Monday, March 26, 2018

George Washington, Spymaster

By J. M. Hochstetler

I’m currently toiling away on Refiner’s Fire, book 6 of my American Patriot Series set during the American Revolution. In this installment Elizabeth Howard has been whisked off to France to keep her out of the hands of British secret agents out to kill her. Meanwhile, Jonathan Carleton, also known as the Shawnee war chief White Eagle, is far out in Ohio Territory involved in frustrating negotiations with his tribe to support the Americans instead of the British or at least stay neutral in the war. As in previous volumes of the series, there’s lots of intrigue and spying—which was serious business on both sides during the Revolution, just as it is in all wars.

Nathan Hale by Frederick MacMonnies
City Hall Park, New York 
When George Washington took command of the rebel army besieging Boston after the battles of Lexington and Concord, he discovered that his new force was poorly trained, badly staffed, and lacking in supplies, equipment, and funds. To have any hope of beating the British, he would have to learn in advance as much of their military plans and movements as possible. In other words, he was going to need spies, double agents, and secret informants, and plenty of them. The British already had spy networks galore among the patriots, so he didn’t waste time setting things in motion. He took command at Cambridge on July 3, 1775, and on the 15th he paid an unidentified spy $333.33 “to go into the town of Boston; to establish a secret correspondence for the purpose of conveying intelligence of the Enemy’s movements and designs.”

Benjamin Tallmadge
Perhaps the most widely known spy of the Revolution was Nathan Hale, a Yale graduate and teacher who served in Knowlton’s Rangers. In September 1776 he volunteered for a mission ordered by Washington to slip behind enemy lines in New York City and gather much-needed intelligence—only to be quickly captured and hanged. Much more successful was another Continental officer Washington enlisted, Benjamin Tallmadge, who had been a close friend of Hale’s. If you’ve watched the series Turn on AMC, you’re familiar with the most famous of Washington’s spy rings—the Culper Ring—though facts are few and far between in this inventive re-imagination of history. Tallmadge was the mastermind behind the Culper Ring, recruiting both soldiers and civilians into what became one of the most effective espionage networks of the American Revolution. In 1780 its members uncovered British plans to ambush French troops en route to aid the Continentals, allowing Washington to prepare a defense that forced the British to change their plans. The ring also identified Major John Andre as a British spy and through him exposed the treachery of Benedict Arnold.

Culper Ring Code Book
The Culper Ring was only one of Washington’s spy networks, which involved merchants, ordinary laborers, farmers, and women, among others. Their success was crucial to the eventual defeat of the British. In addition, Congress passed resolutions that directed military intelligence operations in a number of directions as well. To maintain the greatest secrecy, spies were provided with code names and aliases, cipher codes, invisible ink, dead drops, and even such methods as posting “codes” on clotheslines and messages concealed in balls of knitting yarn. Washington also spread disinformation and fake intelligence about military movements and attacks on specific forts by sending messages via regular post so they could be intercepted and using “deserters” who offered “intelligence” to the British.

Washington essentially laid the groundwork for today’s intelligence organizations by recognizing that gathering information was just as important as building a powerful army. Without the efforts of Washington and his spies, our Revolution might have had a very different outcome. As Major George Beckwith, a British intelligence officer, noted: “Washington did not really outfight the British, he simply outspied us.”

I love tales of spies and intrigue, which is probably why I write them. But honestly, I have to wonder whether I’d have the courage to become a spy. Do you enjoy those kinds of stories too? Have you ever wondered what you would do if our country were under direct attack by an enemy and people you loved depended on you to protect them?
J. M. Hochstetler is the daughter of Mennonite farmers and a lifelong student of history. She is also an author, editor, and publisher. Her American Patriot Series is the only comprehensive historical fiction series on the American Revolution. Northkill, Book 1 of the Northkill Amish Series coauthored with Bob Hostetler, won Foreword Magazine’s 2014 Indie Book of the Year Bronze Award for historical fiction. Book 2, The Return, received the 2017 Interviews and Reviews Silver Award for Historical Fiction. One Holy Night, a contemporary retelling of the Christmas story, was the Christian Small Publishers 2009 Book of the Year.


  1. Interesting! I don't know if I would have the nerve to be deceptive enough to be a spy. I value honesty very highly. But who knows what one would truly do for their family?

    1. Connie, I'm in the same boat. lol! But if you're in a serious enough situation, we might be surprised at what we can do. Thank you for stopping by and commenting!

  2. How interesting! I've read a series by Roseanna White called the Culper Ring Series. You should read it. Roseanna White also had a book on the Culper Ring and how it got started. I think it's called Washington's Spies (But, don't quote me on that!) but, I don't remember the author. Roseanna would know. I love reading things like that in history. By the way, thanks for giving no spoilers about Refiner;s Fire!

  3. Thank you for sharing your very interesting post.

  4. Great post. I would have a hard time being deceptive as honesty is the way I was raised and it's God's way. Thank you for sharing. A joyous Easter to you and yours.