History: George Washington -- Master of Guile and Deceit

History: George Washington -- Master of Guile and Deceit

— The oft told legend is that George Washington could not tell a lie. The reality is that General Washington proved to be a master of guile and deceit. These qualities are among the principle reasons America won the War of Independence.

When asked about spies in the American Revolution, most Americans may recall Nathan Hale, caught spying in 1776 by the British and hanged. He was a 19-year-old Yale graduate who volunteered to go behind British lines in New York and report on the army. He uttered the famous line “I regret that I have only one life to give my country.” Without a doubt he was very courageous, but those that have read in detail about this case have learned he was a real amateur in the game. Although he was able to gather a lot of intelligence, he put it in his boot and stopped off at a tavern for a drink while enroute to home. He was spotted and arrested with the goods on him.

On the other hand, there was George Washington, a true espionage professional, who masterminded highly successful spy networks. The Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. has a featured display on what is characterized as the greatest and most professional spy ring of the Revolutionary War, “The Culper Spy Ring.” This particular ring of spies was established in 1778 under the orders of Gen. George Washington and operated until the end of the war. It was given the mission of spying on the British army and reporting on troop movements, positions, fortifications and plans in the New York area. The ring continued to operate until the end of the war in 1783. The spies used elaborate codes and aliases as well as dead drops and invisible ink in the course of their activities. They provided a continuous stream of intelligence and are viewed today as the most successful spy operation by either side during the war. They have also been attributed with playing a key role in uncovering Benedict Arnold’s treasonous activities.

The Culper spy ring was only one of the many spy networks operated by Washington. He personally directed a number of secret agents and double-agents. He preferred to provide instructions directly to his agents and to debrief them personally. He believed this better ensured no misunderstandings and allowed him a better assessment of the value of the intelligence he received. His intelligence gathering was also matched by the misinformation he let out to the British to keep them off balance. All this clandestine work proved critical to the winning of the Revolutionary War.

The famous crossing of the Delaware and successful attack on Trenton was preceded by successful spying on the regiment of Hessian mercenaries that occupied the town. Washington’s spy established positions, routine, pickets, and other important information about the enemy. At the same time the spy planted misinformation on the state of the American army that lulled the Hessians into a lax state. Washington’s attack on the day after Christmas thus succeeded in killing the Hessian commanding officer and capturing their entire force.

During the British occupation of Philadelphia in 1777, Washington directed one of his agents to allow phony muster lists that overstated many times the actual strength of American army at Valley Forge; in fact the army was in a desperate condition. The British Commander, General Howe, recognized Washington's handwriting so he accepted the numbers as authentic and did not move to attack. At the same time Washington’s agents kept him armed with of details of British strength and intentions.

Another major espionage success involved keeping the British military commander, Sir Henry Clinton, bottled up in New York rather than aiding General Cornwallis at Yorktown. When Washington, along with the French, marched his army south to Yorktown, he had planted a host of misinformation implying the forces were maneuvering to attack New York. By the time Clinton realized Washington's real intention, it was too late for him to reinforce Cornwallis. The British defeat at Yorktown effectively ended the war for victory for the American colonies.

It is provident for Americans today that the old tale of Washington’s unwillingness to tell a lie was not always true.

Contributors: These articles were prepared by the George Washington Chapter, Sons of the American Revolution (www.gwsar.org), who will be a participant in the George Washington Birthday Parade and events on Feb. 17. See www.washingtonbirthday.net.