WETHERSFIELD — Thousands of people lost their lives during the American Revolution — not all of them on the battlefield.
Silas Deane fell victim to "vicious" character assassination, says Milton C. Van Vlack, author of the 2013 book, "Silas Deane: Revolutionary War Diplomat and Politician."
He was rumored to be an embezzler, vilified toward the end of his life nearly as much as traitor Benedict Arnold, left financially destitute, and quite possibly poisoned by his former pupil and secretary who, it turns out, was a British double agent.
It wasn't until 50 years after Deane's death that his granddaughter saw to it that Congress cleared his name and reimbursed the family for some of the vast personal fortune Deane spent to help the Americans win independence.
Deane played a central role arranging for shiploads of supplies and enlisting French officers, including the Marquis de Lafayette and Baron von Steuben, for George Washington's army. The goods Deane secured were crucial to the Americans' victory at Saratoga, said Charles T. Lyle, executive director of the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum. That was an early turning point in the war; without that pivotal victory it was unlikely France would have openly backed the Americans in their fight against British rule.
The website silasdeaneonline.org, a project of the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum, cites George L. Clark's research on Deane's contributions to the Revolution. By Clark's tally, Deane sent eight ships from France that carried 8,750 pairs of shoes, 3,600 blankets, more than 4,000 dozen pairs of stockings, 164 brass cannons, 153 carriages, more than 41,000 balls, 37,000 fusil guns, 3,000 pounds of lead, nearly 161,000 pounds of powder, 21 mortars, more than 3,000 bombs, more than 11,000 grenades, 345 grapeshot, 18,000 spades, shovels and axes, more than 4,000 tents and 51,000 pounds of sulphur.
Lyle calls Deane "an unsung hero." Van Vlack marvels that Deane was practically "erased from history."
"He deserves far more credit than he has ever previously received," Van Vlack wrote.
A Blacksmith's Son
Deane was born in Groton on Dec. 24, 1737, the eldest of six children. His father was a blacksmith and ironmonger who did some business on coastal ships. His parents managed to send Silas to Yale College.
The year Deane graduated, 1758, was the first that Yale listed students alphabetically rather than by social distinction, Van Vlack wrote. "The class stigma of being the son of a blacksmith was beginning to fade."
While Deane studied for the bar, he also taught school, and one of his students was Edward Bancroft, who later would serve as Deane's secretary and interpreter in France while also spying for the British.
Deane went on to practice law for a while, and, energetic, ambitious and upwardly mobile, he became one of the state's most successful and wealthy merchants, advertising his goods, including brandy "by the hogshead, barrel or keg," in the Connecticut Courant.
Marrying well — twice — helped cement his social standing. His first wife was Mehitable Webb, a mother of six who was the wealthy widow of Joseph Webb of Wethersfield. She and Silas had one son, Jesse, but Mehitable died of consumption in 1767, only four years after their marriage. In 1770, Deane married his second wife, Elizabeth Saltonstall Evards, the politically well-connected granddaughter of an early governor of Connecticut who also was a wealthy widow.
Deane got involved in state politics in 1768, representing Wethersfield in the General Assembly, and in 1774 he was appointed to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, where he met Washington, Benjamin Franklin and other patriot leaders; in particular Deane worked with John Adams to develop plans for the Continental Navy.
He was highly regarded in Philadelphia, and in early 1776, Franklin, John Jay, Robert Morris and other members of the Secret Committee of Congress pressed Deane to travel to France as an official but undercover agent of the colonies to secure supplies for the war.
"On your arrival in France, you will for some time be engaged in the business of providing goods for the [West] Indian trade. This will give good countenance to your appearing in the character of a merchant, which we wish you continually to retain among the French, in general, it being probable that the court of France may not like it should be known publicly, that any agent from the Colonies is in that country."
