5 Great Intelligence Successes

The War Years (1775-1783)

March 25, 2015
by Michael Schellhammer Also by this Author


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Good Revolutionary War commanders understood the value of intelligence on their adversaries. The great eighteenth century military theorist Marshal de Saxe, who was on every good general’s reading list, wrote that to win in battle “nothing more is required than to keep good intelligence, to acquire a knowledge of the country, and to assume the courage to execute.”[1]  The Marshal made it sound simple. Both sides in the Revolution worked strenuously to gather intelligence through many methods including spies, reconnaissance, and civilian informants and guides. Sometimes the commanders successfully managed their assets to gain good intelligence, other times they failed. What follows are examples of when American leaders used their intelligence systems to gain the right information at the right time and capitalized on it for success.

Lexington and Concord

As a professional British Army officer, Lieutenant-General Thomas Gage, commander of Crown forces in Massachusetts in early 1775, understood the value of intelligence and ran an effective network of operatives who monitored the increasingly defiant colonists. In late March his network revealed that the colonists cached weapons and gunpowder at the town of Concord. Gage planned to snuff out the growing opposition to Crown authority by raiding Concord to seize the arms.

Unfortunately for Gage, British preparations for the raid in early April signaled his plans.  In Boston, silversmith Paul Revere headed a group known as the Mechanics that observed British activities and reported to the leaders of the Patriot “Sons of Liberty” such as Dr. Joseph Warren. Whig leaders also organized a network of dispatch riders in Boston and in country towns to spread warnings of any impending British strike.

Gage scheduled his raiding force to depart Boston on the night of April 18. That night, citizens encountered Crown patrols in the country and quickly sent warnings to the town of Lexington where John Hancock and Samuel Adams lodged, in case the Redcoats planned to seize the two Whig leaders (although Hancock and Adams were actually not Gage’s targets). Revere also sent Warren reports from his informants about soldiers preparing for a march. Gage’s troops marshaling on Boston Common, visible to even casual observers, confirmed an imminent raid.  Late that night Warren launched Revere and express rider William Dawes to Lexington to warn Adams and Hancock about the British movement.

It is not news, of course, that Revere and Dawes made their famous rides and delivered warnings to Adams and Hancock at around midnight. The bigger picture is that the Whig intelligence system operated exactly as it was designed; the Sons of Liberty informants reported British preparations to Patriot leaders; the leaders understood the information and reacted quickly, and multiple express riders, including Revere and Dawes, carried timely warnings to the forces that took action.

Thanks to the Patriot intelligence system, Capt. John Parker’s Lexington Militia Company was one the units that mobilized in the early hours of April 19. Gage’s troops reached Lexington soon after dawn and encountered Parker’s men on Lexington Green, and the first shots of the rebellion followed.[2]


In December 1776 the American cause was in what Gen. Washington called, with some understatement, a “melancholy situation.” “With a handful of men,” he wrote, “we have been pushed thro’ the Jerseys, without being able to make the smallest opposition.”[3] His army camped in eastern Pennsylvania and across the Delaware River Gen. William Howe’s Redcoats and Hessians held New Jersey with 17 dispersed garrisons.

Washington believed that Howe planned to take Philadelphia, and he looked for ways and places to knock his opponent on the defensive. “Find out some person who can be engaged to cross the river as a spy,” he told his generals, “obtain some knowledge of the enemy’s situation … get some person in to Trenton.”[4] That was only one order among many in which Washington pushed commanders for intelligence. “Every piece of intelligence worthy notice you obtain, forward it to me by express,” he told Brig. Gen. Philemon Dickson of the New Jersey militia, and “spare no pains, nor cost, to gain information of the enemy’s movements, and designs” he directed Brig. Gen. James Ewing.[5] In response, Continental and militia units constantly skirmished with the isolated enemy outposts, and reported what information they learned in the process. By late December Washington was gaining a thorough picture of British and Hessian vulnerabilities in New Jersey.

On December 22, Col. Joseph Reed, Washington’s adjutant, sent his general a detailed report with the latest intelligence from New Jersey and recommended an attack on Trenton.[6]  Washington convened a council of war. The sum of available intelligence indicated that Trenton was unfortified, its garrison of two Hessian regiments was exhausted from almost constant fighting with the American militia, and their nearest support was six miles away. Washington approved the plan for an attack to take place on December 25-26.[7]

It is part of the American fabric that Washington’s army crossed the Delaware on Christmas night and defeated the Hessian garrison at Trenton, achieving a victory that electrified the Patriot cause.  Intelligence information, expertly gathered, understood, and applied, was a key factor in Washington’s decision to fight this iconic battle.

