George Washington

George Washington was a skilled manager of intelligence. He utilized agents behind enemy lines, recruited both Tory and Patriot sources, interrogated travelers for intelligence information, and launched scores of agents on both intelligence and counterintelligence missions. He was adept at deception operations and tradecraft and was a skilled propagandist. He also practiced sound operational security.

As an intelligence manager, Washington insisted that the terms of an agent's employment and his instructions be precise and in writing, composing many letters of instruction himself. He emphasized his desire for receiving written, rather than verbal, reports. He demanded repeatedly that intelligence reports be expedited, reminding his officers of those bits of intelligence he had received which had become valueless because of delay in getting them to him. He also recognized the need for developing many different sources so that their reports could be cross-checked, and so that the compromise of one source would not cut off the flow of intelligence from an important area.

Washington sought and obtained a "secret service fund" from the Continental Congress, and expressed preference for specie, preferably gold: "I have always found a difficulty in procuring intelligence by means of paper money, and I perceive it increases." In accounting for the sums in his journals, he did not identify the recipients: "The names of persons who are employed within the Enemy's lines or who may fall within their power cannot be inserted."

He instructed his generals to "leave no stone unturned, nor do not stick to expense" in gathering intelligence, and urged that those employed for intelligence purposes be those "upon whose firmness and fidelity we may safely rely."

Drawing: Washington conferring with one of his agents


Washington's Intelligence Officers

Washington retained full and final authority over Continental Army intelligence activities, but he delegated significant field responsibility to trusted officers. Although he regularly urged all his officers to be more active in collecting intelligence, Washington relied chiefly on his aides and specially-designated officers to assist him in conducting intelligence operations. The first to assume this role appears to have been Joseph Reed, who fulfilled the duties of "Secretary, Adjutant General and Quarter Master, besides doing a thousand other little Things which fell incidentally." A later successor to Reed was Alexander Hamilton, who is known to have been deeply involved with the Commander-in-Chief's intelligence operations, including developing reports received in secret writing and investigating a suspected double agent.

When Elias Boudinot was appointed Commissary General of Prisoners, responsible for screening captured soldiers and for dealing with the British concerning American patriots whom they held prisoner, Washington recognized that the post offered "better opportunities than most other officers in the army, to obtain knowledge of the Enemy's Situation, motions and... designs," and added to Boudinot's responsibilities "the procuring of intelligence." In 1778, Washington selected Brigadier General Charles Scott of Virginia as his "intelligence chief." When personal considerations made it necessary for Scott to step down, Washington appointed Colonel David Henley to the post temporarily, and then assigned it to Major Benjamin Tallmadge. Tallmadge combined reconnaissance with clandestine visits into British territory to recruit agents, and attained distinction for his conduct of the Culper Ring operating out of New York.

In 1776 George Washington picked Thomas Knowlton to command the Continental Army's first intelligence unit, known as "Knowlton's Rangers." Intelligence failure during the battle of Long Island convinced Washington that he needed an elite detachment dedicated to reconnaissance that reported directly to him. Knowlton, who had served in a similar unit during the French and Indian War, led 130 men and 20 officers-all hand-picked volunteers-on a variety of secret missions that were too dangerous for regular troops to conduct. The date 1776 on the seal of the Army's intelligence service today refers to the formation of Knowlton's Rangers.

Other intelligence officers who served with distinction during the War of Independence included Captain Eli Leavenworth, Major Alexander Clough, Colonel Elias Dayton, Major John Clark, Major Allan McLane, Captain Charles Craig and General Thomas Mifflin.

Graphic: United States Army Intelligence Seal


Paul Revere and the Mechanics

The first Patriot intelligence network on record was a secret group in Boston known as the "mechanics." The group apparently grew out of the old Sons of Liberty organization that had successfully opposed the hated Stamp Act. The "mechanics," (meaning skilled laborers and artisans) organized resistance to British authority and gathered intelligence. In the words of one of its members, Paul Revere, "in the Fall of 1774 and winter of 1775, I was one of upwards of thirty, chiefly mechanics, who formed ourselves into a Committee for the purpose of watching British soldiers and gaining every intelligence on the movements of the Tories." According to Revere, "We frequently took turns, two and two, to watch the (British) soldiers by patrolling the streets all night."

In addition, the "mechanics," also known as the Liberty Boys, sabotaged and stole British military equipment in Boston. Their security practices, however, were amateurish. They met in the same place regularly (the Green Dragon Tavern), and one of their leaders (Dr. Benjamin Church) was a British agent.

