The deeper Commander-in-Chief George Washington got in his war for American Independence, the greater became his conviction that espionage was an essential component of his outgunned and outnumbered Continental Army. The Americans were further handicapped because the British had control of the colonial waterways, which meant—during an age of primitive or nonexistent roads and in abysmal winter weather—British Commander Sir William Howe enjoyed superior mobility.
By 1777, Washington had already concluded that he was playing black in the biggest chess game of his life. He wrote "on our side the war should be defensive: it has even been called a War of Posts" (fortified defensive positions). "That we should on all Occasions avoid a general Action, or put anything to the Risque, unless compelled by a necessity, into which we ought never to be drawn."
He narrowly avoided a British trap after his victory at the Battle of Trenton on Boxing Day in 1776 by leaving his campfires burning and marching on to Princeton in the dead of night. But such an ingenious device would only work once, and the simple fact was desertions and the expiration of their enlistments had reduced Washington's army to less than four thousand men. He took to distributing his troops thinly throughout the hamlets surrounding Morristown, New Jersey, suggesting to the locals (who would no doubt be speaking to the British) that his forces numbered over forty thousand.
Washington contrived to allow a known British agent to steal a specially-prepared document that put his Continental Army at twelve thousand strong. The boy who "could not tell a lie" had grown into a man who made deception a fine art. But early in the war he functioned pretty much alone. His first attempt at creating a "professional" American espionage organization had ended badly, with the deaths of two of his elite "rangers," Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton and Captain Nathan Hale. Both men, though wise to the ways of the forests and fields, were alas unfamiliar with the particular tricks of spycraft.
Washington communicated with the Committees of Safety and the Sons of Liberty, the patriots who told them what they knew of local British troop movements and strengths, but these brave men would never be able to function truly as spies. Even before the war began they had made no secret of their political leanings; they would never be able to work successfully undercover.
What the young American nation needed, Washington realized, was real, honest to goodness spies, men of small politick, unassuming and perhaps, shall we say, questionable mien. Such men were to be found, then as now, in the back alleys of the cities, with eyes and ears open to dark secrets, and deep in the countryside, with noses attuned to woodsmoke and dank earth.
Money, it seems, will always bring the potential spy out of the woodwork. Washington approached Robert Morris, a Philadelphia merchant and congressman, and made his request for some "hard money to pay a certain set of people." Morris, who came to be known as the Financier of the Revolution, came up with a bag of silver coins and Washington put them to good use:
He gave Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Reed $238 for information which helped him successfully attack Princeton. $500 went to Nathaniel Sackett of Westchester County, who used the money to send agents into New York City to collect "the earliest and best Intelligence of the designs of the Enemy."
Washington developed valuable intelligence in New York with the assistance of Haym Salomon, a merchant who seemed motivated to spy on the enemy by nothing less than a sense of patriotism. Salomon was a Jew who had fled persecution in his native Poland. He was arrested and sentenced to death on September 22, 1776, the same day Nathan Hale was hanged, perhaps as part of the same counter-espionage effort on the part of the British. When the enemy discovered that Salomon spoke Polish, French, Russian, Italian, English and German, they determined he was too valuable to hang, and they put him to work as an interpreter to the Hessian mercenaries. It was a double stroke of good fortune—for Salomon himself and the Continental Army.
Salomon was arrested again in August of 1778 and charged with conspiracy to burn the British fleet and destroy warehouses, and once again he was sentenced to death. But the wily patriot escaped to Philadelphia and became yet another important financier of the Revolution.
Hercules Mulligan, another member of both the Sons of Liberty and the New York Committee of Correspondence, was a tailor who'd been brought from Ireland at the age of six. He befriended young Alexander Hamilton in 1772, and Hamilton lived with the Mulligan family while he studied in New York, after emigrating from his native West Indies. Hamilton acquired his patriotic political sensibility from his Irish friend, but it was Mulligan who was arrested by the British in September of 1776 during General Howe's cleanup of New York Patriots. He was released after about a month's imprisonment.
In March 1777, as part of Washington's development of a professional intelligence service, Captain Alexander Hamilton was appointed as the General's secretary and aide-de-camp. Hamilton's old friend, the Irish tailor Hercules Mulligan, became George Washington's "confidential correspondent."
Mulligan was extremely valuable to the Revolution. His brother, Hugh, was a banker and importer who did much business with the British commissariat in New York. Washington's foreknowledge of British distribution of supplies and shipping schedules proved invaluable since, then as now, an army travels on its stomach.
Mulligan even managed to billet British soldiers at his home, a situation which provided him—coming and going—with all sorts of useful tidbits. Most famously, however, Hercules Mulligan was known as "the fashionable clothier of Queen Street," and it was his haberdashery which provided the choicest espionage opportunities. General Howe and his officers were famous British "dandies," and many a loose lip must have slipped before the tailor, down on his knees with pins in his mouth and chalk in his hands.