Capitalizing on the success at Trenton, at the end of December 1776 Washington assembled an army of about 5,000 Continentals, Pennsylvania and New Jersey militia, and even a detachment of Continental Marines in western New Jersey to secure a foothold in the contested state.


On December 30 a patrol of the Philadelphia Light Horse learned from their British prisoners that Crown forces under Gen. Charles Cornwallis concentrated ten miles away at Princeton, planning to attack the Americans at Trenton. The next day Pennsylvania’s Col. John Cadwalader confirmed the information when he sent Washington a dispatch from a local intelligence operative, “a very intelligent young gentleman,” who entered the British camp at Princeton and saw thousands of troops.[8] Heeding the warnings, Washington sent troops towards Princeton to delay the British advance.

Just as the intelligence indicated, Cornwallis moved to attack Trenton on January 2, 1777.  Washington’s delaying forces successfully slowed the advance and the forces clashed at the Second Battle of Trenton. Night halted the British attack and the Americans took defensive positions outside Trenton on the Assunpink Creek.

That night, Washington called a council of war and the senior officers reviewed their intelligence. From patrolling, Brig. Gen. Arthur St. Clair understood the approaches to the British camp at Princeton. Adjutant Joseph Reed, who attended school in Princeton, also knew the area. The council learned more about the terrain from locals. Information from Col. Cadwallader’s spy also showed that the British camp was vulnerable to attack from the east.  Such comprehensive knowledge of the enemy position contributed to the council’s unanimous approval to attack Princeton.

Early in the morning the Americans slipped away from Assunpink creek and marched on Princeton. The battle of Princeton on January 3 was hard-fought, and ended in a striking American victory that helped put Howe’s forces in New Jersey on the defensive.[9]

Bemis Heights

In June 1777, Gen. John Burgoyne pushed into the American northern frontier from Canada with 7,250 British, Hessian, and Loyalist troops. The Americans contested his advance south. Three months later Burgoyne’s expedition was on the west bank of the Hudson River reduced to about 6,000 men and short on provisions. In early October the Americans held a strong defensive line anchored to the west bank of the Hudson on a plateau known as Bemis Heights. The thick forests stymied Burgoyne’s scouting efforts.  To locate an open American flank, Burgoyne decided to launch a reconnaissance in force with 2,000 men.  If the line was found weak, Burgoyne would continue pushing south.

The American commander, Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates, received a steady stream of intelligence on the British army from scouts and enemy deserters. Gates also understood the terrain. It was his engineer, Polish volunteer Col. Thaddeus Kosciuszko, who designed the Bemis Heights fortifications that blocked Burgoyne’s path. On October 5 Gates correctly predicted to Washington “from the best intelligence [Burgoyne] has not more than three weeks provisions in store . . . so that, in a fortnight at farthest, he must decide whether he will rashly risk, at infinite disadvantage, to force my camp, or retreat to his den.”[10]

Two days later on October 7, a British deserter informed the Americans about Burgoyne’s preparations for an advance.[11] That same morning American pickets spotted British troops advancing and foraging for provisions. Gates sent his aide, Capt. James Wilkinson, to confirm the activity. Wilkinson reported to his general, “they are foraging, and endeavoring to reconnoiter your left; and I think Sir, they offer your battle. . . . I would indulge them.”[12] Another reconnaissance by Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold and Benjamin Lincoln confirmed that a large formation of British and Hessians headed for the American lines.

Now aware that the advance was Burgoyne’s expected “rash risk,” Gates launched a counterattack with Col. Daniel Morgan’s Virginia riflemen and two brigades. Vicious fighting over three hours beat back the British assault. The battle of Bemis Heights was Burgoyne’s unsuccessful and final grasp for victory.

Gates continued to receive valuable information from scouts and deserters until October 17, when Burgoyne, with his army’s power exhausted, finally capitulated. It was the first surrender of an entire British army to the Americans and a significant turning point in the Revolution.

