Saturday, January 30, 2016

A Very Short History of Spies and Spying during the American Revolution

by Kathy Fischer-Brown


As one of the world’s oldest occupations, espionage in one form or another has been around for as long as men have contended for territory and resources, waged wars, vied for crowns, and pressed for industrial and scientific advantage and superiority. While in no way possessing the skills, training, and technological tchotchkes of modern-day spies—or their counterparts in some of cinema’s great blockbusters—covert agents played a vital role in the American Revolution.

Anyone who’s watched the AMC hit mini-series, “TURN” (although I will not vouch for its total accuracy), knows that George Washington, as well as his British adversaries, relied heavily on gathering information about enemy strengths and weaknesses, their movements and supply lines when planning their campaigns. He also expended time and energy in disseminating misleading information through the same channels. But for the first few years of the war, American intelligence efforts were no match for the superior training and methods of His Majesteys agents.
This was soon to change. Under the auspices of The Committee of Secret Correspondence, created during the Second Continental Congress in November of 1775, General Washington was provided with an assortment of alpha-numeric codes, several kinds of secret ink and an equal number of ways to employ them, as well as novel means of transporting and exchanging these communiqu├ęs. In addition to hiding messages in canteens and false shoe heels, among others, one clever method involved tearing the message into narrow strips, rolling them up tight, and stuffing the slivers into the hollow stem of a goose quill pen. 

In the pictures shown here, you can see a simple but ingenious method employed by the British during their summer campaign of 1777, which ended in the defeat of General Burgoyne’s forces at Saratoga. The first picture (above right) depicts a seemingly innocuous letter from British general Sir Henry Clinton to John Burgoyne, comprised mostly of nonsense and false information. The Code Mask (shown left) was based on the Cardan System developed by Geronimo Cardano, an innovator in encrypted messages. A cut-out shape was placed over the letter, revealing the encrypted message inside the text (below right). It must have been fun composing a letter so that only the important words were shown through the mask. 
People from all walks of life served as eyes and ears for their respective causes. Among their numbers were women. Although but a few names have come down to us through history—Lydia Darragh, Anna Strong, Ann Bates, among them—no one knows exactly how many women worked behind the lines, selling food and other necessaries as sutlers in the camps and meeting places frequented by Rebels, British, and Tories. In many cases, such as that of Agent 355, a member of the famous Culper Ring out of Setauket, New York, we don’t even know their real names. It’s safe to assume that we never will.
Spying is central to the plot in the second and third books of my “Serpent’s Tooth” trilogy, set during the early years of the War for Independence. In Courting the Devil (book 2), we find our hero leading a band of scouts whose directive is to gather information vital to the American cause in advance of the British march on Albany. The heroine, Anne, is betrayed by a particularly unscrupulous American agent to Loyalists who have been misled to think she’s a spy. Her brutal “interrogation” is in no way far-fetched. In fact, I saved her from a far worse fate: that suffered by the real-life Canadian Tory spy, “Miss Jenny,” at the hands of French soldiers serving under Lafayette in 1778. Under the pretense of seeking her father in their camp, she aroused suspicions and was arrested. Not only did her captors try to beat the truth out of her, they raped her. If that wasn’t despicable enough, they cut off her hair—an act considered the height of humiliation at the time. Miss Jenny, however, did not relent and successfully completed her mission. After returning to the British camp with her intelligence, she vanished from history. It is interesting to note that women, in general, were considered too “simple” to understand the complexities of a military campaign, and for the most part, were not taken seriously. A rather short-sighted attitude on both sides of the conflict.
Captain Daniel Taylor, a character who appears briefly in Courting the Devil, was an actual Tory spy who plied his trade between New York City and the area around the upper Hudson River during the British push toward Albany from Canada. Although elusive, he was eventually apprehended by American soldiers, who went on to discover a coded message to General Burgoyne concealed in a hollow bullet in his hair. Taylor immediately swallowed the incriminating evidence, but was given a “strong emetic,” which did as it was intended. He was convicted of spying and hanged. Some say his execution was in retaliation for Nathan Hale’s death a year earlier.
In The Partisan’s Wife (book 3 of the trilogy), the reader is introduced to a number of shady characters, some real, some fictitious, as well as Washington, himself, and a few of his spy masters, as the stakes for our hero and heroine become deadly.

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Kathy Fischer Brown is a BWL author of historical novels, and The Return of Tachlanad, her newly released epic fantasy adventure for young adult and adult readers. Check out her The Books We Love Author page or visit her website. All of her books are available in a variety of e-book formats and in paperback from Amazon and other online retailers.

Pictures courtesy of the Clements Library.