Friday, January 20, 2017

The General’s Lady...Was She a Spy?

Today's article explores a historical mystery I had never heard about until I read this fascinating post by Celia Hayes, who kindly agreed to substitute for me this month. I'm on deadline for DawnKing, the fourth and final book in Tales of Faeraven.

Celia treats us to an interesting glimpse of colonial history, 

 Thanks Celia, and welcome! 

Janalyn Voigt

The General’s Lady...Was She a Spy?

Margaret Kemble Gage in a portrait by John Singleton Copley, circa 1771. Public domain image.

She may have been a spy – the general’s lady, Margaret. She was the wife of Thomas Gage, officer in the service of his Majesty, King George III, a veteran of the wars between the French and their native Indian allies the British colonials settled along the mostly-temperate shores of North America, Thomas Gage was a commander and administrator of agreeably competent ability, a scion of minor nobility; titled, but not from one of the grander, wealthier houses, and in any case, a younger son. In the 18th century scheme of things, the heir got the title, the property and the income. The spares (other sons) were allocated to the church or the military, with a suitable rank or living purchased for them. 

Thomas Gage had been in the British army at various ranks appropriate to his age and experience, participating in campaigns in Flanders (the War of Austrian Secession) and Scotland (the second Jacobite uprising). He dabbled in politics briefly, unsuccessfully running for a seat in Parliament in the early 1750s after suffering a disappointment in love when a lady of rank and quality broke their engagement. He briefly contested the first, but not the second, and probably took refuge in the fact that his regiment was posted to the Americas. This happened just in time for him to experience the brutal defeat of an expeditionary force of British and Colonial troops sent to capture the French stronghold of Fort Duquesne on the Ohio River. In this effort, Thomas Gage was a comrade his eventual foe, George Washington, then a colonel in the Virginia militia.

The catastrophe of the failed Braddock expedition had Thomas Gage doing some serious re-thinking of established British Army fighting practices. He was promoted to full colonel and given the authority to recruit a new kind of army unit, whose members functioned as skirmishers and irregulars, taking advantage of the wooded landscape in clashes with the French and their Indian allies. He recruited in up-country New York and New Jersey, drawing on local soldiering talent and from other British army units, making friends and connections.

Sometime during 1757 or 1758, Colonel Gage encountered Margaret Kemble, likely at formal dance or occasion where the local colonial ‘squire-archy’ would be accustomed – indeed, comfortable mingling with those from “across the pond” whom they viewed as their social equals. She would have been about twenty-four when she married Colonel Gage in December, 1758, in Albany, New York. He was nearly twenty years her senior – not uncommon when it was expected that a man should be well-established in the world and capable of supporting a wife and family. She was no innocent country girl dazzled by a good-looking soldier in a braid-trimmed red coat, who had many titled friends and relatives.

Margaret was the daughter of wealthy merchant Peter Kemble, the great-granddaughter of the van Courtland who became the first native-born mayor of New York, a connection to the influential Schuyler clan, and a notable beauty in her own right. She was painted more than twenty years later by John Singleton Copley, dressed in fancy robles a la Turquerie,
a fashion for loose costume in a vaguely Middle-Eastern style – a beautiful woman, even allowing for artistic license. She had an oval face, with fine, regular features, dark eyes and hair. In the painting, she looks pensive, intelligent, even a little melancholy. 

With the surrender of the French in the New World, after the fall of Montreal two years later, Thomas Gage received another promotion, tasking him with governing the former French territory. Margaret joined him there – and the first two of their eventual eleven children were born in Montreal. Six of those children survived to adulthood. Likely Margaret was happy in her marriage and pleased with the start of her family. By 18th-century standards she had done very well to accept his proposal of marriage. Her husband’s position enabled her to live in considerable comfort, and most observers then and later thought their marriage a loving and companionable one. With the ending of the bitter war between English and French colonists, made even more horrible by the use of Indian proxies against the British colonial population, all would have been sunshine and promise.

