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 André.

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 André 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...
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