Abraham Bancker gave in to temptation on September 10, 1789, when he petitioned George Washington for a federal appointment as compensation for his service during the American Revolution. He had been reluctant to write for some time, feeling as though his competitors were superior in ability and more reasonable in their requests. “This Application proceeds merely from a reverse of Fortune,” he wrote. Bancker was born to wealthy parents and attended college, but his situation at present stood in “Striking Contrast” to his life before the war. With his career path abandoned and his parents “reduced to distress,” a federal appointment would do well to ease his burden.
Who was Abraham Bancker and why did he believe that he should receive a federal appointment? In 1780, Bancker was an active intelligence agent and a spy who operated behind British lines in New York City and Staten Island, communicating timely and descriptive reports through multiple channels and to Washington himself on several occasions. “Your Excellency I trust will recollect that you received Sundry Papers of that Nature, under the Signature of Amicus Reipublicae, and many other anonimous Productions penned by the same Hand, and likewise Plans of Fortifications, and other Communications of an interesting and important Nature,” he reminded Washington. “My breast was fired with that Ardor for Liberty,” Bancker wrote, “I was not permitted from Situation & Circumstances, to draw the Sword in her defence—and the voice of Reason, and the impulse of Duty pointed out to me this, as the only method, within my Power, of being at all serviceable.” If one takes Bancker at his word, that he volunteered to act as an intelligence agent, he would be one of only a few men and women who chose to serve clandestinely—a decision made even more commendable given the severe consequences if discovered. A thorough examination of the evidence shows that Bancker was a valuable intelligence agent for the Continental army at a pivotal moment of the Revolution. While he was not the catalyst for the change in how Washington viewed intelligence, Bancker’s reporting is an example of the quality work agents could produce by the war’s end.
The Mersereau (often spelled Mercereau) Ring was one of the two major American spy networks that operated in greater New York City during the revolution, the other being the Culper Ring. Though their methods and tradecraft were less intricate than the Culpers (they did not use codes or invisible ink), the Mersereaus were assets to the Continental army in that their reports came at times when the Culpers were inactive or unable to deliver. Beginning in 1776, brothers Joshua and John Mersereau, along with Joshua’s sons Joshua and John LaGrange, began supplying Washington and his generals with reports on British troop movements and fortifications. These dispatches from the Mersereaus came at a crucial time for the Continental army as it intermittently retreated north up Manhattan Island, often engaging the superior British army without clear knowledge of their enemy’s strength and intentions. At this time Washington was indeed focused on receiving military intelligence—the location, disposition, and composition of forces, as historian Alexander Rose suggests, but the Mersereaus also managed to report on prisoner conditions in New York City and that British light horse units were hamstrung due to a hay shortage. This was still low-level intelligence, but it was the kind that could only be collected by having men behind enemy lines—no small feat considering that the British executed Nathan Hale for spying only two months prior.
The Mersereaus retreated with the Continental army through New Jersey and across the Delaware River to Pennsylvania after the fall of Forts Washington and Lee in November 1776. In the days after the initial crossing, Joshua Mersereau and his son were ordered to examine the river’s shoreline. They noticed that there were boats hidden on the New Jersey side of the river, and spent the following days removing them “to prevent the British from pursuing.” The younger Joshua Mersereau recalled in later years that his brother, John LaGrange, had stayed in New Brunswick behind British lines to collect intelligence for the Continental army at Washington’s request. He served in this role for eighteen months before aroused British suspicions forced his relocation to Rutland, Massachusetts(now Vermont). His father’s apprentice John Parker, who assisted with their collection effort and as a courier, did not escape. He was captured by the British in New Jersey and starved to death in a New York City prison.
It would be easy to attribute Parker’s death to poor tradecraft or a lack of skills. On the contrary, the ring adopted advanced techniques relative to their peers at this stage of the war such as towing messages in submerged bottles behind their boats that could be easily jettisoned if they came under duress, and utilizing dead drops—leaving the messages under rocks or in hollowed-out trees. When the intended recipient collected the message, they acknowledged the communication by flashing a light to the opposite shore, in this case, from Staten Island to New Jersey. Parker’s end, despite the ring’s methods, is just another illustration of the razor thin margin between life and death for those who undertook the clandestine service.
