Cleveland Comhrá: Hercules Mulligan
By Bob Carney
When we think of Irish revolutionaries, we tend to think of the men and women who fought for a free Irish state, but, men of Irish birth or descent made up between thirty and fifty percent of the American Revolutionary forces. Being under the thumb of the British in their new chosen home as well may have convinced many to join in the fight for independence.
In a letter General Nathanael Greene wrote Nov.5, Ale1777 to Major John Clark, he said,”Intelligence is the life of everything in war.” One group’s heroic espionage agent is the other group’s villain, and lives precariously in two worlds. After America achieved independece, General George Washington publicly acknowledged the work Irish born Hercules Mulligan had done in the pursuit of American freedom, calling him an outstanding patriot and a “true friend of liberty.”
The Mulligan family came to America from Colerain, in Co. Antrim in 1746, when Hercules was about six years of age. The family had left at a time when the Irish were suffering greatly under the Penal Laws. Those very laws had an effect on the young Hercules’ political views later in life, as he moved from one country oppressed by the British to another where the desire was growing for independence from them.
Hercules attended King’s College in New York, now Columbia University. After graduating, he worked at his father’s accounting firm as a clerk until he was able to establish his own haberdashery and custom tailoring business. He catered to New York’s wealthy and elite as well as many British officers. He was an ambitious young man and quickly became known by the city’s upper class, and with that acceptance, he was able to marry Elizabeth Sanders, daughter of John Sanders of New York, and niece of Admiral Sanders of the British Navy.
On the surface, Mulligan appeared to be politicaly aligned with the British officers that frequented his shop, but in reality he was supporting the cause for freedom. He became a member of the Sons of Liberty, a secret revolutionary committee looking to bring about American independece.
Mulligan’s association with Alexander Hamilton began in 1772 when the seventeen year old Hamilton arrived in New York from the West Indies. Hamilton lived in Mulligan’s home when he attended his first year of studies at King’s College. Hercules was thirty-two at the time and he greatly influenced the young Hamilton and his view of the British. He too, became a member of the Sons of Liberty.
Five years later, Hamilton was serving as an aide to General Washington and conviced him that his former mentor would be an ideal espionage agent in New York City. Hercules was clothing many of the city’s top British military officers.
When officers arrived at his shop, he met them at his door like old friends, personally taking their measurements and fitting them, always being charming and personable, even offering a glass of whiskey. Hercules was able to get many of them to divulge important information about troop movements, strategy and other vital military information that he would pass on to Washington.
On two occasions he was able to obtain information on plots to capture Washington and forewarned him, thwarting the attempts. After the first incident, he was questioned twice by the British after being betrayed by Benedict Arnold.
He came through the interrogations well enough that he was able to warn the General of the second attempt. He concealed his work so well, that most patriots in the city thought him to be a friend of the British.
After America’s victory, Mulligan was concerned that there may be reprisals by the colonists towards him; Washington went to his store to share breakfast with him. He thanked Hercules for saving his life and praised him publicaly for his efforts in the new country’s quest for independence.
During his espionage career he was assisted by his slave, a man named Cato. It was Cato that hand delivered the messages to Washington. In a free America, Mulligan, perhaps this time influenced by his friend Alexander Hamilton, became a founding father of the New York Manumission Society, an organization founded to bring about the abolition of slavery in the Land of the Free.
Hercules continued to work as a tailor until he retired at the age of eighty. He passed away in 1825, and is buried in the churchyard at Trinity Church in Sanders Tomb, just a few feet away from his friend Alexander. Hercules Mulligan is often overlooked as a true hero of the American Revolution.
When it comes to reading history, many of us think of it in terms of our time in school, memorizing names and dates. Nothing could be further from the truth. The people and their stories leading up to those important dates are far more gripping than anything Hollywood can dream up.
I was pleased when the musical Hamilton came out, allowing a vast audience a glimpse of what many miss when it comes to our history. If you would like to read more about America’s early espionage agents, Alexander Rose’s “Washington’s Spies” is an excellent place to start.
*Bob Carney is a student of Irish history and language and teaches the Speak Irish Cleveland class held every Tuesday at PJ McIntyre’s. He is also active in the Irish Wolfhound and Irish dogs organizations in and around Cleveland. Wife Mary, hounds Morrighán and Rían and terrier Doolin keep the house jumping. He can be reached at [email protected]