The Secret Story of a Seafaring Citizen Spy

The British fleet was anchored near Gardiner’s Island, when a modest merchant from New London — one of the unheralded heroes who plied the Sound in small boats in the secret service of our French Allies — helped the tide of war. This is the true story of storms, spies, and the Revolution right here in our home waters.

A few years ago, Raymond Hartjen, 88, was chatting with his friend Henry Moeller about his research into British warships stationed in Gardiner’s Bay during the American Revolutionary War, when Moeller mentioned he had, somewhere among his papers, an illustration pinpointing where, exactly, the royal fleet had been anchored. 

To some, this might sound like rather a dry tidbit, but for local maritime-history enthusiasts like Ray and Henry, these unearthed details are lifeblood. Hartjen didn’t know at the time, however, that this rumor of an old maritime sketch would open a window onto something of much broader interest and import: a small-scale spy drama that had an outsize impact on the outcome of the American Revolution.

What Moeller, a retired professor of biology, found in his files several months later and sent on to Hartjen (who holds a doctorate in educational research) were copies of three crudely drawn maps inked in between paragraphs of several letters written in French and dated 1781. 

The maps showed a jutting peninsula of land, shaped like an aardvark’s snout, labeled “gardener,” with a line of numbered dots, each representing a ship in the British fleet, stretching northwest opposite “plomb island.” They looked like treasure maps and confirmed what had already been noted in local histories: The ships were anchored between Cherry Harbor Point on Gardiner’s Island, on the East End of Long Island, and Orient Point on the North Fork. 

“We had a picture of the boats off the shore. Now we had a new mystery: What’s in the letters?” Hartjen told me on a recent visit. 

We were sitting in the living room of his home, a small weathered house on the shore of, yes, Gardiner’s Bay. Like many men of his generation, who grew up on Captains Courageous and Two Years Before the Mast, Hartjen, who is president of the East End Classic Boat Society — as well as having been a licensed fishing captain since the 1940s — has had a lifelong interest in all things nautical. 

From what he knew about the naval conflicts of 1781 — some of it gleaned from Nathaniel Philbrick’s current best seller about the American Revolution, In the Hurricane’s Eye —  Hartjen thought the material he and Moeller had stumbled upon might provide links between revolutionary activities on the East End and the eventual American victory at Yorktown.

The letters lay on the table in front of us, written in a florid cursive script not easy to decipher. They were addressed, in one word, to “Mongeneral.” At least one letter was signed “Penevert, New London.” Hartjen doesn’t know French, but he could see that the correspondence contained lists of dates, ships, and naval movements. 

“I suspected that it was the work of French spies, because the French were in Newport keeping track of where the British were and what they were doing on Long Island,” Hartjen told me. 

He was right.

At the time, all of Long Island, including the South Fork, was occupied by British troops. Late in the summer of 1780, warships appeared in Gardiner’s Bay; some limped in battered by storms and battles in the Caribbean, filled with hundreds of sick sailors. More frigates and ships of the line arrived in the fall, including the flagships of Admirals Thomas Graves and Mariot Arbuthnot, the HMS London and the Royal Oak

Hartjen showed me a watercolor of the London. It was 177 feet long, with three gun decks and 90 cannon, and it carried 550 to 750 crew. The admiral’s apartment in the quarterdeck had gilded balconies. The oak hull was said to be so thick cannonballs sometimes bounced off. Pointing out the window at Gardiner’s Island across the bay, Hartjen told me he used to imagine the royal fleet, including nine or more ships of the line, anchored only two miles away. 

“I’d see those British men-of-war sitting out there in a dead calm. Not a breath of air out to fill their sails, ” he said, a boyish expression on his face. 

The British admirals took advantage of their stay in Gardiner’s Bay to recuperate and to reprovision their fleet. A hospital was set up in a caretaker’s house on the island, to tend the sick — many of whom died and were buried there. Dozens of officers were quartered in the Gardiner mansion. Drinking went on day and night. For entertainment, a checkerboard was carved into the dining room floor; it reportedly can still be seen today. The English, to maintain amiable relations with their American hosts, invited East Hampton dignitaries including the minister, Dr. Samuel Buell, as well as several members of the Gardiner family, to be feted aboard Admiral Arbuthnot’s flagship. 

Maritime sleuth Raymond Hartjen of Springs

The fleet stayed on for months, stationed at the eastern end of Long Island, Philbrick writes in his book, to control the entrance to the Long Island Sound and keep the French naval force under the command of Admiral Charles-Henri Louis d’Arsac de Ternay bottled up in Newport, R.I., 60 miles to the north. 

Admiral Graves had orders to intercept any French warship that attempted to sail south. The English were afraid the French would attack Benedict Arnold, the American traitor, who was leading 1,200 British soldiers on a rampage along the Chesapeake Bay coast in Virginia — without naval protection.  

At the time, the war was at a stalemate. George Washington, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, having suffered a number of defeats, had hoped the French Navy would turn the tide of war. But two years after the French entered the fray in 1778, the English still controlled the American coastline and New York. General Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau’s 5,000 French troops, and the accompanying French naval force of seven ships of the line and six frigates were trapped in Newport. 

Washington, eager to get the French fleet to aid his campaign in Virginia, had spies on Long Island keeping an eye on the condition of the English fleet in Gardiner’s Bay. In late January 1781, he received an important dispatch: Three English ships sent out on the afternoon of January 21 to confront three French vessels, thought to be leaving Newport, were lost or badly damaged in a winter gale. 

