Spy System 1777

Spying is a profession probably as old as the human race. Primitive man spied on his neighbors both as an offensive and defensive weapon, as a prelude to attacking or against being attacked, respectively. Gradually, as civilization advanced, spying became a more refined occupation of men against men and nation against nation. Modern spying has been much de-humanized by modern technology, even to the extent of analysis of information; but during the American Revolution (and even long afterwards) the human was still of paramount, indeed sole, importance in this clandestine business.

At the beginning of the Revolution, Patriot spying against their British adversaries was rather amateurish, since the Americans had little craft in such secrecy, a craft already much refined in Europe. Witness Nathan Hale's brave but foolhardy attempt to spy on the British in New York City in 1776, an amateur endeavor that virtually assured his capture and death, and an immortality far outweighing his usefulness to the American cause beyond his inspiring dying words, "I regret that I have but one life to give for my country"[SEE FOOTNOTE] — if he ever really said them. They are more legend than proven.

By the time of the Pennsylvania Campaign of 1777, however, American spies had acquired far more finesse in their risky business than the Nathan Hales of the previous year. Perhaps Hale's well publicized death had acted as a serious warning. With the British capture of Philadelphia on September 26, 1777, and with the Continental Army opposing the invaders with declining numbers, equipment and health, General Washington, as a measure of exceeding importance to the safety and further maneuvers of his army, was obliged to seek immediate, first-hand intelligence of the enemy's intentions, motions, and condition. To supervise this vital work he sought for a man of intelligence and discretion, familiar with local inhabitants and locale, and who could be relied on to produce fresh, correct information by whatever direct or devious means were necessary. The General's choice fell on Major John Clark Jr. of Pennsylvania, Aide-de-Camp to Major General Nathaniel Greene, possibly at the recommendation of General Greene. Clark, the Commander-in-Chief was advised, had all the necessary requisites to undertake this perilous business. Apparently Clark, needing no urging, readily volunteered.

Clark, born in Lancaster, had studied law and been admitted to practice in York County, where he made his adult home. As early as the summer of 1775 he had joined a Pennsylvania Rifle Corps, accompanying it to the siege of Boston. On March 15, 1776 he was commissioned 1st Lieutenant in Colonel Samuel Miles' Pennsylvania Rifle Regiment. Happily, he was not with that regiment when it was captured at Fort Washington, New York, in November; having been appointed Major in Colonel Richard McAllister's Battalion of Pennsylvania Militia. Briefly furloughed from service, he took the occasion to return to York and marry a daughter of Captain Christian Bettinger of the State Militia. On January 14, 1777 he rejoined the regular Continental Army as Major and Aide-de-Camp to Major General Greene, an official office he retained while acting as spy-master for the army.

Although Clark's assessments and information as chief of spies were not always exact (nor could they be expected to be in such a risky task as his and his associates'), the correspondence between Washington and Clark reveals the exceeding pains and dangers experienced by Clark and his various spies to supply the Commander-in-Chief with the best advice possible. Extracts taken from this correspondence, mostly from the frequent letters of Clark to Washington during the latter part of 1777, omitting most of the erroneous information, are illustrative of the excellence of the corps of spies enlisted by Clark and sent in to Philadelphia, and the sharp perception of Clark himself as he tirelessly rode, despite declining health, around the perimeters of enemy fortifications, camps and maneuvers, reporting his and his subordinates' observations, as well as hearsay rumors, back to his chief.

Strangely, Clark's first communications to Washington commenced not near Philadelphia, but some thirty miles remote from the city, to the west, from the Red Lion Tavern (now Lionville) in Uwchlan Township, Chester County on October 6. These communications, timed respectively at 5 P.M. and 10 P.M., were directed to Washington at his camp at Pawling's Mill, and were principally concerned with reports on the recent (October 4) Battle of Germantown. The first letter confirmed the death of British Brigadier James Agnew as the result of wounds received in the late battle, and noted that "Several Quakers from the city say that upwards of two hundred wagons came in" to the city "with wounded (British) soldiers." Another informant, arrived from Philadelphia, state, as noted in the second letter, that "the enemy suffered prodigiously" in the battle, and that British officers conceded that Washington had "completely surprised" the enemy by his attack.