Through a number of their intelligence sources, the "mechanics" were able to see through the cover story the British had devised to mask their march on Lexington and Concord. Dr. Joseph Warren, chairman of the Committee of Safety, charged Revere with the task of warning Samuel Adams and John Hancock at Lexington that they were the probable targets of the enemy operation. Revere arranged for the warning lanterns to be hung in Old North Church to alert patriot forces at Charlestown, and then set off on his famous ride. He completed his primary mission of notifying Adams and Hancock. Then Revere, along with Dr. Samuel Prescott and William Dawes, rode on to alert Concord, only to be apprehended by the British en route. Dawes got away, and Dr. Prescott managed to escape soon afterward and to alert the Patriots at Concord. Revere was interrogated and subsequently released, after which he returned to Lexington to warn Hancock and Adams of the proximity of British forces.

Revere then turned to still another mission, retrieving from the local tavern a trunk belonging to Hancock and filled with incriminating papers. With John Lowell, Revere went to the tavern and, as he put it, during "a continual roar of Musquetry... we made off with the Trunk."

Paul Revere had served as a courier prior to his famous "midnight ride," and continued to do so during the early years of the war. One of his earlier missions was perhaps as important as the Lexington ride. In December 1774, Revere rode to the Oyster River in New Hampshire with a report that the British, under General Gage, intended to seize Fort William and Mary. Armed with this intelligence, Major John Sullivan of the colonial militia led a force of four hundred men in an attack on the fort. The one hundred barrels of gunpowder taken in the raid were ultimately used by the Patriots to cover their retreat from Bunker Hill.


Martyrs and Heroes

Nathan Hale is probably the best known but least successful American agent in the War of Independence. He embarked on his espionage mission into British-held New York as a volunteer, impelled by a strong sense of patriotism and duty. Before leaving on the mission he reportedly told a fellow officer: "I am not influenced by the expectation of promotion or pecuniary award; I wish to be useful, and every kind of service necessary to the public good becomes honorable by being necessary. If the exigencies of my country demand a peculiar service, its claims to perform that service are imperious."

But dedication was not enough. Captain Hale had no training experience, no contacts in New York, no channels of communication, and no cover story to explain his absence from camp-only his Yale diploma supported his contention that he was a "Dutch schoolmaster." He was captured while trying to slip out of New York, was convicted as a spy and went to the gallows on September 22, 1776. Witnesses to the execution reported the dying words that gained him immortality (a paraphrase of a line from Joseph Addison's play Cato: "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."

The same day Nathan Hale was executed in New York, British authorities there arrested another Patriot and charged him with being a spy. Haym Salomon was a recent Jewish immigrant who worked as a stay-behind agent after Washington evacuated New York City in September 1776. Solomon was arrested in a round-up of suspected Patriot sympathizers and was confined to Sugar House Prison. He spoke several European languages and was soon released to the custody of General von Heister, commander of Hessian mercenaries, who needed someone who could serve as a German-language interpreter in the Hessian commissary department. While in German custody, Salomon induced a number of the German troops to resign or desert.

Eventually paroled, Salomon did not flee to Philadelphia as had many of his New York business associates. He continued to serve as an undercover agent, and used his personal finances to assist American patriots held prisoner in New York. He was arrested again in August of 1778, accused this time of being an accomplice in a plot to burn the British fleet and to destroy His Majesty's, warehouses in the city. Salomon was condemned to death for sabotage, but bribed his guard while awaiting execution and escaped to Philadelphia. There he came into the open in the role for which he is best known, as an important financier of the Revolution. It is said that when Salomon died in bankruptcy in 1785, at forty-five years of age, the government owed him more than $700,000 in unpaid loans.

Less than a year after Nathan Hale was executed, another American agent went to the gallows in New York. On June 13, 1777, General Washington wrote the President of Congress: "You will observe by the New York paper, the execution of Abm. [Abraham] Patten. His family deserves the generous Notice of Congress. He conducted himself with great fidelity to our Cause rendering Services and has fallen a Sacrifice in promoting her interest. Perhaps a public act of generosity, considering the character he was in, might not be so eligible as a private donation."

"Most accurate and explicit intelligence" resulted from the work of Abraham Woodhull on Long Island and Robert Townsend in British-occupied New York City. Their operation, known as the Culper Ring from the operational names used by Woodhull (Culper, Sr.) and Townsend (Culper, Jr.), effectively used such intelligence tradecraft as codes, ciphers and secret ink for communications; a series of couriers and whaleboats to transmit reporting; at least one secret safe house, and numerous sources. The network was particularly effective in picking up valuable information from careless conversation wherever the British and their sympathizers gathered.

One controversial American agent in New York was the King's Printer, James Rivington. His coffee house, a favorite gathering place for the British, was a principal source of information for Culper, Jr. (Townsend), who was a silent partner in the endeavor. George Washington Parke Custis suggests that Rivington's motive for aiding the patriot cause was purely monetary. Custis notes that Rivington, nevertheless, "proved faithful to his bargain, and often would provide intelligence of great importance gleaned in convivial moments at Sir William's or Sir Henry's table, be in the American camp before the convivialists had slept off the effects of their wine. The King's printer would probably have been the last man suspected, for during the whole of his connection with the secret service his Royal Gazette piled abuse of every sort upon the cause of the American general and the cause of America." Rivington's greatest espionage achievement was acquiring the Royal Navy's signal book in 1781. That intelligence helped the French fleet repel a British flotilla trying to relieve General Cornwallis at Yorktown.

