In late June 1780 a messenger arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, with intelligence for Lt. Gen. Charles, Earl Cornwallis. The messenger, Capt. John La Boularderie De Treville, was a South Carolina Continental artillery officer and prisoner of war on parole. He was also a British spy. On at least four occasions, from June 1780 to January 1781, De Treville was sent into North Carolina to gather intelligence on American force levels and movements. By all accounts, he was successful on these missions and delivered actionable intelligence to British leadership, often at critical periods before their advances northward. His status as a British spy soon came to be discovered by American leadership. He was arrested and narrowly avoided being hanged, somehow escaping back to British-occupied Charleston. Remarkably, for someone wanted on the executable offense of being a spy, De Treville chose not to evacuate with the British but remain in South Carolina. With his “secret” more or less out, the post-war period was anything but tranquil as De Treville quite literally fought to restore his public character as a loyal American.
The pre-war life of John De Treville is certainly unique among Continental officers. John La Boularderie De Treville was born at Port d ‘Orléans, French Acadia (present day Nova Scotia, Canada) in January 1742. John’s father, Antoine Le Poupet de La Boularderie, of noble French descent and a captain in the French army, defended Louisbourg from the British during the War of Austrian Succession. With the capitulation of the fort in 1745, Antoine was sent to Boston, eventually paroled, and then returned to Acadia. In 1749 he participated in the French re-taking of Louisbourg and later in its final surrender to the British in 1758. With the transfer of power went all of the family land and most of their property. Later that year, Antoine was in England seeking indemnification for his losses. His requests denied, he relocated to France where he lived on pensioner handouts for the rest of his life.
Given the family’s financial and property losses during the previous fifteen years at the hands of the British it would seem highly unlikely that John De Treville, in 1760, would become an officer in a unit serving under British command. While seemingly implausible it nonetheless turns out to be true. John La Boularderie (De Treville) did indeed serve as a 1st lieutenant in the Legion Britannique in Germany from 1760 to 1762. The Legion was a foreign regiment of volunteer soldiers and “deserters from all nations” in British service under Ferdinand, the Duke of Brunswick. His raison de rejoindre l’armée is not known but it seems at least possible, given the unit’s reputation, that he was a deserter or prisoner of war and was offered a position in the Legion. Most notable about De Treville’s experience in Germany is the relationship he made with a young British officer, Charles Cornwallis. De Treville confirmed this connection in a February 1785 “To the Public” notice in the South Carolina Gazette and General Advertiser where he provided copies of letters to and from Lord Cornwallis and his military discharge papers from his battalion commander in Germany.
Somewhere in the time between the disbandment of the Legion in 1762 and 1775, perhaps after his father’s death in 1771, De Treville emigrated to South Carolina. How or what motivated him to join the rebel or Patriot cause is unknown but by January 1776 he was a lieutenant in the 4th South Carolina Regiment of the Continental Army, in command of an artillery battery in Charleston, South Carolina. By December 1778, just a few days after the British had captured Savannah, Georgia, he married Sarah Julia Wilkinson in St. Helena Parish, Beaufort, Port Royal. The next record of him is at Fort Lyttelton on Port Royal Island in early February 1779 where he commanded a company of Continental troops and a militia contingent. When a British force of 200 Regulars under Maj. William Gardner moved northward toward the fort, De Treville had to make a critical decision: defend the fort and wait for reinforcements, retreat, or surrender. The decision to retreat became clear when the militia deserted him. Vastly outgunned and outmanned, De Treville spiked the guns, blew up the fort, and moved toward friendly forces. Two days later he connected with Gen. William Moultrie who had arrived on the island with 300 men. De Treville participated in the Battle of Beaufort-Port Royal where he and his men were commended for their conduct. A few months later, De Treville was sent to Fort Johnson on James Island and then into Georgia where he was wounded during the Siege of Savannah. With the subsequent British assault on Charleston in early 1780, De Treville served as a battery commander in the American defensive breastworks. He became a prisoner of war with the surrender of the city in May 1780. By every account of his service before May 1780, Capt. John De Treville was a brave and dedicated officer serving the American cause. What triggered a massive shift in his loyalty to assume an exceptionally dangerous role as a British spy is not known, but for the next eight months that was his new, and clandestine, occupation.