Clark also reported the fall of the American fort at Billingsport, on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River below Philadelphia, and that the enemy "have got up the lower tier of the cheveaux de frieze" which the Americans had sunk in the river to prevent access of British shipping to Philadelphia. Also, "Provisions were scarce" in Philadelphia, and the enemy were frequently sending wagon trains to Chester under heavy escort to procure supplies from the British fleet stationed in the river at that place, below the American river defenses. Clark suggested that "If a few troops were sent down the Schuylkill" near its mouth "it would prevent" this enemy traffic.

Unfortunately a rather long hiatus now occurs in Clark's preserved correspondence with the Commander-in-Chief. That letters were written is proved by Washington's letter to Clark from the camp at Whitpain of October 23, which thanked Clark "for your vigilance and exertions," and desired Clark "to continue them for obtaining such information as may be material respecting the Enemy." Evidently Clark had reported a rumored imminent British abandonment of Philadelphia, which rumor Washington discounted. "Before they do it," the Commander-in-Chief noted, "they must be entirely convinced of the impractibility of carrying Fort Mifflin" on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware, and Fort Mercer at Red Bank, New Jersey. These defenses, with the cheveaux-de-frise, formed hopefully insuperable impediments against British shipping reaching Philadelphia.

The next preserved letter of Clark to Washington, dated October 23 from Goshen, Chester County, also concerned the defense of the Delaware River, particularly the Hessian defeat in their assault on Fort Mercer on October 22. Clark reported that two informants from Philadelphia had stated "that the enemy brought on shore thirty-three boat loads of wounded soldiers and seamen," the latter from the British frigate Augusta which had been set on fire from shot from Fort Mifflin and blew up, " on the 23d instant...they curse Fort Mifflin heartily, and say it has given them more trouble than any thing they ever met with."

Clark also noted that "The enemy have posted at every ferry" across the Schuylkill "and avenue to Philadelphia a number of the Tories who went" into the city from Chester County; "they are exceedingly watchful, and examine every person they see; this has prevented my getting intelligence so readily from the city as I imagined." Clark himself had ridden to Chester in an attempt to elicit information, which "ride has almost laid me up, as my health is much impaired of late, but I shall leave no stone unturned to gain information, though the inhabitants watch me like a hawk would a chicken. I change my quarters very often" to prevent reports of his location reaching the enemy.

Clark's next surviving letter is dated November 3 from Whiteland Township, Chester County, 8 P.M. The previous day the Continental Army had advanced to encamp at Whitemarsh. This letter was concerned with a new method of obtaining information from Philadelphia by false pretenses. Clark, "counterfeited the Quaker for once" by writing a feigned "few lines to Sir William" Howe, the British commander, "informing him the rebels had plundered me, and that I was determined to risque my all in procuring him intelligence" in revenge; "that the bearer would give him my name," which was that of an anonymous prominent Chester Countian known to favor the British cause. "The letter was concealed curiously, and the General," on receiving the spurious missive, "smiled when he saw the pains taken with it; told the bearer, if he would return" from the country "and inform him of" any American "movements and state of" the Continental Army "he would be generously rewarded."

Sir William gave Clark's spy a pass, which enabled the spy to walk freely about the city and gather information on British defenses, dispositions, munitions, etc., all of which he reported to Clark in great detail, which information was forwarded in the same letter to Washington. The spy also reported that "The inhabitants" of the city "are suffering" for want of provisions. Again Clark reported the rumor prevalent in the city that if the British were unsuccessful in taking the river forts they would abandon Philadelphia.

Clark then suggested that "according to Sir William's desire," Washington should draw up a false statement concerning the numbers and condition of the American Army, "and your intended movements," which would then be dutifully delivered to Howe for his misinformation. The delivery of this forgery would also enable Clark's spy to "take a further view" of the enemy camp.

