Congress formed secret committees to oversee intelligence operations in the fight against the British.
Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
American Intelligence in the American Revolutionary War was essentially monitored and sanctioned by the Continental Congress to provide military intelligence to the Continental Army to aid them in fighting the British during the American Revolutionary War. Congress created a Secret Committee for domestic intelligence, a Committee of Secret Correspondence for foreign intelligence, and a committee on spies, for tracking spies within the Patriot movement.
The Second Continental Congress created a Secret Committee on September 18, 1775. The Committee was not, however, a true intelligence agency, since the Committee of Secret Correspondence with which it often worked was mainly concerned with obtaining military supplies in secret and distributing them, and selling gunpowder to privateers chartered by the Congress. The Committee also took over and administered on a uniform basis the secret contracts for arms and gunpowder previously negotiated by certain members of the Congress without the formal sanction of that body. The Committee kept its transactions secret and destroyed many of its records to ensure the confidentiality of its work.
The Secret Committee employed agents overseas, often in cooperation with the Committee of Secret Correspondence. It gathered intelligence about secret Loyalist ammunition stores and arranged to seize them. The Committee also sent missions to seize British supplies in the southern colonies. It arranged the purchase of military stores through intermediaries to conceal the fact that Congress was the true purchaser. They then used foreign flags to attempt to protect the vessels from the British fleet.
The members of the Continental Congress appointed to the Committee included some of the most influential and responsible members of Congress: Benjamin Franklin, Robert Morris, Robert Livingston, John Dickinson, Thomas Willing, Thomas McKean, John Langdon, and Samuel Ward.
Committe of (Secret) Correspondence
Recognizing the need for foreign intelligence and foreign alliances, the Second Continental Congress created the Committee of Correspondence (soon renamed the Committee of Secret Correspondence) by a resolution of November 29, 1775:
RESOLVED, That a committee of five would be appointed for the sole purpose of corresponding with our friends in Great Britain, and other parts of the world, and that they lay their correspondence before Congress when directed.
RESOLVED, That this Congress will make provision to defray all such expenses as they may arise by carrying on such correspondence, and for the payment of such agents as the said Committee may send on this service.
The original Committee members—America’s first foreign intelligence agency—were Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Johnson. Subsequent appointees included James Lovell, a teacher who had been arrested by the British after the Battle of Bunker Hill on charges of spying. He had later been exchanged for a British prisoner and was elected to the Continental Congress. On the Committee, he became the Congress’ expert on codes and ciphers and has been called the father of American cryptanalysis.
The committee employed secret agents abroad, conducted covert operations, devised codes and ciphers, funded propaganda activities, authorized the opening of private mail, acquired foreign publications for use in analysis, established a courier system, and developed a maritime capability apart from that of the Continental Navy, and engaged in regular communications with Britons and Scots who sympathized with the American cause. It met secretly in December 1775 with a French intelligence agent who visited Philadelphia under cover as a Flemish merchant.
On April 17, 1777, the Committee of Secret Correspondence was renamed the Committee of Foreign Affairs but kept with its intelligence function. Matters of diplomacy were conducted by other committees or by the Congress as a whole. On January 10, 1781, the Department of Foreign Affairs—the forerunner of the Department of State—was created and tasked with “obtaining the most extensive and useful information relative to foreign affairs”, the head of which was empowered to correspond “with all other persons from whom he may expect to receive useful information.”
Committee on Spies
On June 5, 1776, the Congress appointed John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Edward Rutledge, James Wilson, and Robert Livingston “to consider what is proper to be done with persons giving intelligence to the enemy or supplying them with provisions.” They were charged with revising the Articles of War in regard to espionage directed against the American forces. The problem was an urgent one: Dr. Benjamin Church, chief physician of the Continental Army, had already been seized and imprisoned as a British agent, but there was no civilian espionage act, and George Washington thought the existing military law did not provide punishment severe enough to afford a deterrent. On November 7, 1775, the death penalty was added for espionage to the Articles of War, but the clause was not applied retroactively, and Dr. Church escaped execution.
On August 21, 1776, the Committee’s report was considered by the Congress, which enacted the first espionage act:
RESOLVED, That all persons not members of, nor owing allegiance to, any of the United States of America, as described in a resolution to the Congress of the 29th of June last, who shall be found lurking as spies in or about the fortification or encampments of the armies of the United States, or of any of them, shall suffer death, according to the law and usage of nations, by sentence of a court martial, or such other punishment as such court martial may direct.