With John LaGrange in Massachusetts, the elder Joshua Mersereau in Rhode Island, and the younger Joshua Mersereau under orders to guard army baggage in New Jersey, the ring went silent—with one exception. Washington began communicating directly with John Mersereau, the elder Joshua’s brother and the boys’ uncle, in June 1779 and formally requested that Mersereau establish a regular correspondence with him in April 1780. Mersereau responded to Washington:
I have at Last Seen the person I wanted and have Setled agreable to your Request the Correspondance he is Now gone to New york and will Meet me on Thursday night or fryday then I Shall immediately Come to you and Deliver what Can be Collected in the time and for time to Come we Shall have it Reguler once a week & oftner if any Suden Movements appear
One week later, Mersereau wrote to Washington that he planned to meet his agent again and if he could not, the intelligence would be left in a dead drop. It is possible, though one cannot know for certain, that Abraham Bancker was the person Mersereau engaged for this particular correspondence. That British fortifications and troop strength on Staten Island were the focus of the reports Mersereau relayed to Washington supports this theory and is further buttressed by Bancker mentioning the same locations in the first “Amicus Reipublicae” letter less than one month later.
There are eight known letters written by Bancker using the name Amicus Reipublicae, which roughly translates to Friend of the Republic. Of those eight, five went to Mersereau first, and three were sent to Washington directly. In the first letter dated May 17, 1780, Bancker delivered a remarkably detailed description of the units and artillery on Staten Island, as well as an assessment on the quantity of provisions. In a report written three days later, Bancker finally provided intelligence that could have an impact beyond the tactical level, claiming that the British command in New York City was nervously anticipating the arrival of the French fleet and had begun preparing their defenses, defenses that Bancker described as twelve stone-filled ships “to Sink as Cheveux de fries to Obstruct the paseage in the Channel,” and that “they are gone to the [Sandy] hook and are to be Sunk at the first aperance of an Enemy.” Additionally Bancker claimed that the British planned to augment their ships in New York Harbor with six more under the command of Rear Adm. Thomas Graves, who had departed from Plymouth, England, three days prior. Bancker raised the number of ships to be sunk off of Sandy Hook from twelve to twenty-seven in the following letter, and reported that the British had constructed batteries oriented towards the water from Bunker’s Hill to the East River. Word of the British victory at Charleston, South Carolina, had not yet reached New York City, as Bancker claimed that many of the local politicians believed Sir Henry Clinton should abandon his siege and return to New York City to aide in its defense.
With the benefit of hindsight one knows that these preparations meant little since the French fleet did not arrive off the coast of New York as the British expected. This should not render this reporting useless as it exemplifies a contrast: Washington had requested and received strategic and operational intelligence that aided his decision-making. It is likewise important because as of early May 1780, the Culper Ring was on the verge of fracturing and failed to provide reports until June, despite Washington’s wishes. Recapturing New York City and the learning the location of the French fleet were at the forefront of Washington’s mind at this point in 1780; as historian John Ferling writes, “Washington had fixated on New York, intransigently refusing to move his army from its shadow lest the opportunity to attempt its conquest should another French squadron happen by.” Bancker and the Mersereau Ring did well to fill this intelligence gap.
On June 1, 1780, Bancker wrote to Mersereau of two separate threats to northern New Jersey. The first was a planned expedition into New Jersey against some part of Hackensack, Bancker guessed, but turned out to be the Battle of Connecticut Farms—in which the New Jersey militia halted Gen. Wilhelm von Kynphausen’s British and Hessian forces as they advanced on the Continental army encampment at Morristown, New Jersey. The second threat was a plan to depreciate the currency in Bergen County, New Jersey, by introducing £150,000 of counterfeit Continental dollars “which it is feared will cause much Trouble, if not prevented ere it circulates among the Farmers,” Bancker claimed. This was not the first plot against the value of the Continental dollar and it would not be the last. It was not even the first time that one of Washington’s intelligence networks reported this kind of economic intelligence. Early notice of such plots was essential, as historian Stuart Hatfield writes: “Once in circulation it had the effect of destabilizing what was already an unstable currency, leaving the American economy teetering and the people’s faith in Congress shaken.” At the end of this last report Bancker revealed that one of the ring had recently been imprisoned and warned that the their collective anxiety may limit their output, writing, “The Fear of being detected restrains us . . . from being as Serviceable as we would wish.”
Bancker’s next letter came nearly three weeks later, though it contained a critical piece of intelligence. Gen. Sir Henry Clinton had arrived the previous week from Charleston and taken up residence in Bancker’s own home, placing him in an ideal location to eavesdrop on the discussions of the British high command.
The grand Fort at West Point is Said to be their Object in view, as they esteem that a Key to the eastern States, & fancy if they shall once be possessed of that Passage, that they will be able to prevent all Supplies coming to Genl Washingtons Army. They ridicule the opposition you are making to impede their progress, as they seem confident that the depreciation of your Curry & the ill Success that has attended your Arms will give a final Stroke to American Politicks. You must be very cautious whom you trust for you have internal Enemies whom you consider as real friends.”
