The American Revolutionary War: Intelligence (1776-83)

Figure 1.--This charming Philadelphia-born lady may not look like a stereotypical spy, but she surely was the most dangerous spy in all of American history--threatening the whole Patriot enterprise. Intelligence played an imprtant role in the Revolutionary War, and at important points, from the beginning in Boston to the end in Yorktown. It arguably played a more important role than in any other American war, largely because the British enjoyed such a substantial military superiority. Women were involved on both sides. One of most dangerous spies was Loyalist Margaret 'Peggy' Shippin who came very close to wrecking the whole American enterprise. Her husband, Benedict Arnold is much better know. Tragically if Arnold had not turned tritoe he would have been the one of the most celebrated Americans in history, only exceeded in prominance by Washington. Peggy who introduced him to Major André played a key role in his treason. This is Peggy safely in England with her daughter after the War. We believe the girl is Sophia Matilda Arnold (1785-1828). The porrtait was painted about 1790 by portraitist Daniel Gardner.

Intelligence has played an important part in America's wars. And this was the case from the very beginning. Intelligence and espionage played an important role in the American Revolutionary War. America was an especially fertile ground for inteligence gathering because the population included large numbers of people who were either loyalists or patriots as well as many who were uncommitted to either side. And there was no way of identifying spies from ethnic or national background. Both Patriots and Loyalist looked alike and in the same region had the sme accents. (There is even some evidence tht Americans of English ancestry still had what might be called English accents, although there are different thoughts on this.) From the beginning in Boston, intelligence and espionage was important. Women played key intelligence roles. Patriots in Boston warned the militias across the Bay in Massachusetts that the Briish were coming. Spies were in fact everywhere. One especially high-placed spy was of all people General Howe's wife in Boston. He shipped her home to avoid an arrest and trial. Pennsylvania became a hotbed of spying because the Continenal Government (the Congress) was located there. Washington did not at first appreciation the importance of espionage, perhaps because of his concept of military honor. The disaster of 1776 after the arrival of the British Fleet and Army changed that. He quickly realized that he would need every resource he could muster to save his Army, let alone defeat the British. He thus became deeply invested in the spy business. [Kilmeade and Yaeger] One historian writes. "George Washington, having realized his mistake when he evacuated New York City in 1776 in not establishing a stay-behind spy network, did not make the same mistake twice .... [During] the spring of 1777, he instructed General Thomas Mifflin to set up a spy system in Philadelphia. Washingtion's instruction specifically included the recruiting of Quakers as spies because they would draw the least suspicion as they refused on religious grounds to serve in a military conflict." [Nagy] When the British occupied Philidelphia, Washington was thus able to use Patriot spies to keep apraised of British intentions. And after the British withdrawl to the New York area, Loyalists kept the British apraised of Congress and the Continental Army. The most famous Patriot spy was Nathan Hale who the British hanged rather than the more honorable execution by firing squad. Washinton kept informed of British developments in New York through the Culper Ring, a spy network organized by Major Benjamin Tallmadge (summer 1778). The Culper Ring was critical because from the arrival of the British (1776), to the final withdrawl, New York and its port was the center of British military power in America. The identity of the Culper ring was so closely held that Washihgton himself did not know one name. Another name only emerged in the 20th century and another has never been identified. [Kilmeade and Yaeger] The British also had intelligence operations. Their most notable agent was spy master Major André who was conspiring with Patriot hero Beneduict Arnold to seize control of West Point, a key American strong-point on the Hudson. Arnold had played a key role at the Partiot Saratoga victory as well as heroic, but insuccesful invsion of Canada. Arnold was extremely close to Gen. Washington. Arnold's wife Peggy Shippen was deeply involved in the conspiracy, but she escape discovery by posing as a 'mere' woman. Arnold appears to have turned to treason when he came to think he was not being rewarded sfficently rewarded for his role in the Revolution. His wife seems to have fuelded those feelings. Arnold escaped leaving Peggy in the lurch. But she staged an Oscar worthy fit of hysterics that convinced Washington who showed up at West Point by accident at West Point that she was entirely innocent. The Americans caught André, agin by accident. He asked to be executed by firing squad rather than hanged. The fact that the British had hanged Hale meant that André had to be hanged.


Kilmeade, Brian and Don Yaeger. George Washington's Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution (2014), 256p.

Nagy, John A. Spies in the Continental Capital (2011, 256p.


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Created: 3:49 PM 12/16/2018
Last updated: 3:49 PM 12/16/2018