It was resolved further that the act “be printed at the end of the rules and articles of war.” On February 27, 1778, the law was broadened to include any “inhabitants of these states” whose intelligence activities aided the enemy in capturing or killing revolutionary forces.
Secrecy and Protection
The Committee of Secret Correspondence insisted that matters pertaining to the funding and instruction of intelligence agents be held within the Committee. In calling for the Committee members to “lay their proceedings before Congress,” the Congress, by resolution, authorized “withholding the names of the persons they have employed, or with whom they have corresponded.” On May 20, 1776, when the Committee’s proceedings—with the sensitive names removed—were finally read in the Congress, it was “under the injunction of secrecy.” The Continental Congress, recognizing the need for secrecy in regard to foreign intelligence, foreign alliances and military matters, maintained “Secret Journals,” apart from its public journals, to record its decisions in such matters.
On November 9, 1775, the Continental Congress adopted its own oath of secrecy, one more stringent than the oaths of secrecy it would require of others in sensitive employment:
RESOLVED, That every member of this Congress considers himself under the ties of virtue, honour and love of his country, not to divulge, directly or indirectly, any matter or thing agitated or debated in Congress, before the same shaft have been determined, without the leave of the Congress: nor any matter or thing determined in Congress, which a majority of the Congress shall order to be kept secret, And that if any member shall violate this agreement, he shall be expelled this Congress, and deemed an enemy to the liberties of America, and liable to be treated as such, and that every member signify his consent to this agreement by signing the same.
On June 12, 1776, the Continental Congress adopted the first secrecy agreement for employees of the new government. The required oath read:
I do solemnly swear, that I will not directly or indirectly divulge any manner or thing which shall come to my knowledge as (clerk, secretary) of the board of War and Ordnance for the United Colonies. . . So help me God.
The Continental Congress, sensitive to the vulnerability of its covert allies, respected their desire for strict secrecy. Even after France’s declaration of war against England, the fact of French involvement prior to that time remained a state secret. When Thomas Paine, in a series of letters to the press in 1777, divulged details of the secret aid from the files of the Committee of Foreign Affairs (formerly, the Committee of Secret Correspondence), France’s Minister to the United States, Conrad Alexander Gerard, protested to the president of the Congress that Paine’s indiscreet assertions “bring into question the dignity and reputation of the King, my master, and that of the United States.” Congress dismissed Paine, and by public resolution denied having received such aid, resolving that “His Most Christian Majesty, the great and generous ally of the United States, did not preface his alliance with any supplies whatever sent to America.”
In 1779, George Washington and John Jay, the president of the Continental Congress and a close associate of the Commander in Chief’s on intelligence matters, disagreed about the effect disclosure of some intelligence would have on sources and methods. Washington wanted to publicize certain encouraging information that he judged would give “a certain spring to our affairs” and bolster public morale. Jay replied that the intelligence “is unfortunately of such a Nature, or rather so circumstanced, as to render Secrecy necessary.” Jay prevailed.
Robert Townsend, an important American agent in the British-occupied city of New York, used the guise of being a merchant, as did Silas Deane when he was sent to France by the Committee of Secret Correspondence. Townsend was usually referred to by his cover name of “Culper, Junior.” When Major Benjamin Tallmadge, who directed Townsend’s espionage work, insisted that he disengage himself from his cover business to devote more time to intelligence gathering, General Washington overruled him:
it is not my opinion that Culper Junior should be advised to give up his present employment. I would imagine that with a little industry he will be able to carry on his intelligence with greater security to himself and greater advantages to us, under the cover of his usual business. . .. it prevents also those suspicions which would become natural should he throw himself out of the line of his present employment.
Townsend also was the silent partner of a coffee house frequented by British officers, an ideal place for hearing loose talk that was of value to the American cause.
Major John Clark’s agents in and around British-controlled Philadelphia used several covers (farmer, peddler, and smuggler, among others) so effectively that only one or two operatives may have been detained. The agents traveled freely in and out of Philadelphia and passed intelligence to Washington about British troops, fortifications, and supplies, and of a planned surprise attack.
Enoch Crosby, a counterintelligence officer, posed as an unsuspecting shoemaker (his civilian trade) to travel through southern New York state while infiltrating Loyalist cells. After the Tories started to suspect him when he kept “escaping” from the Americans, Crosby’s superiors moved him to Albany, New York, where he resumed his undercover espionage.
John Honeyman, an Irish weaver who had offered to spy for the Americans, used several covers (butcher, Tory, British agent) to collect intelligence on British military activities in New Jersey. He participated in a deception operation that left the Hessians in Trenton unprepared for Washington’s attack across the Delaware River on December 26, 1776.
