Published July 04, 2012
This week we celebrated the birth of our great nation. As we bring the week to a close, it's a good time take a moment to thank the heroes who made our nation a reality. Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton. Those names are always at the top of the list. But this year, let's thank another patriot who had a huge impact on the success of the American Revolution: Hercules Mulligan.
What makes Hercules Mulligan worthy of remembrance?
Aside from being a daring activist and spy throughout the Revolutionary War, Mulligan saved George Washington's life—twice! He also converted Alexander Hamilton from a supporter of British colonial rule to a firebrand for the cause of independence. Not bad for a roly-poly Irish haberdasher.
Born in County Antrim, Ireland, in 1740, Mulligan moved to New York City with his family when he was six. After attending Kings College, the forerunner of Columbia University, Mulligan decided to become a tailor. It was a career choice that would reward him handsomely—and place him in a position to become an important player in the struggle for freedom.
A large, round-faced man who could sling the blarney as well as anyone, Mulligan opened his first shop on Water Street, near Lower Manhattan's busy East River wharves. Mulligan later relocated to 23 Queen Street (today's Pearl Street). His customers included wealthy British businessmen and high-ranking military officers. What those fine gentlemen weren't aware of was that the genial Irish proprietor was one of the most ardent patriots in the colonies.
Mulligan took up the patriot cause at least a decade before the start of the Revolutionary War. In 1765, he joined the Sons of Liberty, an underground group that engaged in anti-British agitation.
In January 1770, he fought in the Battle of Golden Hill, a skirmish with British soldiers that was one of the first violent incidents leading up to the Revolution. In the summer of 1775, he helped the Sons of Liberty steal a cache of muskets from the city armory. Mulligan was also a member of the New York Committee of Correspondence, a group that rallied opposition to the British through written communications.
Mulligan continued to fight for liberty following the Declaration of Independence.
On July 9, 1776, he led a group of patriots to New York's Bowling Green, a park at the lower end of Broadway. In the center of the oval greensward stood a hated symbol, a huge gilded statue of King George III, perched regally astride a horse. Mulligan and his fellow Sons of Liberty broke through the iron fence surrounding the park and toppled the gleaming British monarch. As cheers rang out, the men hacked the statue apart and paraded the pieces through the streets. Beneath its gold gilt, the statue was made of lead, which colonists melted down and cast into bullets to be used against the British.
Mulligan's career as a spy came about through sheer coincidence. In 1773, he and his wife took in a young boarder named Alexander Hamilton. Born on the island of Nevis in the West Indies, Hamilton had later moved to St. Croix. In his mid-teens, Hamilton left the islands to complete his education in the American colonies. He brought with him a letter of recommendation addressed to Mulligan's older brother Hugh. Hugh introduced Hamilton to Hercules, and when Hamilton enrolled in Kings College, Hercules invited the slender, reddish-haired young man to board with his family.
Hamilton often shared his evenings with the Mulligans, taking part in serious political discussions with their friends. Up until this time, Hamilton had supported British rule over the colonies, but as he listened to his impassioned host make the case for liberty, he gradually came to share Mulligan's views. Hamilton joined the Sons of Liberty, and in February 1775—at the age of 18—he wrote a lengthy essay that persuasively laid out the case for independence. Hamilton's essay caused a sensation and helped hasten the Revolution.
In July 1776, Hamilton assumed command of an artillery company and fought in several early battles around New York. However, Hamilton was known more for his writing than his military prowess.
In March 1777, General Washington made him his aide, with the rank of lieutenant colonel. For the next four years, Hamilton handled all of Washington's correspondence, becoming intimately involved in every facet of the war effort, including intelligence operations.
General Washington depended on good military intelligence, and he employed a wide network of "confidential correspondents" to supply it. When Washington spoke of his need for reliable information from within New York City—which the British had held since the Continental Army was driven out in September 1776—Hamilton recommended his friend Hercules Mulligan.
Washington already had a handful of spies in New York, but as a tailor to British bigwigs, Mulligan was ideally placed. Mulligan agreed to the arrangement and soon proved his worth. In the winter of 1779, he picked up a piece of information that literally saved the commander in chief's life.
Late one evening, a British officer called at Mulligan's shop to purchase a watch coat. Curious about the late hour, Mulligan asked why the officer needed the coat so quickly. The man explained that he was leaving immediately on a mission, boasting that "before another day, we'll have the rebel general in our hands."
As soon as the officer left, Mulligan dispatched his servant to advise General Washington. Washington had been planning to rendezvous with some of his officers, and apparently the British had learned the location of the meeting and intended to set a trap. Thanks to Mulligan's alert, Washington changed his plans and avoided capture.
Two years later, Mulligan warned Washington about a second attempt to waylay him. This time, Mulligan's brother Hugh played a crucial role. Hugh's import-export firm did considerable trade with the British military.
In February 1781, the British placed a rush order for provisions to be loaded onto a transport ship. Hugh casually asked the British commissary officer in charge what the supplies were for. The officer revealed that 300 cavalrymen were being dispatched to New London, Connecticut, to intercept General Washington as he traveled to Newport to confer with French General Rochambeau. Hugh Mulligan passed the information to his brother, who relayed it to Washington's camp. Washington altered his route to Rhode Island and arranged a surprise welcome for the British forces.
When the war finally ended in 1783, anyone who'd supported the British was in potential danger. Many Loyalist homes and businesses were destroyed. A few New Yorkers may have felt that Hercules Mulligan had been a bit too friendly with the British. No one but Washington and his staff knew of the valiant efforts of his spies. Worried about his confidential correspondents, Washington made a point of personally visiting each of them and very publicly thanking them for their contributions.
The morning he arrived back in New York, General Washington called on Hercules Mulligan. The men shared breakfast, and afterward General Washington ordered a complete civilian wardrobe from the Irish tailor. Mulligan promptly installed a new sign outside his shop: "Clothier to Genl. Washington."
Mulligan prospered after the Revolution. His business grew and so did his family. He and his wife had three sons and five daughters altogether. Mulligan retired from business at the age of 80 and died five years later.
He is buried in the churchyard of the same house of worship in which he was married, New York's venerable Trinity Church (he'd become an Episcopalian as a young man). The grave of his friend Alexander Hamilton lies just a few yards away.
Trinity Church stands at the intersection of Wall Street and Broadway, its Neo-Gothic spire and gold cross a familiar sight to the thousands of people who pass by the Manhattan landmark every day.
Odds are that few of those people have ever heard of Hercules Mulligan. Even those who step inside the churchyard and chance upon Mulligan's small, weathered gray tombstone are probably unaware that beneath it lies a true hero of the Revolution.
One of the few honors ever accorded this colorful patriot came in 1970, when several historical groups placed a plaque at the site of Mulligan's home, now occupied by the 160 Water Street skyscraper.
Hercules Mulligan is a name every schoolchild should know—and not just because it's fun to say. The man didn't utter a memorable last line like his famous fellow spy Nathan Hale, but what he did was infinitely more important. Probably no other individual had such a dramatic impact on the lives of two of the leaders who charted the course for our country.
Certainly no one else can make the claim of having inculcated the desire for freedom in one of the Founding Fathers—in addition to twice saving the life of the Father of Our Country. Those were feats that required the might of Hercules.
Hercules Mulligan is one of thirty overlooked heroes in Paul Martin's latest book, "Secret Heroes: Everyday Americans Who Shaped Our World," published this spring by William Morrow.
Reprinted with arrangement by William Morrow.