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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Failure of the Plot to Seize the Federal Archives

By James Moody (1744–1809)

[Born about 1744. Died at Sissibou, N. S., 1809. Narrative of his Exertions and Sufferings. 1783.]

A TALE far more melancholy than any yet related comes now to be told; the recollection of which (and it is impossible he should ever forget it) will forever wring with anguish the heart of the writer of this narrative. In the end of October, 1781, Major Beckwith, aide-de-camp to General Kniphausen, came and informed Lieutenant Moody, that one Addison had been with him, on a project of high moment. It was nothing less than to bring off the most important books and papers of Congress. This Addison was an Englishman; and had been employed in some inferior department, under Mr. Thompson, the Secretary to the Congress. He was then a prisoner; and the plan was, that he should be immediately exchanged, return in the usual manner to Philadelphia, and there resume his old employment. The Lieutenant was abundantly careful, and even scrupulous, in his inquiries concerning the man’s character; on which head Major Beckwith expressed the most entire confidence; and observed, that Addison was equally cautious respecting the characters of those who were to attend him.

The matter was of importance; and Lieutenant Moody was confident that, though it might be difficult to perform his part of the business, yet it was not impracticable. He resolved, however, as Addison might think him an object worth betraying, that he should not be informed of his consenting to be of the party. If any other person did inform him of it, he was, to say the least, very imprudent. The Lieutenant pitched upon his only brother, of whom some mention has already been made, and another faithful American soldier, for this arduous enterprise. Their first instructions were to wait on Addison, and to bind him, as they themselves had just been bound, to mutual secrecy and fidelity, by an oath, which the Lieutenant had always administered to his followers in all his expeditions, when the importance of the object rendered such an additional tie necessary….

After taking this oath, a certain number of nights was agreed on, in which Addison was to expect them; and a certain place also appointed, where he was to meet them. In such an adventure, it was impossible to be exact to any time; but it was agreed, that if they failed of being at the place in any of the specified nights, he should no longer expect them; and they farther promised, by proper means, to apprise him, if possible, if any accident should befall them, so as either to delay, or wholly put an end to their project.

Things being thus settled, Addison left New York in due form and manner, as was generally supposed, in order to return to his former friends and employment; and, at the proper time, Lieutenant Moody and his friends followed him. The manner and circumstances of their march, it is not material nor proper here to relate: Suffice it to say, that, on the night of the 7th of November, the first in the order of those that had been appointed, they arrived in the neighborhood of Philadelphia, but on the opposite side of the river. They found Addison already on the spot, waiting for them, according to appointment. Lieutenant Moody kept a little back, at such a distance as not to have his person distinguished, yet so as to be within hearing of the conversation that passed. His brother, and Marr his associate, on going up to Addison, found him apparently full of confidence, and in high spirits; and every thing seemed to promise success. He told them, that their plot was perfectly ripe for execution; that he had secured the means of admission into the most private recesses of the State House, so that he should be able the next evening to deliver to them the papers they were in quest of. They, on their parts, assured him, that every necessary precaution had been taken to secure and expedite their retreat; and that they had with them a sure friend, who would wait for them on that side of the river, who, as well as themselves, would die by his side, rather than desert him, should any disaster befall them. He replied, that they should find him as true and faithful to them and their cause, as they themselves could possibly be. Soon after they crossed the river together to Philadelphia; and it is probable that, on the passage, Addison was for the first time informed that this friend was Lieutenant Moody. Whether it was this discovery that put it first into his head, or whether he had all along intended it, and had already taken the necessary previous steps, the Lieutenant cannot certainly say; but he assures himself, that every generous-minded man will be shocked when he reads, that this perfidious wretch had either sold, or was about to sell them to the Congress.

As the precise time in which they should be able to execute their plan could not be ascertained, it was agreed that Lieutenant Moody should remain at the Ferry-house, opposite to Philadelphia, till they returned. On going into the house, he told the mistress of it, by a convenient equivocation, that he was an officer of the Jersey Brigade, as he really was, though of that Jersey Brigade which was in the King’s service. The woman understood him as speaking of a rebel corps, which was also called the Jersey Brigade. To avoid notice, he pretended to be indisposed; and, going up stairs, he threw himself upon a bed, and here continued to keep his room, but always awake, and always on the watch. Next morning, about 11 o’clock, he saw a man walk hastily up to the house, and overheard him telling some person he met at the door, that “there was the devil to pay in Philadelphia; that there had been a plot to break into the State House, but that one of the party had betrayed the others; that two were already taken; and that a party of soldiers had just crossed the river with him, to seize their leader, who was said to be thereabouts.” The Lieutenant felt himself to be too nearly interested in this intelligence, any longer to keep up the appearance of a sick man; and, seizing his pistols, he instantly ran down stairs, and made his escape.