This arrangement delighted Washington, who replied to Clark on the following day (4th) that the Commander-in-Chief thought "you have fallen upon an exceedingly good method of obtaining intelligence and that too much secrecy cannot be used, both on account of the safety" of Clark's spy "and the execution and continuance of your design, which may be of service to us." Washington then suggested the false information he wished to have delivered to Howe: "I'd have you mention that General Gates, now having nothing to do the Northward," Burgoyne's invasion from Canada having been defeated, "is sending down a very handsome Reinforcement of Continental Troops to this Army, whilst he with the remainder of them and all the new England and (New) York Militia, is to make an immediate descent on New York (City), the reduction of which is constantly spoken of...and that Genl. (Philemon) Dickinson is at the same time to attack Staten Island, for which purpose he is Assembling great numbers of the Jersey Militia; that the received opinion in our Camp is, that we will immediately attack Philadelphia on the arrival of the Troops from the Northward, and that i have prevailed upon the Legislative Body to order out two thirds of the Militia of this State for that purpose; that you have heard great talk of the Virginia and Maryland Militia coming up, and in short that the whole Continent seems determined that we use every exertion to put an end to the War this winter; that we mention the forts" defending the Delaware River "as being perfectly secure, having sent ample Reinforcements to their support." Washington added, "These are the outlines of what I think should be necessary" to mislead the enemy and forestall any British attempt to attack the increasingly debilitated Continental Army at Whitemarsh. Hopefully, too, the enemy might be induced to cease their attacks on the river forts, thereby forcing them, for lack of provisions, to evacuate Philadelphia. These hopes, however, were mostly doomed to failure.

The following day, November 4, Clark replied that as a result of the ruse acceded to by Washington, Clark could "expect immediate intelligence of every design of the enemy." He then reported that he had "just returned from below Marcus Hook and Chester" observing the anchorage of the British fleet. While there he "fell in with Capt. (Henry) Lee" and Lee's dragoons and infantry, who had been sent to that vicinity by Washington to destroy the grist mills to prevent their use by the enemy. Lee and Clark endeavored to capture some enemy shallops lying in the Delaware, but the attempt proving unsuccessful because of the withdrawal of the shallops to safer waters, they resorted to a ruse to capture members of the crew of a British tender. Apprised that a local Tory was well known to the British crew, they forced him to hail the enemy ship, saying that he had some fresh beef for them. A boat with five men thereupon put out from the tender. On reaching shore an attempt was made to capture the five men, who endeavored to escape by running off, and were fired upon with the loss of three; the other two escaping unharmed.

Hard riding and the excitement of this event much wearied Clark, who noted to Washington, "The excessive fatigue and want of sleep will prevent my being so active as I could wish; riding injures me exceedingly since my late illness," and he was "fearful I shall soon be obliged to retire from service on account of my health." Nevertheless, despite fatigue and illness, he continued to render faithful intelligence service for another two months.

On November 8 from Brigadier General James Potter's militia headquarters at Newtown Square Clark apprised Washington that "A gentleman out of Philadelphia declares that the enemy have not above two days provisions on hand at one time, it being impossible to get more up" from the enemy fleet at Chester. If the blockade afforded by the American river defenses could be maintained, perhaps the enemy might yet be starved out of Philadelphia.

On November 11 Clark was as far down the river shore as Newcastle, Delaware, again spying on the enemy fleet, reporting to Washington on the 12th that 35 British transports had "hove in sigh" in the river bearing heavy enemy reinforcements as well as provisions. The numbers of theses reinforcements were conflicting, varying from a few hundred recovered invalids from Staten Island to "between two and three thousand" new troops. The last estimate proved accurate, being the corps of Major General Sir Thomas Wilson, brought from New York. On the 16th Clark was "sorry to acquaint" General Washington "of the disagreeable news of the evacuation of Fort Mifflin" by its American garrison, a misfortune already known to the Commander-in-Chief; the fort having fallen to severe British cannonading on the previous day.