By the summer of 1777, George Washington had evolved an elaborate system of spies and back-ups to spies, in order that he might cross-reference his intelligence data as well as avoid total disaster if one or more agents were captured by the enemy. Joshua Mersereau from Staten Island, and his son John LaGrange Mersereau, had a confederation of agents that reported to the Commander In Chief. Their intelligence seemed to indicate that General Howe's destination in July 1777 was Philadelphia, and Washington decided to make a stand at Chad's Ford on Brandywine Creek on September 11, 1777, in spite of his self-proscription against such gestures. The American capital, Philadelphia, after all, was at stake.
Washington's intelligence was once-again faulty, however, and his force of eleven thousand troops was decimated. Howe went on to capture Philadelphia on September 26. But Washington, by now well-seasoned in the give-and-take of war, had the foresight to plant agents in Philadelphia against just such an event. They were especially useful during the winter of 1777-78.
While the Continental Army tended its wounds and re-grouped at Valley Forge, General Howe-the-dandy was presiding over seasonal parties and balls. As Howe awaited his replacement from New York, General Clinton, he commanded a medieval tournament, a regatta of decorated barges on the Delaware, numerous banquets, cockfights, fireworks, theatrical performances and horse races.
And Washington's spies plied their trade. The ensuing Battle of Monmouth was a tactical draw, but heavy casualties were inflicted on the British and General Clinton withdrew his forces to New York City. Washington promptly surrounded the city. His New York "stay-at-home" agents, provided the Commander-in-Chief with much intelligence. It was in the summer of 1778 that Washington ordered Major Benjamin Tallmadge to establish what came to be known as the Culper Spy Ring, the full-flowering of American espionage efforts during the Revolutionary War.
The effort had come in effect full circle, back to New York City where so much had once gone wrong. Major Tallmadge had been a classmate of the heroic Nathan Hale at Yale. He recruited Abraham Woodhull of Setauket, Long Island, and this unassuming man, using the pseudonym Samuel Culper, provided volumes of intelligence. But most importantly, Woodhull recruited the dry goods merchant and part-time newspaper man, Robert Townsend, who became known as "Culper Jr."
Together, the men created the Culper Spy Ring from patchwork relationships throughout the entire New York area. Townsend's brother-in-law Amos Underwood kept a boarding house on Queen Street. His common-law wife is known to history only by the code number the Culpers assigned her—355.
Townsend was agent 723; Woodhull, 722. Washington himself was 711. John Jay's brother Sir James Jay developed an invisible ink for Washington, in which the Culper dispatches were inscribed. Washington's papers include extremely explicit instructions to Townsend on the methods of the network. In a stunning example of spycraft, even Washington himself did not know the identity of "Culper Sr." Abraham Woodhull, the quintessential "little man" of American espionage, was a spy-unto-himself.
The Culper Ring utilized codes, dead drops, misinformation, and double agents—all the essential tools of ancient and modern espionage. And the final word on their methodology comes down to us in George Washington's own hand:
"There can be scarcely any need of recommending the greatest Caution and secrecy in a Business so critical and dangerous. The following seem to be the best general rules:
- To intrust to no one but the persons fixed upon to transmit the business.
- To deliver the dispatches to none upon our side but those who shall be pitched upon for the purpose of receiving them and to transmit them and any intelligence that may be obtained to no one but the Commander-in-Chief."
The war, of course, was far from over. But it was espionage, and espionage alone, that brought the British Secret Service to observe in February 1782 that "there were eight thousand stands of arms and as many suits of military clothing deposited at Claverack on the east bank on the Hudson, south of Albany; British cannon captured at Yorktown transported to Hartford, Connecticut; seven thousand French troops with some American support marching northward through the Mohawk and Connecticut valleys; a Franco-American force of ten thousand gathering in Albany; and news of de Grasse's imminent return to northern waters from the Carribean."
None of it was true.
George Washington, the boy who could not tell a lie, his biographer James Thomas Flexner informs us, "had a passion for intelligence that would enable him to foresee, and, as far as his possibilities went, he was an excellent spymaster."
He was, in fact, America's first spymaster.
Regarding American Espionage:
the first American Intelligence failure in New York
Wild Bill Donovan
the Stars of Project Paperclip
burning crosses in the Fatherland
doing drugs for fun and profit
the CIA wants YOU!
When is a monkey's orgasm more than just fun and games?
The Johnny Appleseed of LSD
Sidney Gottlieb, the real-life "Q"
The Nuremberg Code
The Bureau and the Mole
, G.J.A. O'Toole, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1991
, George Washington, U.S. Government printing Office, 1931-44
Encyclopedia of the American Revolution
, Mark M. Boatner, New York: McKay, 1974