Intelligence operations in the American Revolutionary War

Intelligence operations in the American Revolutionary War

Like many wars, much of the American Revolutionary War was fought by means other than the armies of George Washington, Howe, John Burgoyne, and Cornwallis.

Also, see Intelligence in the American Revolutionary War, the main article on the subject.

Political action


While intelligence committees of the Continental Congress were meeting in Philadelphia, Arthur Lee was meeting in London with Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, the successful author of Le Barbier de Séville (and later Le Mariage de Figaro), who was a French agent. Lee's inflated reports of patriot strength, which either he fabricated for Beaumarchais' benefit or were provided by Lee's regular correspondent, Samuel Adams, won the Frenchman to the American cause. Beaumarchais repeatedly urged the French Court to give immediate assistance to the Americans, and on February 29, 1776 addressed a memorial to Louis XVI quoting Lee's offer of a secret long-term treaty of commerce in exchange for secret aid to the war of independence. Beaumarchais explained that France could grant such aid without compromising itself, but urged that "success of the plan depends wholly upon rapidity as well as secrecy: Your Majesty knows better than any one that secrecy is the soul of business, and that in politics a project once disclosed is a project doomed to failure."

With the memorial, Beaumarchais submitted a plan proposing that he set up a commercial trading firm as a cover for the secret aid; he requested and was granted one million livres to establish a firm called Roderigue Hortalez et Cie for that purpose. Beaumarchais' memorial was followed by one of March 12, 1776, by the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Comte de Vergennes. Royal assent was granted, and by the time Silas Deane arrived in Paris, French arms and other aid was on its way to the revolutionaries. Deane expanded the relationship, working with Beaumarchais and other French merchants to procure ships, commission privateers, recruit French officers, and purchase French military supplies declared "surplus" for that purpose.

On September 26, 1776, the Congress elected three commissioners to the Court of France, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Silas Deane, resolving that "secrecy shall be observed until further Order of Congress; and that until permission be obtained from Congress to disclose the particulars of this business, no member be permitted to say anything more upon this subject, than that Congress have taken such steps as they judged necessary for the purpose of obtaining foreign alliance." Because of his wife's illness, Jefferson could not serve, and Arthur Lee was appointed in his stead.

With Franklin's arrival in France on November 29, 1776 — the first anniversary of the founding of the Committee of Secret Correspondence — the French mission became an intelligence and propaganda center for Europe, an unofficial diplomatic representation, a coordinating facility for aid from America's secret allies, and a recruiting station for such French officers as Lafayette and Kalb. In October 1777 the Continental Army won a crucial victory over the British at Saratoga, and on February 6, 1778, the French-American treaty of alliance was signed. On March 30, 1778, Franklin, Lee, and Deane were received at the French Court as representatives of the United States of America, and on July 7 Comte d'Estaing's fleet cast anchor in the Delaware River. France was now in the war; the mission to Paris had succeeded.

Spain and its colonies

Spain, at the urging of Vergennes, matched France's one million livres for the operation of Hortalez et Cie. But that was not the beginning of secret Spanish aid. During the summer of 1776 Luis de Unzaga y Amezaga, the governor of New Spain at New Orleans, had privately delivered five tons of gunpowder, out of the King's stores, to Captain George Gibson and Lieutenant Linn of the Virginia Council of Defense. The gunpowder moved up the Mississippi under the protection of the flag of Spain and was used to thwart British plans to capture Fort Pitt.

Oliver Pollock, a New Orleans businessman, had interceded on behalf of the Virginians. When Bernardo de Galvez became governor of New Orleans, Pollock — who was soon appointed an agent of the Secret Committee there — worked closely with the young officer to provide additional supplies to the Americans. Galvez also agreed to grant protection to American ships while seizing British ships as smugglers, and to allow American privateers to sell their seized wares at New Orleans. Havana, too, became a focal point for dispensing secret Spanish aid to the Americans. From Galvez the revolutionaries received gunpowder and supplies for the George Rogers Clark expedition, and from Galvez' secret service fund came the funds used by Colonel Clark for the capture of Kaskaskia and Vincennes. When Spain formally entered the war on the American side on June 21, 1779, Oliver Pollock — who suffered personal bankruptcy in funding the purchase of supplies for the cause of independence — rode as aide-de-camp to Galvez in the capture of Baton Rouge, Natchez, Mobile, and Pensacola.

