“But while a confidence trickster, a play actor or a gambler can return from his performance to the ranks of his admirers, the secret agent enjoys no such relief. For him, deception is first a matter of self-defense.”—John le Carré, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Throughout the Revolution, the American intelligence apparatus utilized agents with widely different backgrounds and motivations. Of the war’s many spies, the service of Caleb Bruen stands out for its peculiarity, its complexity and for, well, its gruesomeness.
Many narratives of the Revolution are constructed from the informative but often unreliable pension applications of veterans taken thirty years or more after the war’s end. Caleb Bruen, however, requested compensation from Congress for his suffering and for expenses incurred during the Revolution at the end of 1785, fewer than three years after the Treaty of Paris. His petition, the letters of those who corroborated him, and various other primary source documents tell the heartbreaking story of a man forced into a life he never desired, but nonetheless found a way to adapt and persevere for himself, his family, and ultimately his country.
In 1776, the forty-one-year-old Caleb Bruen was the captain of a company of artificers who constructed numerous fortifications from Long Island all the way up through Manhattan to King’s Bridge before they crossed the Hudson River to Fort Lee. One of his soldiers claimed the company worked at the fort until late October. Over the next two months the company retreated south to Newark, built two bridges across small streams leading to the Delaware River, and eventually joined the Continental Army at Morristown after the battles at Trenton and Princeton.
But it appears that Bruen never made it to the Delaware River with his unit. According to a letter written by Dr. Alexander MacWhorter to Gen. Henry Knox, it was at this time that Bruen’s “political character sank, in the estimation of the most zealous whigs.” During the initial British occupation of Newark in 1776, many Patriot families fled the city, including Bruen’s. Roughly one week after the British left, many of the families returned. Unfortunately, Bruen and his family returned on the same day that a Scottish regiment started its occupation of Newark at the “earnest solicitation of some of our Tories.” Dr. MacWhorter continued, “For the sake of his family, and to save his property in the fainting hour of the State of New Jersey he with many others took, what was called ‘Protection.’” After obtaining this document stating that crown troops would look after him and his family, when Bruen returned to his unit at Morristown in January 1777 he found that his actions were so offensive to his soldiers that he had no choice but to return home.
Three months later, a party of Loyalists captured Bruen near “a place called Schrallenburgh in the County of Bergen” while he was returning from New England with his wagon, four horses, and two large casks of rum. In Bruen’s petition to Congress he stated that in addition to all of the property seized, the British held him prisoner in New York for nearly three months before they gave him a chance to earn his release. If Bruen “would go to New Jersey and bring them intelligence of General Washingtons Army,” he would receive “Considerable Rewards,” a parole, and the necessary passes to accomplish his mission. Upon reaching Newark, Bruen claimed he immediately sent for the commanding officer of American forces in town, Maj. Samuel Hayes.
“Sometime in the summer of 1777, I was sent for to the house of Caleb Bruen in Newark ware I found Caleb Bruen whom I suspected was a prisoner with the Enemy in New York,” wrote Major Hayes to Congress. “He told me that he had sent for me to Get one to trust him in a certain business, and that he should be put his life in my hands, and hoped I would deal honorably by him and keep the secret he was about to Intrust me with.” Bruen revealed to Hayes that the British released him and several others under the condition that they collect intelligence on the number and disposition of the American forces in New Jersey. Bruen, however, offered to serve as a double agent for the Americans and promised to bring Hayes “Every intelligence he could procure of the designs of the enemy.” Major Hayes replied that he thought Bruen’s plan was a “hazardous business,” and refused to participate unless his superiors approved the plan.
Major Hayes then brought Bruen to Dr. MacWhorter, who traveled with him to Gen. Nathanael Greene’s headquarters in Short Hills, New Jersey. Dr. MacWhorter wrote that General Greene “professed himself desirous of imploying him for the purpose of gaining intelligence,” and promised to send a letter to Dr. MacWhorter’s house with the false intelligence he wanted Bruen to deliver to New York. Bruen then copied the letter and left for New York City the same evening. Though due more to Greene’s inexperience in counterintelligence operations than Bruen’s skill as a double agent, the British promptly imprisoned Bruen when he delivered the report as they considered it too extravagant to be true. He was released shortly thereafter.
This unsuccessful mission from General Greene and second stint in jail failed to stop Bruen from serving the Continental Army. In September 1777, after conversing with several Loyalist refugees living in New York who were planning to “make a decent upon the Jerseys” under the command of Gen. Cortland Skinner, Bruen quietly snuck into Bergen County and then travelled to Newark to warn his friend Jonas Crane of the impending attack. While in Newark, several locals who believed Bruen to be a Tory arrested him and brought him before a judge who fined him $100. “Those that knew his business” told Bruen to continue his mission and that the fine would be sorted out later in order to keep Bruen’s cover.
