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Cato was an enslaved African American who served as an American Black Patriot spy and courier gathering intelligence with his owner, Hercules Mulligan, who was a "sub-agent of the Culper Ring" in New York City.[1] Mulligan's activities began before the Ring was formed and he operated both independently and in connection with the Ring.[2] Cato was a vital associate in Mulligan's activities, often acting as a courier, in part through British-held territory. Historian Paul R. Misencik has written that Cato was a "faithful accomplice" of Mulligan.[3]

ResidenceNew York City
OccupationSpy, courier
Espionage activity
Allegiance United States

An article in the Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine in 1985 stated: "Every estimate of the number of minorities who participated in the American Revolution has been deceptively low...." Cato is among those whose contributions have been mostly overlooked.[4] Other than his intelligence activities with Mulligan, no definite information about him or his life is available.


American RevolutionEdit

Early activitiesEdit

Mulligan had a fashionable clothing business, which, along with his marriage to Elizabeth Sanders, daughter of a Royal Navy admiral, gave him access to officers who would talk to him about military matters.[5] Mulligan was an active member of the Sons of Liberty, and took in Washington's aide Alexander Hamilton when he arrived in New York as a young man in 1773 to attend King's College, later Columbia University. Mulligan later helped Hamilton obtain a commission in the army.[6] Although Mulligan tried to flee New York City after the British occupied it in September 1776, the popular tailor was caught and returned to the city after a brief period of time in detention.[7]

Although Historian Alexander Rose has written that Mulligan began activities within six weeks of the date that Robert Townsend, alias "Samuel Culper, Jr.", sent his first intelligence letter,[1] Stephen Knott has written that Mulligan began his spying activities in late 1776 or early 1777, well before formation of the Culper Ring.[2][8] Knott says that Mulligan co-operated with the Culper Ring, but mostly operated as a lone agent.[2][9] Paul Misencik describes operations by Mulligan as early as 1777.[10]

Mulligan had met Haym Salomon during the general roundup of suspected Patriots, many of whom had begun to flee the city, after the British occupation of New York.[11]

Mulligan soon encountered Salomon again when Salomon accompanied a Hessian officer to Mulligan's shop.[12] Salomon explained that he had been freed from prison in return for swearing allegiance to the Loyalist cause and translating between English and German for the British and Hessian officers, but that he was still a Patriot.[12] Mulligan decided to advertise his tailoring business to the Hessian officers in German, which would facilitate spying as well as business.[12] Mulligan would send Cato to Salomon's shop with ads to translate into German for passing on to Hessians.[12] Cato would return with the translations and intelligence that Mulligan could report to his contact with Washington at Continental Army headquarters, Alexander Hamilton.[12][13]

Mulligan capitalized on his contacts with the British when he learned that British General William Howe was planning to move south in summer 1777.[10] Since the British did not suspect a slave would be acting as a messenger to George Washington, in April 1777, they allowed Cato to cross the Hudson River on a ferry with packages marked "H. Mulligan, clothier."[2][10][14] Many of the soldiers were Mulligan's customers, knew Cato and let him pass to New Jersey with his intelligence about Howe's activities and movements in one of the packages and later return to New York.[10] Although Howe was able to land his troops at the northern end of Chesapeake Bay and advance northward toward Philadelphia, the Patriot capital, Washington prepared defenses against Howe's movements at Red Clay Creek.[15] Howe moved to avoid these defenses and Washington felt compelled to leave his position to fight in a less advantageous position to defend the capital.[15][16] Ultimately, the Continental Army was flanked and beaten back in the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777. After further skirmishes and maneuvers, Howe and his army were able to enter and occupy Philadelphia.[17]

After the British abandoned Philadelphia and returned to New York City in the summer of 1778, activity again picked up in the restored British Army headquarters. The British Provost Marshal of New York City, William Cunningham, suspected Mulligan of espionage and was curious about Cato's trips from New York.[3] He eventually questioned and jailed Cato, treating him cruelly, and interrogating him about Mulligan's activities and his own deliveries out of town.[3] Cato would not talk.[3]

In January 1779, Cato delivered a message to Alexander Hamilton that the British planned to kidnap or kill American leaders including Washington and New Jersey Governor William Livingston.[18] Mulligan had received the information from his brother Hugh, who was with Kortright and Company, a contractor for British Army.[18] Washington and Livingston took appropriate precautions.[18]

Culper RingEdit

Mulligan's business was near Robert Townsend's establishment.[5] After the organization of the Culper Ring, Mulligan gave information to Townsend that the British planned a surprise attack on the newly allied French forces under Lieutenant General Rochambeau at Newport, Rhode Island before the French could fully recover and set up defenses after their arduous sea journey to America.[19] Townsend sent through the Culper Ring courier system.[19] Mulligan also sent Cato by a more direct route to Washington, who consequently had the information several days before the Culper letter arrived.[19]