The Caribbean

Another center of secret aid was St. Eustatia Island in the West Indies. A Dutch free port set in the midst of English, French, Danish and Spanish colonies, St. Eustatia (now Sint Eustatius) became — in the words of a British intelligence document of the period — "the rendezvous of everything and everybody meant to be clandestinely conveyed to America." It was a major source of gunpowder for the American cause, and perhaps the safest and quickest means of communications between American representatives and agents abroad and with the Congress and others at home.

Covert action

In July 1775, Benjamin Franklin and Robert Morris worked out a plan in collaboration with Colonel Henry Tucker, the head of a distinguished Bermuda family, to obtain the store of gunpowder in the Royal Arsenal at Bermuda. To give Bermuda much-needed food in exchange for the powder, Congress resolved on July 15, 1775 to permit the exchange of food for guns and gunpowder brought by any vessel to an American port. On the night of August 14, 1775, two American ships kept a rendezvous with Colonel Tucker's men off the coast of Bermuda, and sent a raiding party ashore. An American sailor was lowered into the arsenal through an opening in the roof, and opened the doors. The barrels of gunpowder were rolled to waiting Bermudian whaleboats and transported to the American ships. Twelve days later half of the powder was delivered to Philadelphia and half to American forces at Charleston.

America's second covert action effort ended in failure. General Washington, hearing independently of the Bermuda powder, dispatched ships to purchase or seize it. Lacking a centralized intelligence authority, he was unaware of the previous success; when Washington's ships arrived in Bermuda in October 1775, the gunpowder had been gone for two months and British ships patrolled Bermuda waters.


On the basis of information received by the Secret Correspondence Committee, on February 15, 1776 Congress authorized a covert action plan to urge the Canadians to become a "sister colony" in the struggle against the British. A French printer was dispatched to Canada "to establish a free press... for the frequent publication of such pieces as may be of service to the cause of the United Colonies." Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Chase, and Charles Carroll were appointed from the Congress to undertake the mission, and Father John Carroll was invited to join the team to prevail upon the Catholic clergy of Canada. The delegation was given a degree of authority over American expeditionary forces in Canada; it was empowered to raise six companies in Canada, and to offer sanctuary in the thirteen colonies "for all those who have adhered to us." Excesses against the Canadian populace by the American military forces, the hostility of the clergy, and the inability of American commissioners to deliver little more than promises in exchange for Canadian defection, doomed the project. With the arrival of summer, both military and political action in Canada had ended in failure.

Foreign intelligence

The first intelligence agent enlisted by the Secret Correspondence Committee was Arthur Lee then living in London. On November 30, 1775, the day after its founding, the Committee appointed Dr. Lee as its agent in England and told him that "it is considered of utmost consequence to the cause of liberty that the Committee be kept informed of developments in Europe." Following the first Congressional appropriation for the work of the Committee on December 11, 1775, two hundred pounds was forwarded to Lee with the urging that he find out the "disposition of foreign powers towards us, and the admonition that we need not hint that great circumspection and impenetrable security are necessary."

The next agent recruited abroad by the Committee was Charles W. F. Dumas, a Swiss journalist at The Hague. Dumas was briefed personally by Thomas Story, a courier of the Committee, and instructed on the use of cover names and letter drops to be used for his reports to the Committee and for communication with Dr. Lee in London. He also planted stories in a Dutch newspaper, Gazette de Leide, intended to give the United States a favorable rating in Dutch credit markets.

