The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground (1821)

Warren S. Walker (Texas Tech University)

Originally published in Warren S. Walker, Plots and Characters in the Fiction of James Fenimore Cooper (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1978), pp. 211-219.

Copyright © 1978 by Warren S. Walker.  Placed online with the kind permission of Warren S. Walker, and of Shoe String Press, Inc.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

Chapter numbers [in square brackets] have been inserted by the webmaster at approximately the point where each chapter begins, to facilitate locating particular plot incidents in the text.

— Hugh C. MacDougall

[1-2] The time is October, 1780, and the place, Westchester County, New York, the so-called “Neutral Ground” during the Revolutionary War. It is neutral only in being the no man’s land between the British forces in and around New York City and the Continental Army which holds most of the Hudson River Valley and upstate New York. The Wharton family is divided in its sympathies during the War of Independence, the son, Henry, being a British officer, and the elder daughter, Sarah, remaining loyal to the crown, while her sister, Frances, is outspoken in the cause of her country. Their father, Mr. Wharton, with many close friends on both sides of the conflict, strives to remain impartial. He feels that his uncommitted position can better be maintained outside the metropolis, and he has, therefore, moved his family to its summer home, known as “The Locusts.” With them comes Miss Jeanette Peyton, Virginia-born aunt and governess to the girls since the death of their mother.

Late in the afternoon of a rainy, autumnal day, two strangers seek shelter and accommodations for the night at The Locusts. Unknown at first to each other, as they are to Mr. Wharton and his daughters, the travelers are George Washington, clad in mufti and using the name Mr. Harper, and Captain Henry Wharton, so thoroughly disguised that even his own family cannot immediately identify him. Washington is personally reconnoitering the area. Henry, at the risk of being detected and captured as a spy, has managed to evade Continental pickets for a brief visit to his home.

[3] Early the next morning a third visitor arrives at The Locusts, the Yankee pack peddler, Harvey Birch, who, with his father and their housekeeper, Katy Haynes, lives in a small house nearby. Using the cover of his former occupation, Harvey is in reality now a spy and counterspy in the service of Washington, and the two men silently recognize each other at once. After selling some yard goods to the ladies, Harvey withdraws from the family and its guests, who are still at breakfast. To the astonishment of all at the table, Mr. Harper, who has penetrated Henry’s disguise after viewing his portrait on the wall, addresses him as Captain Wharton and assures the young man that he will not be betrayed.

[4] On the third day Harper resumes his travels, but as he leaves, he warns Henry of his extremely dangerous situation and promises to aid him (in return for the succor he has enjoyed at The Locusts) if the young man should fall into trouble. Since none present but Harvey Birch knows the identity of Harper, the words of the parting guest are not, at this time, taken very seriously. Immediately after his departure, however, Harvey Birch repeatedly urges Henry to shorten his visit, warning him to beware a tall Virginian with a bushy beard. Although he does confess to some uneasiness, Henry decides to remain at home one night longer.

[5] As the Wharton family sit at breakfast the following morning, they observe the approach of a small body of cavalry led by a tall, bewhiskered man, one Captain John Lawton, they later learn, of the Virginia Dragoons. The troops first surround the home of Harvey Birch, hoping to capture and hang the peddler as a British spy. [6] Not finding Harvey at home, they proceed to The Locusts. Although Henry has hastily resumed his masquerade, his disguise is futile. At first alarmed at this exposure of Henry, they are soon relieved when they learn that the commanding officer of the Dragoons is Major Peyton Dunwoodie, an old friend of the family, a former classmate of Henry, and, more recently, the fiancé of Frances. When Dunwoodie learns the identity of the British officer, he faces a grave dilemma between his love for Frances and his sense of duty to his country. [7] The conflict between love and loyalty in the novel becomes even more involved when the Virginia Dragoons are attacked by a company of British troops led by Colonel Wellmere, a suitor for the hand of Sarah Wharton. Henry escapes to join Wellmere’s forces (which include some Hessian mercenaries), but when the Americans prevail, both he and Wellmere are captured. The dead and injured are not numerous, but among the latter are Henry Wharton and John Lawton, suffering only minor cuts, and Captain George Singleton, a seriously wounded Virginia Dragoon. [8] Only because it may be necessary in order to save the life of his companion at arms, Dunwoodie sends for the dragoon’s sister, Isabella Singleton, to come and nurse her brother; to the reader it is evident from the reticence with which he takes this action that Major Dunwoodie has had an unpleasant association with Isabella which he does not care to renew.

