George Washington and Espionage in the Revolutionary War

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There is nothing more necessary than good Intelligence to frustrate a designing enemy, & nothing that requires greater pains to obtain. – George Washington, 1755 President George Washington is known by the many facets of his spectacular leadership: as a general, a politician, farmer and local leader, and our nation’s founder. Washington’s place in history is secured by his efforts to turn a band of unorganized, underequipped rebels into a formidable national army that defeated a colonial superpower. Indeed, Washington’s military leadership was instrumental in resolving the American Revolutionary War in the favor of the colonists.
However, close study of the Continental Army’s progress during the war shows that in battle, especially early in the war, General Washington was regularly defeated and outmaneuvered by British forces. Tactically outmatched, Washington found success by strategically outsmarting his British counterparts; making use of the great distances on the American continent to effectively “divide and conquer” British efforts, allowing Washington’s troops to destroy individual detachments in the field. The American’s reliance on guerilla type warfare and surprising British commanders required top-rate intelligence.
Nearly every one of Washington’s strategic masterstrokes of the war involved misleading one British army, allowing the Continental Army to swiftly strike at other British forces unopposed. These complex operations required rebels to not only gather information on British intentions, but also plant false information on American movements to mislead British military leaders. To this end, Washington created America’s first espionage agency, simultaneously developing several spy rings and covert operations to assist Washington in meeting rebel war aims.
The heroic efforts and sacrifices of America’s earliest spies and the influence they played on the eventual patriot victory cannot be underestimated; underground organizations such as the Culper Ring and spies such as Nathan Hale were instrumental in providing Washington a clear strategic view of British dispositions within the occupied territories. The unprecedented insight into British deployments that Washington’s spies afforded him directly contributed to stunning patriot victories such as at Trenton, Saratoga and in the Yorktown Campaign.
In their secret battle for intelligence supremacy, Washington’s spymaster Benjamin Tallmadge squared off against an extensive British and Loyalist spy network led by the energetic Major John Andre. In order to understand the effect of spying in George Washington’s command from a primary perspective, the study of authentic spycraft in the late 18th Century is essential. Agents on both sides of the war made use of various “tricks of the trade” primarily to send secret information to their handlers.
Operating behind enemy lines, the spies had to get detailed information past enemy lines without revealing themselves or the recipients of their intelligence. To do this they made extensive use of covert methods including: coded messages, invisible ink, dead drops, mask letters and messages concealed in quills. Learning from early mistakes, such as the loss of patriot spy Nathan Hale in 1776, American spies’ specialized in developing extensive networks of informants and lines of communication.
Benjamin Tallmadge and the Culper Ring successfully utilized dead drops and invisible ink many times to get vital information out of British occupied cities. Major John Andre instructed British correspondence written in invisible ink to be marked with an “F” or “A”; to identify if heat or chemicals would reveal the hidden message. Among the most successful invisible ink formulas used by patriot agents was a potent agent-reagent ink mix created by Sir James Jay, brother to John Jay of Jay Treaty and Supreme Court fame.
The specially formulated invisible ink could only be revealed by its equally unique counterpart and was used almost exclusively in the all-important dispatches between spy leaders such as Tallmadge and George Washington. To ensure security of information, agents in the field were only ever in possession of the invisible ink, the revealing reagent was kept safely at headquarters to safeguard it from being compromised by British capture.
The British officials made more use of novel encryption techniques such as the mask letter, used extensively by Sir Henry Clinton to hide a message within a message, as well as concealing his messages within hollow quills. Many of the tactics used by spies in the Revolutionary War are still standard practice among the modern intelligence community. In addition to complex, covert operations, more basic methods of intelligence gathering involved regular troops and such simple actions as intercepting enemy correspondence.
City and camp security along with picket lines and patrols ensured the capture of some secret correspondence in the war. Famous examples include the interception of Miss Jenny’s intelligence actions for the patriots and the capture of Major Andre by militia troops. Ultimately, the spying techniques of the late 18th Century allowed Washington’s top spies to score major intelligence victories yet exposed them to grave peril and even death. George Washington’s experiences in the French and Indian War are often cited as the formative period for Washington’s military genius.
Less studied is Washington’s just as abrupt introduction to the world of espionage in his western campaigns. A fast rising, young and energetic Major Washington of the Virginia militia was sent by Governor Dinwiddie in 1753 to inform French forces in the Ohio Country of Britain’s claim to the area and requested the French to leave. It was during this foray that Washington, disguised as an ordinary trader, dined with some French leaders who, affected by the wine, told Washington the name and location of the four French forts in Ohio.
