On the battlefield, the accumulation of secret intelligence is one of the most important weapons that can be used to gain vital advantages. The American War of Independence was no exception. Under the clever guidance of Commander-in-Chief George Washington, heroic patriots adeptly gathered information to help win the cause of liberty.
Following Washington’s orders, agents infiltrated the enemy camp. Behind enemy lines, both Tory and Patriot allies carried out intelligence and counterintelligence missions. Washington personally supervised the covert operations of civilian and military spy networks in America and abroad using the latest technology—disappearing ink, complex ciphers, codes, and propaganda—all the while maintaining his own operational security. Trusted aides-de-camp such as the notable Alexander Hamilton supported the actions. The Commander-in-Chief instructed his generals to “leave no stone unturned, nor do not stick to expense” in gathering intelligence and declared his agents to be those “upon whose firmness and fidelity we may safely rely.”
The first Patriot spy network on record was a group in Boston known as the “mechanics,” an offshoot of the Sons of Liberty who had opposed the hated Stamp Act. As one of the “mechanics” (skilled laborers and artisans), Paul Revere reported “in the fall off 1774 and winter of 1775, I was one of upwards of thirty…who formed ourselves into a Committee for the purpose of watching British soldiers and gaining every intelligence on the movements of the Tories.” Dr. Joseph Warren, chairman of the Committee, appointed Revere to notify Samuel Adams and John Hancock at Lexington that they were enemy targets. Revere instructed warning lanterns to be hung in the Old North Church to alert the Patriots to danger and then set off on his famous “midnight ride.”
Under Major Benjamin Tallmadge, the Culper Spy Ring of New York conducted early clandestine reconnaissance. Their work was so secret that to this day little is known about it. Three men and one woman composed the spy ring: Robert Townsend, Ben Tallmadge, Abraham Woodhull, and “355” or Lady, the woman’s code name (her real name was never known). Sometime during the war, the woman was captured and died in prison. The spy ring, however, successfully helped to capture British Major John Andre who carried battle plans supplied by American traitor Benedict Arnold.
Nathan Hale is perhaps one of the best known but unfortunately most unsuccessful American spies of the Revolutionary War. He volunteered for an espionage mission into British-held New York; but with neither training nor experience, no contacts in New York, no channels of communication, and no cover story, he could not convince the British that he was simply a Dutch schoolmaster. Hale was convicted as a spy and hanged on September 22, 1776, reportedly uttering the final words, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
Intelligence of enemy troop movements was especially essential during the summer and fall of 1781. General Charles Cornwallis viewed Virginia as the key to the war. From the south, Cornwallis deployed a force of 7,000 men to Williamsburg to establish his base camp. Hoping to be more active in the Chesapeake area, Cornwallis began to fortify nearby Yorktown in August 1781. The Marquis de Lafayette was sent south by Washington with a force of 1,200 Patriots to join with General Anthony Wayne and his force of 800. Meanwhile, the Americans were also eagerly awaiting the arrival of the French fleet of Admiral De Grasse. Using knowledge of the enemy’s troop movement, the Comte De Rochambeau and Washington decided to attack Virginia, not the more obvious target of the British-held New York City. Cornwallis, confronted with an army of 16,000 French and Americans and the French fleet, surrendered at Yorktown, October 19, 1781, thereby assuring American independence.
Both the Americans and the British used the spyglass throughout the Revolutionary War as a critical espionage tool, but the Patriots were more dedicated. With a spyglass, coded messages could be discerned and enemy troop movements could be silently watched. Information was quickly relayed through the spy network. Revolutionary War spies improvised, experimented with trial and error, and remained determined. With the assistance of brave agents, Americans won freedom from British rule.
Fully functional brass spy glass with faux wood-grain finish. Includes map of historic Revolutionary War battles. Meets CPSIA safety standards.
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