On March 1, 1776, the Committee appointed Silas Deane, a former delegate to Congress and future ambassador to France, as its agent in there. He was instructed to pose as a Bermudian merchant dealing in Indian goods. He was also charged with making secret purchases and with attempting to gain secret assistance from the French Crown. Later, both Deane and Lee would be converted from agents to commissioners to the French Crown, albeit secret ones, until the open and formal alliance of France with the Americans.

Other agents of the Committee included William Bingham, who served first in France and then in Martinique, where he had once been British Consul; Major Jonathan Loring Austin, William Carmichael, and William Hodge.

Special operations


Benedict Arnold

After Benedict Arnold defected, several special operations, none successful, were mounted in an effort to capture him. In September 1780, Major Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee presented to Washington a plan to return the defector to American control and execute him. Washington approved the plan, but insisted that Arnold not be killed or injured in carrying it out, even at the risk of allowing him to escape. "Public punishment," said Washington, "is the sole object in view."

Lee's sergeant major, John Champe of Loudoun County, Virginia, was assigned to this special mission, and on the evening of October 19, 1780, "deserted" to the British under a hail of gunfire. The official documents he carried and his cooperative attitude during interrogation convinced the British he was a genuine deserter. He was appointed sergeant major of Benedict Arnold's American Legion (No relation to the modern American Legion), which was composed of deserters and Tories. Champe, now wearing a British uniform and having obtained freedom of movement in British-occupied New York City, made contact with American agents there and laid plans for Arnold's capture. Arnold's legion embarked for Virginia on the night the operation was to take place, and the plan was aborted. Champe accomplished his other mission, namely finding out if other American officers were collaborating with the enemy. He found no evidence that any were.

In March 1781, an attempt to capture Arnold during his daily ride to the Virginia shore of the Chesapeake Bay was foiled by the chance anchoring of some British ships in the area. Yet another plan, devised by Thomas Jefferson, called for General John Peter Muhlenberg to send hand-picked soldiers "to seize and bring off this greatest of traitors" at Portsmouth, Virginia. Unusual security precautions at the British outpost thwarted the attempt.

Hostage taking

Recognizing the value of an important hostage, Washington approved in 1782 a plan to capture the son of King George III, The Prince William (the future king, William IV), during the young naval officer's royal visit to New York. The operation failed after British intelligence heard about it and the Prince increased security around himself. After William later became monarch, the American ambassador told him of the wartime plan and of Washington's edict that, if the mission were successful, the young Prince should suffer no "insult or indignity." Upon hearing the story, William IV responded: "I am obliged to General Washington for his humanity, but I'm damned glad I did not give him an opportunity of exercising it towards me."


On the high seas, British supply ships and troop ships often fell to American privateers operating under letters of marque and reprisal from the Continental Congress. Franklin, for example, ran a flotilla of Irish and French privateers from the American mission in Paris. Success in intercepting British vessels was so great that the British accused their captains of taking bribes from the Americans to surrender their ships. One privateer, operating under contract to Silas Deane and a French business associate and utilizing a French ship obtained by Benjamin Franklin, was the Bonhomme Richard, commanded by John Paul Jones.


Only one sabotage mission is known to have been launched in England. Sometime after his arrival in Paris, Silas Deane was visited by a young man named James Aitken, recently returned from America. Aitken produced crudely drawn but accurate plans of the Royal Navy dockyards in England and proposed to sabotage them by utilizing a unique incendiary device of his own design. Deane engaged his services and issued Aitken a passport signed by French Foreign Minister Vergennes with instructions to French officials: "We will and command you very expressly to let pass safely and freely, Mr. James Actzen, going to England, without giving him or suffering him any hindrance; but on the contrary giving every aid and assistance that he shall want or occasion for." In late November 1776, Aitken landed at Dover, and on December 7 he ignited a fire at the Portsmouth dockyard that burned from late in the afternoon until the following morning, destroying twenty tons of hemp, ten one-hundred-fathom (183 m) cables, and six tons of ship cordage. After failing to penetrate the security at Plymouth, Aitken proceeded to Bristol, where he destroyed two warehouses and several houses. On January 16, 1777, the British cabinet met in emergency session and urged immediate measures to locate the mysterious "John the Painter" (Aitken was a house painter). Guards were augmented at all military facilities and arsenals, and a reward was posted. By January 20 the cabinet, again in extraordinary session, discussed suspending habeas corpus and placing the country under martial law. Five days later the reward was increased to one thousand pounds, and newspapers reported panic throughout England. Aitken was soon apprehended, with a pistol and inflammables in his possession. He would not admit to the sabotage when interrogated, but eventually confided in a friendly American visitor who was secretly in the pay of the British. Based on these confidences, personal effects, including the passport from Vergennes, were located. His trial was speedy, and on March 10, 1777, Aitken went to the gallows at Portsmouth dockyard, where his exploits had begun.