Using these observations and his skill as a surveyor, Washington drew a map of the Ohio River valley displaying the French dispositions and his thought on their intentions. Washington also came across hundreds of French canoes on the river, which he deduced were built for offensive action. Showing the inexperience and impetuosity of a young man, the now lieutenant-colonel Washington, his small band of men and in alliance with the Iroquois leader Tanacharison, the “Half-King”, ambushed a French Canadian force and killed its leader Joseph de Jumonville.
However, Washington’s brash actions also showed courage and initiative in unfamiliar terrain, as noted by his French captors after his defeat at Fort Necessity in July 1754. Interestingly enough, Washington’s actions were the spark that ignited the Seven Years War and secured his fame even in London. After his release by the French, Washington accompanied General Edward Braddock on the ill-fated Wilderness Campaign which saw the British regulars, marching in bright red uniforms and in straight line formation, were defeated by the more practical camouflage and tactics of the French and their Native American allies.
Washington’s experiences from the battle were transformative to his military thinking. Most importantly, it awoke in Washington the realization that accurate intelligence was an essential part of any military campaign. Washington would use the experiences of his early military career to develop his military genius and his appreciation for strong intelligence networks. America’s first espionage network developed in a time of great social changes.
In addition to political and military strife, the division of American society into Patriot and Loyalist camps created a hotbed of subversion and secret activities. The spy rings developed and used extensively in the coming war by George Washington had their root in the secret societies that rose in opposition to British policies. The oppressive actions by British Parliament, beginning with the Stamp Act and the occupation of the North American mainland by professional British troops, led to enormous tensions between the colonists and the crown.
In addition to the overarching political strife, the conflict between Patriot and Loyalist colonials tore American society apart. With public outcries of dissent against British policies expressly forbidden, patriot activists developed extensive secret societies to marshal and organize colonial resistance without fear of reprisal. The largest of these was the Sons of Liberty whose resistance to British oppression became more and more violent. It was the Sons of Liberty who organized the Boston Tea Party and other vocal demonstrations against British rule.
In addition to stirring public support for the rebel movement, the Sons early rosters included several important political and military leaders of the new United States and the precursors of the wartime spy rings. Most importantly for the war effort, these secret societies allowed wealthy, yet established, American benefactors to covertly fund the rebellion. Beginning in the Spring of 1775 the development of hostilities accelerated dramatically. In March, Patrick Henry delivers his famous “give me liberty or give me death” speech to the Virginia Assembly.
The next month British commander General Gage commences aggressive actions against colonial militia stores, drawing strong reactions from the colonial assemblies. The first shots of the war were fired at Lexington and Concord where colonial militiamen were driven off by British regulars. The famous Ride of Paul Revere was in fact the first intelligence mission of the war, with Revere’s report allowing the Lexington militia to muster before the British arrived. Revere’s connection with covert intrigues did not end with his rider owever, when his wife Rachel sent Paul a letter along with 125 pounds the man she entrusted to deliver it, Sons of Liberty and Massachusetts Provisional Congress member Benjamin Church, turned out to be a loyalist and gave the letter to General Gage. The first years of the rebellion were especially difficult for the patriots; the relatively unorganized militias were being completely outfought by British regulars and the rebel cause didn’t even enjoy universal support among the colonial population.
Loyalist informants scored several early victories that allowed arriving British troops to strike rebel militias before they could fully muster. Well-known American scientist Benjamin Thompson sent a message in invisible ink to General Gage which listed the movements and numbers of the rebel army. Despite the many setbacks, the rebels scored a number of victories; Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen stormed Fort Ticonderoga, and American militiamen took Bunker Hill.
Further successes in the beginning of 1776 forced the British to withdraw from vulnerable Boston when Washington moved his artillery to the heights above the city. With these victories the French and Spanish began funding and supplying the American Revolution through the use of front companies, a decidedly covert activity. On July 4th, 1776 the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence, establishing the United States of America with George Washington as Commander in Chief.
With this declaration the conflict turned from a resistance/police action to a full-scale open war. Commanding the nascent American forces against the world’s most formidable colonial power was no easy task and General Washington was forced to use that tactics he learned in the French and Indian War to combat the overwhelming British superiority of arms. To this end he made use of North America’s huge territory and imposing geography, the limited British forces had no hope of occupying the vast countryside, where 90% of the American population lived.