On January 1778, Nancy Morgan Hart, who was tall, muscular, and cross-eyed, disguised herself as a “touched” or emotionally disturbed man, and entered Augusta, Georgia, to obtain intelligence on British defenses. Her mission was a success. Later, when a group of Tories attacked her home to gain revenge, she captured them all and was witness to their execution.
In June 1778, General Washington instructed Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee to send an agent into the British fort at Stony Point, New York, to gather intelligence on the exact size of the garrison and the progress it was making in building defenses. Captain Allan McLane took the assignment. Dressing himself as a country bumpkin and utilizing the cover of escorting a Mrs. Smith into the fort to see her sons, McLane spent two weeks collecting intelligence within the British fort and returned safely.
While serving in Paris as an agent of the Committee of Secret Correspondence, Silas Deane is known to have used a heat-developing invisible ink—a compound of cobalt chloride, glycerine and water—for some of his intelligence reports back to America. Even more useful to him later was a “sympathetic stain” created for secret communications by James Jay, a physician and the brother of John Jay. Dr. Jay, who had been knighted by George III, used the “stain” for reporting military information from London to America. Later he supplied quantities of the stain to George Washington at home and to Silas Deane in Paris.
The stain required one chemical for writing the message and a second to develop it, affording greater security than the ink used by Deane earlier. Once, in a letter to John Jay, Robert Morris spoke of an innocuous letter from “Timothy Jones” (Deane) and the “concealed beauties therein,” noting “the cursory examinations of a sea captain would never discover them, but transferred from his hand to the penetrating eye of a Jay, the diamonds stand confessed at once.”
Washington instructed his agents in the use of the “sympathetic stain,” noting in connection with “Culper Junior” that the ink “will not only render his communications less exposed to detection, but relieve the fears of such persons as may be entrusted in its conveyance.” Washington suggested that reports could be written in the invisible ink “on the blank leaves of a pamphlet. . . a common pocket book, or on the blank leaves at each end of registers, almanacks, or any publication or book of small value.”
Washington especially recommended that agents conceal their reports by using the ink in correspondence: “A much better way is 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.”
Even though the Patriots took great care to write sensitive messages in invisible ink, or in code or cipher, it is estimated that the British intercepted and decrypted over half of America’s secret correspondence during the war.
Codes and Ciphers
American Revolutionary leaders used various methods of cryptography to conceal diplomatic, military, and personal messages.
John Jay and Arthur Lee devised dictionary codes in which numbers referred to the page and line in an agreed-upon dictionary edition where the plaintext (unencrypted message) could be found.
In 1775, Charles Dumas designed the first diplomatic cipher that the Continental Congress and Benjamin Franklin used to communicate with agents and ministers in Europe. Dumas’s system substituted numbers for letters in the order in which they appeared in a preselected paragraph of French prose containing 682 symbols. This method was more secure than the standard alphanumeric substitution system, in which a through z are replaced with 1 through 26, because each letter in the plain text could be replaced with more than one number.
The Culper Spy Ring used a numerical substitution code developed by Major Benjamin Tallmadge, the network’s leader. The Ring began using the code after the British captured some papers indicating that some Americans around New York were using “sympathetic stain.” Tallmadge took several hundred words from a dictionary and several dozen names of people or places and assigned each a number from 1 to 763. For example, 38 meant attack, 192 stood for fort, George Washington was identified as 711, and New York was replaced by 727. An American agent posing as a deliveryman transmitted the messages to other members of the Ring. One of them, Anna Strong (spy), signaled the message’s location with a code involving laundry hung out to dry. A black petticoat indicated that a message was ready to be picked up, and the number of handkerchiefs identified the cove on Long Island Sound where the agents would meet. By the end of the war, several prominent Americans—among them Robert Morris, John Jay, Robert Livingston, and John Adams—were using other versions of numerical substitution codes.
The Patriots had two notable successes in breaking British ciphers. In 1775, Elbridge Gerry and the team of Elisha Porter and the Rev. Samuel West, working separately at Washington’s direction, decrypted a letter that implicated Dr. Benjamin Church, the Continental Army’s chief surgeon, in espionage for the British.
In 1781, James Lovell, who designed cipher systems used by several prominent Americans, determined the encryption method that British commanders used to communicate with each other. When a dispatch from Lord Cornwallis in Yorktown, Virginia, to General Henry Clinton in New York was intercepted, Lovell’s cryptanalysis enabled Washington to gauge how desperate Cornwallis’s situation was and to time his attack on the British lines. Soon after, another decrypt by Lovell provided warning to the French fleet off Yorktown that a British relief expedition was approaching. The French scared off the British flotilla, sealing victory for the Americans.
