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Revolutionary War

The fight for American independence is a story of patriots and acts of great sacrifice. Even some of the most famous heroes have even more to their historic contributions than most people realize.

They initiated intelligence gathering in the United States and, in some cases, paid the highest price to forge a new nation.

Enjoy their stories:

 

George Washington

Benjamin Franklin

Nathan Hale

James Armistead Lafayette

Anna

 

*Historical sketches in this section are written in the first person for stylistic reasons. Biographies should not be interpreted as direct quotations. Sources are listed at the end of each sketch.

 

George Washington

George WashingtonEarly Life
People in the intelligence world have called me "the First DCI" (Director of Central Intelligence). I was born in Virginia on February 22, 1732. I had little formal schooling, but I had a desire to learn so I studied numerous subjects. It was hard, but I knew I had to do it.


Patriot Leader

My first job was as a surveyor in Culpeper County, Virginia. As an officer in the British Army during the French and Indian War, I began my espionage career as a military spy for the British. I had firsthand experience with what happens when intelligence fails. In 1755, at age 23, I was almost killed in the massacre of General Braddock's troops.

Later, while serving in the House of Burgesses in Virginia, I realized that our country needed its independence. So I sided with the Patriots that were beginning to organize. My experience as an officer during the French and Indian War came in handy when I was selected in June 1775 as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. I knew our army was going to need more than a leader, it was going to need good military intelligence in order to defeat the British Army, which was larger and better equipped than our own.


“Revolutionary” Intelligence

I had a passion for intelligence gathering and I recruited the best people to spy for us. I instructed this group on the techniques of spying (or tradecraft as it is called today), the use of cover stories to protect themselves, and the sending of messages in code. I didn't have a big staff so I did a lot of the intelligence analysis myself. Our methods might seem crude by today's standards, but we got the job done. I'll say our best talents were in military deception and counterintelligence. We would often give the enemy false information, and we were so good at it, they believed us! Why I still remember when I convinced British General Henry Clinton that I was going to attack New York City when, in fact, I was moving in for the final battle of the war at Yorktown, Virginia. Well, let's just say General Cornwallis was surprised!


Sources

O'Toole, G.J.A. Encyclopedia of American Intelligence and Espionage. New York and Oxford: Facts on File, 1988.

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Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin FranklinInventor, Writer, Publisher, Diplomat, Statesman and…Spy!
Although many people can list most of my accomplishments, few know that "spy" was among them. I was born in Boston in 1706 and, like George Washington, had little formal education. But I was curious about the world around me, so I taught myself what I wanted to learn. That included many subjects, all of which would come in handy later on for what I consider one of my most important contributions, serving in the Second Continental Congress. I was on many committees in that Congress; the three most important ones drafted the Declaration of Independence, handled secret correspondence, and secretly obtained military supplies for the Revolution.


Secret Committees to Gain Information and Supplies

The Committee of Secret Correspondence was really this country's first foreign intelligence directorate. We employed many secret agents abroad and established a courier system to relay information and even set up a secret Navy to get information and supplies to us. The Secret Committee was established a few months before the Committee of Secret Correspondence to obtain military supplies in secret, distribute those supplies, and sell gunpowder to privateers hired by the Continental Congress. We also secretly contracted for arms and gunpowder. We were so secret we destroyed many of our papers so no records were left behind.


Early Intelligence Operations

When I went to France with Silas Deane and Dr. Arthur Lee to negotiate a French-American alliance for the war, the mission involved more than diplomacy. We gathered intelligence, distributed propaganda, coordinated aid from America's secret allies, and recruited new people to the cause. I also had my share of counterintelligence woes when I discovered that several of my employees, including a secretary and a courier, were British agents.

I remember a bit of propaganda I produced to discourage the Hessian mercenaries fighting us. I concocted a letter from a German prince to the commander of his mercenaries stating the commander should leave his wounded for dead rather than have them unfit to serve their prince. At the same time, to their homeland I wrote a news article detailing the horrible deaths of these soldiers and others at the hands of the Indians. I think these items, plus the leaflets I disguised as tobacco packets that promised land grants to deserting Hessian soldiers, quickly got the Hessians out of the war and weakened our enemy further. Yes, I have had a long and full life, but I shall always remember my time as a "spy!"


Sources

O'Toole, G.J.A. Encyclopedia of American Intelligence and Espionage. New York and Oxford: Facts on File, 1988.

Intelligence in the War of Independence. Central Intelligence Agency, 1997.

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Nathan Hale

Nathan HaleEarly Life and Career
Some say intelligence gatherers or spies come from the most unlikely backgrounds, and I guess that applies to me. Throughout history you will see men and women from many backgrounds step forward to serve their country in this particular way, and I was no exception.

I was born June 6, 1755, in Coventry, Connecticut, to a family with 12 children! I was good at athletics and scholarship, and I entered Yale at 14 with the intent of being a schoolteacher. I graduated in 1773 and taught school for two years, but a greater calling then took me elsewhere. On July 6, 1775, I was commissioned a lieutenant in the Seventh Connecticut militia and later joined the Continental Army in the Nineteenth Continental Regiment and was stationed in Boston.


For Our Country

I later became a captain and came to New York City with my regiment on April 30, 1776. I was selected by Lt. Col. Thomas Knowlton to lead a company of the famous Knowlton Rangers. Later that summer General Washington asked Lt. Col. Knowlton for a volunteer from his rangers to spy on the British troops on Long Island. Many tried to talk me out of it, but I knew I had to do this for our cause, for our country. Sometimes you have to take a stand, even at personal risk, if you know the cause is just and true. American Independence was such a cause, and I couldn't turn my back on it.