His actions may have resulted in "arson in the Royal dockyards in the time of war" being added to the list of capital crimes in England, which was one of the last to be repealed.


Probably the first organization under the Articles of Confederation created for counterintelligence purposes was the Committee for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies, later the Commission. It was made up of a series of groups established in New York between June 1776 and January 1778 to collect intelligence, apprehend British spies and couriers, and examine suspected British sympathizers. In effect, it was created a "secret service" which had the power to arrest, to convict, to grant bail or parole, and to imprison or to deport. A company of militia was placed under its command. The Committee heard over 500 cases involving disloyalty and subversion. John Jay has been called the first chief of American counterintelligence because of his role in the Committee.

Nathanial Sackett and Colonel William Duer were particularly successful in ferreting out British agents, but found their greatest success in the missions of one of the dozen or so agents of their own, Enoch Crosby. Crosby, a veteran of the Continental Army, had been mistaken by a Westchester County Loyalist as being someone who shared his views. He confided to Crosby that a secret enemy military company was being formed and introduced him to the group. Crosby reported the plot to the Committee and was taken with the group. He managed to "escape" and, as directed, infiltrated another secret Tory unit. This unit, including Crosby, was also taken and escaped once more. He repeated the operation at least two more times, before the loyalists started to get wise to his "escaping" and he retired. Crosby was the model for the central character in James Fenimore Cooper's book The Spy (1821), the first espionage novel written in English.

Another successful American agent was Captain David Gray of Massachusetts. Posing as a deserter, Gray entered the service of Colonel Beverly Robinson, a Tory intelligence officer, and became Robinson's courier. As a result, the contents of each of Robinson's dispatches were read by the Americans before their delivery. Gray eventually became the courier for Major Oliver DeLancey, Jr., the head of the British secret service in New York. For two years, Gray, as DeLancey's courier to Canada, successfully penetrated the principal communications link of the British secret service. Upon completing his assignment, Gray returned to the ranks of the Continental Army and his name was struck from the deserter list, where it had placed it at the beginning of the operation.

Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge, a senior intelligence officer under Washington, is credited with the capture of Major John André, who preceded DeLancey as chief of the British secret service in New York. Although he declined to discuss the episode in his memoirs, it is said that one Tallmadge's agents had reported to him that Major André was in contact with a "John Anderson" who was expecting the surrender of a major installation. Learning that a certain John Anderson passed through the lines en route to General Benedict Arnold, the commander at West Point, Tallmadge had Anderson apprehended and returned for interrogation. "Anderson" admitted to his true identity (that he was André) and was tried, convicted, and executed as a spy. Arnold, learning that André had been taken and that his own treachery was no doubt was exposed, fled West Point before he could be captured, and joined the British forces.

General Washington demanded effective counterintelligence work from his subordinates. On March 24, 1776, for example, he wrote: "There is one evil I dread, and that is, their spies. I could wish, therefore, the most attentive watch be kept... I wish a dozen or more of honest, sensible and diligent men, were employed... in order to question, cross-question etc., all such persons as are unknown, and cannot give an account of themselves in a straight and satisfactory line.... I think it a matter of importance to prevent them from obtaining intelligence of our situation." Washington occasionally had to deal with rogue intelligence officers in his own ranks who used their positions for personal gain or undertook unauthorized or illegal operations that might have compromised parts of his intelligence apparatus. Once Washington discovered that two of his agents who supposedly were collecting intelligence on Long Island actually were "mere plundering parties." He set up a special team to investigate and arrest the renegade operatives.