The Continental Congress regularly received quantities of intercepted British and Tory mail. On November 20, 1775, it received some intercepted letters from Cork, Ireland, and appointed a committee made up of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Johnson, Robert Livingston, Edward Rutledge, James Wilson and George Wythe “to select such parts of them as may be proper to publish.” The Congress later ordered a thousand copies of the portions selected by the Committee to be printed and distributed. A month later, when another batch of intercepted mail was received, a second committee was appointed to examine it. Based on its report, the Congress resolved that “the contents of the intercepted letters this day read, and the steps which Congress may take in consequence of said intelligence thereby given, be kept secret until further orders.” By early 1776, abuses were noted in the practice, and Congress resolved that only the councils or committees of safety of each colony, and their designees, could henceforth open the mail or detain any letters from the post.
When Moses Harris reported that the British had recruited him as a courier for their Secret Service, General Washington proposed that General Schuyler “contrive a means of opening them without breaking the seals, take copies of the contents, and then let them go on. By these means we should become masters of the whole plot.” From that point on, Washington was privy to British intelligence pouches between New York and Canada.
Dr. James Jay used the advanced technology of his time in creating the invaluable “sympathetic stain” used for secret communications. Perhaps the American Patriots’ most advanced application of technology was in David Bushnell’s Turtle, a one-man submarine created for affixing watchwork-timed explosive charges to the bottom of enemy ships.
The “turtle,” now credited with being the first use of the submarine in warfare, was an oaken chamber about five-and-a-half feet (1.6 m) wide and seven feet (2.1 m) high. It was propelled by a front-mounted, pedal-powered propeller at a speed of up to three miles per hour (5 km/h), had a barometer to read depth, a pump to raise or lower the submarine through the water, and provision for both lead and water ballast.
When Bushnell learned that the candle used to illuminate instruments inside the “turtle” consumed the oxygen in its air supply, he turned to Benjamin Franklin for help. The solution: the phosphorescent weed, foxfire. Heavy tides thwarted the first sabotage operation. A copper-clad hull which could not be penetrated by the submarine’s auger foiled the second. (The “turtle” did blow up a nearby schooner, however.) The secret weapon would almost certainly have achieved success against a warship if it had not gone to the bottom of the Hudson River when the mother ship to which it was moored was sunk by the British in October 1776.
An early device developed for concealing intelligence reports when traveling by water was a simple weighted bottle that could be dropped overboard if there was a threat of capture. This was replaced by a wafer-thin leaden container in which a message was sealed. It would sink in water, and melt in fire, and could be used by agents on land or water. It had one drawback—lead poisoning if it was swallowed. It was replaced by a silver, bullet-shaped container that could be unscrewed to hold a message and which would not poison a courier who might be forced to swallow it.
Intelligence Analysis and Estimates
On May 29, 1775, the Continental Congress received the first of many intelligence estimates prepared in response to questions it posed to military commanders. The report estimated the size of the enemy force to be encountered in an attack on New York, the number of Continental troops needed to meet it, and the kind of force needed to defend the other New England colonies.
An example of George Washington’s interest in intelligence analysis and estimates can be found in instructions he wrote to General Putnam in August 1777:”Deserters and people of that class always speak of number. … Indeed, scarce any person can form a judgement unless he sees the troops paraded and can count the divisions. But, if you can by any means obtain a list of the regiments left upon the island, we can compute the number of men within a few hundreds, over or under.” On another occasion, in thanking James Lovell for a piece of intelligence, Washington wrote: “It is by comparing a variety of information, we are frequently enabled to investigate facts, which were so intricate or hidden, that no single clue could have led to the knowledge of them. … Intelligence becomes interesting which but from its connection and collateral circumstances, would not be important.”
Colonel David Henley, Washington’s intelligence chief for a short period in 1778, received these instructions when he wrote to Washington for guidance: “Besides communicating your information as it arises. … you might make out a table or something in the way of columns, under which you might range, their magazines of forage, grain and the like, the different corps and regiments, the Works, where thrown up, their connexion, kind and extent, the officers commanding, with the numbers of guns &ca. &ca. This table should comprehend in one view all that can be learned from deserters, spies and persons who may come out from the enemy’s boundaries.” (It was common practice to interrogate travelers from such British strongholds as New York, Boston and Philadelphia.)
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. 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.”
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 he 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.
