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Plot To Kidnap British Prince
by U.S. Army Erin Thompson
Intelligence Center of Excellence Historian
March 17, 2024

On 28 March 1782, Gen. George Washington gave permission to American spy Col. Matthias Ogden to move ahead with a plot to kidnap Prince William Henry, son of King George III, along with British Adm. Robert Digby. The daring operation involved a network of spies across New York who hoped to strike a blow at the heart of the English monarchy.

Artist Franz Xavier Habermann painting of British soldiers capturing New York City in 1776 that was held by them until retaken by George Washington's forces in late 1783. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Army photo by Erin Thompson, Intelligence Center of Excellence.)
Artist Franz Xavier Habermann painting of British soldiers capturing New York City in 1776 that was held by them until retaken by George Washington's forces in late 1783. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Army photo by Erin Thompson, Intelligence Center of Excellence.)

Prince William Henry was the third son of King George III. In 1871, the 17-year-old was serving aboard the flagship HMS Prince George under Admiral Digby. The vessel arrived in New York in September 1781, making the prince the first member of the British monarchy to step foot on American soil. His presence was quickly made known to everyone in the city. Several of Washington’s spies, including Colonel Ogden, took notice and began relaying information back to Washington’s headquarters, where the Battle of Yorktown was being fought.

According to intelligence gathered by Ogden, the prince’s quarters were shared with a single British officer and were lightly guarded, and he gave detailed accounts of the guard posts around the party and how to avoid them. Ogden’s abduction plan involved crossing from the New Jersey shore to the East River in lower Manhattan on a rainy night to avoid detection.

The purpose of kidnapping the prince was never made clear in letters exchanged between General Washington and Colonel Ogden. Some historians have suggested Washington hoped to exchange the prince and Admiral Digby for numerous American prisoners still held captive in notoriously bad conditions, such as those on board the HMS Jersey. Washington also possibly viewed the kidnapping of Prince William as a symbolic victory over the monarchy, a way to demoralize the British occupying forces and reinvigorate colonial support. Regardless of his reason for pursing the kidnapping plot, Washington was quick to authorize the operation.

On 28 March 1782, Washington wrote to Colonel Ogden, who at the time was serving with the 1st New Jersey Continentals in New Jersey:

"Sir: The spirit of enterprise so conspicuous in your plan for surprising in their quarters, and bringing off the Prince William Henry and Admiral Digby, merits applause; and you have my Authority to make the attempt; in any manner, and at such a time, as your judgement shall direct. I am fully perswaded [sic], that it is unnecessary to caution you against offering insult or indignity to the persons of the Prince, or Admiral, should you be so fortunate as to capture them; but it may not be amiss to press the propriety of a propr [sic] line of conduct upon the party you command."

After ensuring Colonel Ogden would take the necessary actions to keep the prince and admiral safe, Washington closed his letter by ordering the spy to stay away from neutral ground, “from Newark to Raway, and four miles back,” to avoid any questions of legality in taking the captives.

The detailed plot never came to fruition. Sir Henry Clinton, British commander-in-chief in America during the war, suspected the colonists were planning some action against the prince and quickly directed his own spies to investigate. One of his men, Capt. George Beckwith, eventually uncovered Ogden’s plan and reported it to his superior. In response, Clinton greatly increased the city’s security in late March.

General Washington wrote to Colonel Ogden again on 2 April, advising the spy that sentries had been added to guard rotations around certain high-status people in New York. Washington feared the operation would collapse if attempted; thus, the kidnapping never took place.

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