The Secret World of Eighteenth-Century Intelligence, Part 2
Intelligence During the American War of Independence
As you may recall, my last post (see the link below) formed the first part of a survey of 18th-century intelligence. In this instalment I’ll be discussing intelligence during the War of Independence and how it relates to the three general characteristics of the era: Patronage, Impermanence, and Gentlemanliness.
Oh, before we begin, a quick note. Intelligence is a huge field, covering many areas such as naval and signals, but space, and perhaps interest, is limited, so here I’m going to focus strictly on the evolution of George Washington’s intelligence capability as a kind of microcosm of American espionage as a whole.
So, picking up from where I left off . . .
The Tick of the Clock
For the duration of the War, Washington’s options were strictly limited. He simply couldn’t replicate the kind of aristocratic and administrative espionage systems that were common in Europe.
Structurally, in America there were no palaces, no chancelleries, no ambassadors, and without those there were no encrypted diplomatic despatches to steam open, which meant no Black Chamber. And neither, owing to the suspicion of tyrannical government and the usual inter-colonial squabbling, could there be a national, Colbert-style intelligence apparatus with its stupendous archives and surveillance power.
In terms of military intelligence, though, Washington was on surer ground. The War of Independence, at least in the north, was a pretty conventional 18th-century war. Armies campaigned in the summer and rested in the winter; uniformed brigades and regiments were the rule; and major battles followed the usual format of maneuver and firepower.
Washington, too, was a pretty conventional, and at first inexperienced, 18th-century general so it’s not surprising that in 1775-76 he followed the military principles laid down by the greats: people like Marlborough, Charles XII of Sweden, Frederick of Prussia, and Marshal de Saxe.
Key for all of them was supply and logistics, because regular 18th-century warfare was all about predictability. (Dealing with natives and barbarians, like the Highland Scots, was a very different story.)
As Newton’s laws governed time and space, so too was there an Enlightenment faith that scientific precepts governed warfare. Far from being chaotic—considered the hallmark of the gauche Wars of Religion of the prior century—war was seen as resembling a clock: elegant, measured, regulated, just so.
Wholly alien to 18th-century sensibilities was Napoleon’s imminent, Romantic vision of war as a steam engine: a thermodynamic process that transformed men’s impulses, imaginations, and ideology into raw combat power sweeping all before it. “Troops are made to let themselves be killed,” he averred, proving his point by losing fully 863,000 of them. It mattered not, because soldiers were nothing but coals to be cast into the furnace of war, their cindered remains testament to the energy their bodies had supplied for victory (and to sate his monumental ego).
In contrast, war, to the Enlightened, was like the tick and sweep of a watch’s hand in being predictable—but only if you had access to the right kind of hard information to program its motions.
It was for precisely that reason that, as mentioned in Part 1, Marlborough had appointed Cadogan. An astute commander could often predict what his opponent was planning to do based on gaining knowledge of his supply-lines, the state of the roads, the presence of troopships, ammunition levels, whether he was stockpiling hay for the horses, and so on. Territory was controlled by possessing power-centers (like cities and ports), and soldiers moved between them at a known rate, which restricted their operating radius and provided clues as to destination.
As Frederick the Great once put it, “the best way to discover the enemy’s intent . . . is to discover where he has established his provision depot. If the Austrians, for example, made their magazines at Olmütz you could be sure that they planned to attack Upper Silesia, and if they established a magazine at Königgrätz, the Schweidnitz area would be threatened.”
Switch Olmütz and Königgrätz for New York and Philadelphia, and you can understand why Washington had to know not just where the enemy was, but where he intended to go. The only way you get that kind of bread-and-butter intel, either in Europe or America, was to send soldiers to scout ahead and elicit what they could.
Soldiers. Not, I repeat not, civilians. Frederick had specifically warned against this, because even just accurately estimating the size of a regiment or artillery calibres needed experience and a good eye.
Washington accordingly despatched his troops to reconnaissance the lay of the land. Let me emphasize, though, that these were quick missions, there and back. Most of those sent accomplished little, probably because they weren’t veteran scouts. Thus, in September 1776, William Treadwell and Benjamin Ludlum voyaged to the coast of Long Island and returned with the distinctly unhelpful news that “a party of the Light Horse seized upon some bread, flour, and salt which was in a store, but can’t tell the exact place.”
