George Washington Spymaster

Most people are unaware that George Washington was a brilliant spymaster. In fact, he was probably a better spymaster than general. He knew the value of information and misinformation. In secret communications, he was identified as “Agent 711.” 

Washington supervised several spy networks throughout the colonies. For security reasons, he broke the networks down into small independent cells. The identity of the agents was so well guarded that Washington himself did not know the identities of most of his spies.

Washington’s agents used a variety of spy techniques, some of which Washington pioneered.  

Washington’s spies used invisible inks.  

Washington’s spies used mask letters. A shaped cut-out template would be placed over the full letter. The true message would appear within the boundaries of the mask. The “mask” was delivered by a separate courier than the letter.

Washington’s spies used ciphers and coded letters. Some coded letters contained a list of numbers which referenced the word number on a page in a certain book. If you did not know what book was being used, there was no way to break the code. This unbreakable code is still used today.

Another spy technique at the time was using small hidden messages. These were rolled up and put inside hollow writing quills or sewn into clothing.

The most unique aspect of Washington’s spy network was his reliance on female spies and couriers.

The British military officers were male chauvinists. It was beyond their comprehension that their household maids or tavern waitresses could overhear and comprehend the military strategies the officers were discussing.

The barmaids and waitresses often wrote their messages with invisible ink on hardboiled eggs and gave them to undercover pub patrons, or carried them away for delivery. There was nothing suspicious about a tavern patron ordering hard boiled eggs. It was a popular snack at that time. There was also nothing suspicious about a woman carrying eggs home to her family.

The housemaids used the novel spy technique of the “clothesline code.” Just as the Navy hoists flags to send coded messages to other ships, female spies hung their laundry out in such a way as to display coded messages. The British were unaware that Washington was using women as spies, and they were certainly clueless that their housemaids were sending messages by way of their own laundry.     

One of General Washington’s most important spies was Emily Geiger. Because she was a demure and petite woman, she was able to successfully gather intelligence behind enemy lines and carry vital messages. Once, while carrying a message, she was stopped by British soldiers and questioned. When her captors got distracted she tore up the message she was carrying and ate it. They let her go. She still delivered the message because she had it memorized.

In the fall of 1776, near the beginning of the war, one of Washington’s spies was captured by the British. He was 21-year-old Nathan Hale. As he was hanged, Nathan declared the immortal words, “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”             

Washington was enraged at the hanging. He never forgot, and he never forgave. Years later the continental army captured British spymaster Major Adjutant General John Andre, who was part of the Benedict Arnold plot. Washington’s aides pleaded with him, and the British protested, that he shouldn’t hang an officer for doing his job.  Washington reminded them of Nathan Hale and after trial ordered the hanging of John Andre.

Washington was very aware of the essential value of intelligence and information. He was also aware of the value of misinformation. 

Winston Churchill observed that during war truth is so precious, that it must be surrounded by bodyguards of lies. Washington knew this principle well. He spread disinformation to the enemy. He encouraged his spy rings to exaggerate the size and strength of the continental army in conversations with British supporters. He sent false messages about troop movements and pending attacks through the regular mail, knowing that the messages would be intercepted by the enemy.

One example took place before the decisive battle of Yorktown. Washington asked that the large French Caribbean fleet sail to New York to keep General Clinton, the commander of the British forces in America, pinned down. The French admiral replied that General Clinton had no plans of going anywhere and suggested that the French fleet could better serve the Revolution by blockading Chesapeake Bay. This would prevent General Cornwallis from being reinforced and resupplied. Washington agreed.  

However, Washington sent several false messages, which he knew would be intercepted by the British, to his troops detailing the plan for the French fleet to barricade New York Harbor. General Clinton, preparing for the arrival of the French fleet, hunkered down in New York. Meanwhile, in Yorktown, General Cornwallis was cut off from reinforcements and resupply. He was also cut off from retreat. He was forced to surrender.

After the war, one British commander lamented, “Washington did not outfight the British. He simply out-spied us.” 

George Washington, the “Father of the Country,” deserves praise not only for his military and political leadership, but also for his brilliance as a spymaster.

(Sources: Personal tours of Mount Vernon, and the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C.; Thomas B. Allen, George Washington, Spymaster: How the Americans Outspied the British and Won the Revolutionary War, National Geographic;  Kilmeade and Yager, George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring that Saved the American Revolution; “George Washington,” “Washington’s Spies,”  “Culper Ring,”  Wikipedia; American Ride series, BYUtv; See also: AMC Turn: Washington’s Spies series.)

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