Revolutionary War Historical Article

Sergeant Moses Harris - Double Agent

By Donald N. Moran

Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the February 2006 Edition of the Liberty Tree Newsletter


Moses Harris, Jr. was the son of Moses and Dorothy (West) Harris, and was born in Goshen, Litchfield County, Connecticut on November 13th, 1749. While still a young man his family migrated to Westchester, New York.

Moses enlisted in Captain Didymus Kinney's Company of Colonel William Humphrey's newly formed 5th Regiment of Dutchess County, New York Militia. While in this regiment he participated in controlling the Loyalists and patrolled as far north as Livingston Manor. This enlistment was for one year, and he was honorably discharged. He immediately reenlisted in Captain Ebenezer Husted's Company of Colonel David Southerland's 6th Regiment of Dutchess County Militia, as the First Sergeant. Reenlisting in different regiments was common place as it usually came with a modest bounty. He was immediately sent to Fort Independence. which is about six miles south of West Point. He was transferred as Orderly Sergeant to Lt. Colonel John Baily of Colonel Jacobus Swartwout's 2nd New York Regiment. He served in this capacity until the end of December, 1776. Moses went home and stayed out of the war for a whole week! He then enlisted in Capt. William Mead's Company of Col. Morris Graham's 1st Dutchess County Regiment and was assigned to the defensive positions north of Kings Bridge, New York.

In his 1834 Pension application Moses reported while on a patrol near Kings Bridge, they encountered a group of British Dragoons herding some twenty head of cattle back to New York City. A brisk skirmish ensued. Moses stated he shot two of the Dragoons and helped round up the cattle and turned them over to the American Commissary for distribution to the troops.

In April 1777, his third enlistment had expired, and again, he went home. Later that month he learned of the Danbury, Connecticut raid and immediately reenlisted.

Moses reported that his fourth enlistment had him serving under Major Brinton Paine of the 6th Dutchess County Regiment. While on a mission to the Lake George, New York area, probably as a courier, he accidentally fell in with a party of exhausted Loyalists. Not being in a discernible uniform, he easily convinced them that he too was a Loyalist. They were couriers attempting to get letters to a Loyalist agent in Albany, who would then send it on to Canada. But escaping the American patrols had completely worn them out. He convinced them that he would gladly carry the packet of letters for them.

Sergeant Harris realized that he had a good opportunity before him. Obviously the letters were urgent, or they would have been safely sent by ship, and equally, they had to be exceptionally important, or the British would not have risked three couriers, who if caught would be hanged as spies. Moses, true to his word, carried the letters North, but not to Albany. He carried them to Schuylerville, New York, the headquarters of General Philip Schuyler, commanding officer of the Northern American army.

General Schuyler's staff was able to open the letters without breaking the wax seals. One of the letters was from British Brigadier General Watson Powel to Lt. Colonel Barry St. Leger. This letter detailed the attack St. Leger was to make on Fort Stanwix, which protected the western approaches to the Mohawk River Valley.

The other letters detailed the British plans on the combined invasion of New York using General John Burgoyne plans. Burgoyne would invade from Canada, General Howe coming up from New York City,and Lt. Colonel St. Leger coming from the west from Oswego. (See the map below).

General Schuyler immediately set up a system to take advantage of this good fortune. He had a Mr. John Fish, of Easton, Washington County, be Sergeant Harris's contact, establishing meeting locations and all the other thing necessary for a successful clandestine operation. He then sent a fast courier to General Washington, carrying the copies of the intercepted letters, and a letter detailing what he had already done.

The importance of Sergeant Harris' intercepted message accounts for the letter General Schuyler sent to Militia General Nicholas Herkimer on June 9th, in which advised him that Loyalist Sir John Johnson (known to Herkimer, whereas St. Leger was not), was enroute from Oswego to attack Fort Stanwix. He ordered Herkimer to have his militia ready to support Colonel Peter Gansvoort, commander of the Fort, "in a moment's warning". The next day, the 30th, Schuyler wrote to Colonel Gansvoort: "A report prevails that Sir John Johnson intends to attack your post. You will therefore put yourself in the best posture for defense. I have written General Herkimer to support you with militia, in case you should be attacked. Give him therefore the most early intelligence if any enemy should approach you."

Because of the intelligence obtained by the initiative of Sergeant Harris, Fort Stanwix was not surprised, which could well have caused the reduction of that all important post. This intelligence was so timely that General Schuyler dispatched Lt. Colonel Mellon with extra supplies and two hundred soldiers of the Continental Line to reinforce Fort Stanwix. These reinforcements arrived by boat on the Mohawk River at the same time as St. Leger's advance guard arrived. Two of Mellon's men were killed before they could gain the protection of the fort - - it was that close!

