Escape from America
Finally, in the spring of 1777, Cresswell again decided to try returning to England. Thomson Mason, who had already intervened with two Committees of Safety to protect the Englishman, offered to help with Virginia authorities once more, provided that Cresswell swear not to join the British Army. Cresswell did. The best plan was to leave Leesburg, travel overland to Alexandria, then take a schooner down the Potomac and Chesapeake for Williamsburg and Hampton, where it might be possible go aboard a ship bound for British-occupied New York. As he made his preparations, the local Committee of Safety arrived on April 16 to search his possessions for treasonable items. They seized a shot pouch, powder horn, and bearskin he acquired from the Delaware Indians. Cresswell decided not to contest the seizure lest it complicate his departure.
The Englishman’s papers and diary were another matter. The latter, of course, was several volumes to this point and included his notes about the defenses of New York and the shipbuilding activities in Baltimore in 1776. The information was moot, but still evidence of espionage-like activity. Fortunately for Cresswell, he dodged the bullet.
I have very fortunately preserved my Journal and the greatest part of my papers, owing to the fidelity of my Boy who suspected something of their business and found means to keep them below, while I hid my papers in my Cardevine case, my diary excepted which had some trifling remarks in it. They seized it with the greatest avidity and bore it off with the rest of their plunder in great triumph to the Committee room, who have been sitting upon it all day.[i]
The following day, he recorded “The Committee has puzzled themselves a long time, but can find nothing that amounts to treason against the States of America in my papers. I am glad of it.”[ii] One wonders whether his notes on New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore had been inspected or squirreled away “below.” With that hurdle cleared, Cresswell settled his accounts with Kirk. It would be up to Kirk to recover the debt from Cresswell’s father if, and when, it was possible. He and Kirk celebrated by getting drunk.
Cresswell’s journey down the Potomac was quiet enough, with a few forced stops that enabled to take leave of some who had helped ascend the river when he first arrived, ill, almost three years earlier. Within days, Cresswell found his way to Williamsburg to meet Governor Patrick Henry. As before, he noted military dispositions he encountered on the way at Hampton, Yorktown, and Williamsburg.[iii] In his interview with the Governor, Cresswell told some truths and some falsehoods according to his instincts about which were most likely to get him a pass to go aboard a Royal Navy vessel. He did receive a pass to board a civilian vessel due in from North Carolina. He didn’t expect it and made other plans to sneak away.
Americans continued to view Cresswell with suspicion. A naval officer paid an early visit to him to ferret out his intentions. Cresswell proceeded to get the man drunker than himself and joined in condemning the King and British Government to throw off suspicion. Later, he hired a small galley to take him to Point Gloucester, got the crew drunk, and then conspired with a friend to lock the crew in the hold and seize the boat. With the boat secured, Cresswell and his colleague stood out to sea and finally made their way to the Royal Navy. Before long, he boarded a ship that convoyed to New York, where he finally met General Howe.
His excellency asked me about the affairs in Virginia and whether I thought there was a great many friends to government there. To both questions I answered him with truth to the best of my knowledge. But I think his information has been bad and his expectations too sanguine. I told him my own situation very candidly, gave him my real reasons why I could not enter into the Army. He behaved to me with the greatest politeness, seemed to approve of my honourable resolution as he was pleased to call it, and promised to do anything for me that lay in his power in respect to my getting home.[iv]
[i] Cresswell, Journal, April 16, 1777.
[ii] Cresswell, Journal, April 17, 1777.
[iii] Cresswell, Journal, April 29, 1777.
[iv] Cresswell, Journal, May 16, 1777.