De Treville’s first appearance as a spy is in British correspondence on June 13, 1780 when Maj. Archibald McArthur of the 71st Regiment sent “Capt. Treville” to deliver notice of his arrival in Cheraw Hills, South Carolina. By June 30, De Treville had arrived in Charleston with his intelligence from North Carolina, Cornwallis noting, “Monsieur Treville returned with information that he saw 2,000 Maryland and Delaware troops at Hillsborough under Major General de Kalb.” In early September, De Treville was summoned again from his parole in Beaufort (or Charleston). Right before he set out he reported to Cornwallis that “several men of Colonel Lechmere’s battalion of Beaufort militia declared to him that they would join the rebels” whenever they could.
De Treville’s second mission came at precisely the right time for him to identify the American forces on the planned British axis of advance into North Carolina. Perhaps as a result of being paid “15 guineas and $7,000 secret service money,” he delivered a full and accurate report on American forces. His summary included precise counts of artillery pieces, cavalry units, numbers of Continentals Army and militia units, the commanders of each, movements of the troops and accurate accounts of where each unit was located. Most importantly, De Treville provided tactical information, acquired from Gen. Thomas Sumter himself, that the militia would fall upon the flanks and rear of the army as they advanced and use the “Indian method” of fighting, concealing themselves behind bushes and trees. These exact tactics were used in the seven week advance, occupation, and retreat from North Carolina.
De Treville’s third excursion is documented in both British and American correspondence. Unfortunately for him (and British intelligence efforts) this appears to be the occasion where his secret was coming to light, or at least was suspected. In late November 1780, he was in Wilmington meeting with Pierce Butler who had him deliver a letter to Abner Nash, the governor of North Carolina, in Hillsborough. Butler reported to not know De Treville very well “but have always heard Him Called a Zealous, diligent and good Officer. He is very Intelligent, & can give you a good deal of information respecting the situation of South Carolina. He has a Number of their Publick Papers.“ By Butler’s account, De Treville was also providing American leadership with intelligence on the British. To what extent he was playing “both sides” is not known, but it could be that the information he was providing to Americans was a ruse to gain access to American leadership and their information. What or who raised suspicions about De Treville’s espionage is not known but it appears that De Treville’s correspondence and interaction with the highest levels of American state political and military leadership raised concerns.
The beginning of 1781 marked the end of De Treville’s espionage activities. On January 1, 1781, General Greene sent Lt. James Bruff of the Maryland Line to Wilmington, directing him to arrest De Treville as he had “good reason to believe” he was spying for Lord Cornwallis. Greene instructed the lieutenant to send him to Virginia or to Greene’s camp and to be closely guarded. Bruff did not arrive in time to arrest De Treville; unknown to both of them he had already been arrested and was somehow either released or had escaped. He was already back in Charleston by January 2 where Lt. Col. Nesbit Balfour noted that De Treville “was nearly hanged” and of the need to get “him replaced by a much surer and better man.” Remarkably, although De Treville was done with spying he had one last mission. Later in the month, he accompanied the British expedition to capture Wilmington, North Carolina. William Hooper, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, noted that the invasion force was “escorted” by a “Frenchman of the name of Treville who left Wilmington and went to Cha’stown about 3 Weeks ago.” It certainly seems possible that De Treville’s presence in Wilmington in November laid part of the groundwork for the British entrance into the city.
Nothing is known of De Treville’s actions between February and November of 1781, when there was a prisoner of war exchange. Heitman’s Historical Register lists De Treville as exchanged on June 15, 1781 along with many other prisoners of war held in Charleston. That conflicts with a roll of Continental officer prisoners of war in the Charleston area which lists De Treville (and several other officers) as having “joined the enemy.” If he was indeed with the British Army in early to mid-1781 during the prisoner exchange time-frame it would seem he was still in the Charleston area—his first child, John, was born in January 1782 and his daughter, Harriet, in October 1782.
If Greene and American military leadership knew of De Treville’s espionage in late 1780 then by August 1782 the inhabitants of Port Royal knew as well. He was, at some point, exchanged because Greene had ordered him back to military duty during this time. De Treville responded to Greene’s request by saying that he could not comply with order because he was “much Ingured By a Severe & unjust Sensure” of his conduct, now “condemned and treated in the most cruel and unprecedented manner by the publick without trial, without having the Satisfaction of Even knowing the particular of my accusation Or Even my accusers names.” He closed the letter by explaining his generous parole, his travels into North Carolina, his arrest at Wilmington, and his dealings with the commandant of Charleston. De Treville added that on his excursions he was always accompanied by Americans loyal to the cause of independence, attaching a letter from a man named John Waties as an alibi. He closed the letter by imploring Greene to be “conscious of no just cause of complaint” against him, but only a “premeditated malice and jealousy every vile and malignant insinuation no less industriously then falsely circulated;” he hoped Greene would “feel with indignation and compassion all that load of oppression” and grant him justice. Greene’s response, if there was one, has not been located. Nor has any sanction or punishment of De Treville by the state of South Carolina or the Continental Army for his actions.