On the 17th from Darby Township Clark could give a further detailed report to Washington on the British defenses of Philadelphia: "the main body" of the enemy troops "are encamped along the line from Schuylkill to Delaware," just north of the then city limits; "the redoubts" thrown up by the enemy from Lemon Hill (the present site of the Art Museum) to the Delaware "are at a distance of four hundred yards from each other; no cannon in them at present. Field pieces are in the intervals," and the British were endeavoring to raise two battalions of Loyalists. He also reported that the American prisoners "in captivity" in the city were "in the greatest distress; many have died within these few days for want of provision," a circumstance that caused Washington to protest their ill-treatment to Sir William Howe.

Clark rode down to the neighborhood of Province Island, directly below Philadelphia, in company with Generals John Cadwalader and Joseph Reed in an effort to gain intelligence "If the enemy are going to cross the Delaware to attack Red Bank," which information, if true, Clark would forward immediately to Washington. Clark also sent a "young fellow of character" into the city to get "information of the enemy's designs" which the spy was to bear in person to Washington. "I have ordered him to mingle with the British officers; as he is acquainted with several of them...'twill be easily effected." Clark noted that "the rascally inhabitants are now corresponding and bartering goods with the enemy," and suggested that parties of Americans should drive off the cattle and burn the hay between Philadelphia and Chester lest they fall into enemy hands.

By the 18th he was notifying Washington that "about 5000 of the enemy" — these numbers were nearer 3,000 under the command of Lord Cornwallis — "crossed (the Schuylkill) from Philadelphia, at the middle ferry (now the Market Street Bridge); they are on the Chester road, encamped a few miles from Chester. They have a great many baggage wagons, and a number of field pieces." British soldiers of whom inquiries were made by local inhabitants "say they are going to cross the Delaware." The British, joined by General Wilson's reinforcements from the enemy transports, making Cornwallis's column in excess of 5,000, "completed their embarkation about sun-set" on the 18th, their objective the capture of Fort Mercer at Red Bank, which was presently accomplished.

This heavy detachment from the enemy forces in Philadelphia induced Clark to write hurriedly to Washington on the 22nd that "one of my spies has this moment come to me from Philadelphia" with intelligence that might make the moment propitious for the Americans to attack the city. The spy, after again delivering false dispatches concerning the American Army to Sir William Howe, was again able to go "through his army" taking notes that might be of prime use to Washington. The British troops "remaining at Philadelphia do not exceed five thousand," numbers critically low should the Americans attack. Should such an event be contemplated, Clark forwarded the latest information concerning British dispositions in the city. "Their redoubts have from two to three field-pieces in front, at the distance of seventy yards. They have abatis from the Schuylkill to the Delaware...The Hessians are encamped on the right" of the enemy defense line north of the city, "the Grenadiers on the left, Light Infantry and Scotch in the centre. A few Hessians and one battalion of the seventy-first )British infantry) lie near the middle ferry." After giving further, more detailed specifics, he suggestively noted, "the enemy in the city are afraid of an attack; this you may rely on."

Again, in an express sent to Washington on the same day, Clark included a memorandum that since Cornwallis's column "from Jersey have not returned," and that "there is not above 4 or 5000 troops, at most, remaining with Howe," perhaps something could be done against the city. But Washington himself had denuded his army of many troops by ordering a column commanded by Nathaniel Greene across the Delaware to oppose Cornwallis in New Jersey in an unsuccessful attempt to succor Fort Mercer. These troops too had not yet returned, thereby crippling the American Army from any offensive maneuvers. By the time Greene rejoined Washington at Whitemarsh, Cornwallis was back in Philadelphia, and the situation so altered as to obviate any American enterprise against the city.

With the return of Cornwallis reported by Clark, Washington wrote to his correspondent, "As I have now got the necessary information" which he had requested of Clark on the 25th, "as to the Enemy's Works, position, &c.," the Commander-in-Chief desired Clark's spies to turn their attention to discovering any further enemy intentions. "Whether to sit down in quarters for the Winter, or to seek this Army. Some late accounts look as if a War in Europe" between France and England "is not far distant. Persons yesterday from the City" — Clark's spies were not the only source of Washington's intelligence — "mentioned that they heard it talked of among the (British) Officers; desire your friends to inquire particularly into this Matter." Hostilities between France and England, however, were some months distant.