[9] After the defeated British forces withdraw to a waiting ship on the Hudson River, the Continental cavalry rides back at dusk toward its camp. When, en route, they come upon the pack peddler, Captain Lawton shouts to his horsemen, “Harvey Birch! Take him, dead or alive!“(p. 131). Fifty pistol shots ring out, and several dragoons, led by Lawton, charge upon their intended victim. In despair at such barbarous intentions on the part of the very forces he secretly serves, Harvey remarks bitterly, “Hunted like a beast of the forest!” (p. 131). But when Lawton’s horse falls over the prostrate form of the peddler, sending itself and its rider crashing to the ground, Birch takes heart and, almost miraculously, makes his escape. Lawton, badly shaken by the fall, goes to The Locusts to have his bruised body examined for broken bones by the doctor attending George Singleton there, the comic and grotesque military surgeon, Archibald Sitgreaves.

[10] After eluding the dragoons, Harvey Birch rushes home to his mortally ill father, Johnny Birch, who has been attended by the greedy housekeeper, Katy Haynes. Caesar Thompson, a Negro slave from the Wharton household, is also lending his aid. Harvey’s final conversation with his dying father is rudely interrupted by a band of Skinners, rapacious irregulars who are commissioned to forage for the patriot forces, but who misuse their authority and plunder the countryside for their own profit. They intend to loot the peddler’s stock of merchandise, extort from him his accumulated gold, and then deliver Harvey himself to the American command for the reward posted for his capture. Harvey willingly reveals where his money is hidden in order to buy a few last moments with his expiring parent. In the agony of death, the elder Birch, wrapped in a sheet, staggers from the bedroom to give his final blessing to his son. Terrified at what they believe to be the ghost of Mr. Birch, Katy and Caesar bolt from the cottage closely followed by the Skinners.

[11-14] After the funeral of Johnny Birch, attended by Captain Wharton, Mr. Wharton, and other neighbors, Harvey sells his house for an unfairly low price to an opportunistic speculator. As he bids farewell to Katy Haynes, his faithful housekeeper and would-be wife (to whom he leaves the contents of the building), he is again apprehended by the band of ruthless Skinners. As they carry off the unfortunate peddler for a reward of fifty guineas, they burn his former home to the ground. Deprived of family, home, wealth, and now even freedom, Harvey is playing a role that makes him an outcast for whom (as he tells Katy) “all places are now alike, and all faces equally strange” (p. 202).

[15] Having viewed the funeral of Mr. Birch from her window, Frances Wharton, feeling melancholy, decides to make a courtesy call at the suite of Isabella Singleton, who now lives at The Locusts while she nurses her wounded brother. There she discovers (what the reader has inferred) that the passionate Isabella is madly in love with her own fiancé, Peyton Dunwoodie. At the same moment, Isabella’s quick sensibilities detect Frances’s love for the major, and the two girls collapse tearfully in each other’s arms.

[16] Near the village of Four Corners, where the Virginia Dragoons are stationed, a tavern has been hastily established in a deserted house by the enterprising camp follower Elizabeth (Betty) Flanagan. The singing and drinking of the cavalry officers there is interrupted by the arrival of the Skinner band delivering Harvey Birch to the American regulars. [18] The American guerrillas receive not only their reward of fifty guineas but also thirty-nine lashes apiece, a Mosaic measure of punishment ordered by Captain Lawton for acts of burning, looting, and murder. [16 - again] In the meantime, Dunwoodie has condemned Harvey to be hanged in the morning for espionage activity on behalf of the British. Declaring that Washington would not have treated him so, Harvey takes from a tin container hung from his neck a slip of paper which he starts to hand to Dunwoodie. Then, changing his mind, he declares that he knew in advance the conditions of his service and will not now forfeit them to save his life. Before anyone can restrain him, he quickly swallows the paper.

