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General Parsons and William Heron- A Chapter of the Secret Service of the Revolution
From The "History of Redding" by Charles Burr Todd Volume 2

There were sold in London in 1882, at auction, and purchased by Dr. Thomas Addis Emmett, of New York, two volumes in manuscripts of the Private Intelligence of Sir Henry Clinton while commanding in New York. These volumes were subsequently published in the Magazine of American History and created no little comment from the fact that certain letters therein from William Heron of Redding Ridge, to General Oliver de Lancey, Clinton's Adjutant General, indicated Heron as an emissary of the British, and that General Parsons was in communication with them with a view of selling out his country, as Arnold had recently done. The letters, which form so serious an indictment of the two patriots, begin February 4th, 1781, when Heron wrote from Redding that he had hoped to see him (de Lancey) in New York before that time, but had failed to obtain a flag of truce. He added that he had been in Hartford and to the camps in the Highlands; to the former to sound the members of the Secret Convention (which had been held in Hartford the November before) as to what had been done there; to the latter to discover the feeling of the officers and soldiers in the Continental camp, and had succeeded to his entire satisfaction, and he proceeded to tell Clinton that the object of the Convention was to form a closer union of the Eastern and Western colonies, make Washington dictator, and raise money and supplies for the army (all of which had, no doubt, been borne to Clinton by his numerous spies months before). In the Highlands, he added, he spent the night with Parsons and Stark, both of whom were his friends, and gave a very gloomy picture of the destitution and discontent of the soldiers (which was also perfectly known to the British Commander).

In another letter Heron cautions his correspondent against paying any great attention to the reports of those who only "take up on hearsay." "Some of this class." he continues, "deceive persons in high office with you. They have no access to those from whom perfect knowledge can be obtained," "Believe me," he continues, "there are but few who are let into secrets of the cabinet, nor could I know them were it not for my intimacy with some of the principal officers in the civil and military departments arising from my having been a member of the Legislature and being still continued one of a committee appointed by the Assembly to examine into the staff department." While absent he would "have made it a part of his business to acquire a perfect knowledge of the state of the French at Rhode Island, but finding a person charged with that duty, who he believed would do it with tolerable accuracy, he had not done so." Again: "Private dispatches are frequently sent from your city to the chief here by some traitors. They come by way of Setauket (Long Island) where certain Brewster receives them at or near a certain woman's."

In another letter he gives the name of one Bradley, a Tory in Fairfield, where dispatches for him might be left and where he would leave his communications.

An admirable example of the manner in which Heron informed the British Commander of important events after they had occurred, was his account of the attempt by Colonel Humphreys, Washington's aide-de-camp, to seize the person of the British Commander-in-Chief by a rush upon his headquarters at No. 1 Broadway. " A daring enterprise was lately concerted at the quarters of the chief here," he writes, and goes on to describe the attempt after it had failed. So much was this the case that after a time de Lancey began to grow suspicious and complained that Heron's information was either stale or of no importance.

The most important task Heron had been given was the winning over to the British cause his friend General Parsons, and de Lancey now began prodding him to effect this. Heron replied that he had sounded Parsons in several interviews, and he recounts one of their conversation.

He began by relating to him a conversation he had with a gentleman in New York in the highest confidence of the Commander-in- Chief, in which he thus spoke of him (Parsons): "Don't you judge him to be a gentleman possessed of too much understanding and liberality of sentiment to think that the welfare of his country consists in an unnatural alliance with the enemies of the Protestant religion, a perfidious nation with whom no faith can be kept, as all the nations of Europe have experienced, " and went on to say that His Majesty's government, knowing him to be possessed of great talents, and with great influence in the army and with the country, would wish to make use of him for the laudable and honorable purpose of lending his aid in terminating this unhappy war in an amicable reunion with the parent state. Should he undertake it, government would amply reward him both in a lucrative and honorary way and manner, besides making a provision for his son." "He listened with uncommon attention," Heron continues, and replied that it was a matter requiring deliberation and postponed it to another opportunity. Next morning he sent for him, said he was well disposed toward the proposition, doubted if he could influence the army, but thought he could bring the officers of the Connecticut Line over.