To these inquiries Clark replied on December 1, that "Tis the prevailing opinion" in Philadelphia that the British Army "will endeavor to rest quietly in winter quarters," and there was "no talk of war with France." On the other hand, Clark could report that "A person from the city says that on Friday evening," November 28, "orders were given to the Troops to hold themselves in readiness to march," and that "They either mean to attempt to surprise your army or prevent your making an attack on them." Clark was sending a spy into the city in an attempt to ascertain the enemy's "secret intention." On the 3rd Clark could report, "The enemy are in Motion; have a number of flat bottomed boats and carriages and scantling, and are busy pressing horses and wagons. No person permitted to come out" from the city, "except those upon whom they can depend." In a second express of the same date Clark notified Washington that his spy had talked to a British sergeant who had "assured him the Troops had received orders to hold themselves in readiness when called for, and to draw two days provisions...Should the enemy move, it will be sudden and rapid."

The British advanced against the American camp at Whitemarsh on the night of December 4th, appearing at Chestnut Hill on the right of the American front on the morning of the 5th. Two days of mutual watchfulness and skirmishing resulted as General Howe sparred for an opening that never appeared, then withdrew to Philadelphia on the 8th without accomplishing anything material. Concerning these action, Washington wrote to Clark on the 9th, "I fancy your intelligence is mistaken as to the number of (enemy) wounded" — Clark's letter estimating these seems non-extant; apparently his estimate was higher than Washington judged proper; "but they had a pretty warm brush with Morgan's Corps" at the so -called Battle of Edge Hill, "in which he thinks he killed and wounded a good many." Actually the losses on both sides were relatively light.

On December 16 Washington, in reply to an inquiry from Clark, wrote from his brief encampment at Gulph Mills, "Altho' I would not grant permission to all those who want to go into Philad. to get paid" by the British "for what they are plundered of" by enemy foraging parties, "you may allow it to those on whom you can depend and from whom you expect any intelligence in return. I have directed that all passes granted by you shall be sufficient for the purposes you want them." Washington also permitted Clark to send in spies in the guise of traders with the enemy, bearing supplies to the British, though this method of obtaining intelligence caused Clark some difficulty with the American militia, who had orders to stop all such trading with the enemy.

Clark's spies had failed to apprise him of Cornwallis's foraging expedition into Lower Merion Township on December 11-12 which nearly brought on al clash with Washington's vanguard as it marched from Whitemarsh towards Gulph Mills. however, with rumor prevalent in the city that the enemy were again apparently intending to move, and with the failure to notify Washington of Cornwallis's recent march in mind, Clark hastily "despatched several spies into the city, to endeavour to find the intended form of the enemy's march," only to discover that there was "no talk at present of their moving," though "their light horse were reconnoitering on Marshall's Road" in Darby Township west of the city, "and very inquisitive." The only apparent enemy activity was "cutting and hauling wood from this side the Schuylkill to the other without any annoyance; my spy says he thinks they might be easily caught" by light parties of Americans. Clark again protested that "the country people carry in provisions constantly" to the enemy. "I hope an example will be made to deter" this intercourse. Clark was desperately in need of a horse to substitute for his won, which had broken down with hard service, as he was "obliged to ride from 20 to 60 miles a day to meet" his spies coming from Philadelphia "to prevent suspicion" that might be engendered by constantly meeting them at one place. Loyalist spies were often about, and not every apparent Patriot could be trusted.