Based on their naval superiority, the British held the major coastal cities and courted Loyalist support, especially in the South and in Canada. Washington spent much of the early years of the war reacting to British initiative. Recently withdrawn from Boston, William Howe landed 20,000 British soldiers on Long Island in August of 1776 and defeated patriot resistance. Last minute intelligence warned Washington of the threat of Howe’s flanking maneuver to the rebel army. In a desperate dash, Washington’s army slipped the trap and crossed the East River at night without casualties.
Despite his successful withdrawal, the British remained on the offensive, capturing New York City and holding it for the remainder of the war and moving German mercenaries into New Jersey. As the center of British occupation in America, New York City became the primary target for patriot intelligence gathering missions. In the chaos following New York’s fall to the British, Washington was forced to authorize hastily organized covert operations within the city. It was into this dangerous situation that schoolteacher Nathan Hale reluctantly volunteered to enter occupied New York and scout out British fortifications.
Hale’s mission suffered bad luck from the start. The same day he was caught, members of his regiment had set pre-planned fires throughout the city to disrupt British operations. Also against his luck, a Tory relative of Hale recognized him as a patriot and it wasn’t long before the schoolteacher turned spy found himself carted before Howe and eventually executed. Hale’s fame as an American hero stems not from his success but from his unshakable determination to serve his country even if he had no formal training. Hale’s final words were purportedly “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country. Washington’s budding spy network did eventually see success, when it gave Washington the information necessary for his iconic Crossing of the Delaware. December of 1776 was a dark time for the rebellion, which had seen itself defeated on several fronts. Realizing the need for a symbolic victory to raise the morale of his troops, Washington began inquiries about Colonel Johann Rall and his Hessian mercenaries stationed in Trenton, New Jersey. Rebel financier Robert Morris paid former British soldier John Honeyman to spy on the German dispositions, location of picket guards and guard routines.
In addition to sending back vital information to Washington, Honeyman managed to befriend Rall and convinced him that Washington’s troops were unclothed, unfed and unequipped for battle. Convinced that he and his troops could enjoy the Christmas festivities in peace, the Hessian troops were wholly unprepared for Washington’s attack on December 26th, 1776. Washington’s important victory, followed up with further success at the Battle of Princeton in January, set the Continentals to emerge from the winter in 1777 with enough will and fighting strength to continue the war.
Though Washington’s quick strikes at small British detachments bore resemblance to Fabian tactics and had little strategic effect on the war, the important morale boosting victories at Trenton and Princeton set the stage for American victory in the larger campaigns and set-piece battles from 1777 onward. Washington’s successes forced Howe to withdraw British detachments towards New York City’s surrounding area, yet his army of occupation still acted as a powerful force-in-being, effectively threatening all the middle colonies.
The British entered the summer of 1777 with a regained initiative; the cornerstone of which was General Burgoyne’s invasion down the Hudson River valley from Canada. The obvious next move for the British would have been for Howe to link up with Burgoyne’s army in Albany, thereby cutting New England off from the rest of the states. Howe, whether operating under overconfidence, falsified American reports or miscommunication made the strategic blunder of invading Pennsylvania instead of meeting Burgoyne.
Howe’s questionable decision already aroused concern among British officers, with Sir Henry Clinton writing to Burgoyne about Howe’s actions. With Britain’s two main armies in the America’s separated by separate campaigns, Washington immediately went on the offensive, attacking Howe in Pennsylvania. Washington’s Continentals were driven off by Howe at Brandywine and Germantown followed by the British occupation of Philadelphia, yet these skirmishes proved just enough to distract the head British commander from the events taking place to the north.
American General Horatio Gates overwhelmed and surrounded Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga over the course of a several day battle. Though this iconic first victory in a large-scale battle was not Washington’s to be had, his clever use of falsified information leaks and his foreknowledge of Burgoyne’s and Howe’s plans allowed him to plan and enact this strategic masterstroke. The American victory at Saratoga was one of the most important battles of the Revolutionary War and was arguably the turning point in that conflict.
Most importantly, the highly visible defeat and capture of an entire British army by the rebels signaled a shift in the balance of power. As Washington’s soldiers entered winter quarters at Valley Forge, American diplomats where already negotiating alliances with France. French involvement in this now global war expanded to include Spain and the Netherlands also fighting the British. Washington spent much of 1778 training and consolidating his forces while the British, now under the overall command of Sir Henry Clinton, attempted regain the initiative by launching offensives in the southern states.