Thomas Gage proved an able civil administrator despite a certain impatience with the local wealthy landowners and a distrust of the Catholic church only to be expected from an Englishman of his era. But he couldn’t stand the harsh Canadian weather, confessing waspishly in a letter to being, “very much [tired] of this cursed Climate, and I must be bribed very high to stay here any longer.” When his superior in the Americas, the much-respected Lord Jeffrey Amhurst returned to England on leave, Thomas Gage was named Amhurst’s interim administrator; the most powerful authority in the British-American colonies.

Thomas and Margaret promptly moved from the frigid north to the familiar surroundings of New York. When Lord Amhurst announced in 1756 that he had no intention of ever returning to the Americas, Thomas Gage was confirmed his permanent successor. Well-recompensed for his tireless labors in governing a territory several times larger than Britain itself, he sent all his surviving children back to England for their education. Thomas Gage appears to never have been tempted into using his position at the top of the heap to enrich himself through shady financial dealings. He and Margaret would have been at the center of the social whirl – a situation which must have been very pleasing for her.

But there were already clouds on the horizon, clouds which grew darker over the next several years. The relative independence of the American colonialists – accustomed to their town meetings to decide matters of local governance – was a matter for administrators like Thomas Gage to fret over. That settlers would persist in leaving the settled counties to strike out in the direction of new lands in defiance of British edicts exasperated Thomas. And that they insisted, with unwavering obstinacy, that they had a perfect right to manage their own political affairs … well, what was beyond acceptability for a good and loyal officer and representative of the Crown. The furious reaction to the Stamp Act took the British by surprise. They had intended it to cover the costs of administering and defending their colonies but the colonists took offense at a tax levied on them without consent. Thomas Gage grumbled sourly that democracy was just too prevalent in the Americas. The Stamp Act was eventually rescinded, after boycotts, protests, and demonstrations; but the expenses incurred by the Crown and resentment at the obduracy of the colonials weren’t.

When the next attempt by the Crown to manipulate the colonists into paying what the Crown regarded as their fair share occurred, the Gages were in Britain, on what amounted to a long home leave. They missed experiencing first-hand the protests that rocked the Colonies and culminated in the Boston Tea Party. In mid-1774, George III tasked Thomas Gage as the military governor of Massachusetts, charged with restoring good order and dispatched to Boston. He was experienced and trusted by all – even the not-quite-rebellious Colonials. Margaret followed him later in the year, and they set up housekeeping in Boston.

Thomas Gage was initially popular as a governor, but differences between Crown and Colonies hardened to the point where they became irreconcilable. The Crown demanded obedience and tax monies. The colonists insisted on their rights as they understood them. Not even the most gifted administrator could bring about a compromise. Margaret Gage’s increasing distress over this is a matter of record. She told a close friend in the words of Lady Blanch in Shakespeare’s King John, “Which is the side that I must go without? I am with both, each army hath a hand…” To another acquaintance, she wrote that “she hoped her husband would never be the instrument of sacrificing the lives of her countrymen.” Since she was American-born, both sides suspected her true loyalties as the situation in Boston deteriorated.

As part of his efforts to disarm the local colonial militias, Thomas Gage sent out parties of troops to confiscate gunpowder from various armories near Boston. Instead of dampening opposition to royal policies, this only stiffened defiance on the part of rebels like Paul Revere and his fellow 'Sons of Liberty'. Revere and his good friend Dr. Joseph Warren had set up a briskly efficient espionage service which covered all of Boston with a network of eyes--eyes which watched the activities of the British garrison and the naval ships resting at anchor in the harbor. On a certain day early in April, 1775, those watchers noted a burst of unusual activity that involved a quantity of longboats, all being put into readiness for … something. A hostler at a stable where some Army officers kept their horses overheard them talking about “hell to pay tomorrow” as the officers tended their riding tack. An unusual number of officers were observed in conversation, striding up and down at the end of a long wharf obviously talking about something they wished to keep private. The British were planning an operation of some kind – but in which direction? The Sons of Liberty and their friends in outlying towns absolutely had to know the answer. Only one of Dr. Warren’s many informants could tell them – and that was a person with an identity unknown to all but Dr. Warren, a person very close to the upper levels of British command in Boston, a person only to be contacted with extreme care, and only as a last resort.