On the 20th, the day after the Continental Army marched from Gulph Mills to Valley Forge, Clark notified Washington, that near one thousand of the enemy crossed over to Jersey yesterday, with six field-pieces from four to six pounders, with design to let the country people" come in to trade with the enemy. "This day about thirty wagons, escorted by one hundred Hessians, went a foraging party towards Derby, and returned loaded with Hay and Rye straw, without interruption. I was reconnoitering" — Washington had directed General Potter to furnish Clark with a new horse — "and got notice of it, but it was too late to inform you." Clark then warned that the enemy "intend to make another foraging excursion...and then pull up and destroy the bridge" at the Middle Ferry "and remained quiet in winter quarters, for the remainder of the season." If the latter information was correct, Washington could be reassured that the enemy had little or no intention of attacking his ragged, starving army at Valley Forge. Nevertheless, he would have to remain very watchful.

By the 21st Clark could notify Washington more specifically that a spy "confirms the account of the enemy's intentions to plunder. They intend to visit Derby, Marple, and Springfield townships this week...I am informed Morgan's corps is in this neighborhood; should the enemy make any sudden move I will give the Col. notice, and every thing in my power shall be exerted to secure you the most instant intelligence of" the enemy's motions. His spies "say that we may expect a much larger foraging party this week than last." The enemy intentions in New Jersey had been accomplished, and the troops had returned to Philadelphia "loaded with beef, corn &c." He also noted that "The enemy are busy turning the inhabitants of Philadelphia "out of their houses, and quartering troops in them. Many of the citizens are obliged to live in their kitchens, and permit those tyrants to occupy their houses."

A major enemy forage towards Chester commenced on the 22nd. "I have just returned from Springfield," Clark immediately wrote to Washington, "having met one of my spies on the road; he informs me that Gen. Sir Wm. Howe and Sir Wm. Erskine, and a number of other generals, are with the army at Derby...they have a very formidable body with them...intelligence from another (spy) says they have 300 wagons with them...I have alarmed Gen. (Sic Colonel) Morgan...If a corps were thrown instantly toward the Middle Ferry," the enemy's "retreat is inevitably cut off." Washington, upon this notification, attempted to assemble a division under Major General Lord Stirling to oppose the enemy forage, but, because of the debilitated condition of his troops, was only able to muster a few men capable of sustaining such a march; far too few to effectively resist Howe's powerful corps, which consisted of the greater part of the British Army.

On the 23rd Clark was able to give Washington an intimate account of the location and units of the British foragers, who, he had learned, "intent to forage all" the country between Philadelphia and Chester, "burn the farms, plunder the inhabitants, and then return" to the city. Clark "fell in with a party of Lee's dragoons," with which he attempted to capture "a party of the enemy, in number about 30," but was unsuccessful. Indeed, Clark himself was almost captured, but since he "knew the road" better than the enemy he got off unscathed. Skirmishing between small parties of the Americans and British occurred, and the Americans were driven off. "The wretched situation of the (American) Troops," Clark wrote to Washington, "is much to be lamented; no provisions provided for them, ill clothed, many of them no shoes, and they are scattered...about the neighbourhood; in short, they had better be called away," since of little use in opposing the enemy. "If we had at this time 200 Light Dragoons in this quarter, we might catch the enemy by dozens...but as matters are at present in this quarter, the enemy will do what they please, almost unmolested."

The strength of the British column protecting the foragers had again denuded Philadelphia of most of its defenders, and Clark again hopefully wrote to Washington on the 26th, "My spy from the city has just arrived, and informs me General Knyphausen commands in the city, and has but very few troops with him, chiefly Hessians, one Regt. of English," but the Continental Army was in no condition to take advantage of this enemy weakness. He also reported, "At Gray's Ferry" the enemy "having a very good Bridge of Boats, and chief of the hay" gathered by the foragers "is taken over it" across the Schuylkill to the city; and as the enemy had "nearly completed their business, I imagine they'll return this evening...The country people are carrying in their produce" to Philadelphia "through fear of being plundered as the enemy returns."

The enemy, however, sis not begin to retire to Philadelphia until the 27th, when a spy, in the evening, notified Clark that "Sir Wm. Howe had just arrived" in the city when the spy left it, "and the van of his army got over Schuylkill," the balance of the enemy troops following over the river on the 28th. On the 30th Clark informed Washington that all the enemy troops were over the Schuylkill "except a guard at the middle ferry. They have taken up their Bridge at Gray's, and say that as soon as they have hauled their wood from this side" of the river, "will take up that at middle ferry also, and continue boats" to transport supplies purchased from "the market people" across the river.

