Spies, Patriots, and Traitors: American Intelligence in the Revolutionary War


July 3, 2014
by Michael Schellhammer Also by this Author


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Book Review:

Spies, Patriots, and Traitors: American Intelligence in the Revolutionary War, Kenneth A. Daigler, Georgetown University Press, 2014, ISBN-10: 1626160503, ISBN-13: 978-1626160507, 9.1” x 6.1 x 1.2”, 336 pages, illustrations.

The field of intelligence has often remained in the background of the American Revolution. With Spies, Patriots, and Traitors: American Intelligence in the Revolutionary War, author Kenneth A. Daigler expertly brings the intelligence field to the forefront.

A clear and straightforward writer, in the preface Daigler states his intent for a comprehensive book and “one stop resource” on the important role that American intelligence activities played during the Revolution. The author’s many skills developed and honed from service in the U.S. Marines, as a career operations officer with the Central Intelligence Agency, and the author of CIA historical education pamphlets (a skill combination that must be rare, if not truly unique) are evident throughout the book.

Its chapters walk the reader through the development and application of American intelligence activities; from how George Washington, the senior Continental Army intelligence officer, learned the business during his pre-Revolutionary exploits, the action in and around Boston as hostilities developed, covert actions in Europe, John Jay’s counterintelligence efforts, the building of effective American intelligence systems, Nathaniel Greene’s information gathering in the Southern campaign, Yorktown and the war’s end, and the role African Americans played in intelligence.

No book on this topic would be complete without the Nathan Hale debacle and Benedict Arnold’s treason, and Daigler addresses both episodes thoroughly. The discussion of the famous “Culper Ring” that operated in New York City is also exceptionally thorough as well as fascinating. The author ties all of the subject matter together nicely with a concluding chapter that includes an assessment of Washington’s intelligence skills, analysis of British intelligence, and commentary based on Daigler’s experience. All of the chapters are rich in detail. Spies, Patriots, and Traitors impressively and meticulously weaves together information from over 170 sources, including works by John Bakeless, Carl Van Doren, John Nagy, and other eminent historians, to create an exceptionally broad, inclusive, and thoroughly-researched volume on American intelligence.

The author’s professional experience allows for him to make intriguing analysis which makes his book much more than just a compilation of information. Daigler applies his expertise to explain why intelligence activities occurred, their impact, and how they compare to modern intelligence concepts. For example, Daigler astutely shows how intelligence activities were constantly occurring behind the scenes, often by some of the war’s most prominent figures, providing information that led to many of the Revolution’s famous actions.

Daigler also applies an operations officer’s insight to answering some of the lingering intelligence-oriented questions from the time, such as how and why Benedict Arnold turned to the British, how Major John Andre went wrong, the probable identity of the Culper Ring agent known to history only by the code “355,” and if the Loyalist printer James Rivington was actually an American agent. The author often also shows a wry sense of humor, as when he describes the “expensive mistress” of Dr. Benjamin Church, who probably unknowingly helped disclose his espionage, “She must have been quite beautiful and talented, because history demonstrates that she was not all that bright.” The book presents objective analysis on every topic and Daigler pulls no punches, like describing Nathan Hale as “a lousy spy” and faulting Washington for Hale’s failed mission. With hard-hitting conclusions, the book is always interesting and often gripping – there is no shortage of exciting spy stories here. Not only did I learn from the book, I enjoyed reading it.

However, this may not be an easy read for a Revolutionary War novice. The subject matter – double agents, coded messages, covert actions, and other intricacies – is inherently a confusing one, with overlapping timelines. Daigler admirably breaks the topics down and addresses them as clearly as possible, but the complex nature of the subject does not always allow a linear narrative. New students of the Revolution could have trouble following some of the story lines. A map or two would also be helpful. But these are not significant issues because the author always gets his point across.

Overall, the well-written Spies, Patriots, and Traitors is an excellent addition to the historiography of the Revolution and essential for anyone who wants a comprehensive understanding of the American intelligence during the war. Well done to Kenneth Daigler for ably explaining Revolutionary War intelligence, which is often misunderstood, and raising it to a rightful place among the critical factors that led to American independence.




  • I’d take a “9” any day and will definitely purchase this book (other reviews have likewise been favorable). I’m particularly looking forward to the author’s coverage of Andre’s spycraft (or lack of it). Thanks for an informative and interesting review.

  • Does anyone know of a book that addresses the intelligence activities that took place in the northern theater away from Washington and the main army? It sounds as though this book, as is usual for the topic, ignores it. What about the Canadian and Burgoyne campaigns? The stillborn post-Burgoyne incursion/invasion plans by both sides? The Vermont question? Lots of shady folks spent a lot of time crossing the lines in that theater, as well. That being asked, this book still sounds like a worthy read.

  • Mr. Barbieri, the book does discuss intelligence activities surrounding the British Saratoga campaign, including Gen. Arnold’s deception plan against Col. St. Leger and Gen. Gates’ ill use of a local spy in the Bemis Heights battle. There are also other references to such activities in the north.

    1. Great! All the more reason to get your book. Wish Mr. S. had mentioned that in his review. It would have saved my needless posting.

    2. I have just this moment ordered “Spies, Patriots and Traitors…” from Amazon. Look forward to reading it.

      I am interested in Andrew Williamson, especially what happens to him after the Fall of Charleston. I do not quite understand what seems to be a very complicated relationship between him and those around him. Have you looked at his role as a “double agent?”
      Conner Runyan

  • Curious to know the timeline and scope. Is setting the stage for the war included? I guess I’ll discover this for myself as I’ve gone and ordered it already. Reviews were just too good to pass on.

  • Mr. Dilorenzo – Ken Daigler addresses how intelligence played a role in setting the stage for the Revolution very well, from how Washington learned the basics of the intelligence business in the French and Indian War to the scene in and around Boston in the years before hostilities opened. Please feel free to share your thoughts on the book with the group. Thanks for reading!

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