News that the British vessel Culloden, a 74-gun ship of the line, was wrecked on a pile of rocks near Montauk; that the Bedford, equally armed with cannon, had been dismasted; and the America not yet found, was a potentially game-changing piece of military information. The balance of power between the two competing naval forces momentarily tipped in the French favor. Washington urged the French to seize the opportunity, provoking a flurry of correspondence and intelligence reports.

Clearly, the letters and map fragments in Hartjen’s possession were part of this important cache of historical documents. It’s no coincidence that they began on Feb. 3, not long after the fateful storm, and included information on the repairs of the Bedford and Culloden. But without knowing who was writing to whom, it was impossible for Hartjen to fit the letters in the overall picture. 

To understand the vital role that local citizen spies played at this pivotal juncture in American history, Hartjen had a bit of archival sleuthing to do. 

“Moeller told me he’d found the letters in the Huntington Library in California. He kept telling me I had to find the ‘Destouches book,’ ” Hartjen said. 

Archivists at the East Hampton Library confimed that a collection, the Destouches Papers, existed at the Huntington Library. The Huntington’s catalog enty, in turn, led Hartjen to a bound auction catalog published by the American Art Association in 1926. The Destouches collection, sold to the Huntington Library that year, is described in the catalog as “unpublished historical papers . . . the private property of the French Admiral Charles Rene Dominique Sochet, Chevalier Destouches . . . a prominent figure in the war of American Independence.” 

Ray found and bought the catalog. “It was more than I usually would spend on a book,” he said, under his breath. But well worth it. The catalog listed the letters chronologically and contained translations and summaries of their content. 

Charles Destouches, it turned out, had succeeded Admiral de Ternay as commander of the French fleet in Newport after Ternay died in December 1780.  His correspondence includes letters from George Washington; one posted on Feb. 22 of 1781, urged Destouches to hurry to Virginia to “block up [Benedict] Arnold in Chesapeake Bay and prevent succor reaching him.” The catalog also summarizes many of the dozen or so letters from Penevert, who was supplying Destouches with vital information about the British fleet. 

Penevert, it appears, was one John Penevert (or Pinevert), a French-American merchant in New London, Conn., who invested in at least one American privateer during the war. He and his agents, Hartjen surmised, were crisscrossing the Long Island Sound in small oared boats called whalers to surreptitiously observe the enemy’s movements — on an almost daily basis. 

On Feb. 26, for example, Penevert reports in imperfect French: “For several days the English fleet has been reinforced by . . . four large frigates, one that has 40 cannon; one corvette; two brigs . . . and three or four commercial vessels.” A map of the fleet follows, dated “four in the afternoon of the 26th.” 

Penevert also kept Destouches informed of the traffic of provisions along the Connecticut coast and delivered news of militia skirmishes. It was dangerous work. Loyalists and patriots were next door neighbors. Suspicion was rife. Spies were hanged or sent to prison ships, where many died of disease or starvation.  

“There are traitors here in abundance,” Penevert wrote, concerned that his letters had been intercepted and sent to the British command at Gardiner’s Island. “I’m very worried,” he wrote to Destouches urging him to make sure their letter carriers were trustworthy.

Most important, Penevert confirmed that the English were constrained (“bien en barasé”) by the loss of the Culloden and Bedford and preoccupied with repair work. In late February, he wished the admiral “a happy expedition to Virginia,” indicating that Destouches had made a decision to move forward with Washington’s plan. But it wasn’t until March 8, after much delay and fanfare, that the French finally set sail. Scarcely a day or two later, the British, having nearly completed their repairs, left Gardiner’s Bay in pursuit. They caught up with the French at the mouth of the Chesapeake on March 16, but were outmaneuvered and battered by Destouches in a brief clash of cannons off Cape Henry. 

Destouches did not follow up on his advantage and attack Benedict Arnold’s forces (instead the new admiral returned to Newport, his colorful victory tucked like a foulard in his pocket), but the venture confirmed to General Washington that his strategy could succeed. 

In September, he repeated the gambit.  The French fleets, under Admiral Comte de Grasse, took advantage of a moment of British disequilibrium to converge on Virginia and trounce the Royal Navy at the Battle of the Chesapeake.  

A few weeks later, in October 1871, Lord Charles Cornwallis, unprotected by his fleet and cut off from resupply, capitulated to Washington and Rochambeau’s troops at Yorktown. 

The American War of Independence was won. Little is known about what happened to Penevert. He sent reports to Destouches until later that spring, when, in May, Destouches was replaced by the French admiral  Comte de Barras. Possibly, Penevert continued to provide intelligence to the new admiral, but if so the paper trail has been lost. 

A search of the internet does yield what might be Penevert’s gravestone. Hartjen was pleased to hear, if it was in fact the same Penevert, that this unheralded French American patriot survived the war and died peacefully in 1805 in New London, where, according to the headstone, “he lived many years, respected for his integrity: and esteem’d for his benevolence.” 

 

 

Top Image: The marine artist Patrick O’Brien captured the warships in question in Enemy Engaged: The Battle of the Chesapeake (oil on canvas, 24” x 36”), which depicts fighting sail in a pivotal defeat for Britain that unfolded as it did in part because of intel gathered in Gardiner’s Bay.

Glyn Vincent

An author and journalist, Vincent has written for The New York Times Book Review, The Huffington Post, The New York Observer, The Paris Review, Columbia Magazine, and other publications. He was a finalist for the National Magazine Award and is the author of "The Unknown Night," a biography of the American painter Ralph A. Blakelock. He keeps a small boat in Accabonac Harbor for fishing forays to Gardiner’s Island and beyond.