It cannot be known for certain if Bancker was referring to Benedict Arnold, but there are several reasons to believe that he was—despite never using Arnold’s name in his letters. First, Arnold was the only Continental general who wrote to the British about gaining command of West Point and outlining how it could be attacked. Second, General Clinton and his adjutant general Maj. John André had just arrived in New York from Charleston and had not received Arnold’s recent correspondence—making their immediate return the ideal time for General Knyphausen and his staff to brief Clinton on their defector-to-be. And third, it was widely known that despite the warnings of several officers, Washington believed Arnold to be one his most loyal generals, right up until his betrayal. This report, however, did not stir Washington to significantly bolster the defenses at West Point or to reconsider who should command the fort, as he appointed Arnold to the post in early August.
It is also possible that Bancker was referring to Ethan Allen, who was then entangled in what became known as the Haldimand Affair, a series of meetings and correspondence in which Allen and several Crown officials plotted to establish Vermont as a British colony in response to Congress’s refusal to grant it statehood. Bancker wrote in early July that Allen had met with the British in New York, and reconfirmed the report on July 6: “Ive heard nothing farther of Mr Allen, however the Manner in which I received the acct is So [direct] that I cannot disbelieve it being true.” The scheme was ultimately unsuccessful and Allen was exonerated after a trial before the Vermont General Assembly. Bancker may have detected Arnold or Allen, but the conspiracies of both men had the potential to disrupt the operations of the American army. Neither man received much attention, if any, in the letters of Washington’s other spies in the summer of 1780.
Bancker continued to report on military fortifications, meetings of the British command, and potential operations against the American forces through the early fall. He penned his last letter as Amicus Reipublicae on September 9, 1780. John Mersereau later recalled:
At the time Arnold deserted, and went in New York, a Number of Persons were apprehended and put in the Provost [jail]. Mr Bancker at that time, knowing the part he had taken, being fearful he might fare the same Fate, he made his escape from New York to Staten Island, then went to me where he was concealed, and if he could find out that he was in the Black List, he would send me word
Bancker was one of several American agents who fled New York City after Arnold’s defection because they were afraid that Arnold would reveal their identities. Although he was never compromised, the episode undoubtedly frightened him enough to remain on Staten Island for the remainder of the war. This eliminated Bancker’s best asset as an agent—his ability to transit to and from New York City.
In 1789, Bancker had good reason to believe that Washington would approve his application for federal office. Not only had he risked his life to supply Washington with reports, but he had also satisfied a secondary intelligence customer. With his application he attached a statement from Brig. Gen. Elias Dayton, who claimed that Bancker provided him with intelligence that left him “well pleased,” throughout the war. Fellow agents John Vanderhovan, Asher Fitz Randolph, and the Mersereau brothers likewise gave testimonies; all of them held his commitment to America and the quality of his work in high regard.
At the time of his application and for one year afterward, Bancker served in the New York Assembly, indicating that he did not receive an appointment. It cannot be known for certain why he was not chosen, but Bancker did acknowledge that he may have applied too late, writing in a follow-up letter to Washington, “Perhaps from the advanced State of the Session, and the Number of Appointments already made, there may be few Offices left to be conferred which are not either engaged, or have suitable Characters waiting for them.” Bancker’s service may not have been the reason he failed to secure the posting, but as historian Alexander Rose notes, Washington did tend to display ingratitude towards his agents in the years after the revolution, when they were no longer of value.
In the end Bancker’s greatest contribution may not have been his clandestine service at all. He was made a delegate to New York’s Ratifying Convention and on July 26, 1788, he voted in favor of the Constitution after a contentious debate. The final vote tally was thirty to twenty-seven. In the months before the convention, Washington urged delegates to rise above their disagreements and support ratification, writing that doing so “may promote the lasting welfare of that country so dear to us all, and secure her freedom and happiness.” Then, as he had done eight years before, Abraham Bancker made his choice with the best interests of his country in mind.
Abraham Bancker, 1789, Manuscript/Mixed Material, www.loc.gov/item/mgw758005/.
Nathanael Greene to George Washington, November 11-12, 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives; Alexander Rose, Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring (New York: Bantam Dell, 2006).
Stuart Hatfield, Faking It: British Counterfeiting During the American Revolution, allthingsliberty.com/2015/10/faking-it-british-counterfeiting-during-the-american-revolution/.