New York’s Committee for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies

In mid-September 1776, the Continental Army was in danger of losing Manhattan to Crown forces and the Revolution was on shaky ground. In this tenuous atmosphere, convinced that they faced “the barbarous machinations of their domestic, as well as external enemies,” New York’s rebel government, the Provincial Convention, established a committee charged with “detecting and defeating all conspiracies . . . against the liberty of America.”[13]

The Committee began operating on September 28 and formed a secret service “to gain information respecting the most disaffected persons” to the American cause.[14] New York attorney and Continental Congress delegate John Jay headed the effort with the assistance of Committee member Nathaniel Sackett. Their operatives, that eventually numbered about a dozen, penetrated Loyalist groups and delivered valuable counterintelligence information to the Committee. When Gen. Washington began professionalizing the Continental Army intelligence networks in the summer of 1778, he called on Sackett to learn agent operations and tradecraft.  Sackett’s lessons contributed greatly to the successful methods used by the famous Culper spy ring in New York City.

Before its disbandment in January 1778, the Committee reviewed over 500 cases of citizens accused of opposing the rebellion. The overall justness of such an organization and its process is certainly open to debate. Nevertheless, the Committee was one of America’s first organized counterintelligence efforts and it laid the foundation for more effective intelligence activities. John Jay went on to become the first Chief Justice of the United States. Today he is considered to be one of the founders of American counterintelligence.[15]

This is only a partial list of how commanders employed and interpreted their intelligence.  Please feel free to share other examples with your comments.

[1] Maurice, Comte de Saxe, Reveries, or Memoirs, Concerning the Art of War (Edinburgh: Sands, Donaldson, Murray and Cochran, 1759), 96.

[2] David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere’s Ride (New York; Oxford University Press, 1994), 78-85, 93-112, 138-148.  See also Ray Raphael, “Paul Revere’s Other Riders,” Journal of the American Revolution, January 13, 2014, https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/01/paul-reveres-riders/; Derek W. Beck, “Dissecting the Timeline of Paul Revere’s Ride, April 9, 2014, https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/04/dissecting-the-timeline-of-paul-reveres-ride/; and J.L. Bell, “Did Paul Revere’s Ride Really Matter?” April 21, 2014, https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/04/did-paul-reveres-ride-really-matter/.

[3] Washington to Horatio Gates, December 14, 1776, Writings of George Washington, Vol. 6, accessed December 30, 2014, http://etext.virginia.edu.

[4] Washington to the General Officers, December 14, 1776, Writings of George Washington, Vol. 6.

[5] Washington to Brig. Gen. Philemon Dickson, December 12, 1776, and Washington to Brig. Gen. James Ewing, December 12, 1776, Writings of George Washington, Vol. 6, accessed December 30, 2014, http://etext.virginia.edu.

[6] Joseph Reed to Washington, December 22, 1776, The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, accessed December 30, 2104, http://memory.loc.gov.

[7] David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 191-205.

[8] Cadwalader to Washington, December 31, 1776, The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, accessed December 30, 2014, http://memory.loc.gov.

[9] Fischer, Washington’s Crossing, 277-289, 314-315.

[10] Gates to Washington, October 5 1777, George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, accessed January 19 2015 via: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/gwhtml/gwhome.html.

[11] Lieutenant William Digby, journal entry for October 7 1777 in The British Invasion from the North, the Campaigns of Generals Carleton and Burgoyne from Canada, 1776-1777 (Albany: Munsell’s Sons, 1887), 287.

[12] General James Wilkinson, Memoirs of My Own Times, Volume I (Philadelphia; Abraham Small, 1816), accessed January 19, 2015, www.archive.org), 267-268.

[13] Minutes of the Committee and of the First Commission for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies in the state of New York, December 11, 1776 – September 23, 1778 (New York: New York Historical Society, accessed January 19 2015 via www.archive.org), xiii.

[14] Minutes of the Committee and of the First Commission for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies, 2.

[15] For thorough discussions on the Committee, see Alexander Rose, Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring (New York: Random House, 2007), 42, 48-51, and Kenneth Daigler, Spies, Patriots, and Traitors: American Intelligence in the Revolutionary War (Washington, Georgetown University Press, 2014), 111-125.


    1. Thanks Rick! It would be a separate article, but the Crown conducted some very successful intelligence activities throughout the Revolution at the tactical and strategic levels. One example is, as Jimmy Dick eloquently wrote about here in the JAR, British intelligence penetrated the American Commission in France. In America, Gen. Henry Clinton’s intelligence efforts were often quite effective. There are other examples, but I would say that both sides conducted intelligence activities with varying levels of success, due to a lot of factors. The difference between ultimate victory or defeat was often how well commanders applied intelligence to their campaigns and combat operations.

  • While not as overt an intelligence mission as some others, the assignment of the three captors of Major Andre to watch the Tarrytown Road has to rank as one of the more successful efforts of the War. Their reconnaissance effort resulted in the unravelling of the Arnold treason and the intelligence that West Point was subject to imminent atttack. Two enjoyable articles.