It is not an absolute certainty that Margaret Kemble Gage was that person, but the circumstances all hint at it. A local clergyman later wrote that Dr. Warren’s secret informant was “a daughter of liberty unequally yoked in the point of politics,” which at the very least suggests a woman. Dr. Warren was killed barely a month later, in the fighting at Breed’s Hill, taking the identity of his secret informant to the grave. As a practicing doctor, he would have had a fair excuse for calling on Margaret in his medical capacity and coming away with the answer: the British were mounting an extensive expedition to arrest Samuel Adams and John Hancock – particular thorns in the side of the British garrison for their outspokenness – and to burn the military stores at Concord.

Only the very highest levels of the British command were privy to this intelligence. That evening, Thomas Gage summoned Brigadier General Lord Hugh Percy and other senior officers and briefed them on the mission to Concord – telling him that it was a closely held-secret and to tell no one. Returning to his quarters later, Lord Percy saw a knot of ten or twelve Bostonians in animated conversation. Asking them what they were discussing so earnestly, Lord Percy was appalled when one assured him that while the British troops may have marched, they would miss their aim at Concord. 

Lord Percy understood at once that the mission was compromised. He hurried back to inform General Gage … and Gage exclaimed in horrified disbelief that his confidence had been betrayed; he’d spoken to only one other person regarding his plan before briefing his officers. The identity of that person wasn’t specified – but again, circumstances do suggest that it could have been his wife. There is no absolute proof of this, of course. Thomas Gage had loved his wife for twenty-five years – no doubt of that. To publicly brand her as a traitor, if she was indeed Dr. Warren’s informant – must have been something he could not do. Although tensions were running high, few could have foreseen that the mission to Concord would draw blood at Lexington Green and throughout the disastrous British retreat to Boston, or that this would be the spark that set off the American Revolution.

How did it end for the general and his wife, who may have been a spy? Margaret was sent with other wives and families out of Boston later that summer, returning to safety in England from what was becoming a war zone. Gage spent several more months in the Colonies, prosecuting a war for which he seemed to have little heart. Some accounts have it that Thomas and Margaret Gage were estranged thereafter, but there is little contemporary gossip to suggest such an estrangement. Others point out that they had two more children together after the debacle at Concord and shared a London residence on his return to England; a well-earned retirement after a lifetime of conflict and hard work. So, no tragedy occurred, really, save the inevitable end of life. Thomas Gage’s health declined, in the following years, and he passed away in 1787. Margaret survived him by nearly 40 years. She never returned to America, spending the rest of her life in England, where her children married into the peerage and served as Thomas Gage had done. She died in 1824, leaving the puzzle of whether she had been a spy for historians.

About the Author

Celia Hayes spent twenty years as a military broadcaster in the Air Force, before retiring in San Antonio, Texas. She contributes to a variety of on-line magazines and websites and in 2012 became the owner of a small boutique publishing firm, Watercress Press. She is the author of thirteen novels set on the 19th-century American frontier, and co-author with her daughter, Jeanne Hayden, of the Luna City Chronicles, a series of contemporary comic novels about life in a small South Texas town. She currently lives in San Antonio with her daughter and an assortment of dogs and cats. Visit her her online at and

Celia is the author of a rambling adventure set in the later years of the California gold rush.

The Golden Road

The Wild West was never wilder than in the towns and gold mines of California! Sixteen-year-old Fredi Steinmetz longed for adventure and riches. What better way to find both than to follow the Gold Rush from Texas to California? Fredi didn't reckon on bandits and robbers, partnership with a slippery Fenian piano
player, gold in the riverbanks, murder in the streets of San Francisco and the saloons of Mokelumne Hill, a rich cache under a dead pine tree on the North Fork of the Yuba River, Mormons and gold-miners, and Lotta Crabtree, the Faery Star dancing under a glittering golden rain thrown on stage!

He didn’t know that hiring on as a drover to bring a cattle herd from Texas to California over the Southern Trail was merely the start of his adventures on the road west and in the diggings, and that over the next two years he would encounter the famous and infamous — everyone from Jack Slade, to Roy Bean, Sally Skull, Juaquin Murrieta, and Ulysses S. Grant … all along the Golden Road!

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