Hercules Mulligan: George Washington's Irish Spy

by Bill McGimpsey

Alexander Hamilton died on the 12th of July, 1804. If he had not rowed his boat across the Hudson River from New York City to face Aaron Burr in a fatal gentleman's duel the day before, he might well have achieved the greatness that so many authorities say he had coming to him. No other American, either before or since, has had more influence on the formation of their government's structures.

Alexander Hamilton was born on the island of Nevis in the West Indies in 1757. His father was Scottish and his mother (Rachael Fawcett Lavien) was of French Huguenot stock. His mother had married a Jewish business man in 1745, when she was 16 years old. This marriage turned out to be a disaster and she soon left him, eventually pairing off with James Hamilton, with whom she had two boys, before he decided to move on.

A frustrated John Adams later wrote to Thomas Jefferson, rather crudely, but in fact accurately, that Hamilton was "that bastard brat of a Scotch peddler."

When his mother died, Alexander was just 13 years old and he was left virtually as an orphan. At the opening of his mother's will, his stepfather appeared from nowhere and convinced the judge that her belongings should rightly fall to his own son, since Mrs. Hamilton had conceived Alexander while living in sin with James Hamilton. The judge agreed and Alexander was deprived of even his mother's meager possessions.

Into the picture stepped the Rev. Hugh Knox, a Presbyterian minister who was born in the north of Ireland. Knox was a graduate of the College of New Jersey, (later Princeton-Presbyterian). Knox encouraged him to go to America and attend Princeton. He helped plan the trip and organize the resources. Knox gave Hamilton letters of recommendation to give to his friends on arrival in America.

Hamilton arrived in Boston in October 1772. As planned, he immediately travelled on to New York City. There, as instructed, he went to the waterfront offices of the export firm of Kortright and Company where Hugh Mulligan was a principal of the firm. Hugh brought the young man back home with him and introduced him to his brother Hercules. What followed was the beginning of a special friendship between these young men.

Hercules Mulligan was born in Coleraine, County Antrim in 1740 and came to New York when he was nine years of age. He ran a haberdashery (clothing) store on Queen Street. The Mulligans were devout Episcopalians and attended Trinity on Broadway. Alexander Hamilton was barely 18 years old, while Hercules Mulligan was 32 years of age. The older Mulligan proved to be a brotherly influence, helping to groom and coach young Hamilton in the ways of America.

In the fall of 1773, per the Rev. Knox's instructions, Hamilton applied to attend Princeton. Hercules Mulligan knew Dr. Witherspoon, the President of the College, so he accompanied Hamilton on the trip. Despite Hamilton's obvious talent, Princeton would not yield to his desire for substantial credit for his past studies in the West Indies. So with Mulligan's prompting, Hamilton went back to New York to check out King's College (later Columbia University-Episcopalian). There he was accepted on satisfactory terms.

In New York City, Hamilton had taken up residence at the Mulligan home. He remained there until graduation from Columbia.

The Mulligan Connection

After the outbreak of hostilities on April 19, 1775, Hamilton became a volunteer in the militia. His boldness and lack of fear were the reasons he was solicited by Alexander McDougall on March 14, 1776 to join the New York provisional artillery at the rank of captain. He quickly rose up the ranks. He bemoaned the performance of some of his own leaders including Generals, he conferred with the French for support, he even criticized a local Congressman. Soon Washington took note and he was brought into contact with the commander and chief. Hamilton's brilliant literary skills were soon put to use by Washington and he was given the opportunity of expressing the General's wishes by his pen. The impact was immediate as Washington's written messages began to take on new bite.

Hamilton's brass neck never changed throughout his career and he did not hold back even with Washington, often arguing with him. Others, unimpressed by his upstart attitude, jealous of his power and threatened by his influences, began to speak disparagingly of him and a favorite target was his tainted pedigree. A malicious rumor began to circulate that he was actually sired by Washington and it was for only this reason that Washington tolerated his insolence.

