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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Spy Activities in the American Revolution

Part II of my capstone --

The American Revolution was one of the great upsets of history. A small colonial force, made up mostly of militia, eventually defeated the splendid disciplined ranks of the professional British Army, with a grateful nod to French naval power. It was a vision that shaped the American Army over the centuries to come. The ideas of freedom and democracy would cloak the Americans in invulnerability.”[1] The War for American Independence was an important one to win. The American Colonists wanted to distance themselves from Britain and be able to govern themselves. This War and those who served in it is considered the beginning of American Military History. “The Revolutionary War was one of generalship, tremendous courage and suffering, and, not surprisingly, military intelligence.”[2] Military Intelligence was crucial to help get information to the Patriots. General George Washington relied heavily on the use of the information that the spies passed through various channels. General Washington is said to have helped organize and depend on various spy rings: Knowlton Rangers, Mersereau Spy Ring and the Culper Ring.
Prior to the American Revolution, Britain did not spy on the American Colonists. They were dealing with other threats of security and did not think that there was a need to spy on the colonists. “The British were content to let the colonies govern themselves as long as trade flourished and the Crown benefited. The colonies purchased half the ironware, cotton, and linen produced in Britain, which in turn was the major consumer of raw materials from its new World subjects.”[3]  This appears to be a case of I scratch your back, and you can scratch mine.
Once the British economy had started to take a nosedive they needed to recoup their losses to be able to survive. So, like governments have done in the past, they decided impose a series of taxes on the American Colonists. The taxes that King George III had imposed were steep and harsh. The colonists were in disbelief. They started to divide themselves into two groups. The Patriots and the Loyalists.
George Washington is considered to be the founding father of Intelligence Collection. “Washington's first experience in intelligence collection came in 1753, when he was 21 years old. The British colonial government sent him to the Ohio Territory to gather information about French military capabilities. He was instructed to observe French forts, determine troop strengths, and try to ascertain French intentions and plans for responding to the expansion of British colonization into the region.”[4] He was good at what he did – and he made sure to learn the craft and learn it well.
George Washington was born near Fredericksburg, Virginia, on April 30, 1732. Washington spent his formative years as a surveyor and soldier. In his later years he served with the British Army in the French and Indian War. The French Indian War is where he got his first taste of intelligence. While accompanying General Braddock they missed intelligence that could have been gathered and prevented a surprise attack at the Battle of the Monongahela. This missed information resulted in General Braddock’s death. This left an impression on Washington and he wanted to learn more about intelligence gathering.
Washington knew that correct and efficiently collected information was very important to the British defeat. He would send his agents behind enemy lines, he would make sure that travelers that went through his camp would be properly questioned. He also relied on counterintelligence. He was able to make sure the British were fed misinformation to throw them off the path.  Without Washington’s stellar military experience he would not have been able to offset Britain’s Military and Power. If this had happened the American Revolution may not have been successful.
Washington knew that properly collected intelligence was going to be important. “Espionage was even more important to the revolutionary cause. The colonials faced a better-armed and more experienced enemy, and colonial commander in chief George Washington realized that intelligence on British troop strengths and movements could even the odds.”[5] He knew that he had to defeat the strong British Army somehow, and some way.

One of the things that historian Christopher Andrew notes in his book: For the President’s Eyes Only, Secret Intelligence and the American Presidency from Washington to Bush is that “Washington became his own spymaster, using intelligence from his numerous spies to maneuver his troops away from premature contact with the stronger British forces.”[6] This was possible due to the two spy rings that fell underneath the involvement of George Washington. The Culper Spy Ring and the Mersereau Spy Ring.

[1] Finley, James P. U.S. Army Military Intelligence History: A Sourcebook. Fort Huachuca, AZ: U.S. Army Intelligence Center and Fort Huachuca, 1995. Pg. 11

[2] Ibid. Pg. 9
[3] Sulick, Michael J. Spying in America: Espionage from the Revolutionary War to the Dawn of the Cold War. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2012. Pg. 15

[4] "The Founding Fathers of American Intelligence." Central Intelligence Agency. 2008. Accessed July 04, 2016.

