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).
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.
The Shoemaker SpyWhen 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.
A Chance EncounterIt 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.
Returning to the StrangerThe 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.
A Writer’s SpyAfter 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.”
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.
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.