[17] Confined to a small room in the “Hotel Flanagan,” as the officers jestingly call Betty’s tavern, Harvey tries, unsuccessfully, to gain his freedom by bribing Sergeant Hollister. [18 - again] During the night Harvey makes his escape in some of the clothes of Betty Flanagan, easily passing the sentries with his imitation of the woman’s well-known Irish brogue. With the same convincing reproduction of Betty’s dialect, he frightens an encampment of Skinners in the nearby woods by pretending to be leading the much-feared Lawton to their place of bivouac. [19] Later, perched on a rock ledge above the path, he intercepts Major Dunwoodie, strolling in the woods after a sleepless night, and threatens to shoot with a Skinner musket the military judge who had just condemned him to death. Claiming approval for his acts from a higher authority, Harvey warns Dunwoodie to double his guard and strengthen his patrols lest imminent danger harm those he loves. Then, discharging the musket into the air, he throws the empty weapon at the feet of the astonished dragoon and disappears before the smoke clears.

Doubting his own senses, Dunwoodie returns to his camp where he finds pre-dawn preparations being made for the execution of Harvey Birch. Leading his men to Harvey’s closely guarded cell, he finds (to the amazement of Sergeant Hollister and the guards) the room occupied not by Harvey but by Betty Flanagan. After the confusion subsides, Sergeant Hollister, once assured of Betty’s sympathetic ear, interprets the whole event in religious terms: What had seemed the peddler had been Satan, and the apparent Skinners who had delivered him to the dragoons had been Satan’s imps; the Evil One had come in the form of Birch and departed in the form of Betty. Not entirely convinced by this explanation, Mrs. Flanagan offers no objection but encourages the matrimonial relationship she has long sought with Hollister, the old military comrade of her dead husband, Michael. The legend of Harvey Birch, however, has here assumed supernatural dimension, and even the commanding officer of the Virginia Dragoons accords the peddler a measure of awesome respect by following his advice to reinforce his pickets.

Remembering also Harvey’s warning to guard more closely those he loves, Dunwoodie rides rapidly to The Locusts. He arrives as Henry Wharton is being transferred to his newly ordered detention at American headquarters. Finding Frances sobbing by the road where she has viewed her brother’s departure, Dunwoodie tries to console her with an assurance that he will intercede with Washington himself on Henry’s behalf. The girl’s grief is motivated in part, however, by another cause: her conviction Dunwoodie has deceived her in his declaration of love. Obviously thinking of Isabella Singleton, Frances says that she is resigned to his marrying a more high-spirited girl than herself. Her jealous suspicion has been deepened by Dunwoodie’s absence from The Locusts in recent days. His engagement to Frances now suddenly and inexplicably broken, Dunwoodie rides off in despair to his command post.

[20] Later while Lawton and Dr. Sitgreaves ride slowly toward The Locusts to visit Singleton, they are halted momentarily when a stone rolls from a cliff into their path. Attached to the stone is a note warning the travelers that they are foolishly exposing themselves to more dangerous weapons than stones. Lawton recognizes the wisdom of what must be the warning of Harvey Birch and for once, however grudgingly, speaks in praise of the peddler.

[21] At The Locusts they find that the wedding of Colonel Wellmere and Sarah Wharton is about to take place, but the ceremony has been delayed for want of a ring for the bride. Dr. Sitgreaves offers a ring formerly belonging to his sister, Anna, and Caesar is dispatched to Hotel Flanagan to secure it. There Caesar enjoys a drink and listens briefly to the continuing discussion of Sergeant Hollister and Betty as to whether Harvey Birch is a fiend or a mortal man. From nowhere Harvey suddenly appears and informs Hollister that he and his dragoons are urgently needed by Captain Lawton at The Locusts. Again Hollister thinks Harvey the devil himself, but urged by Betty to answer the summons, the sergeant assembles his troops and departs.