Clinton sought to use Loyalists support to win the war for the British and enlisted many Tories to his cause. Among these was Anne Bates, a loyalist spy who was sent to spy on Washington’s camp in White Plains, NY. In 1780, the patriot spies of Benjamin Tallmadge’s Culper Ring informed Washington of the impending British attack on his camp at Morristown, allowing Washington’s weakened forces to slow the British attack and escape. The central effort of George Washington’s espionage activities was the Culper Ring, led by Washington’s favorite spymaster Benjamin Tallmadge.
Founded in the summer of 1778, the spy ring, name after the Culper brothers who were members, operated extensively throughout the warzones but especially in the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut area. Learning from the mistakes of hasty espionage that characterized Nathan Hale’s operations in the early years of the war, Tallmadge developed a large, efficient but incredibly secretive organization that served its function well till the end of the war.
Secrecy was so tight that even George Washington did not know the names of all the members, protecting all members of the rebel intelligence force in the case of British interception of secret messages. The Culper Ring had an extensive support system of informants and safehouses so that its agents would not be left unsupported as in the case of Hale. These master spies made use of dead drops and codes to encrypt their secrets. The Culper Ring leaders, including Richard Townsend who was codenamed Culper Junior and Caleb Brewster, developed an elaborate courier route to secrete messages out of occupied New York City.
This “spies highway” used dead drops and patriot safe houses to ferry Washington’s agents across the Long Island Sound to Connecticut, and from there it avoided British patrols till finally reaching Washington’s camp. The security and availability of this important line of communication was frequently discussed in the secret dispatches. In one such correspondence, Washington outlines to Tallmadge a plan to alter the route, “The plan for opening the communication by way of Staten Island may be delayed until ‘C’ hears further from me on the subject. ”, with ‘C’ referring to Samuel Culper, code name for the entire Culper Ring.
Members of the ring were often referred to by numbers, George Washington himself was referred to as Agent 711 in Culper Ring correspondence. Many other agents working with the Culper Ring brought important intelligence to light, even paying with their lives for it. Such is the example of Agent 355, an unnamed “lady” who gained access to British spymaster John Andre’s secret papers. Unfortunately, it is believed this woman was caught and hanged by British forces. Her efforts help lead to the Culper Ring’s greatest success: uncovering the treason and plot by Benedict Arnold to turn over West Point to the British.
Arnold was disgruntled at the many slights and lack of pay forthcoming from the Continental Congress while the British hoped control of West Point would let them cut the rebel forces in two. John Andre managed to meet with Arnold to arrange the defection, but on the way back to British lines Andre was caught by American militiamen when he mistook the soldiers for British supporting Tories, because one wore a Hessian overcoat, and divulged his loyalties and mission quite readily. The shocked yet astute militiamen turned Andre over to Lt. Col. John Jameson, Arnold’s subordinate.
Though Tallmadge correctly suspected Andre and prevented him from being handed to Arnold, the treasonous general got word of Andre’s capture and escaped to New York where he hunted down Culper Ring members. The tireless spying of the Culper Ring and Benjamin Tallmadge’s insight into Andre’s true nature allowed this grave threat and iconic treason to be caught before it was sprung. Captured correspondence directly led to Andre’s capture, Tallmadge was easily able to deduce that the John Anderson of the letters was Major Andre. Not long after, the mysterious ‘Gustavus’, the recipient of the letter was unmasked as Benedict Arnold.
The American Revolutionary War was much more than just a clash of men and steel. It was a battle of wits, daring and boldness played out by some of the greatest military minds of the age. Outnumbered and outgunned, George Washington managed to turn a highly divided colonial militia into the formidable force that defeated what was at the time one of the largest invasions in history. By playing to his strengths, and the strengths of the nascent United States, Washington used America’s great size and ruggedness to draw the British into a Fabian war of attrition.
As important if not more than sheer military feats, Washington and his spies fought a separate battle of intrigue and guile that, in the end, spelled ultimate victory for George Washington and the Continental Army. It is clear from the sheer volume of correspondence between General Washington and his spymasters, such as Benjamin Tallmadge, that our young nation’s wartime leader was fully aware of importance of the intelligence situation. His foresight in regard to espionage and his meticulous attention to every detail of the war effort is what forced the British withdrawal and the independence of the United States of America.