Other letters to the same effect followed, Heron holding out the lure of winning over Parsons as a means of retaining the confidence of the British and affording him a pretext for visits to the British camp, where he used his eyes and ears with the most excellent results for the patriot cause.

To a casual reader of the above correspondence, it would appear that both Heron and Parsons were engaged in treasonable communication with the British, and that was the impression given when the letters were first published. But those who know the men, and the methods by which Washington and his generals gained their information of the enemy's plans and movements, will see in it simply a ruse de guerre of a character often practiced by them and played by Heron and Parsons in this instance with a shrewdness and nerve that must awaken our hearty admiration. Parsons has been fully vindicated in a paper read by Mr. J.G. Woodward before the Connecticut Historical Society in 1896. But in that paper the author gave a very unfair and unjust portraiture of Heron as a base and conscienceless person, who, while active in the councils of the Whigs, was, for purposes of personal gain, selling information to the British, and endeavoring to corrupt General Parsons as poor Arnold had shortly before been corrupted. But a brief examination of the character of Heron, of his environment, and of his later career, will dissipate this false impression and do justice to one of the boldest, most efficient and incorruptible patriots of the Revolutionary age.

Who was William Heron? His origin and early youth is shrouded in mystery. He never spoke of it except to say that he was a native of Cork, Ireland, and had been educated at Trinity College, Dublin. We first hear of him as a teacher in the academy at Greenfield Hill; later as a capable surveyor and engineer laying out the colony roads. Just when he settled in Redding does not appear, but it was sometime prior to the Revolution. In personal appearance he was short, portly, florid, with a deep bass voice and a countenance well calculated to disguise the true sentiments of the owner.

General Parsons, in a letter to Washington, dated April 6, 1782, thus describes him: "I forgot to mention the name of Mr. William Heron of Redding, who has for several years had opportunities of informing himself of the state of the enemy, their designs and intentions, with more certainty and precision than most men who have been employed. He is a native of Ireland, a man of very large knowledge and a great share of natural sagacity, united with a sound judgment, but of as unmeaning a countenance as any person in my acquaintance. With this appearance he is as little suspected as any man can be. An officer in the department of the Adjutant General is a countryman and a very intimate acquaintance of Mr. Heron, through which channel he has been able frequently to obtain important and very interesting intelligence. He has frequently brought me the most accurate descriptions of the posts occupied by the enemy, and more rational accounts of their numbers, strength and design than I have been able to obtain in any other way. As to his character, I know him to be a consistent national Whig; he is always in the field in any alarm and has in every trial proved himself a man of bravery. He has a family and a considerable interest in the measures of the country. In opposition to this his enemies suggest that he carries on illicit trade with the enemy, but I have lived two years next door to him and am fully convinced he has never had a single article of any kind for sale during that time. I know many persons of more exalted character are also accused; none more than Governor Trumbull, nor with less reason. I believe the Governor and Mr. Heron as clear of this business as I am, and I know myself to be totally free from every thing which has the least connection with that commerce."

When the army lay in Redding in the winter of 1778-9, Parsons' headquarters were at Esquire Betts', on Redding Ridge, diagonally across the wide main street from Heron's modest dwelling. It was then in all probability that the two men first met and formed those intimate relations which led Parsons later to recommend Heron to Washington as one of the most promising of their secret service emissaries. Together during that winter the two men concocted a plot to outwit the British Commanders. To the Whigs Heron was to remain a Whig. To the Tories, then very numerous on Redding Ridge, he was to go privately and acquaint them with the fact that he was an emissary of the British Commander, and secretly acting as such. An occasion offered he was to slip down to the British camp in New York, see and hear all that Parsons and the patriot chief would wish to know, return and report. When he could not go himself, he was to send, his favorite messenger being it said, the gigantic Mohawk Chief Warrups. The way he gained the British lines was to ride to Fairfield, leave his horse with a Tory there, cross the sound to Huntington on Long Island, or an adjacent part, and thence make his way into the enemy's lines at New York.