[22] When Caesar returns with the wedding ring, the wedding ceremony begins. It is suddenly halted, however, by the arrival of Harvey Birch, who accuses Colonel Wellmere of bigamy. Sarah, observing Wellmere’s consternation and realizing that the charge against him is true, collapses. To defend Sarah’s honor, Captain Lawton challenges Wellmere to a duel, but the combat is halted by a company of Skinners who wish to kill Lawton in a less ceremonious way. Failing to kill or capture Lawton, the Skinners proceed to plunder The Locusts and set it afire. Before the building is completely consumed by the flames, all occupants are evacuated, the last being the now deranged Sarah, who is rescued, after the roof collapses, by the ubiquitous Harvey Birch. Although exhausted and defenseless, Birch is not taken prisoner by Lawton, who admires the peddler’s heroic behavior and chivalric attitude.

[23] The residents and guests of The Locusts are now moved to Four Corners, there to be housed in Hotel Flanagan. As Captain Lawton is working to make these quarters suitable to accommodate the Whartons, he is fired upon by a Skinner, but the bullet intended for him strikes Isabella Singleton, mortally wounding the girl. [24] As she lies dying, she confesses to Frances that her love for Peyton Dunwoodie had never been returned, that he had never by word or act manifested amorous interest in her.

[25] After the burial of Isabella, the Whartons are summoned to an American base farther north, at Fishkill, to serve as witnesses at the military court trying Henry for espionage. [26] At the trial, presided over by Colonel Singleton, Henry acknowledges traveling in disguise behind the American lines to visit his father. The judges seem inclined to attribute his indiscretion to filial devotion rather than to espionage activity until Frances mentions his contact with Harvey Birch. Since it is generally accepted as a fact that Henry is in the employ of Sir Henry Clinton, the British commanding officer in the area, testimony as to Henry’s contact with the peddler is damning evidence. The unfavorable verdict is based upon guilt by association.

[27] Awaiting execution in the morning, Henry clings to the hope of an eleventh-hour pardon from George Washington. This last hope disappears, however, when a messenger arrives bearing a statement from the commander-in-chief which approves of the military court’s decision. As the anguished Wharton family discusses Henry’s fate, Frances mentions the promise of Mr. Harper to aid them if he can ever do so. When Major Dunwoodie hears the account of Harper’s obligation to the Wharton family, he (knowing but not disclosing the true identity of Harper) insists that a pardon from Washington is still possible. He then sets out to locate Mr. Harper, but he returns disappointed several hours later.

[28] At the jail cell where Henry is to spend his last night, a Yankee preacher appears to minister to the spiritual needs of the condemned man. It is Harvey Birch in disguise. Ordering Henry and Caesar to exchange clothing, Harvey fits Henry with black mask and wig sufficiently convincing to allow him to deceive the guards. Caesar, wearing white gloves and Henry’s clothes, is left, head buried in his hands, in the cell. Harvey and Henry barely pass the last sentinel before the ruse is detected, an alarm raised, and pursuit begun. [29] Once in the woods, the refugees abandon their horses and proceed on foot.

[30] Hoping to be able to aid her brother in some way, Frances goes to a hut of Harvey’s in the nearby hills. There, to her surprise, she finds Mr. Harper, who reassures her that he will keep his promise to help Henry. When Harvey and Henry reach the hut, Harper steps behind a curtain and into the cave that it hides, but not before he tells Frances to insist that the fugitives continue their flight at once. Astonished to find Frances in such a desolate place, Henry wishes to conduct her safely back to the settlement. As the brother and sister talk, Harvey silently steps into the cave to confer with Mr. Harper. When he returns, Harvey, as well as Frances, urges Henry to continue the retreat from the area. After the departure of the fugitives, Mr. Harper returns, guides Frances back to the plain below, gives her a paternal blessing, and, locating his horse, rides away. Her intuitive sense of Harper’s high status is corroborated a few minutes later when she sees him ride by accompanied by servants and protected by a strong cavalry guard.