The Evolution of Washington’s System
Since that wasn’t working, Washington then tried something a little more daring, and sent out the most famous of these ad hoc soldier-spies, Captain Nathan Hale. As is well known from a certain book and television show I am far too modest to mention, Hale was easily caught and unceremoniously hanged, but what’s interesting about him is not that he was “America’s First CIA Agent”—he as much that as Washington was the agency’s proto-Director—but that he was America’s first patriotic spy.
Or at least his friends represented him as such. After his death, they made sure that everyone knew Hale had not spied for money, but instead for love of country in that famous quote about dying for it they put into his mouth. Aside from propaganda, there was an ulterior motive for doing this. And that is, as an officer and a gentleman—I mean, he went to Yale—Hale could not, under any circumstances, be identified as the kind of base, cash-grubbing spy common in Europe. He had to be given a higher calling to compensate for the total failure of his venture.
Honestly, it was always odds-on that poor old Hale was going to get caught. First, he stayed out for far too long, far longer than anyone else had dared. Second, he went behind the lines deep into enemy territory filled with unsympathetic Loyalists. And third, he had no training or support or financing or even a way to get back. The whole affair was badly planned and badly executed—and Washington was painfully aware of it.
After that debacle, Washington’s victories at Trenton and Princeton in the winter of 1776 allowed him a respite to reassess his intelligence system. Washington now decided that civilians were in fact a better conduit of information than soldiers.
This was because 18th-century warfare was limited in the sense that civilians—like merchants and farmers and ministers—were off-limits and could easily obtain passes to enter enemy-held cities during the course of their regular business. After a couple of days, they came home and passed on whatever random scraps of information they’d managed to pick up to the local colonel, who might or might not send it upstairs to headquarters.
It’s important to emphasize that at this stage Washington was still only tinkering with the existing model of espionage. It was during 1777 that a genuine sea-change can be detected in his thinking.
It was then that he began experimenting with sending soldiers into British territory who were expected to stay in place for at least several weeks while posing as civilians. His most effective operative, Major John Clark, spent nearly nine months lurking undercover outside Philadelphia dispatching news of troop movements and artillery emplacements.
No one else, however, was anywhere near as successful, but that was because Clark was a one-off Jason Bourne figure whose example couldn’t be replicated.
In the following year, 1778, Washington seized the opportunity to take the final step in the evolution of American intelligence when what would become the Culper Ring fell into his lap. This was a group comprising five men who were essentially walk-ins who volunteered for duty.
This isn’t the place to talk about them in great detail (see pic below), but suffice to say that this Ring would operate with great success in New York and Long Island for the rest of the war. Its importance lies in the fact that it was the only network of civilian agents permanently operating behind enemy lines.
These attributes alone made the Culper Ring, I believe, the most innovative network of the century, a system far in advance of anything that had existed previously.
The Culpers and the Three Characteristics
Yet while the Culper Ring broke the mold of 18th-century espionage, its members remained 18th-century men with 18th-century temperaments. In some senses, then, the Culpers were truly ahead of their time, but in others, very much of it.
Keeping to current custom, Washington, for instance, would always remain the Patron. For the good and faithful servants of the Culper Ring, Washington was their confessor, their summoner, their almoner.
As such, he was a demanding master. This wasn’t by accident. Being one of life’s sceptics, Washington was all too aware that spying was, and is, a game that attracts fantasists and adventurers, and that even the best agents tend to exaggerate their findings to impress their bosses. To that end, Washington always insisted on strictly sober observations, solid reporting, value for money, and an absence of speculation. As he said, he didn’t want reports on “the chit-chat of the streets and the idle conjecture of the inhabitants.”
In October 1779, he told the Culpers exactly what he did want. He wanted them to focus on things like “the number of men destined for the defence of the City [New York],” and “how many redoubts are upon the line from river to river, how many Cannon in each.” Also vital to know was how many naval transports the British had, “whether they are preparing for the reception of troops and know what number of men are upon Long Island. Whether they are moving or stationary. What is become of their draft horses. Whether they appear to be collecting them for a move. How they are supplied with provisions. What arrivals. Whether with men, or provisions. And whether any troops have been embarked or elsewhere within these few days.”
