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The bodyguard and the biscuit baker

“How the Muffin Man saved George Washington” would have been a funny but misleading title for this column. Still, during the Revolution, private citizens as well as military men foiled the schemes of spies and potential assassins. A humble biscuit baker from Newport, Rhode Island, and a young soldier from New London are two examples.

In 1775, Godfrey Wenwood’s bakery was known for its delicious butter biscuits. Godfrey supported the goal of American independence but avoided talking politics in front of customers who might not be like-minded. One day, a former girlfriend stopped by the shop with a sealed letter that she asked him to take to British officers stationed on a ship in Newport harbor. Godfrey, who was engaged to be married, wasn’t pleased to see his old flame, and her request made him deeply suspicious. He put the letter aside, but after the woman badgered him to deliver it, he showed it to a trusted friend. When they opened the envelope and saw a coded message, the alarm went all the way up to George Washington. An investigation revealed that Dr. Benjamin Church, a member of Washington’s inner circle, was trying to send top secret military information to the British. Church had been spying for some time, but thanks to Godfrey, his treachery was exposed.

The growing danger posed by conspiracies prompted the establishment of The Commander-in-Chief's Guard. This elite unit, often called the Life Guard, was charged with protecting Washington as well as keeping the official documents of the Continental Army secure. The men chosen to serve represented every colony and had to meet exacting standards of fitness, sobriety, self-discipline, and character. (Despite the careful selection process, a guardsman’s plot to kill or kidnap Washington was a shocking blot on the unit’s otherwise sterling reputation. But that’s another story.)

The motto on the Life Guards’ battle flag proclaimed, “Conquer or Die.” They traveled and fought with the army, enduring all the hardships of battle and winter encampments. Caleb Gibbs, a Massachusetts man, was the unit’s first commander; when he was reassigned, William Colfax, a New London native, took the lead.

William’s roots in New London ran deep. His maternal ancestors, the Averys, settled in New London in 1650. At least three generations of Colfaxes were born here. His parents, George and Lucy, lie in Ye Antientest Burial Ground. But William wasn’t destined to spend much of his adult life in his hometown. When he was just 17 years old, he joined the Continental Army.

William’s wartime experiences were extensive, from Bunker Hill to Valley Forge to the British surrender at Yorktown. He was wounded three times in battle. In one instance, he didn’t realize he’d been shot and continued fighting until his men screamed that there was blood pouring out of his boot. Once he was so severely wounded that Washington ordered him to go home to recuperate.

William commanded the Guard from 1779 until a few months before its dissolution in 1781 following the victory at Yorktown. (During William’s tenure, at least 12 soldiers from Connecticut served under him, including Elihu Hancock and Simon Tubbs, from Stonington and Lyme, respectively. I believe.)

After the Revolution, William married and settled in New Jersey, but his civic life wasn’t over. He became a justice of the peace and served in the New Jersey state legislature. He was promoted to brigadier general and commanded an infantry division during the War of 1812. He died in 1838, an American hero.

And what of Godfrey Wenwood? Shortly after the episode with the coded letter, he married his fiancée. They had nine children, and I think he continued running his popular bakery. Godfrey died in 1816, having had the satisfaction of watching his new country become firmly established.

It’s good to remember that one person can make a difference: that an obscure biscuit baker can unmask a traitor, and that a young man from a small town can protect the most important person in North America.

 

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