Deception operations

To offset British superiority in firepower and number of troops, General Washington made frequent use of deception and disinformation. He allowed fabricated documents to fall into the hands of enemy agents or be discussed in their presence. He allowed couriers carrying bogus information to be "captured" by the British, and inserted forged documents in intercepted British communications that were then permitted to continue on to their destination. He had army procurement officers make false purchases of large quantities of supplies in places picked to convince the British that a sizable rebel force was massing. Washington even had fake military facilities built. In all this he managed to make the British believe that his three-thousand-man army outside Philadelphia was forty thousand strong!

After learning from the Culper Ring that the British planned to attack a French expedition that had just landed in Newport, Rhode Island, Washington planted information with known British agents indicating that he intended to move against New York City. The British commander held back the troops headed for Rhode Island. With elaborate deception, Washington masked his movement toward Chesapeake Bay and Yorktown by convincing the British that he was moving on New York.

At Yorktown, James Armistead, a slave who had joined Lafayette's service with his master's permission, crossed into Cornwallis' lines in the guise of an escaped slave, and was recruited by Cornwallis to return to American lines as a spy. Lafayette gave him a fabricated order that was destined for a large number of nonexistent replacements. Armistead delivered the bogus order in crumpled, dirty condition to Cornwallis, claiming to have found it along the road during his mission. Cornwallis believed him and did not learn he had been tricked until after his surrender. Armistead was granted his freedom by the Virginia General Assembly as a result of this and other wartime service.

Another deception operation at Yorktown found Charles Morgan entering Cornwallis' camp as a deserter. When debriefed by the British, he convinced them that Lafayette had sufficient boats to move all his troops against the British in one landing operation. Cornwallis was duped by him and dug in rather than marched out of Yorktown. Morgan, in turn, escaped in a British uniform and returned to the American lines with five British deserters and a prisoner!


Upon receiving accurate intelligence that the British were hiring Hessian mercenaries for service in America, Congress appointed a three-man committee "to devise a plan for encouraging the Hessions and other foreigners... to quit that iniquitous service." The result was a resolution, believed to have been drafted by Thomas Jefferson, offering land grants to German deserters. It was translated into German and sent among the Hessians.

Benjamin Franklin, who joined the committee to implement the operation, arranged for the leaflets to be disguised as tobacco packets to make sure they would fall into the hands of ordinary Hessian soldiers. Christopher Ludwick was dispatched by Washington into the enemy camp, posing as a deserter, to contact the Hessians and encourage them to defect. He is credited with the defection of "many hundred soldiers" from the German ranks.

In 1777, after his arrival in France, Benjamin Franklin fabricated a letter purportedly sent by a German prince to the commander of his mercenaries in America. The letter disputed British casualty figures for the German troops, arguing that the actual number was much higher and that he was entitled to a great amount of "blood money", the amount paid to the prince for each of his men killed or wounded. The prince also encouraged the officer to be humane and to allow his wounded to die, rather than try to save men who might only become cripples unfit for service to their prince.

Between 5,000 and 6,000 Hessians deserted from the British side during the war, in part because of American propaganda.

Franklin also produced a newspaper report purporting to describe the transmittal of scalps of soldiers, settlers, women and children to the Royal Governor of Canada by Britain's Indian allies. The Indian transmittal letter indicated that a certain mark on scalps indicated they were those of women who "were knocked dead or had their brains beat out."

:"This article is adapted from Intelligence in the War of Independence, a publication of the Central Intelligence Agency in the public domain".


* [ United States Central Intelligence Agency, "Intelligence in the War of Independence."]

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