General Schuyler then conceived a plan to deceive the British and give him more time to prepare the defense of Northern New York State. He wrote a letter to General Washington congratulating him on the defeat of the Royal Navy by the French (no such battle took place) and that he was sending General John Stark's Brigade and several other regiments to invade Canada. This letter was supposed to have been intercepted. General Schuyler gave the packet of letters to Sergeant Harris, along with the original intercepted letters and sent him to deliver them as directed by the Loyalists.

Sergeant Harris was now truly a "double agent". He volunteered to carry letters for the loyalists, destined for General Sir Guy Carleton, Governor of Canada. It was General Schuyler's hope that the Governor would believe that Schuyler was mounting the state attack on Canada, and would recall General Burgoyne to defend Canada. Carleton had only 5,000 men to defend it.

There is no evidence that the "disinformation" letter ever got to Governor Carleton, although Sergeant Harris states he did deliver it to a trusted Loyalist who was to carry it to Quebec. Obviously the plan did not work, as General Burgoyne continued his invasion of New York.

As with all of the clandestine operations that came under General Washington's personal control, very little was recorded. However, four years later, on June 15th, 1781, Washington sent a letter to George Clinton, Governor of New York::

"Dear Sir:

The bearer Mr. Fish of Saratoga District came to me this morning with the intelligence of which the enclosed is a Copy. How he obtained it from one Harris he will inform your Excellency. Harris whose character perhaps your Excellency may be acquainted with, is to meet the party under the command of Ensign Smith the 20th. of this month; is to convey a packet to Albany and to carry another back to them. He proposed to Fish to seize him at a place to be agreed upon and to take the letters from him. But I think a better way would be, to let him carry the letters and answers to General Schuyler in the first instance, who might contrive means of opening them without breaking the seals, take Copies of the Contents and then let them go on. By these means we should become masters of the, whole plot, whereas were we to seize Harris upon his first tour we should break up the chain of communication which seems so providentially thrown into our hands. Should your Excellency approve of the measure which I have suggested you will be pleased to write to General Schuyler upon the subject and desire him, should business call him from Albany to leave the conduct of the affair in proper hands in his Absence.

I have promised Fish that both he and Harris shall be handsomely rewarded if they execute the Business with fidelity.

George Washington"

Obviously, Sergeant Harris was still performing the duties of a double agent.

Sergeant Moses Harris was honorably discharged in October of 1781. Although we do not know the nature of the documents the Sergeant was conveying in the last months of his service, it undoubtedly had something to do with the "disinformation" Washington was spreading regarding the "grand" army leaving New York and marching to Yorktown.

When Harris applied for a pension on August 16th, 1832, Judge Hiram Barber of the Court of Common Please for Warren County, New York, noted that attached to his five page description of his service, were two letters, one from Major General Philip Schuyler and the other from John Taylor former Lieutenant Governor of New York State. Both were letters of appreciation.

In 1786, Moses Harris purchased a tract of land consisting of 2,000 acres at Queensbury, Warren County, New York. Family tradition relates that he paid for it with the earnings from a silver service General Schuyler had presented him. That presentation would have been in compliance with General Washington's request that he be "handsomely rewarded for his service".

An interesting postwar story regarding Moses Harris has survived. In 1847 a man by the name of Asa Fitch interviewed the early settlers of the county. He published a book entitled "Their Own Voices". On page 128 of the book is a story about Moses. He had two "fatted" hogs, and one disappeared. Moses went searching for it and found the carcass. The hog had been killed and carried off by a panther (Mountain Lion) partly eaten it and covered it with leaves. Moses set a trap. He fixed his musket aimed at the appropriate location where the panther should be when it returned for it's feast. He attached a line to the trigger of the musket and went home. The next morning he returned to find the panther dead. He took it to Fort Edward where it was displayed for the public.

Moses married Grace Stevens, before 1772, and had. eight children:

Mary - born: 9 April 1772, Dutchess County, NY
Sarah (Sally) - born: 8 Nov. 1773, Warren County, NY
Moses B. - born: 8 July 1775, Warren County, NY
Henry - born 16 Sept, 1778, Dutchess County, NY
William B - born: 29 June 1780, Warren County, NY
George - born: 1784/1788 - Warren County, NY
Charles - born: 16 Oct. 1786 - Warren County, NY
Dorothy - born: 6 Jan. 1790 - Warren County, NY

Sergeant Moses Harris lived to the ripe old age of 89, passing away on November 13th, 1837 at his home in Queensbury, Warren County, New York. He was buried at the Harrisena Cemetery.

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