Television series and popular books such as TURN: Washington’s Spies and Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring recreate and immortalize the exploits of intelligence officers and spymasters such as Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge, Lt. Caleb Brewster, and Maj. John André. In the late summer of 1778, Washington’s intelligence services did provide him with reports of British activity in New York City. However, the most reliable source was not Tallmadge but another talented, yet mysterious major named Alexander Clough.
Clough’s life before the Revolutionary War is unknown. He never married or had children. No portraits of Clough exist; however, a Philadelphia woman named Sally Wister described him in her journal as “pretty.” Clough’s obituary printed in James Rivington’s Royal Gazette indicates that he was a “native of Ireland, formerly an adjutant in the Norwich militia, then a non-commissioned officer in the horse guards.” In addition to his prior service in the British cavalry, Clough was a skilled swordsman. Captain Alexander Graydon of the Continental Army recalled in his memoirs:
I met with Major Clow (or Clough) of Colonel Baylor’s dragoons who had been a pupil of Angelo and others of the best masters in Europe. He soon convinced me that I had still much room for improvement; though he was pleased to assure me that I was by far the best fencer he had met with in America and far superior to Benson, a fencing master in New York.
He entered the Continental Army on November 7, 1775 as a second lieutenant in 1st New Jersey Regiment, known as the “Jersey Line” under the command of Col. William Alexander (Lord Stirling). Congress promoted Clough to adjutant thirteen days later. He took part in small Tory-hunting operations around New York City with the Jersey Line and served as the adjutant of the day at Fort Ticonderoga on multiple occasions in October and November 1776.
In early January 1777, Gen. George Washington awarded command of a new light horse regiment to Col. George Baylor. The 3rd Continental Light Dragoons, or simply Baylor’s Dragoons, required elite soldiers for mounted battlefield and reconnaissance operations. General Washington allowed Colonel Baylor to nominate his own junior officers, but the general himself handpicked the field officers.
General Washington’s first selection was Major Clough, whom he described as an “experienced Officer in the Horse service, and a Gentleman like Man, as far as I have seen of him.” When selecting officers for the dragoons, Washington often chose the family members of his friends, but this particular choice was merit-based. Washington had an asset at his disposal and he planned to use him.
Clough spent the beginning of 1777 in Virginia recruiting soldiers for the regiment. Baylor’s Dragoons fought in the Battle of Brandywine and the Battle of Germantown. In October 1777, Major General Stirling reported to Washington from Reading, Pennsylvania, that Major Clough was very ill, likely due to wounds suffered at Germantown. He must have recovered sometime that fall or winter at Valley Forge because on May 1, 1778, Washington entrusted him with the training of Peregrine Fitzhugh, Washington’s eventual aide-de-camp and the son of Col. William Fitzhugh. That same week, Col. Stephen Moylan, the commander of Continental Army cavalry, reported to Washington that Major Clough inspected several horses purchased by the state and declared them unfit for service.
Clough could certainly train young officers and horses for service in the regiment, but he was also a brilliant tactician and a courageous presence on the battlefield. Colonel Moylan reported to Washington again on either May 7 or 9, that after scouting a 200-man British woodcutting detail heavily guarded by several small redoubts, Major Clough “Sent two of the Militia horse in sight of their Lines, which as he expected brought out twelve of the enemies Light horse.” Clough and his men charged at the fooled British cavalry, capturing four prisoners and three horses in total. The major requested that his men, “who behav’d with the greatest resolution,” be rewarded £100 each. Washington thanked the “major and his small party for their bravery,” and agreed to pay 170 dollars for each horse.
Major Clough’s actions in the vicinity of Philadelphia certainly impressed Colonel Moylan, who wrote to Washington on May 23, 1778:
I must Continue Major Clough there for Some time longer not only because I have an high opinion of his Conduct but allso, that he can be better Spared than either of the other two field officers that are with the Brigade.
Around this time, Clough became one of Washington’s carefully chosen intelligence officers and he began directly communicating with the commander-in-chief to collect accurate intelligence concerning British movements near Philadelphia. The same day Colonel Moylan praised him to Washington, Major Clough wrote to the general:
I received Your Excellencys instructions Yesterday in the afternoon, the Horse being much fatigued I thought it necessary to give them a short time for refreshment in the main sent down two partys of a Sergt and six men each, the one to be under the directions of Captn McLean the other to the officer Commanding at Plymouth meeting House—Captn McLean sent me the Inclos’d in consequence of which I purpose down to white marsh Church with the whole party this afternoon.
The enclosed letter from Capt. Allen McLane reported that spies inside Philadelphia believed the British were about to move out of the city but that McLane’s men were too fatigued to pursue them. Luckily for the dragoons, the British did not evacuate that day.
One week later, General Washington provided Major Clough with a new mission. Sensing the impending British evacuation of Philadelphia, Washington wanted the earliest intelligence of their withdrawal. He ordered Major Clough to send a detail into the city as soon as possible to gain as much information as they could of the evacuation and the shipping situation—without disturbing the city’s residents—and return to camp with detail when finished. On June 18, the day of Britain’s evacuation, Major Clough wrote to Washington at 3 p.m. Instead of returning to camp, the eager yet understaffed major proposed attacking the British.
Agreeable to your Exellency instructions I sent an Officer to town and the inclosed is his report—if your exellency will induldge me with twenty men from each regt of Horse I can cross at philidelphia and fall on thair rear.
Clough did not pursue to the British to Haddonfield, New Jersey as he wished. He spent the next several hours questioning the prisoners taken by Captain McLane’s detachment in Philadelphia and reported to Washington again at 8 p.m. that evening that he was not “able to collect any Matteriall intelligance from them.”