For some reason John De Treville either chose not to or could not evacuate with the British when they left Charleston in December 1782. It could be that he felt he could refute the allegations against him. He likely made the calculated decision that British correspondence, if somehow captured, concealed his identity enough that he would not be revealed. De Treville would later assert that the parties accusing him had no proof provided with their claims. There is no indication that Greene or his accusers every provided any proof. His growing family may have been a factor in the decision not to leave; his wife was just twenty-one years old and pregnant with his second child at the time of the evacuation. Likewise, De Treville may have heard of the myriad difficulties of starting a new life in Nova Scotia, East Florida, or elsewhere and found it unappealing, as it indeed turned out to be for many Loyalist expatriates. Whatever difficulty was perceived in relocation, there were known difficulties in remaining. A new life in East Florida may have been safer forDe Treville’s, as his next two years in South Carolina would be fraught with danger.
By mid-1784, both De Treville’s service with the Legion Britannique and his association with the British during the war came to a very public light in an article in the South Carolina Gazette and General Advertiser. How he and Capt. St. Marie Levacher, of the 1st South Carolina Regiment, came to a war of words is not known. But sometime before the end of May 1784, Captain Levacher made the (false) accusation that de Treville had been Cornwallis’s valet de chambre during the war in Germany. Clearly slighted by this accusation, De Treville went so far as to write a letter to Cornwallis, then in England, asking him to clarify that he was not his valet. While he waited for a response from Cornwallis, other events spiraled almost out of control for De Treville.
In August, De Treville and another South Carolina Continental officer, Capt. Adrian Proveaux, were involved another public quarrel (presumably) having to do with De Treville’s associations with the British during the war. The sequence of events with Proveaux is somewhat unclear but the affair started in Charleston with Proveaux drawing a sword upon De Treville. A witness recalled that De Treville refused to draw his sword which defused the matter for a few hours. At midnight De Treville sent a messenger to Proveaux’s home with a “challenge.” Proveaux refused to “meet him” on the grounds that De Treville was a “Scoundrel, &c, he could not go out with him, but would cane him wherever he saw him.” The messenger, Richard Brooke Roberts, returned to De Treville with the refusal, the reason why and told him he had apologized to Captain Proveaux for he (Brooke Roberts) did not know that De Treville was a “damned eternal rascal.” When pressed by Brooke Roberts on whether De Treville knew “what imputations you laid under while the British were is possession of this town?” De Treville simply responded: “yes, sir.” The statements in the newspaper do not delve further but the very next morning, Captains Proveaux and Levacher appeared at the City Tavern where De Treville was lodging. Proveaux was there, true to his assertion the night before, to “cane” De Treville. When De Treville refused to come downstairs, Brooke Roberts begged to be excused from this “dirty affair,” asserting that Proveaux had acted in the incident with “spirit and honor.” Another man, Obrien Smith, testified in the same newspaper column that De Treville was indeed “caned” by Proveaux and ran away, offering no resistance.
There was another encounter between Proveaux and De Treville in this time frame, likely after the events noted above. Joseph McFarlane, an acquaintance of De Treville’s, recalled that one evening after dinner in mid-August, he and De Treville were sitting at the City Tavern when they saw Proveaux and another man, Capt. James Thompson, having a drink. The two started to talk about the dispute among them. As Proveaux was responding, De Treville arose and swung a stick at the men, breaking a bottle on the table. All of the men went to an adjoining room where a physical altercation ensued between de Treville and Proveaux. In the scuffle De Treville fell to the ground where one of the men took a dirk from him. Proveaux then started to choke De Treville, only ceasing when Captain Thompson pulled the two apart. The affair ended when “armed men” arrived and broke up the scuffle. These sordid events appear to have finally concluded when De Treville left the city, going against his oath not to do so until Captain Proveaux “could have an opportunity of taking notice of it; which he agreed to.”