Hercules Mulligan ran a clothing shop that was also frequented by British officers in occupied New York. The Irish immigrant was a genial host, and animated conversation typified a visit to his emporium. Since Mulligan was also a Patriot agent, General Washington had full use of the intelligence he gathered. Mulligan was the first to alert Washington to two British plans to capture the American Commander-in-Chief and to a planned incursion into Pennsylvania. Besides being an American agent, Mulligan also was a British counterintelligence failure. Before he went underground as an agent, he had been an active member of the Sons of Liberty and the New York Committees of Correspondence and Observation, local Patriot intelligence groups. Mulligan had participated in acts of rebellion and his name had appeared on Patriot broadsides distributed in New York as late as 1776. But every time he fell under suspicion, the popular Irishman used his gift of "blarney" to talk his way out of it. The British evidently never learned that Alexander Hamilton, Washington's aide-de-camp, had lived in the Mulligan home while attending King's College, and had recruited Mulligan and possibly Mulligan's brother, a banker and merchant who handled British accounts, for espionage.

Another American agent in New York was Lieutenant Lewis J. Costigin, who walked the streets freely in his Continental Army uniform as he collected intelligence. Costigin had originally been sent to New York as a prisoner, and was eventually paroled under oath not to attempt escape or communicate intelligence. In September 1778 he was designated for prisoner exchange and freed of his parole oath. But he did not leave New York, and until January 1779 he roamed the city in his American uniform, gathering intelligence on British commanders, troop deployments, shipping, and logistics while giving the impression of still being a paroled prisoner.

On May 15,1780, General Washington instructed General Heath to send intelligence agents into Canada. He asked that they be those "upon whose firmness and fidelity we may safely rely," and that they collect "exact" information about Halifax in support of a French requirement for information on the British defense works there. Washington suggested that qualified draftsmen be sent. James Bowdoin, who was later to become the first president of the American Academy of Arts and Science, fulfilled the intelligence mission, providing detailed plans of Halifax harbor, including specific military works and even water depths.

In August 1782, General Washington created the Military Badge of Merit, to be issued "whenever any singularly meritorious action is performed... not only instances of unusual gallantry, but also of extraordinary fidelity and essential service in any way." Through the award, said Washington, "the road to glory in a Patriot army and a free country is thus open to all." The following June, the honor was bestowed on Sergeant Daniel Bissell, who had "deserted" from the Continental Army, infiltrated New York, posed as a Tory, and joined Benedict Arnold's "American Legion." For over a year, Bissell gathered information on British fortifications, making a detailed study of British methods of operation, before escaping to American lines.

Dominique L'Eclise, a Canadian who served as an intelligence agent for General Schuyler, had been detected and imprisoned and had all his property confiscated. After being informed by General Washington of the agent's plight, the Continental Congress on October 23, 1778, granted $600 to pay L'Eclise's debts and $60, plus one ration a day "during the pleasure of Congress," as compensation for his contribution to the American cause.

Family legend contributes the colorful but uncorroborated story of Lydia Darragh and her listening post for eavesdropping on the British. Officers of the British force occupying Philadelphia chose to use a large upstairs room in the Darragh house for conferences. When they did, Mrs. Darragh would slip into an adjoining closet and take notes on the enemy's military plans. Her husband, William, would transcribe the intelligence in a form of shorthand on tiny slips of paper that Lydia would then position on a button mold before covering it with fabric. The message-bearing buttons were then sewn onto the coat of her fourteen-year-old son, John, who would then be sent to visit his elder brother, Lieutenant Charles Darragh, of the American forces outside the city. Charles would snip off the buttons and transcribe the shorthand notes into readable form for presentation to his officers. Lydia Darragh is said to have concealed other intelligence in a sewing-needle packet which she carried in her purse when she passed through British lines. Some espionage historians have questioned the credibility of the best-known story of Darragh's espionage-that she supposedly overheard British commanders planning a surprise night attack against Washington's army at Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania, on the 4th and 5th of December 1777. The cover story she purportedly used to leave Philadelphia-she was filling a flour sack at a nearby mill outside the British lines because there was a flour shortage in the city-is implausible because there was no shortage, and a lone woman would not have been allowed to roam around at night, least of all in the area between the armies.

Many other heroic Patriots gathered the intelligence that helped win the War of Independence. Their intelligence duties required many of them to pose as one of the enemy, incurring the hatred of family members and friends-some even having their property seized or burned, and their families driven from their homes. Some were captured by American forces and narrowly escaped execution on charges of high treason or being British spies. Many of them gave their lives in helping establish America's freedom.

Drawing: Triumph of Patriotism


Historical Document
Posted: Mar 15, 2007 04:13 PM
Last Updated: Sep 05, 2013 11:34 AM