Revolutionary Espionage

"There is nothing more necessary than good intelligence to frustrate a designing Enemy: and nothing that requires greater pains to obtain." George Washington to Robert Hunter Morris, January 1, 1756.

Both sides in the American Revolution poured financial resources and manpower into developing spy rings in the colonies, Britain, and in Europe in an effort to gain a vital edge in the conflict. They also spent almost as much time and money trying to defeat, or at least mislead, the spies and agents of their enemies. In fact, one of the first committees established by the Second Continental Congress was the Committee on Secret Correspondence, led by Benjamin Franklin, on November 29, 1775 — more than seven months before the colonies declared independence — "for the sole purpose of corresponding with our friends in Great Britain, and other parts of the world." Its responsibilities also included the payment of hired agents such as Charles William Frederic Dumas, an agent in Holland, to facilitate that communication. George Washington certainly never forgot the critical value of both intelligence and counterintelligence that he learned in the Seven Years War and established Benjamin Tallmadge, a former Yale student, as the manager of the Continental Army's secret service in 1778. Washington's opposite number for most of the war — British commander-in-chief Sir Henry Clinton - appointed Major John André to a similar post in 1779. Tallmadge and AndrĂ© created vast networks of spies, informants, and other agents, along with innovative means of concealing the secrets they were expected to convey.

The British government and American patriots took steps to garner information about each other's activities long before the conflict between the two began in earnest. The spying career of one of the most well-known informants of the American Revolution, patriot-turned-British-spy Dr. Benjamin Church, was almost over before the war began. A trusted member of Boston's Committee of Correspondence and the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, Church consistently supplied British commander Thomas Gage with information about patriot activities until an enciphered letter to Gage from Church was discovered in September 1775, resulting in Church's imprisonment. The "Intercepted Letters" file at the National Archives of the United Kingdom includes dozens of confiscated transatlantic correspondence to prominent patriots such as Richard Henry Lee, some of which date from the early 1770s. Similarly, patriot committees of safety soon after they were created began to routinely "intercept" and inspect colonial correspondence in order to determine the loyalties of their less vocal neighbors. Provincial newspapers such as Williamsburg's Virginia Gazette are filled with accounts of committees examining correspondents based on what the committee members believed was language that cast the patriot movement in an unfavorable light.

Moreover, the Americans and British were not the only ones interested in gleaning intelligence about the conflict. The French government was especially keen on following events in the growing imperial conflict, particularly in places such as Virginia where the French seem to have had well-placed informants. As early as 1774, correspondence between Charles-Jean Garnier, the French charges d'affaires in London, to Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes, the French secretary of foreign affairs, and the Comte de Guines, French Ambassador to Great Britain, to Vergennes, is filled with timely and accurate information of events in Williamsburg. There are even hints of French intervention in events in the revolutionary city, such as Guines' February 1776 suggestion to Vergennes that "things could be helped along in Virginia" given disaffection caused by the nonsensical actions of Virginia's royal governor, Lord Dunmore.

Once the war began military operations became the focus of much espionage activity. Both Benjamin Tallmadge and John Jay, who was in charge of New York's Committee for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies, were kept busy attempting to identify and derail schemes such as the 1776 plot to capture or even murder George Washington, while gaining as much information as they could about British troop movements. Tallmadge created what was known as the "Culper gang" — a network of spies in New York City and the surrounding country — to keep tabs on enemy activities and report them using an elaborate system of code names, signals, and ciphers known only to Tallmadge, Washington, and the two senior members of the network. The greatest known British intelligence coup was AndrĂ©'s enlistment of disaffected patriot Benedict Arnold, codenamed "Monk," who shared with André and Clinton secret news of the arrival and size of the Comte de Rochambeau's French forces in Rhode Island, among other intelligence that Arnold received directly from Washington, before Arnold's ultimate defection to the British. For the Americans, the most important contribution might well have come from one of the less heralded patriot spies — a Virginia slave named James who worked for the Marquis de Lafayette as a double-agent to gain information on British movements and supply Charles Cornwallis with misinformation about patriot military strength that played a key role in keeping Cornwallis bottled up in Yorktown until American and French forces could converge there and force his surrender.

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