He had not got a hundred yards from the house when he saw the soldiers enter it. A small piece of wood lay before him, in which he hoped at least to be out of sight; and he had sprung the fence in order to enter it. But it was already lined by a party of horse, with a view of cutting off his retreat. Thus surrounded, all hopes of flight were in vain; and to seek for a hiding-place, in a clear, open field, seemed equally useless. Drowning persons are said to catch at straws; with hardly a hope of escaping so much as a moment longer undiscovered, he threw himself flat on his face in a ditch, which yet seemed of all places the least calculated for concealment, for it was without weeds or shrubs, and so shallow, that a quail might be seen in it. Once more he had reason to moralize on the vanity of all human contrivance and confidence; yet, as Providence ordered it, the improbability of the place proved the means of his security. He had lain there but a few minutes, when six of his pursuers passed within ten feet of him, and very diligently examined a thickety part of the ditch that was but a few paces from him. With his pistols cocked, he kept his eye constantly on them, determining, that, as soon as he saw himself to be discovered by any one of them, he would instantly spring up, and sell his life as dearly as might be; and, refusing to be taken alive, provoke, and, if possible, force them to kill him. Once or twice he thought he saw one of the soldiers look at him, and he was on the point of shooting the man; but reflecting that possibly though the soldier did see, yet he might have the humanity not to discover him, as he would fain hope was really the case, his heart smote him for his rash resolution; and he thanks God that he was restrained from putting it in execution.

From the ditch they went all round the adjacent field; and, as Lieutenant Moody sometimes a little raised up his head, he saw them frequently running their bayonets into some small stacks of Indian corn-fodder. This suggested to him an idea, that if he could escape till night, a place they had already explored would be the securest shelter for him. When night came, he got into one of those stacks. The wind was high, which prevented the rustling of the leaves of the fodder, as he entered, from being heard by the people who were at that time passing close by him into the country in quest of him. His position in this retreat was very uncomfortable, for he could neither sit nor lie down. In this erect posture, however, he remained two nights and two days, without a morsel of food, for there was no corn on the stalks, and, which was infinitely more intolerable, without drink. He must not relate, for reasons which may be easily imagined, what became of him immediately after his coming out of this uneasy prison; but he will venture to inform the reader, that, on the fifth night after his elopement from the Ferry-house, he searched the banks of the Delaware till he had the good fortune to meet with a small boat. Into this he jumped; and having waited a little for the tide of flood, which was near, he pulled off, and rowed a considerable way up the river. During this voyage he was several times accosted by people on the water; but, having often found the benefit of putting on a fearless air, he endeavored to answer them in their own way; and recollecting some of the less polished phrases of the gentlemen of the oar, he used them pretty liberally; and thus was suffered to pass on unsuspected. In due time he left his boat; and, relying on the aid of Loyalists, some of whom he knew were everywhere to be found, he went into a part of the country least known to him, and the least likely for him to have thought of; and at length, after many circuitous marches, all in the night, and through pathless courses, in about five days, he once more arrived safe in New York.

All these efforts for life were dictated, it would seem, rather by instinct than reason; for, occupied as his mind had been with his own danger, and his own sufferings, he can truly say, his greatest uneasiness was on account of his brother. There was not a ray of hope that he could escape, and less, if possible, that he would be pardoned. He was the son of his old age to a most worthy and beloved father, who had himself been a soldier, and who loved and honored the profession. Indeed he was a most amiable young man, as remarkable for the sweetness of his disposition as for his undaunted intrepidity. Excellent youth! Every feeling heart will forgive the tear which is now dropped to thy memory, by thy sorrowing brother! He perished by an ignominious death, in the 23d year of his age; the news of which, as may naturally be supposed, well-nigh brought the gray hairs of a venerable father with sorrow to the grave. It did not, indeed, immediately cost him his life, but it cost him, what is more valuable—his reason!

His fellow-prisoner was also sentenced to death; but, on making some pretended discoveries, of no considerable moment, he was reprieved. Lieutenant Moody is sensible it contains no information that can interest the reader; yet, as he preserves it as a precious relic, he persuades himself every man who is a brother will forgive his inserting an extract or two from his brother’s last letter, dated November 12, 1781, from the New Gaol Dungeon, Philadelphia.

“Let me entreat you not to grieve at my fate, and the fate of my brother-soldier. Betrayed by the man on whom we depended to execute the plan proposed by Captain Beckwith, we were taken up as spies, and have been tried and condemned, and are to die to-morrow. I pray you to forgive him, as I do, and Laurence Marr also, as freely as we hope to be forgiven by our Maker.—One more request I have to make to you is, that, taking warning by my fate, you will not hereafter so often venture yourself out of the British lines. I am in irons; but, thanks to the Almighty, I still have the liberty of thought and speech. O! may I make a good use of them, and be prepared, as I ought to be, for eternity! Sentence has not been passed on us above two hours, all which time I have employed in prayer, as I will continue to do to the last moment; and, I bless God, I feel quite cheerful.”

Lieutenant Moody cannot in justice close this plain and artless narrative, already spun out to too great a length, without bearing his public testimony, feeble as it may be, in favor of, and returning his thanks, as he now most cordially does, to those brave, loyal Americans, whom, though in the ranks only, he shall always think it the greatest honor of his life to have commanded in these expeditions. They were, in general, men of some property; and, without a single exception, men of principle. They fought for what appeared to be the true interest of their country, as well as to regain their little plantations, and to live in peace under a constitution, which they knew by experience to be auspicious to their happiness. Their conduct in their new profession, as soldiers, verifies their character; they have been brave, and they have been humane. Their honesty and honor have been uniformly conspicuous. It was a first principle, in all their excursions, never to make war against private property; and this has been religiously observed. Some striking instances of their forbearance might be given, if necessary, even when they have been provoked to retaliate by private wrongs and personal insults.