    1. An interesting comment, SPM, and I considered the Arnold capture as an American counterintelligence success.

      The three New York militiamen that captured Arnold- John Paulding, Isaac Van Wart and David Williams, were on a patrol in a no-man’s land, a basic and important part of active tactical intelligence gathering. Their capture of Arnold speaks directly to the value of their presence in the area.

      I also think their interception of Arnold involved a fair amount of luck, and they may have considered merely robbing him during the process. In 1817 Paulding requested an increase to his pension. Former Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge, then a Congressman, strongly opposed the idea, saying that the 3 militiamen nabbed Arnold “to search for plunder, and not to detect treason.” He went on to say that his own dragoons would have arrested the three had they encountered them in the no-man’s land (see Rose, Washington’s Spies, 279).

      Still, as you point out they stopped Arnold.

      I’m not sure where that leaves the militia patrol as an intelligence success, but far be it from me to disagree with Benjamin Tallamdge.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      1. Congress agreed with Benjamin Tallmadge & refused to increase John Paulding’s pension. I suspect the three of being Cowboys, out for money & only deciding to arrest Andre because one of them was able to read the plans to West Point hidden in his boots.

        When the article on British Intelligence Failures appears, I’m sure Andre’s mission will appear. He was a brilliant fellow but not cut out for fieldwork….

        1. I’d suggest that Talmadge, along with those who wrote the report that dashed John Paulding’s pension application, dusted off his Federalist associations with merchants and bankers, and viewed the application as an effort to unduly increase expenditures of veteran pensions in general. By the time of the application, the government had listened to applications for years and felt it had already done what was necessary to fairly treat the veterans. Paulding had been awarded an annual pension of 200 pounds and the virtues of the capture had been well recognized by Congress and Washington. On a basic class level, it seems to me that Tallmadge was more comfortable in the presence of a spy who sought to defeat the new nation because he was cultured and well-schooled (like Talmadge) than he was with the riff-raff militiamen who caught Andre. What I find ironic is the criticism levelled at the three captors for being one step above mercenaries yet they turned down Andre’s desparate offer of a rich reward if they seet him free. What Paulding and the others did in considering the rewards for catching Andre, was little different than the rewards provided to privateers who captured British vessels. While I understand the reasons for turning Paulding down, I don’t like the tone of the brief debate and the disparaging of the three who saved West Point, which will be the subject of an article I’m currently researching.

      2. Sorry, my reply got attached to the wrong comment. I was referencing Mr. Schellhammer’s comments RE “the capture of Arnold.” I just wanted to say that you meant Andre, correct?

  • I am glad to see Joseph Reed credited with provoking Washington to cross the Delaware. He also led the Dec. 30 1776 Philadelphia Light Horse patrol – their intelligence made possible the Battle of Princeton. Reed is a hero and patriot largely lost in the shawows of others.

  • There is little doubt that Tallmadge was greatly, perhaps overly, impressed with the affable, polished, and urbane Andre, and viewed him as the type of gentleman he and his fellow Continental officers aspired to become. Though he never doubted the justice of executing Andre, he was deeply moved by the execution as his letters of time, and later recollections attest. Tallmadge’s characterizations of Paulding, Williams and Van Wart indicate that he accepted Andre’s denunciations of them as Cowboys or freebooters, an assessment which Washington, among others, did not share. Tallmadge suffered major blowback in the press for his depictions of the Tarrytown militiamen, and was essentially accused of siding with a British agent against yeomen patriots out of elitist prejudice, which probably was an element in his actions.

    1. Ah, the “yeoman” patriots! Many who were NOT elite joined the Continental Army, leaving their homes to serve for long years. And not all aristocrats wore the uniform; Thomas Jefferson, champion of The Yeoman, limited his wartime service to the Governorship of Virginia. But it would be rude to go into details about an episode he, also, wished to forget.

      William Dunlap’s “Andre” was the first American tragedy written on an American subject. Presented in New York in 1798, the blank verse is more pleasant to my modern ear than much work from that era. But it was not a success. On stage, a fictional young American officer tore off his cockade in protest at the necessary execution of Andre; the audience complained & the show soon closed. The cockade represented the American/French alliance that won the Revolution. Did some still connect it to the discredited Democratic-Republican Societies? Were those sympathized with Andre, even as they hanged them, considered “Anglomen”?

      Dunlap recycled some material from his failed play in “The Glory of Columbia, Her Yeomanry.” And it made money for years….

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