Paul Revere and the Mechanics
The first Patriot intelligence network on record was a secret group in Boston known as the Mechanics, which meant skilled workers. The group, also known as the Liberty Boys, apparently grew out of the old Sons of Liberty organization that had successfully opposed the Stamp Act. The Mechanics 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 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 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, Massachusetts, 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 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 “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 Thomas 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.
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.” After he was accused of being a spy he stated his name, rank, and his reason for being there. He gave a soldier a letter to his family, which was ripped up. He asked to see a bible and was denied the right.
The same day that Nathan Hale was executed in New York, British authorities 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. Salomon 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 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 he 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.
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 female member of the Culper Ring, known only by her codename “355,” was arrested shortly after Benedict Arnold’s defection in 1780 and evidently died in captivity. Details of her background are unknown, but 355 (the number meant “lady” in the Culper code) may have come from a prominent Tory family with access to British commanders and probably reported on their activities and personalities. She was one of several females around the debonaire Major André, who enjoyed the company of young, attractive, and intelligent women. Abraham Woodhull, 355’s recruiter, praised her espionage work, saying that she was “one who hath been ever serviceable to this correspondence.” Arnold questioned all of André’s associates after his execution in October 1780 and grew suspicious when the pregnant 355 refused to identify her paramour. She was incarcerated on the squalid prison ship Jersey, moored in the East River. There she gave birth to a son and then died without disclosing that she had a common-law husband – Robert Townsend, after whom the child was named.
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 was a textile importer and 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. 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. Mulligan was assisted by his slave, Cato, who performed dangerous assignments as a courier.
Lieutenant Lewis J. Costigin, walked the streets of New York 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 later became 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 Badge of Military 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 on December 4, 1777.
- See “George Washington, Spymaster” at George Washington’s Mount Vernon
- Catherine Snell Crary, “The Tory and the Spy: The Double Life of James Rivington.” William and Mary Quarterly (1959): 16#1 pp 61-72. online
- Henry Darrach, Lydia Darragh, One of the Heroines of the Revolution (1916).
- Baker, Mark A. “Spies of Revolutionary Connecticut, From Benedict Arnold to Nathan Hale.” 2014. General history of Connecticut espionage during the American Revolution.
- CIA. Intelligence in the War of Independence (Central Intelligence Agency (2017) online
- Crary, Catherine Snell. “The Tory and the Spy: The Double Life of James Rivington.” William and Mary Quarterly(1959): 16#1 pp 61-72. online
- Daigler, Kenneth A. “Spies, Patriots, and Traitors: American Intelligence in the Revolutionary War” 2014. A comprehensive history of intelligence activities during the Revolutionary Era from the perspective of a career intelligence officer.
- Harty, Jared B. “George Washington: Spymaster and General Who Saved the American Revolution” (Staff paper, No. ATZL-SWV. Army Command And General Staff College Fort Leavenworth, School Of Advanced Military Studies, 2012) online.
- Kaplan, Roger. “The Hidden War: British Intelligence Operations during the American Revolution.” William and Mary Quarterly (1990) 47#1: 115-138. online
- Kilmeade, Brian, and Don Yaeger. George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring that Saved the American Revolution (Penguin, 2016).
- Mahoney, Henry Thayer and Marjorie Locke Mahoney. Gallantry in Action: A Biographic Dictionary of Espionage in the American Revolutionary War.. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc., 1999.
- Misencik, Paul R. Sally Townsend, George Washington’s Teenage Spy (McFarland, 2015).
- Nagy, John A. Invisible Ink – Spycraft of the American Revolution. 2011. General history on espionage during the American Revolution.
- Nagy, John A. Spies in the Continental Capital: Espionage Across Pennsylvania During the American Revolution. 2011.
- Nagy, John A. Dr. Benjamin Church, Spy: A Case of Espionage on the Eve of the American Revolution. 2013.
- Misencik, Paul R. The Original American Spies: Seven Covert Agents Of The Revolutionary War (McFarland Publishing, 2013).
- O’Toole, George J.A. Honorable Treachery: A History of US Intelligence, Espionage, and Covert Action from the American Revolution to the CIA (2nd ed. 2014).
- Rose, Alexander. Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring. 2007. Focuses on the Culper Ring.
- Van Doren, Carl. Secret History of the American Revolution: An Account of the Conspiracies of Benedict Arnold and Numerous Others Drawn from the Secret Service Papers of the British Headquarters in North America now for the first time examined and made public (1941) online free; many primary sources
Originally published by Wikipedia, 10.16.2018, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.