George Washington, Spymaster
So how did the under-trained, under-staffed, under-equipped and under-funded Patriot army defeat the formidable war machine that was the British army? We out-spied them, pure and simple.
While George Washington was orchestrating the American Revolution AND simultaneously running Mount Vernon in absentia, he also established the most famous spy ring of the era, the Culper Ring. Agent 711 (Washington) created a network of undercover agents from merchants, tailors, farmers, fishermen and other citizens with ordinary day jobs to provide intelligence about the comings and goings of the British troops. It emerged as the first organized American intelligence community in the country. Washington knew he had to out-maneuver and outsmart the massively larger and well-stocked British contingent, and counterintelligence was the best way to do it.
“George Washington was fighting a war with a visible army and an invisible army. Even when the visible army was being beaten on the battlefields, Washington’s invisible army was winning victories in the back alleys of the spy war. ” ~ from “George Washington, Spymaster” by Thomas B. Allen
Actually, it turns out that Agent 711 was a GENIUS at disinformation, and he truly enjoyed the role! It all began when he took over the command of the Patriot army and innocently asked how much powder the new American army had in reserve. Everyone thought it was about 300 barrels, but an inventory at the Cambridge magazine revealed only 36 barrels remaining – about 9 shots per man. Washington was too stunned to speak! After he recovered, he sent people into British-held Boston and spread the disinformation that they had 1800 barrels. He spread the same rumor through the American camp to rally the morale of the troops – and to make sure any British spies present got the same “enhanced” intel to pass on to their British handlers. The Disinformation Game had begun.
Thus began “a masterpiece of strategic thought, a brilliant blueprint permitting a weak force to combat a much more powerful opponent.” (Lt. Col. Dave Richard Palmer)
Washington grappled with an aggressive enemy, a deserting militia and the ever-draining lack of resources like food, ammo, horses and clothing. Disaster after disaster followed the Patriot army as they got routed time and again from battles. In desperation, Agent 711 entrusted Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge (code name: John Bolton, Agent 721) with setting up a counterintelligence system.
Tallmadge never got over the British hanging his dear friend, Nathan Hale, as a spy and was only too happy to comply: he wanted some payback. Tallmadge set up an American spy network operating out of British-held New York City and recruited people he had grown up with, trusted, and knew to be loyal to the Patriot cause. No real names were used, no one really knew how many “participants” there were, including Washington, for the safety of the spies, and they communicated through a variety of sophisticated methods such as dead drops, invisible ink and the famous Culper Code. The informants would use these methods to relay information through British-occupied areas to Washington, and it must have worked since no Patriot spies were ever caught after Nathan Hale, who was an early unintended consequence of a game no one on our side knew how to play – yet.
Tallmadge, under Washington’s tutelage, patiently grew his web of spy networks inside the British lines, setting up clever aliases for all his spies to conceal their true identities and collecting the fruits of their efforts to get intel back to Agent 711.
The British employed a method of smoke or flame to reveal their “invisible” messages. Washington wanted a more complicated method to prevent the British from deciphering our messages; that system was developed by Londoner (and Patriot spy) Dr. James Jay, a brother of prominent patriot John Jay, future first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court , called “the stain” which was a two-chemical solution applied to paper containing a secret message to reveal the information it contained.
Sometimes, Agent 711 himself would hand write a disinformation letter re: troop movements, military objectives, etc. that he knew would be intercepted by the British. The British, immediately recognizing Washington’s handwriting, took the information as gospel and acted on it. George Washington tried not to laugh out loud.
Other times he would use double agents. A “British spy” planted in a Patriot camp, for instance, would be given “secret” documents to deliver to his British handler some distance away, but he’d stop in the middle of the route somewhere to let Washington read the British messages first. The letter would be opened, transcribed if necessary, and then resealed using a duplicate stamp and seal. Or Washington would have British riders stopped, saddle bags searched and then returned – with documents planted by the Patriots that looked like authentic British documents.
British Gen. Gage tried to keep tabs on suspected Patriots in Boston, but he also needed fresh fish to feed his troops, so he had to allow fishermen to go to sea. And some of those fishermen looked for more than fish . . .
Two of the most valuable and prominent spies operating behind enemy lines in New York were Robert Townsend (Culper, Jr/Agent 723), a Quaker shopkeeper, and Abraham Woodhull (Sam Culper/Agent 722), a Long Island farmer. Townsend’s cover was writing ridiculously Loyalist articles for the New York Royal Gazette. Through his “loyalty”, he befriended many British officers and their mistresses, providing a treasure trove of intel for Agent 711 which was passed to Woodhull. Woodhull would then hang a coded signal on his clothesline which could be seen by Patriots through a spyglass from the Connecticut shore. Someone then would row over under cover of darkness to retrieve the intel and get it to Washington surreptitiously through a series of ever-changing channels.
Even Benjamin Franklin got into the act and was a partner to George Washington in the disinformation game by serving as a covert operations manager, having successfully launched propaganda campaigns both here and in Europe that helped the Patriot cause. Ben was also responsible for securing French aid. The French set up a fake company that covertly shipped guns and other war supplies to America. They were mad at Britain and liked the idea of secretly supplying arms to the Patriots so that British troops would be shot with French bullets – but French troops wouldn’t need to pull the triggers!
One of the achievements of the Culper Spy Ring includes uncovering information involving the treasonous relationship between Benedict Arnold and John Andre, the chief intelligence officer under Gen. Henry Clinton, commander of the New York British forces. When Washington learned of Arnold’s betrayal, he broke down and wept. This was the first time anyone had ever seen George Washington weep, such was the anguish felt by the betrayal of one Washington had trusted so completely. Andre was captured by the militia and hung. Benedict Arnold escaped several attempts at capture and high-tailed it to England.
Below is a link to the actual Culper Spy Code. Let’s see if you can decipher this message:
mcxi jlii 434 124
What’s interesting is that NONE of this was known until around 1930 when Robert Townsend’s “Culper, Jr.” identity was discovered and verified by historian Morton Pennypacker. Because of the caution and secrecy to protect the Culper spies’ identities, many spy stories or the names of the Patriot spies have never been found and will never be known. Much of the paper trail, notes, etc. were burned to avoid detection by the spies themselves. But it is no secret that they played a significant part in winning the Revolution. And it is no secret that George Washington was the Spymaster who made it happen.