Two hundred and forty-six years ago, a little-known plot was hatched to assassinate Commander in Chief General George Washington that could have potentially altered the course of history.
Washington had his hands full in the summer of 1776, preparing to defend New York City against the largest invasion that would ever threaten North America, while simultaneously battling internal threats from Americans loyal to the Crown.
Royal New York governor William Tryon led a group of confederates who plotted to raise Loyalist troops to blow up powder magazines, spike cannon, seize crucial ground, and in “the greatest and vilest attempt against our country” carry out the assassination of Washington by members of his own Guard.
General George Washington was guarded by an elite unit of trusted soldiers, known as his Life Guard or the Commander-in-Chief’s Guard, who protected the commander in chief as well as performed special missions and engaged in battle.
In one of the many taverns that lined the route from Washington’s headquarters to Richmond Hill in Manhattan, a member of Washington’s Guard, drummer William Green, “fell into a conversation on politicks” with Loyalist gunsmith Gilbert Forbes. Green found that “Forbes’s pulse beat high in the Tory scheme.” Raising a glass, Green boldly toasted to the king’s health. Not just any Loyalist, Forbes had direct links to Governor Tryon and was actively recruiting men to join a Loyalist legion to facilitate the “barbarous plot.”
Sensing a kindred spirit, Green sought Forbes out a few days later. Supposing Green to be a friend, Forbes proposed bringing other members of the Guard into the King’s service. At first, Forbes demurred and blew off Green’s advances. He denied having a hand in the recruitment of deserters. But Green persisted and kept returning to see Forbes until they agreed upon a scheme.
The conspiracy expanded when Green brought fellow Life Guard Sergeant and former British soldier Thomas Hickey into the fold. The dark-complexioned, muscular Irishman met Forbes and demanded money—the miserly gunsmith parted with half a dollar. The Loyalist sensed an opportunity and opened his wallet to Green. Forbes gave Green eighteen dollars to be used to recruit more members of the Guard. Eight members of Washington’s elite unit allegedly turned coat.
The conspirators further widened their operation to include a person in the general’s inner circle with intimate access to his daily activities: Washington’s housekeeper. Years later, a legend formed regarding the attempted poisoning of Washington’s green peas. Seemingly paragons of duty and honor, treasonous members of the elite unit would diabolically plan to execute their plot upon the arrival of the British fleet. Invasion loomed within days.
With nefarious plots swirling since the arrival of Patriot troops in Manhattan, Washington implored the New York Provincial Congress to establish a secret committee to ferret out these threats known as the Committee of Conspiracies. The small group consisted of august American Patriots and brilliant legal minds, including John Jay, future chief justice of the Supreme Court, and would form one of America’s first counterintelligence organizations.
Tryon’s plot proceeded according to plan—the arrival of the British invasion fleet was only days away—until the second week of June, when authorities arrested two of Washington’s Guards, Hickey and Michael Lynch, for passing counterfeit currency in the city. Fake paper money was a massive problem in the colonies and led to soaring inflation. The Patriot government vainly tried to staunch the flow of counterfeit bills by arresting anyone caught with the bogus money. Authorities apprehended the two men red-handed and threw them into the dark and damp jail in New York City. Both men shared a dirty cell with Isaac Ketcham, also jailed for an unrelated counterfeiting scheme.
The cellmates talked. They had something in common: all were charged with counterfeiting and all shared Loyalist sympathies. Hickey, in his Irish brogue ranting about his loyalty to the king, shockingly revealed elements of the plot. He believed the British fleet would be arriving soon and wanted to let Ketcham know whose side he was on. Sensing an opportunity to save his own skin, Ketcham wrote a note from his cell on June 16 that changed the course of events requesting an audience with the committee and claiming to have valuable information.
Ketcham appeared in front of Jay and the committee and revealed what he had learned. Thunderstruck that members of Washington’s Guard could be involved in such treachery, Jay ordered Ketcham to cull more from the Guards and report back. Back in their cell, Ketcham drew more details out of Hickey about the plot and his contacts. Pulling on these threads, the committee arrested the mayor of New York, David Mathews, and other members of the cabal, and Gilbert Forbes. The Loyalist gunsmith was clapped in irons and initially refused to talk, but a pastor sent to his cell advising him he had only a few days to live loosened his tongue. As soon as the committee’s expert questioning uncovered that the dramatic scope of the plot to kill Washington, including even his housekeeper, Jay immediately informed the commander in chief.
Washington ordered Caleb Gibbs, a Marbleheader and commander of the Guard, to assemble a group of handpicked men to arrest Green and other treasonous members of the Guard. This remarkable story and dozens of others are told in the bestselling book The Indispensables: Marblehead’s Diverse Soldier-Mariners Who Shaped the Country, Formed the Navy, and Rowed Washington Across the Delaware. The book recently released in paperback is a Band of Brothers-style treatment of the regiment from Marblehead, Massachusetts, a unique, largely unknown group of Americans who changed the course of history.
With the plot exposed and many of its principals detained, Washington curiously selected only one man for a court-martial: Thomas Hickey. The other members of the Guard, including the conspiracy’s apparent ringleader, William Green, did not have a court-martial. Perhaps Washington selected Hickey since he was a former British soldier. A board of officers swiftly convicted him of sedition.
By sending Hickey to the gallows, Washington made a statement. Hickey would be the first American soldier executed by the Continental Army during the Revolution. Under a tree located in a field east of what is now the Bowery, eighty soldiers marched the traitor to the place of execution. Over ten thousand of Washington’s troops assembled in formation, along with nearly the entire city. Tens of thousands witnessed the execution. As Hickey approached the tree, a chaplain took him by the hand and wished him farewell.
Green cheated the hangman’s noose; he was dismissed from the army and disappeared. Likewise, not much is known about the fates of the other plotters, and their names seem to have mysteriously disappeared from history.
Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of twelve books, including The Indispensables, which is featured nationally for Father’s Day on the “Must Read Nonfiction” and “History” Tables at Barnes & Noble, Washington’s Immortals, and The Unknowns. O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and often speaks on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Discovery. PatrickODonnell.com @combathistorian