The balance of Clark's December 30 letter was concerned with "a set of gentry that infest the public roads between this (place) and Schuylkill; and call themselves 'volunteers'; they are under no authority, and pay no respect to persons having passes or not, and indeed are no better than so many highway robbers, and unless they are speedily removed will make many enemies of those who are now our friends...These people rob, steal, and plunder persons without distinction, and lay it on the army, and 'tis believed" by the victims "they've orders for doing so; nay, they threatened the lives of the inhabitants if they go" to the authorities "to complain." Several of Clark's spies had been accosted by these "gentry," thereby preventing his full access to information from Philadelphia.

But Clark, a sick and exhausted man, was now near the end of his immediate services to Washington. "As the armies are both gone into winter quarters," he closed this letter to the Commander-in-Chief, "I presume nothing further will be wanting in my department, therefore," as Washington had previously promised verbally, "beg your permission to visit Mrs. Clark" at York. "I shall also be much obliged to you for a letter to the President," Henry Laurens, "and Congress, with such character as you think I may deserve...the bearer will bring them (sic) to me. So soon as he returns I shall set off."

On January 2, 1778 Washington "obliged" Clark with a letter to Laurens stating that Clark "is active, sensible and enterprising and has rendered me very great assistance since the army has been in Pennsylvania by procuring me constant and certain intelligence of the motions and intentions of the Enemy. It is somewhat uncertain whether the State of the Major's health will admit of his remaining in the military line, if it should, I may perhaps have occasion to recommend him in a more particular manner to the favor of Congress at a future time." General Greene also sent a similar letter of recommendation to Congress.

These letters had their effect. On January 13 Clark, evidently recovering in health, could write to Washington from York that Congress "have appointed me an auditor with Mr. (Matthew) Clarkson, to settle and adjust the accounts of the main army." This service would be far easier than the heavy duties imposed on him in his role of chief of spies. "Whether I am equal to the task assigned to me or not, I cannot presume to say...My utmost exertions shall be tried to give general satisfaction." Since the position of Auditor had no rank in the army, he requested permission to resign his commission as Major and Aide-de-Camp to Greene, which request would be presently granted. Clark closed by thanking Washington "for all favors" which the Commander-in-Chief had bestowed on him, "but in particular manner for your letter to the President, which, with General Greene's, without any solicitation on my part, have procured me what I did not expect," i.e., the auditorship.

On January 24 Washington replied, requesting Clark to "repair as soon as you possibly can to the Army, to enter upon the duties" of Auditor, since the army accounts were in an exceedingly disordered state because of a lack of adequate supervision. Apparently Clark was unable to assume this duty until the latter part of March, however; for it was not until the 25th of that month that General Orders at Valley Forge notified the army that he and Clarkson had been appointed.

Later, Clark returned to active service, being commissioned captain in the 13th Pennsylvania Regiment, transferring to the 8th Pennsylvania on July 1, 1778, to the 1st Pennsylvania in 1781, and to the 3rd Pennsylvania in 1783. He retired June 3 of the latter year because of the recurrence of ill health, resuming his law practice in York and "adjoining districts" until his death in 1819. In the interim between the Revolution and his death he experienced one more brief military service. In 1814, with the British invasion of Maryland during the War of 1812, he volunteered as an aide to Major General Samuel Smith for the defense of Baltimore, again retiring from service when the British receded from Chesapeake Bay. There was patriotic fire in John Clark's veins that even aging could not quench.


By John F. Reed, from The Picket Post, Valley Forge Historical Society, Winter 1976


FOOTNOTE: Other sources, including Bartlett's "Familiar Quotations" and Commanger and Morris in "The Spirit of Seventy-Six" report Hale as saying "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country." Return to text

Courtesy National Center for the American Revolution/Valley Forge Historical Society

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