It was after this latest setback that Bruen found success in his role, and he claimed to continue his work as a double agent for the next five years under the orders of “General Washington, General Dayton, and others.” To support his claims, he provided several passes with his petition. One from Major Hayes issued on April 20, 1779 permitted Bruen, who held “the generals pass,” to travel to Bergen County with the assistance of the Jersey Guard. Gen. Elias Dayton issued two passes to Bruen under the orders of General Washington. The first pass, given on May 1, 1780, allowed Bruen and two others to travel to New York and return on “Publick Business.” The second pass given the following January permitted Bruen to travel “within the enemies lines & return.” He even provided one pass to travel to the Marquis de Lafayette issued by Tench Tilghman, though it is uncertain why. Clearly several of the most important American officers of the time trusted and valued Bruen’s work enough for him to continue in this role.
Evidently Gen. Henry Clinton, the commander of British forces in America, valued Bruen as well—a testament to his ability as a double agent. When General Clinton heard of a possible revolt among the soldiers of the Pennsylvania Line, he dispatched Bruen and several other emissaries with a letter that offered “assurances of the most liberal rewards and directions in what manner to act in order to effect a junction,” according to General Dayton’s statement in support of Bruen’s petition to Congress. Instead of giving the letter to the soldiers in revolt, Bruen went directly to Dayton and “by this conduct made the Commander-in-Chief acquainted with the designs of the enemy and enabled him to counteract them.” The other two emissaries to the Pennsylvania Line, a noted Tory named John Mason and his guide James Ogden, chose to deliver Clinton’s message to the soldiers. Both men were turned in by the mutineers and hanged for spying.
Before Bruen returned to New York City, a deserter from the Continental Army informed General Clinton of Bruen’s employment as an American double agent. The British promptly imprisoned Bruen in the “Dungeon” for ten months, “seven months of which time he lay in the lower dungeon without any light,” and “ten weeks of which time he was allowed no subsistence, except half a pound of Bread a day and water, until he was reduced almost to a skeleton.” Dr. MacWhorter often visited Bruen after his release and wrote to General Knox that his “life remained in a doubtful state for a long time,” noting that it took him almost a full year to recover his health. Adding insult to Bruen’s horrific condition, MacWhorter alleged that a number of Tories plundered his home while he was imprisoned.
Though a deserting Continental soldier betrayed him in the end, it is clear that Bruen successfully manipulated his allegiance to the British up until his final imprisonment. How exactly was he able to successfully travel back and forth from British-controlled New York to the American forces in New Jersey? In a letter to Washington, Brig. Gen. Moses Hazen described Bruen as a “noted partizan for British Commerce,” indicating that even a few American officers were unaware of his true identity. This too explains why Dr. MacWhorter closed his letter to General Knox by stating that he did not believe Bruen profited monetarily from the “illicit trade under the cloak of which the affair of obtaining intelligence was carried on.” Alexander Rose acknowledges this practice, writing that “several American spies had masqueraded as traffickers during the war, bringing home minor intelligence picked up on their trips into enemy territory.”
If there was any question of Bruen’s true loyalty, Dr. MacWhorter made it profoundly clear: “I am decidedly of opinion that those who were intimate with him believed him to be more attached to us then to the British, and for my own part I have not a doubt upon this head.” In General Knox’s final judgment provided to the Continental Congress, he declared that it was “apparent that Caleb Bruen did practice the office of a double spy” and ordered the treasury to pay him three hundred dollars for his “services and sufferings.” Bruen passed away in 1818 at the age of eighty-three.
When we think of Revolutionary War spies, we likely do not think of men such as Caleb Bruen. When forced to decide between the war and protecting his family in the winter of 1776, he chose his family. Between losing his home and accepting protection from British forces, he chose the latter. His motivation to become an American agent was not borne of fierce patriotism or ideology like Nathan Hale, but a British ultimatum that he used in order to serve his country. Bruen’s experience helps shed light on the diverse motivations and origins of the Revolution’s secret agents and illustrates the dreadful punishments they suffered for their choices. Perhaps the most unusual part of this story is that Bruen spoke openly about his service, thus keeping his story alive—ironic for a man who could have been killed during the war for revealing his secrets.
Collection M-804, Pension and Bounty Land Application Files, No.10371, Jedediah Beach, New Jersey, National Archives and Records Administration. Beach’s pension application noted that Caleb Bruen’s brother, Jeremiah, also commanded the company.
Dr. Alexander MacWhorter to Gen. Henry Knox, March 27, 1786, Papers of the Continental Congress 1774-1789, M247, Roll 53, Item 42, p. 370, National Archives and Records Administration. Alexander MacWhorter was a pastor from Newark, New Jersey and served as the chaplain to General Knox’s artillery brigade. His letter is, by far, the most detailed account of Bruen’s service.
Samuel Hayes to the Continental Congress, January 10, 1786, Papers of the Continental Congress 1774-1789, M247, Roll 53, Item 42, p. 365, National Archives and Records Administration. Dr. MacWhorter described Hayes as a man with integrity and diligence.
Pass from General Dayton, May 1, 1780, Papers of the Continental Congress 1774-1789, M247, Roll 53, Item 42, p. 361, National Archives and Records Administration. Dayton was involved with many other intelligence operations throughout New York and New Jersey throughout the war.