Washington's spies: General George Washington's intelligence network during the American War for Independence contributed largely to his success

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Author: Jodie Gilmore
Date: Mar. 7, 2005
From: The New American(Vol. 21, Issue 5)
Publisher: American Opinion Publishing, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,627 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1230L

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Double agents. Invisible ink. Clandestine meetings. False identities. Secret signals. Sounds like something right out of a James Bond novel. But long before James Bond made his appearance in spy fiction, General George Washington was busy maintaining a highly effective espionage unit during the American War for Independence.

The following missive from Washing ton to a confidant in 1777 illustrates the importance Washington placed on intelligence operations:

   The necessity of procuring good Intelligence
   is apparent & need not be
   further urged--All that remains for
   me to add is, that you keep the whole
   matter as secret as possible. For upon
   Secrecy, Success depends in Most
   Enterprizes of the kind, and for want
   of it, they are generally defeated,
   however well planned & promising
   a favourable issue.

No brief article can attempt to cover all of the brave and dedicated patriots who contributed to General Washington's large and successful information network. Nathan Hale (a member of Washington's first intelligence unit, Knowlton's Rangers) and Benjamin Franklin (who gathered and disseminated information--and misinformation--in France) are famous people whose intelligence efforts for the cause of American liberty are well known. But there were others who deserve mention as well. One of these was John Honeyman. Others included members of what was known as the Culper Gang and James Armistead Lafayette.

John Honeyman

In late 1776, General Washington desperately needed a victory--soldier morale was sagging, and public sentiment was flagging. He set his sights on Trenton, but to assure success, he needed to know the lay of the British camp. He turned to a strong patriot, John Honeyman. He sent Honeyman forth from his home in Philadelphia to Griggstown, New Jersey--17 miles from Trenton--where Honeyman was to pose as a butcher and a loyalist to the king. A good actor, Honeyman was soon regularly supplying beef to the Hessian troops stationed at Trenton, and gained their trust. The demand for beef was constant as the Christmas holidays approached, and Honeyman became familiar with the Hessian camp and the roads around the town.

To avoid suspicion and possible exposure, Washington resorted to a cloak-and-dagger scheme to get Honeyman's report. Since Honeyman had built a reputation as a determined loyalist on the side of the British, Washington put his scouts on alert and told them to capture Honeyman if they saw him--but he wanted him alive, not dead. The scouts had no idea of Honeyman's true mission when they picked him up in a field where he was looking for beef cows, and Honeyman was worried they might shoot him on the spot, despite Washington's orders. But they brought him in, and Washington said he wanted some time alone with the prisoner. After Honeyman had given a full report on the relaxed, festive mood of the Hessian troops and the lay of the camp and surrounding roads, Washington had him thrown into a locked guardhouse--but somehow a nearby fire distracted the guards, and a door happened to be left open. Honeyman "escaped" across the Delaware River in a convenient rowboat, despite a hail of musket-fire that somehow missed him by yards.

Arriving back at Trenton, Honeyman told of his capture and courageous escape and regaled the Hessians with tales of a puny, inferior American force. All too willing to believe Honeyman, the Hessians continued their Christmas merrymaking (and eating beef) well into the night, while Honeyman disappeared into the countryside (presumably to find more beef). The following morning, the still-groggy Hessians were dismayed to find Washington's army on their side of the Delaware River, not puny at all, and quite capable of taking the town. Thanks to the information supplied by Honeyman, Washington's success at Trenton was almost assured, and the American patriots won their first major victory.

Honeyman continued spying for Washington, playing his role so well that patriots not in on the secret caught and jailed him as a Tory. It was only after Washington's emissary, Colonel Jacob Hyer, stepped in and arranged bail that Honeyman escaped from being hanged for High Treason.

The Culper Gang

Though Honeyman worked alone, Washington also used "spy rings," groups of agents working together. The most famous of these was the Culper Gang, to which Washington himself belonged. Other members of the gang included Major Benjamin Tallmadge, who was Washington's chief of intelligence, Abraham Woodhull, * Robert Townsend, Caleb Brewster, and Austin Roe. Each member of the gang had a code name or number. For example, Tallmadge's code name was John Bolton, and Austin Roe went by Agent 724. Only Tallmadge knew the true identities of all the members--General Washington did not.

The Culper Gang was formed early in the war and aided Washington in keeping tabs on the British. One of the Culper Gang's most lauded contributions to the war effort was in helping to foil the British's attempt to crush the newly arrived French fleet near Newport, Rhode Island, in late August 1781. Washington, worried that the British would attack the fleet, needed to know what the British were planning.