[31] Back at the Continental camp Frances delivers to Dunwoodie the sealed letter her brother had sent to the major. The missive requests that Dunwoodie and Frances be married at once. Dunwoodie feels that his first duty is to recapture Henry and then somehow secure for him a pardon from Washington. However, he does take time (crucial time) for the wedding ceremony. Then, before he can pursue Harvey and Henry, a message from Washington arrives ordering him to special duty immediately at Croton and indicating that the escape of the English spy is not important.

[32] Harvey conducts Henry to the bank of the Hudson River, where a British ship awaits. As soon as he sees Henry picked up by a boat from the vessel, Harvey starts back, now accompanied by an unwelcome Skinner separated from his band and afraid to travel through enemy territory alone. Overtaken by a group of Cow-boys, British guerrillas and foragers, the two men receive different treatment. Birch is set free when he shows his pass from Sir Henry Clinton; by arrangement with Washington, Harvey has pretended to be a British spy in order to be able to move freely in enemy territory. The Skinner the Cow-boys coolly hang.

[33] New duties for the Virginia Dragoons require their support of a poorly trained Continental infantry unit. Hard pressed by British regulars, the American forces are rallied by Captain Lawton, who impetuously tries to lead them across an open plain. Man and horse are easy targets, and both are killed in a fusillade of musket fire. Major Dunwoodie commits a similar indiscretion when, motivated by vengeance, he leads the remaining dragoons in an attack on the retreating redcoats. The wound he receives keeps him from duty for the remainder of the fall and winter. Accompanied by his bride, Dunwoodie (now promoted to lieutenant colonel) visits his Virginia estate during his convalescence.

[34] In September of 1781 Harvey Birch is summoned to the presence of General Washington, who, after thanking and congratulating the spy for his many dangerous espionage missions, offers him one hundred doubloons. It is not nearly enough, Washington says, but it is all that the new country can afford. Despite Washington’s repeated urging, Harvey refuses the gold; his service, he insists, was purely patriotic. Washington reminds the peddler that he must go to his grave with the stigma of having been a British agent during the Revolution. As both spy and counterspy he has acquired vital information which, if revealed, could, even in future years, endanger the lives of many men on both sides of the conflict. Although Washington will never be able to acknowledge him publicly, he pledges his friendship to Harvey and promises assistance if it is ever needed. He also gives Harvey a written statement of his appreciation, whereupon the two men shake hands and bid each other farewell.

[35] Thirty-three years later, in July of 1814, young Captain Wharton Dunwoodie (son of Peyton and Frances) and Lieutenant Tom Mason, Jr., rest momentarily during a lull in battle near Niagara during the War of 1812. An old man bearing a light pack listens with great interest to their reminiscences about the Wharton family, its friends, and its servants. When the captain mentions his mother, the aged stranger comments, to the surprise of his two young listeners, that she was an angel. Before any explanation can be made or the conversation continued, a British artillery barrage sweeps the field, wounding Mason and killing the old man. Captain Dunwoodie removes from the hands of the corpse a small tin box containing a note which reads as follows:

Circumstances of political importance, which involve the lives and fortunes of many, have hitherto kept secret what this paper now reveals. Harvey has for years been a faithful and unrequited servant of his country. Though man does not, may God reward him for his conduct.

Geo. Washington (p. 463)

Harvey Birch, Johnny Birch, Major Peyton Dunwoodie, Captain Wharton Dunwoodie, Elizabeth Flanagan, Katharine Haynes, Sergeant Hollister, Captain John Lawton, Lieutenant Tom Mason, Lieutenant Tom Mason, Jr., Jeanette Peyton, Cornet Shipwith, Captain George Singleton, Isabella Singleton, Dr. Archibald Sitgreaves, Caesar Thompson, Dinah Thompson, General George Washington, Colonel Wellmere, Wharton, Frances Wharton, Captain Henry Wharton, Sarah Wharton.