As he waited to set sail, Deane wrote movingly to Elizabeth:
"You will not imagine I am unfeeling on this occasion, — but to what purpose would it be to let my tender passions govern, except to distress you? I shall take every precaution, and if I fall into the Enemie's hands, doubt not of good usage, as their sending Commissioners will be a security to me; but I am prepared even for the worst, not wishing to survive my Country's fate, and confident, while that is safe, I shall be happy in almost any situation. ... It matters but little, my Dear, what part we act, or where, if we act it well. I wish as much as any man for the enjoyments of domestic ease, peace, and society but am forbid expecting them soon; indeed, must be criminal in my own eyes, did I balance them one moment in opposition to the Public Good and the Calls of my Country."
He was clearly dedicated to the American cause and a can-do person, embarking for France while barely speaking a word of French.
Yet his premonition of "the worst" proved accurate. The following year he read of his wife's death in a newspaper in Paris. And the work in France ruined him.
'Improvisation And Hustle'
A year before Deane left for France, the patriots made their move against Fort Ticonderoga, in May 1775, capturing artillery they would use against the British in Boston a year later. The move was financed with money that Deane surreptitiously withdrew from the Connecticut treasury, leaving promissory notes for the money.
The notes later were honored, writes Darien author Robert H. Patton in "Patriot Pirates: The Privateer War for Freedom and Fortune in the American Revolution," but "as an episode in which a desirable end justified dubious means, the affair exemplified Dean's lifelong penchant for improvisation and hustle."
Deane's slipshod record-keeping of his expenditures and receipts in France would prove his undoing.
As Deane, himself, had put it in his letter to Elizabeth as he left for France, "by a peculiar fatality attending me from my first entrance into public life, I have ever been involved in one scheme and adventure after another, so as to keep my mind in constant agitation and my attention fixed on other objects than my own immediate interests."
Deane also had become the target of a powerful enemy, Arthur Lee of Virginia, his fellow commissioner in France, whom historians variously describe as cantankerous, paranoid, antagonistic, resentful, suspicious, envious and bitter — toward Deane and also toward Benjamin Franklin, who joined them in France.
"I think Arthur Lee was kind of the odd man out," Lyle said, "and might have resented the two of them."
Van Vlack, who taught history for many years in Hartford and West Hartford high schools and at the University of Connecticut, offers a further theory: When Deane first arrived in France as the Colonies' official secret emissary and began to work on lining up supplies through a rather surprising go-between — the French courtier and playwright Beaumarchais, renowned for such works as "The Barber of Seville" and "The Marriage of Figaro" — Lee, who already was in lucrative cahoots with Beaumarchais, was then shut out.
"Deane also tended to be flamboyant, and the way he liked to spend money rubbed people the wrong way," said Elizabeth O'Brien, a historical interpreter and teacher at the Webb-Deane-Stevens museum.
"He was a party man, a showoff," Van Vlack said. "But I think it also was just plain jealousy, because Deane was so successful."
It was rumored that Deane and others had invested in warships with public money, then skimmed the profits. Accused by Lee of misappropriating funds, Deane "could not get out of that snarl," O'Brien said. He was recalled by Congress for an audit, but he had left the records of his accounts in Paris and spent frustrating months unsuccesfully trying to clear his name.
"It was a witchhunt, really," O'Brien said.
As Patton says of Deane: "Combined with his history of expediency and, in Lee, a relentless antagonist bent on revenge, his habitual carelessness made it hard to prove his innocence against the increasingly common presumption that government officials who flourished in wartime were thieves and possibly traitors."
Perhaps Deane did have sticky fingers. He was, after all, a shrewd businessman, and he spent three years — uncompensated — working to supply the Americans with critical munitions, supplies and ships, and paying French officers upfront, with his own money, to fight for the Americans.
Deane was never found guilty of any impropriety, but the scuttlebutt pretty much ruined him. He returned to Europe to try to clear his name, but was broke and struggling.
Then, in 1789, he finally was ready to return to the United States and have his fortune restored; by various accounts he was optimistic about the future and in great spirits and health.
But Deane mysteriously died within hours of sailing — possibly poisoned by Edward Bancroft, who may have feared being exposed. Bancroft's work as a spy wasn't revealed until a century later.Copyright © 2015, CT Now