This exhaustive laundry-list was compiled so that he could emulate his great European predecessors in predicting the enemy’s designs and foreseeing his probable movements. Washington is often, nowdays at least, considered a great spymaster—and indeed he was a fine master of spies. But keep in mind that all this stuff he was asking for was firmly in the eighteenth-century military tradition.
Where the Culpers really broke from that tradition was in terms of their longevity, their Permanence. They operated for more than five years undetected, whereas, as we saw in Part 1, their peers rarely worked for long. Their success was owed to two reasons.
First, they had A+ security. They were one-man dogs who reported only to Washington, who was the only one who knew their identities. This paid off in spades when, just before he turned his coat, Benedict Arnold vainly tried to elicit their names so he could sell them, along with West Point. Relatedly, the Culpers were pack animals in that they’d been raised together since they were pups and so trusted no one outside their kennel. This meant the Ring could not be infiltrated by doubles and informants.
The second reason was their adaptability. Owing to the lack of instruction manuals, at the beginning Washington and the Culpers weren’t very good at spying. They made a whole lot of rookie mistakes. Washington, for instance, once forgot what their top-secret codenames were and had to be reminded of them—by, er, them. Another time, one of them wrote an important letter in an undetectable invisible ink and hid it within a quire of blank paper. Brilliant, except that no one knew where it was in the pile. These kinds of errors and slips were generally fatal to other spies, leading to a quick trip to the local scaffold, but Washington and the Culpers were excellent improvisers and they soon got better.
It’s when we get to the third distinguishing feature of 18th-century spying—Gentlemanliness—that things get truly interesting. The Culpers knew that what they were doing was counted as dishonorable, and yet still they did it. Almost uniquely in their line of work, as their letters attest, they were ideologically committed to the cause of republican civic virtue rather than to that of lining their pockets.
They may not have been aristocrats, but they were determined to be counted as gentlemen. To ensure that they maintained that status, none of the Culpers ever accepted money for his services. They were volunteers, amateurs, patriots, not professional operatives there to make a quick buck or opportunists like Arnold mooching around for better offers from other employers.
There was a moment at the beginning, though, when Washington made the terrible faux pas of assuming they were the usual type of spy and offered cash. Abraham Woodhull, the chief Culper, was so insulted by this implicit assumption by his better that he was not a gentleman that he almost quit. Washington never made the same mistake again.
Serving without pay may have salved the Culpers’ consciences, but it was just as important for them, even long after the War, to avoid the public shame that would have accompanied the revelation that they had been spies.
The Culpers, we should remember, were of a generation preceding the appearance of the first American espionage novel, The Spy by James Fenimore Cooper, which in 1821 zhuzhed up the image of the spy from dodgy practitioner of the dark arts to patriotic, melodramatic hero. By the time of the Civil War, spies had been confected into characters full of star-spangled derring-do and catnip to damsels while they served their country. From there it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to the clubland heroes of The Thirty-Nine Steps and later on, 007 and his successors.
Such positive images of spies would have been completely incomprehensible to the Culpers. That’s why it’s not surprising to find that not one of them ever talked of his intelligence activities. In the memoirs of Benjamin Tallmadge, for instance, he covers his entire wartime spying career in just a single sentence vaguely mentioning that he engaged in “private correspondence with some persons in New York” and leaves it at that.
One can understand his reticence. To the Culpers spying remained, and always would remain, beneath contempt. It was an embarrassment, the kind of shameful thing one fell into if one lacked moral virtue.
Speaking of moral virtue, late in life, Casanova, who by then had found the Lord, once lamented self-knowingly that spies were men “who wished the world to be unaware that their trade is to betray: It is punishment enough for them to know it themselves.”
Clearly, the very fact that this sentiment sounds odd to our ears indicates that there’s a gulf between the Culpers and ourselves, just as yawning a one as between the secret world of 18th-century espionage and our own 21st-century conception of spying.