[5] Sulick, Michael J. Spying in America: Espionage from the Revolutionary War to the Dawn of the Cold War. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2012. Pg. 17

[6] Andrew, Christopher M. For the President's Eyes Only: Secret Intelligence and the American Presidency from Washington to Bush. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995.  Pg. 10-11

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Why are Spies important

I am a history nerd. Those who know me - already know this fact. I love reading, writing, watching anything to do with American History. I love Presidential History.
When I had to write my capstone for my grad degree - I had realized that a previous paper that I had written about Civil War spies had stuck out in my head. I found the stories FASCINATING!!! So, I took it to the next level. I explored the little known spies that helped in the American Revolutionary and Civil War.  Then I was told that I was going to have to narrow it down more -- so I picked women and African American Spies.

Why are spies important? Well, let's look at some of the research that I did for my capstone...

When most people hear about spying and espionage most will think of James Bond 007. Some will think of the USA original network show, Covert Affairs. Although real world experience in spying and espionage is not as glamorous as Hollywood makes it out to be. Most will associated Spying and Espionage as being developed during the Cold War Time Period. In reality, the use spies have always been a part of American History. This dates back to Colonial Times.
Spies and espionage has always been an important part of military history. The information that was extracted or recovered and passed along lines could contain valuable information. Spying is important to successful missions. You need to know what your enemy is up to. You need to know how you can defend yourself or go on the offensive.   
The use of African Americans and Women as spies throughout the American Wars is not something that has been widely looked at as an academic study, or in historic perspective. They are sometimes mentioned in passing, but there has not been a comparison of this group together. Which is saddening since there is a lot of potential that is seen with this group. They are the unsung heroes in these wars.

Glenn P. Hastedt in his work “Spies, Wiretaps and Secret Operations” states that: “Espionage is a competitive contest between spies and spy catchers. It is a contest entered into by great powers and small ones; by individuals, businesses, and terrorist groups.”[1] This has evolved throughout each war. Both the American Revolution and the Civil War had active participants in every age, gender and race. There will never be a full understanding of who was involved due to records being censored, individuals that chose not to come forward and other varying reasons that records are lost over time.
“For most observers the history of American espionage begins after World War II when the United States abandoned its staunch isolationist outlook on world affairs and entered into the cold war with the Soviet Union. A closer look reveals that a much longer legacy exists.”[2] Espionage has come a long way over the last hundred years. Women and African Americans were successful in being involved in spy activities due to the lack of suspicion. Who were they? What did they accomplish? They played minor roles in The American Revolution and the Civil War. Women were able to disguise themselves and play the “roles” to extract and hear information. African Americans were thought to not be a threat since they were mostly illiterate. These brave Women and men were responsible for aiding and assisting their chosen loyalty. They should have a place in history.
These are the two wars that had the most information to look at and analyze. These two wars range from 1775-1783 and 1861-1865. The time span is less than 100 years from the beginning of the American Revolution and the end of the American Civil War.  The irony in this is that the first war was a war fought for independence of British rule, while the second was a war fought for the recognition of states’ rights. The craft of collecting and passing the information is fascinating, especially with the lack of the technology that we have today.
Women and African Americans were able to play roles that would enable them to be productive and an asset to those they were assisting. There are some examples where collecting the information did not go as planned and the information was hurtful and may have changed outcomes of various battles. The question(s) that is being proposed is: Why were women and African Americans as spies able to be successful? Did their backgrounds or stories give them any advantage? Also, what impact did they have?
Spies are important to military activities for several reasons. “Wide range of spy networks and spy craft to gain critical information about the other side.”[1] This information could help to foil battle plans, attacks, and other useful tips. By spying they were able to find out where the troops may be moving or where they are not moving. Another reason spies are important: “Spying changed the tactics of warfare not only for this war but for wars to come. The use of spies, and agencies incorporating spying, laid a foundation for a very strategic tactic and decide the roles which are used even in today’s modern age, even helping develop it to what it has become.”[2] Once the spy activities caught on, the evolved each and every war from this point forward.

Next Post will be about the American Revolution Spies :) 


[1] "Spying and Espionage." George Washington's Mount Vernon. Accessed April 24, 2016.

[2] "Role of Spies." The Civil War. Accessed April 24, 2016.  

[1] Hastedt, Glenn P. Spies, Wiretaps, and Secret Operations: An Encyclopedia of American Espionage. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011. Pg. i.

[2] Ibid. Pg. 36