, the Revolutionary War broke out. Crosby enlisted in the local militia regiment under the command of Col. David Waterbury. The shoemaker served for eight months, was part of the successful Siege of Fort St. Jean in September 1775, and witnessed the surrender of Montreal on Nov. 13. After Montreal, Crosby was discharged.

Crosby’s discharge was fortuitous, as the Americans continued their invasion of Canada into Quebec. The Americans were routed at the Battle of Quebec. Gen. Richard Montgomery, who had led the charges at Fort St. Jean and Montreal, was among the soldiers killed in action.

Engraved portrait of Richard Montgomery, the Continental Army general killed at the 1775 Battle of Quebec. (Public Domain)
Engraved portrait of Richard Montgomery, the Continental Army general killed at the 1775 Battle of Quebec. (Public Domain)

A Chance Encounter

It would not be long, however, before Crosby reenlisted. In August 1776, he joined Col. Jacobus Swartwout’s 2nd Dutchess County Regiment of Minute Men in Carmel, New York. By the time Crosby was prepared to march with the army to Kingsbridge, the army had already left. He would, as would soon become his custom, travel alone. While in Westchester County, he met a stranger on the road. The stranger warned Crosby of the dangers of traveling alone because of the rebels. It was an indication that the stranger was a Loyalist.

Crosby pretended anxiety and asked how to avoid the rebels and reach the British army. The stranger told him a British company was being assembled nearby and where to find the soldiers. The stranger told Crosby his name (Bunker), showed him his house, and informed him of who would be raising the army and who would be leading it. After obtaining the information, Crosby said he could not wait for the company to be raised and that he would continue on alone. Crosby hurried to the house of Joseph Young, a commissioner for the Committee of Safety of Westchester County.

The next day Crosby informed the Committee of the British company being raised. He explained he wished to play a role in capturing the British company rather than join Col. Swartwout’s regiment. The Committee, noticing Crosby’s natural gift for counterintelligence, believed it best “that he should not join the regiment, but should act in a different character as he could thus be more useful to his country.”

Returning to the Stranger

The Committee directed Crosby to return to Bunker’s home and discover more information about the company being raised. Crosby ran about four or five miles during the night, arriving at Bunker’s, informing him that he had been caught, brought before the Committee of Safety, placed as a prisoner, but narrowly escaped. The following day Bunker introduced Crosby “as a good loyalist to several of the company.”

After a few days, Crosby whisked away in the night to Young’s and informed him and Capt. Micah Townsend of the progress. He returned to Bunker’s that night. The following day Capt. Townsend and his rangers arrested Bunker, the Loyalists, and Crosby, accounting for about 30 soldiers. All of the prisoners were sent to Fishkill, where Crosby’s greatest contributions to the War for Independence would take place.

After his Fishkill meeting, Crosby was consistently used to infiltrate Tory neighborhoods, sometimes lodging with Loyalist soldiers for more than a week. He was always arrested and taken prisoner with the Loyalists. After a clandestine mission in May 1777 came up empty, the Fishkill Committee decided that Crosby, or Levi Foster, was officially burned. After nine months, his time in the “secret service” had come to an end. Or had it?

A Writer’s Spy

After the war, Crosby, and his brother, Benjamin, purchased 276 acres of farmland near Brewster, New York. Also after the war, a writer by the name of James Fenimore Cooper was born in 1789, more than a decade after Crosby’s career as a spy had come to an end. When Cooper reached the age of 32 and Crosby 71, the writer published his second novel “The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground.”
"The Spy" by James Fenimore Cooper was possibly based on the exploits of Enoch Crosby. (AbeBooks)
"The Spy" by James Fenimore Cooper was possibly based on the exploits of Enoch Crosby. (AbeBooks)

John Jay had been a neighbor and family friend of Cooper’s, and while they were acquainted, Jay regaled him with stories of some of his counterintelligence officers. Although Cooper never named Crosby as inspiration for his fictional spy, Harvey Birch, their adventures were similar.

Sometime after “The Spy” was published, Crosby detailed his spying missions to another writer, H.L. Barnum. In 1828, seven years after Cooper’s novel was published, Barnum published Crosby’s adventures in an exhaustively titled book called “The Spy Unmasked; or, Memoirs of Enoch Crosby, alias Harvey Birch, the hero of Mr. Cooper’s tale of the neutral ground; being an authentic account of the secret services which he rendered his country during the revolutionary war.” In the introduction, Barnum states that “[Crosby] had never seen ‘The Spy’ ... he was consequently ignorant of being himself the very hero of the tale.”
Cover page of "The Spy Unmasked or the Memoirs of Enoch Crosby, Alias Harvey Burch." Library of Congress. (Public Domain)
Cover page of "The Spy Unmasked or the Memoirs of Enoch Crosby, Alias Harvey Burch." Library of Congress. (Public Domain)
According to Cooper, it was not the first time someone had claimed to be “the very hero of the tale.” According to Cooper, it was more likely a combination of spies, quite possibly including Crosby. He addressed the controversy stating, “Since the original publication of The Spy, there have appeared several accounts of different persons who are supposed to have been in the author’s mind while writing the book. As Mr. —— did not mention the name of his agent, the writer never knew any more of his identity with this or that individual, than has been here explained.”
Portrait of John Jay, 1818, by Gilbert Stuart. National Portrait Gallery. (Public Domain)
Portrait of John Jay, 1818, by Gilbert Stuart. National Portrait Gallery. (Public Domain)

The “Mr. ——” could not have been more obvious. It was John Jay; but even refusing to state Jay’s name is a testament to Cooper’s literary humility as well as secrecy. Then again, secrecy is the name of the game.

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Dustin Bass is an author and co-host of The Sons of History podcast. He also writes two weekly series for The Epoch Times: Profiles in History and This Week in History.
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