Intelligence During the Revolutionary War

Posted on Jul 5, 2015 in Author Thoughts ....

Intelligence During the Revolutionary War

Welcome to a special edition of “Espionage Thoughts.”

It is July 4th, which means it is time for a “Founding Fathers’ Words To Think About” note. For many years,  I like to construct a brief biography and some quotes from a figure from America’s revolutionary past.  It is a little way for me to remember the importance of these people and their actions at an extraordinary time. Previous “Words” have included: Washington, Adams (John, Abigail, Samuel), Jefferson, Franklin, Paine, Hamilton, Madison, and Henry – to name just a few.

This year I will focus on a topic that has been headline news in the US and around the world.  It is also the subject of Secret Wars:  An Espionage Story.   The topic is intelligence. Let’s remember two Revolutionary War era figures that were instrumental in the use of intelligence against the British:  Silas Deane, the Forgotten, and George Washington, the Icon.

Silas Deane – The Forgotten

Even before signing the Declaration of Independence, the Second Continental Congress created the Secret Committee Sept. 18, 1775. Allotted significant power, the committee was tasked with covertly obtaining military supplies and then distributing them to privateers chartered by the Continental Congress. In order to hide the fact that the Continental Congress was the actual purchaser of supplies, the committee used foreign flags to protect its vessels and transactions were organized through intermediaries. The committee also sent agents overseas to gather intelligence about British ammunition stores.

On Nov. 29, 1775, the Continental Congress appointed another secret committee “for the sole purpose of corresponding with our friends in Great Britain, Ireland, and other parts of the world,” called the Committee of Secret Correspondence. The objective of this correspondence was to collect intelligence regarding the extent of sympathy toward the American Revolution.

The Committee of Secret Correspondence was lead by Benjamin Franklin, the only member experienced in foreign affairs. Arthur Lee, of THE Lee family of Virginia and who was practicing law in London at the time, became the committee’s first European agent.  In March of 1776, the Committee appointed Silas Deane, a former delegate to the Continental Congress, as its covert agent in France.

Silas Deane is one of the most enigmatic Revolutionary War era figures. Even today, scholars debate whether he was a patriot or traitor. Deane was born in Groton, Connecticut, the son of a blacksmith. He graduated from Yale in 1758 and in 1761 was admitted to the bar. He practiced law for a short time outside of Hartford before he became a merchant in Wethersfield, Connecticut.  He took an active part in the movements in Connecticut preceding the War of Independence, was elected to the Connecticut House of Representatives in 1772, and from 1774 to 1776 was a delegate from Connecticut to the Continental Congress. Deane helped finance the Battle of Ticonderoga, a critical American victory that helped build popular support for the revolutionary cause.

Deane moved in the inner circles of the Founding Fathers.  He was a public figure and accorded great respect. He early on saw George Washington as a natural leader. In a 1775 letter to his wife Elizabeth informing her that Washington would drop by their house on his way to Boston to assume command of the Continental Army, Deane wrote:

“Let our youth look up to this man as a pattern to form themselves by; who unites the bravery of the soldier with the most consummate modesty and virtue.”

While in Congress, John Adams and Silas Deane were both instrumental in the founding of the American naval branch, by urging that the new government appropriate funds to build warships. George Washington paid for one vessel out of his own fortune, while Deane oversaw the construction of at least one other vessel at his father-in-law’s shipyard in New London, Connecticut.

Deane became one of three American commissioners to France, along with Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee. Lee grew to dislike Deane—Deane was born and raised in Connecticut and educated at Yale, Arthur Lee was from an already famous family and a Virginian following the educational and career path of the British elite when revolutionary politics intervened.  This bad relationship would eventually lead to Deane’s downfall.

Deane sailed to France in March 1776, leaving behind his ailing wife (he would never see her again). He had no friends in France, no letters of introduction, no experience in diplomacy, nor friends.

“I once more put pen to paper, not to attempt what is absolutely beyond the power of language to paint my distressed situation here totally destitute of intelligence or instructions.”

The playwright and outspoken supporter of American independence, Caron de Beaumarchais who served as the liaison between the American and the French foreign office, said that:

“Mr. Deane is probably the most silent man in France, for he will not speak to the English, and he cannot speak to the French.”

Deane devised a plan to ship supplies to his countrymen, and Beaumarchais set up a dummy company through which munitions and supplies would pass. Payment was to be in raw materials or cash after independence was won. Through Deane’s efforts, the French agreed to provide military supplies including cannons, ammunition and tents to the Continental Army. Just as significantly, Deane recruited French officers, including the Marquis de Lafayette.  He also enlisted the services of a number of Continental soldiers of fortune, Baron Johann de Kalb, Thomas Conway, Casimir Pulaski, and Baron von Steuben to help train and lead the Continental Army. This assistance was critical to the American effort against the British.

Among other things, the payment of these shipments became a source of discord between Deane and Arthur Lee, who insisted the supplies were free. He also claimed that Deane had been enriching himself at his country’ s expense.  Deane was recalled to America in 1778 and replaced by John Adams. Adams and John Jay were defenders of Deane, but even Adams had a cautious mind towards his friend:

“You know his ambition—his desire of making a Fortune…You know his Art and Enterprise.  Such Characters are often useful, atho always to be carefully watched and contracted, specially in such a government as ours.”