Hercules Mulligan was a supporter of the Patriot cause, but he was able to ride the fence. Let us consider his position in the City during the Revolutionary period. He was a member of a well established City family. He operated a men's clothing store right in the heart of the most loyalist area in America. He belonged to Trinity Church, with Donegal man Charles Inglis as his cleric, the most steadfast loyalist in America. He was a personal friend of Hugh Gaine, the Belfast man who ran the Loyalist newspaper in town. His brother worked on the waterfront and was a supplier of goods to th British army. Most important of all, he was married to Elizabeth Sanders, the niece of the British Admiralty.

The next part of the Hercules Mulligan story is somewhat speculative and centers on his special relationship with Alexander Hamilton. In March of 1777, when Hamilton received his appointment to Washington's staff, Hercules Mulligan was at that time quietly made a "confidential correspondent" to Washington. Operating behind British lines in the heart of the loyalist stronghold, he began a series of significant communications with the General. The specifics of the aid Mulligan provided, the frequency of his communication, and the benefit of his service to the American side has remained largely unreported by historians.

Michael J. O'Brien, Mulligan's only biographer, in his research of the archives in Washington D.C., uncovered four specific instances where Mulligan acted to warn Washington of British movements; and in two of these incidents, he accredits the information with saving Washington's life. There were, undoubtedly, others.  

Mulligan's influence was greatest in the early years of the war when the British should have been able to crush the rebels like a bug on pavement. It is a testament to the probable impact that sound intelligence has on the war's outcome.

Nearly Caught

When Benedict Arnold switched sides and came over to the British, it was bad news for Hercules Mulligan.  Within days, Mulligan was arrested and charged with treason. He could reasonably have expected the same outcome as young Major Andre. The difference was that Hercules Mulligan had long been aware of this possibility and was prepared. Arnold, on the other hand, had left in a race for his own life and so was unable to bring with him hard evidence about people like Mulligan.

The whole affair would turn into a series of allegations.  Mulligan had the best in legal defense and although little detail of the trial seems to exist (or at least has ever been publisher), we do know that Hercules Mulligan was eventually released from prison. Of course, from that point on he was a marked man and thus of no further value to the Americans.

At the time O'Brien was doing his research, some of Mulligan's great-grandchildren were still alive and he was able to interview them. O'Brien uncovered one great family nugget.

The story goes that in the period when Mulligan was a marked man, one day he decided to take a chance. He became engaged in a conversation with an important contact. He thought it was safe, but suddenly he noticed that he was being watched. Mulligan, aware of the ominous consequences, began to flee and was followed in hot pursuit by the agent. He ran down Great George's Street and into John Street. Mulligan clearly knew his intended destination. He burst through the doors of the Mason's lodge into an ongoing meeting. 

The punchline to the story is that Hercules was a member of this Masonic lodge (called the Erin Lodge). A few seconds later, his pursuer burst into the room - who must also have been a member. We are told both men were sat down and some heavy discussions ensued. Mulligan never disclosed the details of the discussion to his family - only the fact that the matter was entirely settled behind those closed doors. He had again escaped by luck, clever planning, and the skin of his teeth.

Evacuation Day

On Evacuation Day (November 25, 1783) when the signal was given, General George Washington and Governor George Clinton led off a grand parade down the island of Manhattan. The procession included American troops and exiled New Yorkers, escorted by the Westchester Light Guards. Thousands of jubilant New Yorkers lined the route. 

The procession reached the American troops already waiting at the Battery, where a final exchange of flags took place. It was probably then to raised eyebrows and subsequent jealousies that Washington turn his mount around and departed from the cheering throng. he rode up Queen Street until he got to number 23. At this point, Washington dismounted and went inside. 

While the world waited and wondered, Washington conducted his first official piece of business under the American flag. He had breakfast with "Rebel" Mulligan - as his own family called him. What they discussed remains unknown.

Some years later but well before that fateful 1804 duel with Aaron Burr, John W. Mulligan - Hercules' oldest son - decided he wanted to train to become a lawyer. A position was immediately offered to him at the offices of Alexander Hamilton, with training provided at no charge whatever to the Mulligans.