Washington’s abilities to manage all necessary affairs with great energy and talent enabled him to set a fine example and historical precedent as our nation’s first president. ——————————————– [ 1 ]. Washington, George. The Founding Fathers of American Intelligence: George Washington. P. K. Rose, Editor. CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence. [ 2 ]. Maj. Bush. Disposition on British Spies, December 13, 1777. The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799. United States Library of Congress, Manuscript Division. [ 3 ].
Spy Report by Joseph Walker to George Washington, March 30, 1781. The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799. United States Library of Congress, Manuscript Division. [ 4 ]. Samuel Culper Jr. (aka Richard Townsend) to John Bolton in Code. The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799. United States Library of Congress, Manuscript Division. [ 5 ]. Foster, Ghering, Light & McCollum. Spy Letters of the American Revolution – Invisible Ink. William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan. [ 6 ]. George Washington to Benjamin Tallmadge, April 30, 1779.
John C. Fitzpatrick, Editor. The Writings of George Washington from the Original Sources, 1745-1799. [ 7 ]. Foster, Ghering, Light & McCollum. Spy Letters of the American Revolution – People of the Revolution: Miss Jenny. William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan. [ 8 ]. Lengel, Edward. General George Washington. Pg. 32 [ 9 ]. Washington, George. George Washington’s Map, accompanying his “Journal to the Ohio, 1754. United States Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division. [ 10 ]. Carbone, Gerald M. Washington: Lessons in Leadership. Great General Series.
Pg. 19 [ 11 ]. Carbone, Gerald M. Washington: Lessons in Leadership. Great General Series. Pg. 48 [ 12 ]. Kreamer, Todd Allen. Sons of Liberty:How a Secret Society of Rebel Americans Made Its Mark on Early America. [ 13 ]. Foster, Ghering, Light & McCollum. Spy Letters of the American Revolution – Letter from Rachel Revere to Paul Revere, April/May 1775. William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan. [ 14 ]. Foster, Ghering, Light & McCollum. Spy Letters of the American Revolution – Invisible Ink Letter from Benjamin Thompson to Unknown, May 6, 1775.
William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan. [ 15 ]. Nathan Spicer to George Washington Deposition on British Military Operations. John C. Fitzpatrick, Editor. The Writings of George Washington from the Original Sources, 1745-1799. [ 16 ]. McIntyre, Ruluff D. George Washington: Master of Misinformation – Hero with a Purpose. [ 17 ]. McIntyre, Ruluff D. George Washington: Master of Misinformation – Hero with a Purpose. [ 18 ]. Carbone, Gerald M. Washington: Lessons in Leadership. Great General Series. Pg. 112 [ 19 ]. Foster, Ghering, Light & McCollum.
Spy Letters of the American Revolution – Letter from William Howe to John Burgoyne concealed in quill tip, July 17, 1777. William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan. [ 20 ]. Foster, Ghering, Light & McCollum. Spy Letters of the American Revolution – Letter from Henry Clinton to John Burgoyne, August 10, 1777. William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan. [ 21 ]. Nelson, Charles Esq. An Original, Compiled and Corrected Account of Burgoyne’s Campaign, and the Memorable Battles of Bemis’s Heights, Sept. 19, and Oct. 7, 1777. Pg. 63 [ 22 ].
Nelson, Charles Esq. An Original, Compiled and Corrected Account of Burgoyne’s Campaign, and the Memorable Battles of Bemis’s Heights, Sept. 19, and Oct. 7, 1777. Pg. 201 [ 23 ]. Foster, Ghering, Light & McCollum. Spy Letters of the American Revolution – Undated, Unsigned Letter regarding Loyalist spy Ann Bates. William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan. [ 24 ]. Allen, Thomas. George Washington, Spymaster. 2004. pg. 49 [ 25 ]. Allen, Thomas. George Washington, Spymaster. 2004. pg. 51 [ 26 ]. Letter from George Washington to Benjamin Tallmadge, April 30, 1779.
John C. Fitzpatrick, Editor. The Writings of George Washington from the Original Sources, 1745-1799. [ 27 ]. Foster, Ghering, Light & McCollum. Spy Letters of the American Revolution – Letter from George Washington to Benhamin Tallmadge Ordering the Creation of the Culper Ring, June 27, 1779. William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan. [ 28 ]. Smith, Joshua. An Authentic Narrative of the Causes Which Led to the Death of Major Andre. [ 29 ]. Maj. John Andre. Major Andre’s Journal. Col. C. Willcox, Editor. Pg. 115

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