At the time, Washington was camped in New Jersey, near Chatham, and the British fleet was located off the coast of Manhattan. To get the needed information, Washington, employing a typical practice, sent a letter via a series of mounted dragoons located 15 miles apart. They brought the message 65 miles to Agent Bolton (Tallmadge). Agent Bolton relayed the message to Agent 725 (Caleb Brewster) in Fairfield, Connecticut. Agent 725, who owned a whaleboat, rowed south across Long Island Sound to a town named Setauket, on Long Island. From there, the message was passed to Agent 724 (Austin Roe), who raced his horse 55 miles (nearly half the length of Long Island) into Manhattan and contacted the agent code-named Samuel Culper, Jr. (Robert Townsend).

Townsend was a well-known merchant, as well as a part-time journalist for Rivington's Gazette, a popular Tory newspaper (run by James Rivington, also a patriot spy). Not suspecting his true loyalties, shippers, tavern keepers, and Tory acquaintances unwittingly let drop nuggets of information about British plans. When he had learned enough, Townsend composed an invisible ink message to Washington and sent the message back along the ring route to General Washington.

Before he sent his reply back along the ring route, he added the following instructions to Agent 724 (Roe), urging him to move with great haste:

   Sir. The enclosed requires your immediate
   departure this day by all
   means let not an hour pass; for this
   day must not be lost. You have news
   of the greatest consequence perhaps
   that ever happened to your country.

Ten days later, Washington had the urgent information. Learning that 8,000 British troops were about to sail for Newport to annihilate the French fleet, Washington drew up a fictitious battle plan calling for 12,000 troops to attack New York, despite the fact that he did not even have that many men. The fictitious plan was then given to a trusted patriot who, posing as a Tory farmer, gave it to British officials, saying he had found the plan along the road.

Improbable as it seems, the British fell for the guise and pulled their fleet back to New York, leaving the French fleet unmolested. Soon after, both George Washington and the French fleet slipped away and headed for Virginia, where they defeated Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown. The courage and efforts of the young Culper Gang (all, except Washington, were in their late 20s) can be credited with helping to end the war with Britain.

James Armistead Lafayette

While General Marquis de Lafayette awaited the arrival of the French fleet and Washington's troops at Yorktown, he needed to keep an eye on what Cornwallis was up to. He wanted, he said, a spy who was prudent, intelligent, trustworthy, and a good actor. A local slave, James, heard about Lafayette's need for a spy and asked his master, William Armistead, if he could apply for the job. Receiving Armistead's permission, James presented himself to Lafayette, with Armistead's recommendation. Lafayette sent him to Cornwallis' camp posing as a laborer looking for work.

Since finding food was always a challenge for both the British and the Continental armies and James was an experienced and competent forager, Cornwallis' officers gave him a job. It was the perfect job for a spy, as he had plenty of freedom of movement and could interact with local people as well as the British themselves. It also gave him a good chance to return to Lafayette with garnered information.

Eventually, Cornwallis himself became acquainted with James and came to both like and trust him--and soon enlisted James to spy for the British against Lafayette! In just a few months, James had made the jump from farm laborer to full-fledged double-agent.

Lafayette, using James, fed the British information, or more properly, misinformation. For example, he once gave James a fictitious order for a large number of patriot replacements. The force called for in the order never existed--but Cornwallis didn't know that. James handed over the note, all crumpled and dirty, claiming he had found it in the muddy road during his latest spy mission. Cornwallis was taken in by the plan, and didn't learn he had been tricked until after he lost the Battle of Yorktown.

Moving back and forth freely between the British and American camps, James was instrumental in providing the intelligence Lafayette and Washington needed to plan their victory over Cornwallis. Five years after the war ended, with a recommendation from Lafayette himself, James became a freeman. He took as middle and surname Armistead and Lafayette, in honor of his former master and former commander. The recommendation from Lafayette read in part:

   This is to certify that the bearer by
   the name of James has done essential
   services to me while I had the honour
   to command in this state. His intelligences
   from the enemy's camp were
   industriously collected and faithfully
   delivered. He perfectly acquitted
   himself with some important commissions
   I gave him and appears to
   me entitled to every reward his situation
   can admit of.

Spies such as Honeyman, the members of the Culper Gang, and Armistead were usually hanged if caught. The men who risked their lives by serving their country in this capacity, just a few of whom are profiled here, deserve to be remembered for their sacrifices, their daring, and their commitment to liberty.

* Mr. Woodhull's first name is also given as Aaron or Samuel in various sources.

Spy Tech in the 18th Century

by Jodie Gilmore

In the course of gathering and disseminating information, 18th-century spies used a variety of methods. These included secret codes, invisible ink, the mask letter, and the quill letter. The latter required the letter to be inserted into the hollow quills of large feathers. (Other favorite hiding spots were inside buttons and small hollow silver bullets that could easily be swallowed if the spy were captured.)