A few weeks later De Treville responded publicly in the Gazette of the “disagreeable altercation” between him and Proveaux. As to the “imputation there mentioned” in the previous edition of the paper he called for a “public enquiry in order to elucidate any circumstances respecting such imputation.” He went on to add that there was no proof of any of the claims made against him. “The civilization of society has produced many moral maxims likely to endure: one of which is—That without proof no man is culpable—Therefore, Capt. Proveaux or his friends, using such specious (though vulgar) arguments, is a shameful subterfuge unworthy of men of probity.” He closed the notice by saying that “respecting any Antagonist, I am ready to decide, in the shortest way, whenever he pleases to meet.”
In February 1785 De Treville posted in the Gazette two letters and his discharge document from the Legion Britannique. The first letter was from De Treville to Cornwallis in England dated May 30, 1784, asking him to refute the assertion that he was ever Cornwallis’s valet de chambre in Germany. The letter is telling because De Treville only asked Cornwallis to refute “that I never served you in that capacity,” but not to refute the other assertions about his activities with Cornwallis during the American Revolution. De Treville requested a few lines from Cornwallis so “that I may be enabled to confute so ungenerous an assertion, and so injurious to my character as a soldier, and a gentleman, and the family from which I have the honour of being descended.” Cornwallis responded with a very brief letter dated August 18, 1784 from England that he had never heard of Captain Levacher and that De Treville was never his valet. Fortunately, the challenges to the several duels were never carried out; De Treville’s antagonists (Proveaux and Levacher) lived on into the 1800s in the vicinity of Charleston.
So, what conclusions can we draw from De Treville’s activities with the British? What were his motivations for undertaking such a perilous endeavor as spying? It is certainly possible that De Treville was not a willing participant. We may never know whether he whole-heartedly volunteered to spy, was forced/coerced into it or something in between. Recent scholarship has highlighted the fact that over 800 American prisoners of war in the Charleston area either volunteered or were outright forced into British service in 1780-81. It could very well be that De Treville, similar to those prisoners of war, was provided a sort of Hobson’s choice of spying or “choosing” unpalatable options such as harsher confinement or property confiscation. Another possibility could be that, like many, he was disillusioned with the war and was aligning himself for a higher position in a British-controlled America. There are too many possible motivations and missing sources in the case of De Treville’s actions from 1780 to 1785 to draw any conclusion other than he was a brave Continental officer, undertook an exceptionally dangerous role with his former enemy, and then resorted back to his original loyalty. Even his death in 1791 is shrouded in some mystery. An unsourced biography notes that De Treville died after an “unfortunate difficulty” resulting in not one but two duels where he killed his antagonist but later succumbed to wounds from the first duel. A published death notice, however, explains that he died from a “long and painful sickness.”
It may be well that there are no further sources for De Treville’s life from 1786 until his death in 1791. By definition John De Treville was a traitor and was fortunate not to have been tried for high treason. In North Carolina, between 1782 and 1783, hundreds of men were put on trial for high treason, some of the sentences were carried out. Fortunately, by 1785, many Americans (especially South Carolinians) were beginning a reconciliation process to reintegrate Loyalists into society. “South Carolina Patriots turned out to be generous and mild in their treatment of Loyalists.” It might be that De Treville, with no proof to the claims of his spying, was seen in a similar light as Loyalists who aligned themselves, temporarily, with the British. Some sense of this reconciliation can be seen in De Treville’s descendants who became prominent citizens of Beaufort. De Treville’s grandson, Richard, became lieutenant governor of the state. To what extent De Treville himself regained acceptance in the Beaufort community may never be known. Perhaps the discovery of new sources and further research will shed more light on the curious life and character of John La Boularderie De Treville.
Dale Miquelon, “Le Poupet Dd La Boularderie, Antoine,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 15, 2019, www.biographi.ca/en/bio/le_poupet_de_la_boularderie_antoine_4E.html.
List of officers in the Legion Britannique, home.foni.net/~adelsforschung/brittanique.htm.
Archibald McArthur to Charles Cornwallis, June 13, 1780, in Ian Saberton, ed., The Cornwallis Papers: The Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in The Southern Theatre of the American Revolutionary War, 6 vols. (Uckfield, East Sussex: Naval & Military Press, 2010), 1: 131-132.
Nathanael Greene to James Bruff, January 1, 1781, in Richard K Showman, ed., The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, 13 vols. (Chapel Hill: Published for the Rhode Island Historical Society by University of North Carolina Press, 1976-2005), 7: 34-35.
Francis B. Heitman, Historical register of officers of the Continental Army during the war,of the revolution, April 1775, to December 1783 (Washington, DC: The Rare Book Shop Publishing Company: 1914), 195.