When Mulligan was arrested on suspicion after the defection of Benedict Arnold to the British in New York, Townsend ceased his activities for a time for fear he also would be discovered.[6] Arnold did not have any hard evidence against Mulligan so despite the testimony of Arnold and Cunningham against him, Mulligan was released.[1][20] But he may have spent as many as five months, until February 1781, in prison.[1][20]

Mulligan continued to pick up intelligence after his release.[20] He discovered that the British planned to ambush Washington while he was on his way to a meeting with Rochambeau on March 5, 1781.[20] Because Mulligan and Cato both remained under suspicion of spying by the British, Mulligan and Cato could no longer safely communicate directly with Washington's headquarters.[14][20] He gave the information to Townsend, who sent it to Washington via the Culper Ring route.[20] It arrived in time for Washington to avoid the trap and travel to the meeting by another route.[20]

Because no correspondence with Mulligan's name or a recognized alias on it survives, a complete record of his, and Cato's, activities during the American Revolution can not be compiled.[2]


Mulligan was cleared of suspicions that he might have had Loyalist sympathies in dramatic fashion when George Washington had breakfast with him on the day after the British evacuated the city and Washington entered it at the end of the war.[2][21]

Although nothing definite has been found about Cato's life after the American Revolutionary War, it is known that on January 25, 1785, Mulligan became one of the 19 founding members, along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, of the New York Manumission Society,[22] an early American organization founded to promote abolition (or Manumission) of slaves.

In popular cultureEdit

The Culper Ring is depicted in the fictionalized AMC American Revolutionary War spy thriller period drama series, Turn: Washington's Spies, based on Alexander Rose's historical book Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring (2007).[23] Mulligan and Cato are portrayed in the fourth and final season.[24]

Hercules Mulligan is depicted by Okieriete Onaodowan in the 2015 Broadway musical Hamilton, although Cato is not mentioned in the musical.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d Rose, Alexander during the American Revolutionary War. Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring. New York: Bantam Dell, a division of Random House, 2007. First published in hardcover in 2006. ISBN 978-0-553-38329-4. p. 226.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Knott, Stephen. Secret and Sanctioned: Covert Operations and the American Presidency. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. ISBN 978-0-19-510098-3. Retrieved May 22, 2014. p. 40.
  3. ^ a b c d Misencik, Paul R. The Original American Spies: Seven Covert Agents of the Revolutionary War. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2013. ISBN 978-0-7864-7794-4. p. 116.
  4. ^ Daughter of the American Revolution. Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine, Volume 119. Publisher: National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, 1985. Retrieved May 21, 2014. p. 85.
  5. ^ a b Rose, 2007, p. 225.
  6. ^ a b Rose, 2007, p. 224.
  7. ^ Author Harry Thayer Mahoney wrote that the British failure to lock up Mulligan, except for a short time, was a "failure of British counterintelligence." Mahoney, Henry Thayer and Marjorie Locke Mahoney. Gallantry in Action: A Biographic Dictionary of Espionage in the American Revolutionary War. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc., 1999. ISBN 978-0-7618-1479-5. p. 253.
  8. ^ Although his statement seems specific, Rose may have been referring only to Mulligan's activities in connection with the ring.
  9. ^ Rose states that Mulligan gave Townsend information, which Townsend added to his reports. Rose, 2007, p. 226.
  10. ^ a b c d Misencik, 2013, p. 113.
  11. ^ Misencik, 2013, p. 109.
  12. ^ a b c d e Misencik, 2013, p. 11o.
  13. ^ Misencik, 2013, p. 112.
  14. ^ a b Daigler, Kenneth A. Spies, Patriots and Traitors: American Intelligence in the Revolutionary War. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2014. ISBN 978-1-62616-050-7. p. 189.
  15. ^ a b Ferling, John. Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-19-538292-1. (pbk.) Originally published in hard cover in 2007. p. 246.
  16. ^ Ferling also states that Washington did not scout the area well while Howe gained a good picture of the lay of the land from Loyalist spies, including the existence of an unguarded ford over Brandywine Creek two miles from the Continental Army position.
  17. ^ Ferling, 2007, pp. 247–253.
  18. ^ a b c Misencik, 2013, p. 117.
  19. ^ a b c Misencik, 2013, p. 120.
  20. ^ a b c d e f g Misencik, 2013, p. 122.
  21. ^ Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: Penguin Books, 2005. ISBN 978-0-14-303475-9. Originally published New York, Penguin Press, 2004. p. 185.
  22. ^ Chernow, 2005, p. 214.
  23. ^ Andreeva, Nellie. AMC Picks Up ‘Halt & Catch Fire’ & ‘Turn’ To Series. Publisher: Deadline. Retrieved August 7, 2013.
  24. ^ Internet Movie Database cast list for Turn. Retrieved May 28, 2014.