Invisible ink was a favorite of both sides. Silas Deane, an agent of the American Committee of Secret Correspondence in Paris, used a kind of invisible ink that would appear when exposed to heat. This type of ink was made from cobalt chloride, glycerin, and water. James Jay (brother of John Jay) created another type of invisible ink, called a "sympathetic stain." This invisible ink was more secure than the heat-developed ink, for it required one chemical for writing and a second chemical for developing. The Culper Gang used this type of ink.

Benjamin Tallmadge devised a code for the Culper Gang by taking several hundred words from a dictionary and several dozen names of people and places, then assigned each a number from 1 to 763. Based on this code, a single number represented a word, such as 38 = attack, 192 = fort, and 727 = New York. The code number for General Washington in this code was 711.

The mask letter required a fair amount of creative writing skills. The letter was written so that, if read by itself, it appeared innocuous. But if a "mask"--a sheet of paper with a cutout of an hourglass or other shape--was laid over the letter (thereby obscuring some of the words and showing others), the true message was apparent.

Another variant was to write a letter that seemed innocuous, but used invisible ink also. Washington instructed some of his agents to "write a letter in the Tory stile with some mixture of family matters and between the lines and on the remaining part of the sheet communicate with the Stain the intended intelligence."

Cryptography was also a popular means of concealing messages. Dictionary codes were devised by John Jay and Arthur Lee. They used numbers that referred to the page and line in an agreed-upon dictionary edition where the unencrypted message could be found. Another type of cipher, developed in 1775 by Charles Dumas, substituted numbers for letters in the order in which they appeared in a specific paragraph of French prose containing 682 symbols. Because each letter could be replaced with more than one number, Dumas' method was more secure than the standard alphanumeric substitution system, in which the letters "A" through "Z" are replaced with 1 through 26.

Sometimes simply hiding the message wasn't enough. Washington made frequent use of misinformation, such as when he pretended that he was going to attack New York instead of Yorktown, and when he let Armistead fool Cornwallis into thinking he had additional forces on the way. Other deceptions employed by Washington included intercepting British mail pouches for the purpose of placing forged documents in them and then allowing the pouches to go on their way. Sometimes he would have army procurement officers make large false purchases of supplies in an attempt to convince British forces that he was amassing a huge force. He even had fake military facilities built.

In any military endeavor, it pays to know what your enemy is doing and to keep him from knowing what you're doing. General George Washington understood this very well, and used every means at his disposal to accomplish both tasks.

Women Spies for American Independence

by Jodie Gilmore

Men did not take all the risks. The historical record includes several examples of women serving the new nation as members of the intelligence/counter-intelligence network.

Anna Smith Strong, a member of the Culper Gang, was a neighbor of fellow gang member Abraham Woodhull. Her code name was Nancy, and she used her laundry line to pass on messages. For example, she would place her black petticoat in a specific place on the line when a message was ready to be rowed across the sound. The number of handkerchiefs on the line indicated which cove the whaleboat would be hiding in.

Another notable woman, Lydia Darragh, lived in Philadelphia, where the British forced her to make available one of her upstairs rooms for conferences. According to Darragh family legend (the story is largely uncorroborated), Lydia eavesdropped on the British plans. She transcribed the plans on tiny slips of paper, and sewed the paper into buttons. Finally, she would sew the buttons onto the coat belonging to her 14-year-old son, John. John would then be sent to visit his brother Charles, who was a lieutenant in the Continental Army, camped outside the city. Charles would pass the information on to his superiors.

Further south, Emily Geiger played a single, but important, part in the outcome of the southern campaign. When British Lord Francis Rawdon abandoned Fort Ninety-Six in the summer of 1781, General Nathanael Greene needed to let General Thomas Sumter know. Greene wanted Sumter to join forces with him and force Rawdon to retreat even further. But the woods were alive with angry Tories, and none of Greene's men were willing to attempt to deliver the message. Emily, a girl of 18, stepped forward to volunteer, and after memorizing Greene's message (in case she lost the letter), set off for Sumter's camp. On the second day, she was captured by Tories. Fortunately for Emily, the Tories were chivalrous. Reluctant to search her personally, they locked Emily in a room while they located a "matron" to search her. Left alone for a few hours, Emily ate Greene's letter, one small piece at a time.

Not finding anything suspicious during the search, the Tories released Emily, and a couple days later she completed her mission. With the addition of Sumter's forces, Greene's army was soon strong enough to assume the offensive. Punished from the assault, Rawdon retreated to Orangeburgh, South Carolina, while Greene camped in the hills above the Santee River, to wait out the heat of the summer and restore his men's health and energy. In the fall, Greene's forces continued the offensive and soon had the British hemmed in at Charleston.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A129813176