This mode of gaining information was a favorite one with Washington and his generals. For instance, Sergeant Major Champe, of Lee's Legion, at the request of the latter, in a plot to capture the renegade Arnold, deserted to the British, and no doubt of his treachery existed in the minds of his comrades until his return to camp (having failed in his object) disabused their minds. Similarly Sergeant Daniel Bissell, of Windsor, deserted to the British for the purpose of gaining information for his chief, was officially proclaimed a deserter, and being unable to get the desired information, or to return, remained with the British an unwilling recruit for 13 months. The most striking instance, however, is that John Honeyman, of Griggstown, Pa., Washington's most trusted scout, and of whom Stryker gives an extended account in his "history of the Battle of Trenton." None of his comrades, not even his wife, knew this man's true character. When Washington had a particularly difficult and dangerous piece of work to do, he employed John Honeyman. Such an occasion presented itself a few days before the famous descent on the Hessians at Trenton on Christmas night, 1776. It was vitally necessary for the success of his plan that the chief should know, not only the number of Hessians in their camp across the Delaware from his post, but also the disposition of each regiment, the position of each outpost, and of all scouts and videttes, together with the personal habits of the Hessian commander and the customs of his camp. John Honeyman was therefore sent for, secretly conducted to headquarters and in a secret interview with the commander-in-chief was told what was wanted and how to get it. Dressed as a drover, he went into the Hessian camp with fat beeves to sell, loitered about like a gaping rustic until he had obtained the desired information, and then, whip in hand and with a rope dangling from his shoulders as if to tie calves, he slouched out of camp. Arrived outside the lines he saw two American scouts some distance off, made prisoner of a cow in an adjoining barnyard, and led her off toward the British camp, snapping his whip meantime to attract the attention of the scouts. They at once pounced him, bound him, carried him to American headquarters and into the presence of Washington. Ordering out every officer the Commander-in-Chief in half and hour was in possession of every fact necessary for his masterly coup. Honeyman was then placed in guard house with the promise of a short shrift next morning, but during the night mysteriously escaped.

To return to Heron. The fact that he was of Irish birth is evidence that he was a pretty good hater of the British. Another strong proof of his patriotism is found in the fact that his townsmen were throughout the struggle honoring him with office, or placing him on committees to advance the patriot cause. For instance, April 2, 1777, he was placed on a committee to hire recruits for the Continental army. June 2, 1779, he was appointed delegate to a county convention on monetary affairs; Dec. 27, 1780, on a committee to ascertain the length of time certain citizens of the town had served in the army; April 16, 1781, on Committee of Correspondence; Feb. 28, 1782, on a committee to form citizens into classes for recruiting purposes. Also for four sessions during the war he served in the Assembly by vote of his townsmen, viz.: May, 1778; October, 1779; January, 1780; May, 1781; while at the close of the war, instead of being run off to Nova Scotia with the other hated loyalists, he remained and represented his town in the legislature through seventeen sessions, covering a period of eighteen years.

Heron, in personal bearing, was aristocratic and domineering, far from popular, and nothing could have exacted such a tribute from his townsmen but the fact known to them that he had performed a signal service to their country. There is another very significant incident in this connection. At a state banquet of the members of American Union Lodge, at Widow Sanford's, all officers, Gen. Parsons, a Master, presiding, Heron was given one of the most prominent seats, which would not have been the case had there been any question as to his loyalty.

Heron died on Redding Ridge, Jan. 8, 1819, at the ripe old age of 77 years, and was buried in Christ Church yard. His tombstone bears this inscription:

In Memory of William Heron, Esq.

Who was born in the City of Cork, Ireland, 1742, and died Jan. 8, 1819.

I know that my Redeemer liveth and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth.


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