The last day of the American War for Independence was November 25, 1783, when, after an occupation of over seven years, the British evacuated New York City, and Washington, leading elements of the American Continental Army, entered the city in triumph. To celebrate the event, New York Governor George Clinton (of Irish descent, and himself one of Washington’s General officers earlier in the war) hosted a celebration dinner at Fraunces Tavern, with Washington as the guest of honor. Thirteen toasts were drunk that night, the thirteenth being, “May the Remembrance of THIS DAY be a Lesson to Princes.” General Washington recommended that Evacuation Day be commemorated every year thereafter.
A sad note to add is that, while evacuating New York, British troops set fire to their prison ships with the American prisoners-of-war still locked inside. Unknown numbers of men died that day, after having suffered in unbearable conditions. By the end of the Revolutionary War, more American troops died in British custody than in combat. They are honored, and some buried, at the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
“There is nothing more necessary than good intelligence to frustrate a designing enemy, & nothing that requires greater pains to obtain.” – George Washington
Although Washington had a spymaster, Benjamin Tallmadge, Washington was his own Chief of Intelligence. On the morning after the Evacuation Day dinner celebration, George Washington made a special point of very publicly having breakfast with his most valuable secret agent in New York City, Hercules Mulligan, a member of the Culper spy ring. Mulligan was a fashionable cloth merchant and tailor, who spent most of the war as tailor to British and Hessian officers and wealthy Tories, all of whom regarded him (in part because of his marriage to the daughter of an officer of the Royal Navy) as a true Loyalist, and consequently were at their ease in discussing sensitive material in his presence. Mulligan also had a winning personality and a way with words to the point that he could interrogate his customers during a fitting in such a way that they hadn’t a clue that they were being pumped for information – information which was then passed to Washington.
Hercules Mulligan was born in Coleraine, County Derry, on September 25, 1740. In the 1760’s he became what we would today call a physical force republican. He early became involved in armed militia companies, including a “Sons of Liberty” club and the New York Committee of Correspondence and Observation. Mulligan’s wife and his brother Hugh (a banker and merchant, who handled British accounts) were his partners in patriotism – and, under later British occupation, in clandestine patriotism. During the early 1770’s, before the actual outbreak of the American Revolution, Mulligan nourished the patriotism of his young friend Alexander Hamilton, who was then residing in Mulligan’s home. [In a complete failure of intelligence, these facts were never discovered by the later British occupation forces.] Hamilton eventually left King’s College (now Columbia University) to join the American Continental Army.
On one occasion Mulligan sent his servant Cato (also a Patriot, and, in Mulligan’s own words, “a willing accomplice”) to warn Washington of an impending raid, which could have resulted in the capture of Washington and his staff. Cato’s personal relationship with Washington’s Aide-de-Camp, Alexander Hamilton, assured that the message would get through in a timely manner – and with an unbroken chain of custody. Mulligan had a third secret agent in Haym Saloman, a multi-lingual Polish Jew (and Son of Liberty), employed by the Hessians as an interpreter. [Mulligan later freed Cato, once Cato no longer needed the cover as a “servant,” and urged others to free their slaves as well.]
After the war and Washington’s return to New York City as President of the United States (New York was the first capital city of the US), Washington patronized Mulligan’s tailor shop for tailoring, as well as to reminisce. In fact, correspondence from Washington – in Philadelphia since August of 1790, exists to demonstrate that Hercules Mulligan was Washington’s personal tailor, at least as late as 1792. Hercules Mulligan died at the age of 85 in 1825, and was laid to rest in Trinity Church yard on Wall Street, just steps away from his friend Hamilton – both of whom are seen in the Broadway play “Hamilton,” and hit TV series “Turn: Washington’s Spies.” Hercules Mulligan’s successful, though quiet, contributions to the creation of his adopted homeland serve as his true lasting monument.
In February 2021, the local council in Hurcules Mulligan’s hometown of Coleraine announced plans to honor Mulligan, but this was withdrawn shortly after some groups objected because he was a slave-owner. In the press, specifically Irish News, articles failed to mention the whole story of his involvement with anti-slavery efforts. This is unacceptable, and furthermore, to deny a man a historically accurate marker is to promote a Stalinist whitewashing of history. A more appropriate measure would be to put up a historical marker and allow the people, not the press and not politically motivated groups, to deliberate and decide if he is worthy of praise. History is a mixed bag, and must be presented as such. The following is a suggestion for a marker:
Born on this spot on September 25, 1740 was Hurcules Mulligan. He emigrated to New York with his family when he was six years old. A Patriot in British-occupied New York, Mulligan was an active member of the Sons of Liberty and was a key member of the Culper spy ring. He owned a slave, Cato, who helped save Washington’s life by using his cover as a slave to pass intelligence to Mulligan’s former boarder, Alexander Hamilton. After the war, Mulligan made Cato a free man, and worked to convince other slave holders to do the same with the New York Manumission Society. He is buried at Trinity Churchyard in Manhattan, and is considered one of the progenitors of the CIA.
By Liam Ó Murchadha, Former Editor of Hibernian Digest and The Irish People.