Deane became angry when the French government wouldn’t supply evidence about his financial deals, since it would have revealed France’s role in the American Revolution before 1778. Deane’s request for a hearing was put off. Finally, Congress offered to repay a fraction of the debts he incurred. Deane refused. Coincidentally, both Adams and Deane had a relationship with an intelligence source named Edward Bancroft (a former student of Deane’s), who sold them information about the British. Neither Adams nor Deane knew that Bancroft was actually working for the British as a double agent.

A frustrated and bitter Deane set sail for France to clear his name in 1781.  His reputation among fellow patriots plunged, reaching a new low with the publication in 1782 of several letters intercepted by the British. The letters, which Deane had written to relatives and friends in May and June of 1781, convinced his remaining supporters that Deane had become a defeatist, or worse.

“I find that an independent democratical government is not equal to the securing the peace, liberty and safety of a continent like America.”

Deane moved to London in March 1783. Among his first visitors was his former Connecticut friend, now a disgraced traitor, Benedict Arnold. Reports of their meeting caused Deane’s remaining political friends in America to renounce any connection to him. Deane’s health continued to decline; his remaining hope of recouping any money from Congress and regaining his financial footing all but evaporated. In 1789, once the new national government under the Constitution began operations Deane was convinced by his brother to return to Connecticut.  Deane mysteriously died on a docked ship. By various accounts, he killed himself, overdosed, or was poisoned by former double agent spy Edward Bancroft.

Deane was never found guilty of Lee’s accusations.  In 1787, Congress sent auditors to Paris to review Deane’s accounts. They were found to be in good order, and he was awarded $37, 000. However, due to legal technicalities, Deane never saw a cent. Congress exonerated him in 1842.  His heirs received half of the award 60 years after his death.

Deane had given all in the service of his country, and when in a moment of despair his private thoughts were used against him, lost everything. He was a patriot who despite his inexperience at diplomacy had successfully accomplished everything asked of him by a desperate country.

George Washington – The Icon

Not only was George Washington the first president of the United States, he was also America’s first intelligence chief. During the revolutionary war, Washington spent more than 10 percent of military funding on intelligence-related activities. His natural skills in all facets of intelligence (running spy networks, counter-intelligence, propaganda, deception, secret writing) helped secure key victories, hastened the end of hostilities, and significantly contributed to the United States’ winning its independence from Great Britain.

“There is nothing more necessary than good intelligence to frustrate a designing enemy, & nothing requires greater pains to obtain.”

In the early years of the war, Washington personally supervised the recruitment, training, and running of intelligence agents. The Culper Ring, established in the summer of 1778 in New York and made up of about 20 people, was the most sophisticated of Washington’s agent networks, using aliases, coded writing, dead drops and other tradecraft. (Subject of the current AMC TV program TURN).

Washington strongly emphasized the collection and use of human intelligence to his field commanders and was not above instructing them on the fine points of intelligence tradecraft.

 “I THANK YOU FOR THE TROUBLE you have taken in forwarding the intelligence which was inclosed in your Letter of the 11th of March. It is by comparing a variety of information, we are frequently enabled to investigate facts, which were so intricate or hidden, that no single clue could have led to the knowledge of them in this point of view, intelligence becomes interesting which but from its connection and collateral circumstances, would not be important.” (Gen. George Washington, Letter to Gov. William Livingston, 20 January 1778)

He directed what we now call psychological warfare campaigns and had a fine feel for intelligence activities.

“THE NECESSITY OF PROCURING good Intelligence is apparent & need not be further urged–all that remains for me to add, is, that you keep the whole matter as secret as possible. For upon Secrecy, Success depends in most Enterprizes of the kind, and for want of it, they are generally defeated, however well planned and promising a favourable issue.”

After a spree of debilitating defeats as a result of intelligence failures in early battles of the Revolutionary War, General George Washington recognized the Continental Army’s grave need for an elite group whose sole objective was intelligence and reconnaissance. In 1776, Washington selected Lt. Col. Thomas Knowlton as commander of the Continental Army’s first intelligence unit, which would come to be known as “Knowlton’s Rangers.” While on an intelligence-gathering mission for the unit in New York City, one of Knowlton’s Rangers, Capt. Nathan Hale, age 21, was captured by the British. Just before his subsequent execution on the gallows Sept. 22, 1776, Hale is said to have proclaimed,

“I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”

The creation of Knowlton’s Rangers is regarded as the birth of military intelligence, and thus the date “1776” on the modern-day seal of the Army’s intelligence service refers to the unit’s formation.

After the war, Maj. George Beckwith, the head of British intelligence operations in the colonies, acknowledged the effectiveness of Washington’s intelligence activities. After returning to England with the defeated British army, London newspapers quoted Beckwith as saying:

 “Washington did not really outfight the British, he simply outspied us.”

George Washington’s role as the first American intelligence chief has received far less attention than his legendary exploits as a military and political leader. Yet, without his skillful management of American intelligence activities, the course of the Revolutionary War would have been quite different

DISCLAIMER:  I make no pretense of original thought.  The materials herein are taken from my own collection or websites, including: Central Intelligence Agency, National Constitution Center, Wikipedia,, Silas Deane Online, Connecticut On Line, Biography Dictionary.

Happy Independence Day!

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