Our story ends with one fitting observation. The grave of Hercules Mulligan, Hugh Gaine, and Alexander Hamilton can all be found within a few feet of each other in the Trinity Churchyard, located at Broadway and Wall. Almost as close in death as they were in real life.

Views: 29171

Tags: American Revolution, Antrim, Diaspora History, George Washington, Military History, NYC, United States

Comment by Gerry Regan on November 11, 2014 at 10:09pm

Neil, the photo was posted by our team, obviously, now, through a misunderstanding. Indeed, I'm sure we are talking about Benedict Arnold here.

Comment by Neil F. Cosgrove on November 12, 2014 at 5:33am

Gerry - Since my comment is no longer relevant I have pulled it.  An interesting article indeed.

Comment by Mike McCormack on November 12, 2014 at 3:51pm

An excellent article.  I have often referred to Mulligan as a spy for Washington since, as a tailor, he was privy to many conversations between British officers for whom he was tailoring uniforms.  I knew Washington had breakfast with him, but I didn't know it was at Mulligan's house!  Thanks

Comment by Eileen on January 25, 2016 at 9:40pm
Wonderful article, thanks! You & your readers should know that Hercules Mulligan is brought to lively, riveting, sometimes potty-mouthed life as a supporting character in the Broadway show "Hamilton," which I listen to constantly but haven't yet seen. The playwright's getting very high marks for historical fidelity from commenters more learned than me, and this post actually adds to that reputation, while also relating some facts that didn't fit into the libretto. Enjoyed learning even more here. "Mulligan is swell again."
Comment by Gerry Regan on January 27, 2016 at 2:36pm

Eileen, I had no idea the Hercules is portrayed in "Hamilton." When did you see it?

Comment by Eileen on January 27, 2016 at 3:14pm
Hi, Gerry. As noted, I haven't seen it yet. That's my goal for 2016, but it's a very tough ticket! The 2-CD original cast recording is available and comes with a libretto. I wish the print weren't so tiny, but I needed to refer to it at only a few points because the lyrics are for the most part comprehensible. (Uncorrected "unofficial" lyrics are on many lyrics websites.) The music is phenomenal! Individual tracks are on YouTube as audio-only files (the play has not been filmed yet) and you should hear them all. Listen to "Guns and Ships" or "Yorktown" and if they don't get your heart pumping, please see a cardiologist ;-)
Comment by Catherine White on November 29, 2020 at 4:26am

Great story. One of our unsung heroes of the Revolution. The good news is that if you have Disney+, you can watch Hamilton as it was filmed on Broadway with the original cast. I would love to see it in person, but this is the next best thing since tickets are very difficult to come by and due to the pandemic, Broadway is closed for now. 

Comment by Mike McCormack on November 29, 2020 at 3:35pm

In Mulligan's tailor shop, while outfitting verbose British officers, appealing to their egos, and asking the right questions, Mulligan gained valuable insight into their plans. After gaining intelligence, he would write a note and sew it into the hem of a new shirt or other item, pack it into a box and send his servant, Cato, off as if he were simply delivering an order. Cato was his equally patriotic black servant who served as a spy together with Mulligan and often acted the role of courier. He would pass through British lines by acting as if her were a slave; he was also known to many of the British sentries who frequented Mulligan’s shop and allowed him to pass through unchallenged to deliver the information to Hamilton, who had, by now, become Washington’s aide de camp. On at least two occasions his information prevented a planned ambush of Washington.
After a few years of freelancing as a spy, Mulligan was recruited into the Culper Spy Ring, most likely by Robert Townsend (Culper Jr.), a successful merchant who traveled back and forth between the City and Setauket, Long Island – the center of the spy ring. Though never referred to by name, Mulligan was referred to as a ‘faithful friend and one of the first characters in the city.’ He even sometimes rode the 65 miles to Setauket himself to deliver information that couldn’t wait.  Sadly, the musical combines the two characters and portrays Mulligan as a black man thereby denying his heritage and undeservedly completely eliminating Cato and his courageous contributions from history/ 

Comment by Gerry Regan on November 30, 2020 at 7:25am

Thanks for these insights, Mike! Good to hear from you!


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