On July 9, 1778 Colonel Moylan received orders to move all of his cavalry “towards the North river to join the army.” In late July, Major Clough commanded a reconnaissance and foraging detail in Bergen County that collected “300 head of horned Cattle 60 sheep Some horses mares & Colts,” and reported to Colonel Moylan that British soldiers manned the encampments at Powles Hook and Staten Island.
Late that summer, Major Clough became a spymaster. In order “to obtain a true account of what is passing in New York,” Washington ordered Clough on August 25 to find men, disguise them as merchants, and send them into the city with a memorized list of heads, or instructions. The list included determining: the designs of the enemy, “whether they mean to evacuate New York wholly,” “whether they have any views of Operating against this Army—which will be best known by their preparations of Waggons, Horses &ca—these will want Shoeing, repairing,” “how the Enemy are off for Provisions,” “whether the Cork Fleet is arrived,” “whether the Transports are Wooding & Watering,” “if Admiral Byrons Fleet is arrived,” “where Lord Howe & the New York Fleet is,” “whether any Troops have been Imbarked lately & for what place,” and “whether any have arrived from England lately, or are expected.”
In a one month span, Major Clough’s spy network and intelligence apparatus completed every one of General Washington’s instructions. After receiving his orders at 10 p.m. on August 25, Major Clough rode for Bergen at 2 a.m. on the 26th. One day before Lt. Caleb Brewster delivered a similar report, Clough wrote to Washington:
On Sunday morning a detachment from the corps of Artillery with twelve field peaces march to join Genl Tryon, who is driveing cattle from the east end of Long Iseland, the Cheaf part of thayr heavy Artillery, & Ordinnances stores, are put on board transports laying at red hook, likewise a large quantity of forage. the whole of the transports are wooded, and watter’d, for six months.
Clough added that Lord Howe sailed for Rhode Island, Admiral Byron’s fleet had not yet arrived, two of the Cork Fleet came in, and “no troops arive’d naither is there any expected.” He obtained this intelligence from three Royal Navy deserters and a wealthy informant that made him “rely more on his information then on that of many others.” In his next letter to Washington on August 28, Major Clough reported that the British loaded cannons and forage into transports on the Hudson River, and that a British spy previously sent to Washington returned to New York City to boast of his exploits.
On August 31, Washington proposed sending a spy into the city to determine “whether General Clinton and Lord Cornwallis are both gone to the Eastward and what Corps embarked in the sound and at the Hook,” and if the grenadiers and light infantry were gone. Remembering Fort Lee’s excellent vantage point of the river, Washington directed Clough to keep a scout there to observe British shipping.
Major Clough’s agents were so inconspicuous that militia guards in Hackensack often detained them as contraband traders. Washington ordered the militia commander to stop harassing anyone with a pass from Clough. Nevertheless, Clough’s confidence in his network increased. “I think we have got it at this post, in such a chanell that we cannot faill, of getting certain information of every thing of moment, that Occurs in New york,” he wrote to Washington on September 2. His spies confirmed that the British were repairing their wagons and bolstering their defenses at Fort Bunker Hill. They reported that four of Admiral Byron’s ships and six more of the cork fleet arrived and deduced that if the British expedition to Rhode Island failed, the British would seek provisions elsewhere. Clough’s next report two days later stated that the British continued to repair their wagons, but were also shoeing their horses and raising a new cavalry unit—clear signs of an upcoming operation.
Clough wrote to Washington on September 12 with intelligence from three French merchants and one of his agents in New York City that General Clinton traveled to Long Island to rendezvous with his troops and that the British army pressed 700 men into service and sought 1300 more. Two days later, Clough ominously reported that the British ordered “one hundred and fifty transports to be got ready to sail at an hours warning,” and that Gen. Henry Clinton and his army were returning to New York from Long Island. The next day, Clough confirmed General Clinton’s return and added that many sailors in Admiral Byron’s fleet were sick, rendering the HMS Conqueror unfit with Byron himself lost, and that Admiral Howe returned from Rhode Island. Major Clough’s last letter to Washington on September 18 reported Admiral Bryon’s arrival.
The British invaded Bergen County in search of forage on September 22, 1778, severing Major Clough’s communication with General Washington. Under the command of Colonel Baylor once again, Major Clough led reconnaissance details throughout Bergen to monitor the foraging British as they advanced deeper into the county. On September 27, Colonel Baylor and Major Clough made the disastrous decision to encamp in the loyalist neighborhood of Tappan, near what is now present day River Vale, New Jersey. In the early morning of September 28, British soldiers under the command of Maj. Gen. Charles Grey surprised and attacked the dragoons using only their bayonets, in what is now known as the Baylor Massacre. In an attempt to escape, Colonel Baylor and Major Clough attempted hiding in a large Dutch chimney before they were wounded. Both men were taken prisoner, but the major succumbed to his injuries the next morning. On October 3, General Washington wrote to several of his generals about Major Clough’s death and informed Henry Laurens, the President of the Continental Congress: “I should estimate the loss at about fifty men and seventy horses—Major Clough is dead of his wounds—This affair appears to have been attended with every circumstance of cruelty.”
Alexander Clough’s life before 1775 remains a mystery. Despite working in the shadowy world of intelligence, his service to the United States was anything but uncertain. Clough provided exceptional leadership and valuable intelligence at a time when Gen. Washington desperately needed both. The untimely, inglorious death of one of its most reliable and effective officers left the Continental Army with a void that was soon filled by Major Tallmadge and his famed Culper Ring.