A Sad Chapter in History

Armed with my Yale degree and under cover as a Dutch schoolmaster, I went behind British lines and proceeded to collect information. Other than my cover, I wasn't well trained in the art of spying. I was captured by the British and hanged on September 22, 1776. The British executioner asked if I had any final words, and I told him, "I only regret I have but one life to lose for my country." I was the first American captured and executed for spying. My story has served as an inspiration for other patriots who have entered the profession of intelligence gathering and as an example of the highest degree of commitment, honor, and the willingness to sacrifice for what you believe in.


Sources

O'Toole, G.J.A. Encyclopedia of American Intelligence and Espionage. New York and Oxford: Facts on File, 1988.

Intelligence in the War of Independence. Central Intelligence Agency, 1997.


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James Armistead Lafayette

James Armistead LafayetteI was born James Armistead. Out of admiration for General Lafayette, I adopted his name. Although I'm not as famous as others, I'm proud of my role in American history. When Americans were fighting for independence from England, I was a slave in Virginia. When they say spies come from the most unlikely places, they are right. I got permission to join General Lafayette at Yorktown. I had a feeling Yorktown was going to be important to the war, a turning point or an ending.


Tricks of the Trade

Since it was known that our Commander in Chief, General Washington, was a genius at deception, I figured my services would fit that area, too. I offered to pretend to be an escaped slave. I crossed enemy lines and Britain's General Cornwallis recruited me to spy! I returned to the Americans, and we planned how to fool him. We forged a false order for a large regiment of patriot soldier replacements. Lafayette and Washington thought it was a good idea, so I told Cornwallis I had found the crumpled, dirty piece of paper on the road during my "spy mission," and he believed me. Because of this note, he thought the Americans were much stronger than they were. He never knew he was tricked after the Battle of Yorktown.

I did a lot of spying during the war, and, in appreciation for my work, the Virginia Legislature granted me my freedom from slavery a few years after the Revolutionary War.


Sources

Kaplan, Sidney. The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution. New York: New York Graphic Society, Ltd., 1973.

Intelligence in the War of Independence. The Central Intelligence Agency, 1997.


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Anna Strong

A Patriot from the Beginning
My claim to fame is being one of the few women in the famous Culper Ring, a secret intelligence network based around New York City and Long Island during the American Revolution. I was born in 1740 and was a descendent of the colonial elites.


My Adventure Begins

During the Revolutionary War, I lived in the town of Setauket in Long Island, NY. My husband, Selah Strong, was a Patriot judge at the time. He was captured and held prisoner by the British on a ship out in the New York Harbor. I was left all alone to tend to the family home with the enemy close by. At the time, women were not seen as a threat, and I used this to my advantage to help the Patriot cause. Benjamin Tallmadge formed the Culper Ring as a way to supply General Washington with military intelligence on the British forces led by General Henry Clinton that occupied New York City.


Our Tradecraft

In August 1778, the Culper Ring, headed by Abraham Woodhull — my neighbor and a Long Island farmer — was established. Mr. Woodhull's code name was "Samuel Culper, Sr.," and his principal, agent, Robert Townsend, was "Samuel Culper, Jr."; these names were used in all their correspondence with General Washington. Our ring practiced much of the tradecraft that latter day intelligence gatherers did, corresponding in secret ink, dead drops (leaving information in specified places to be retrieved), and code, all in an effort to get our intelligence product to General Washington.

Mr. Woodhull recruited me and later wrote that I could "outwit them all." The British had heightened security and soldiers stopped and searched every man traveling alone because they fit the profile of a spy. I was to accompany Mr. Woodhull as his wife on a visit to visit the family in New York. In reality, Mr. Woodhull was collecting and delivering important intelligence during this trip. The trick worked! We were never stopped or questioned.

Secret Messages in the Laundry
In addition, I came up with a creative way to notify Mr. Woodhull when Caleb Brewster, a whaler and important informant, was in Setauket. Because the British were constantly patrolling the sound, Mr. Brewster had to be very careful where he hid his ship. There were six coves in the sound where he could hide that were close to my home.

When I saw Mr. Brewster’s ship come in, I would hang my black petticoat on the laundry line and one to six handkerchiefs to show which cove he was hiding in. Mr. Woodhull would see my laundry line and go visit Mr. Brewster to gather intelligence.

My Story Ends
After the war, I was reunited with my husband. We even got to meet General George Washington when he took a tour of Long Island in 1790. Our next child was named George Washington Strong after the general. My husband and I lived out the rest of our days in Setauket.


Sources

Dulles, Allan. Great True Spy Stories. New York and Evanston: Harper and Row, Publishers; 1968.

Miller, Nathan. Spying for America: The Hidden History of US Intelligence. New York: Dell, 1989.

O'Toole, G.J.A. Encyclopedia of American Intelligence and Espionage. New York and Oxford: Facts on File, 1988.

Rose, Alexander. Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring. New York: Bantam and Dell, 2006.

Women in Espionage, A Biographical Dictionary. Santa Barbara, Denver, and Oxford: ABC-Clio, 1993.


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Posted: Apr 15, 2007 12:04 PM
Last Updated: Apr 24, 2013 10:38 AM