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Intelligence Operations During the Revolutionary War

Did you know many of the methods used by today’s intelligence professionals were also used during the Revolutionary War?

Cover Assignments

American revolutionaries relied heavily on the use of cover assignments to help them hide their true intentions and gain valuable information about British activities.

  • Enoch Crosby, a counterintelligence officer, posed as a shoemaker and traveled through southern New York to infiltrate groups loyal to the British.
  • John Honeyman, an Irish weaver, gathered intelligence on British military activities in New Jersey while pretending to be a butcher.

Codes and Secret Messages

Washington conferring with one of his agents.
Washington conferring with one of his agents.

Codes and secret messages allowed the Americans to successfully deliver diplomatic, military and personal messages throughout the United States and abroad during the Revolutionary War.   For example, Charles Dumas—a Swiss journalist living in The Hague who had befriended Benjamin Franklin—developed a system which substituted numbers for letters drawn from a French text. With his code, American Revolutionary leaders communicated undetected with their agents and diplomats in Europe.

However, not all American intelligence endeavors succeeded.  Despite the development of a form of invisible ink by John Jay and Connecticut merchant Silas Deane—who became the Americans’ agent in France—the British intercepted more than half of America’s secret messages during the war.

Intelligence reports and analysis

Much like today, intelligence reports and analysis were invaluable in countering British military operations.  George Washington was greatly interested in analysis and told one of his officials: “it is by comparing a variety of information, we are frequently able to investigate facts, which were so hidden and intricate, that no single clue could have lead to the knowledge of them…”

To learn more about intelligence in the Revolutionary War, check out Intelligence and the War of Independence.

Historical Document
Posted: Jul 03, 2012 09:57 AM
Last Updated: Apr 30, 2013 01:01 PM