George Washington’s Secret Spy War

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Book review: George Washington’s Secret Spy War: The Making of America’s First Spymaster by John A. Nagy (St. Martin’s Press, September 2016)

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Revolutionary War era spying has received a great deal of attention over the past decade. The “Culper Ring,” which provided George Washington with intelligence operating out of New York City and Long Island, has itself been the subject of two books and a television series during this time.[1] Historian John Nagy has been among the most prolific authors on the subject, publishing works on Revolutionary spying in Philadelphia,[2] the use of invisible ink and the story of Benjamin Church. Joining them is Nagy’s newly (and posthumously) published George Washington’s Secret Spy War.[3]

Nagy was well aware that this ground has recently been well trod and he opens this newest volume by clarifying that his interest lies chiefly in the interaction of Washington himself with those who spied for him.[4] By so doing, Nagy seeks to reveal how Washington developed and refined his craft as a spymaster, and the impact that aspect of his leadership had on the war. This particular facet of Washington’s leadership has, in Nagy’s view, been underappreciated. Indeed he asserts this is “the first book to focus on this vital component of his military leadership.”

Nagy begins his account with Washington’s very first forays into the wilderness as a surveyor, and his service in the militia and during the French and Indian War. He spends his first chapter on a fairly colorless, but often detailed account of these well-known events. Washington’s interactions with Native Americans in particular were highly instructive for the young officer. Particularly through his early mistakes in dealing with them, Washington would learn both the value and art of gathering intelligence, according to Nagy. He would both practice and suffer deception, developing his appreciation and skill by both deploying and defending against these arcane arts.

Washington’s initial foray into overseeing spies on a large scale occurred shortly after taking command of the Continental Army outside of Boston. Several spies within the city were inherited. But the presence within Boston of prominent Patriot, but secret British double agent, Benjamin Church would make efforts to obtain useful intelligence in Boston tricky. In the Church case Washington was mostly lucky. But he made the most of his luck, acting on a letter that fell into his hands after he was able to break its simple cipher. By contrast his opposite, Thomas Gage, had information regarding the Patriots’ lack of ammunition fall into his lap, but mistook it for a ruse and failed to pursue his opportunity.

Much of Nagy’s account is a brisk narrative retelling of the war from Washington’s viewpoint with an emphasis on how he employed and defended himself against spies. Major battles are recounted in moderate detail with an explanation of the role spying played in gathering information that shaped their outcome, which could vary greatly. Spies were often used by Washington to deceive the enemy as to his army’s size, condition and intentions, one tactic among many that Washington deployed to keep General Howe off balance.[5]

Characters familiar from AMC television show Turn make appearances. Nathaniel Sackett, Benjamin Tallmadge and other members of the Culper Ring are all mentioned. But in Nagy’s telling they are only a very small part of a much larger story featuring many other players who quickly enter and exit.[6] Some stories are more developed than others, which given the difficulty of obtaining evidence regarding spying and intelligence, is hardly surprising.

Given his post-publication passing, it is not surprising that parts of the book seem rushed. For instance, paragraphs can appear out of nowhere, inserted to make a point not particularly relevant to the surrounding text. Nagy only sometimes interjects his own observations regarding what these episodes reveal about how Washington ran his intelligence operation and the impact it had on the war. More such interpretation would have be useful. Without it, Washington’s Secret Spy War takes on the feel of a data dump at many times. It might have been better to have grouped episodes by theme, as he does successfully in one chapter on double agents, than to have pursued a more chronological narrative.

Ultimately, these snippets through the first three quarters culminate in a detailed analysis of what Nagy calls Washington’s “Deception Battle Plan” that helped convince the British to assume a defensive posture in New York, allowing him to concentrate his forces on Cornwallis at Yorktown. Nagy explains the concept of the Deception Battle Plan in depth, breaking it into separate components, and then devotes a separate chapter to how Washington managed each, comparing it as he goes with two other case studies, the allies at D-Day and the Americans in Kuwait during Desert Storm. The Deception Battle Plan was, he opines, was the culmination of the Washington’s espionage education, a final exam as it were.

Nagy ends his account at Yorktown. It might have been fruitful to have added an additional chapter or an epilogue on how Washington used intelligence as President to round out the arc on Washington and intelligence. As presidential intelligence historian Stephen Knott notes, Washington’s experience in the Revolution would in turn shape his decision as President to create (with Congressional approval) a “Secret Service” fund that would be used for intelligence activities and be explicitly exempt from Congressional oversight.[7]

Still, the cumulative effect of the many accounts of spying and especially Nagy’s analysis of how Washington used the intelligence he received adds an extra dimension to our view of a general sometimes characterized as a less than brilliant tactician.[8] The book will be of interest to those who wish to understand how and at what points spying and intelligence shaped the War.[9] But while those interested in the Revolution’s espionage aspects will find much of interest in this work, they may also wish that the narrative flowed more smoothly and contained more of the author’s views on these subjects rather than the rawer material that is the bulk of George Washington’s Secret Spy Wars.

 

[1] See Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger, George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring that Saved the American Revolution (New York: Sentinel, 2013) and Alexander Rose, Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring (New York: Bantam, 2006). The latter was optioned for AMC channel’s television show Turn: Washington’s Spies.

[2] See John Nagy’s Spies in the Continental Capital: Espionage Across Pennsylvania During the Revolution (Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2011), Invisible Ink: Spycraft of the American Revolution (Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2009), and Dr. Benjamin Church: A Case of Espionage on the Eve of the American Revolution (Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2013).

[3] St Martin’s Press, 2016. In addition to his previously published work, Nagy had served as a consultant to Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington and other scholarly institutions on espionage.

[4] The Culper Ring was itself only one of many of Washington’s spy rings and not the first. Nagy goes so far to call it “over rated.”

[5] Washington relied heavily on deception in general, usually convincing the British that he was less mobile and therefore that they had more time to strike. This allowed Washington great freedom to evade the British, such as in New York, or attack them such as at Princeton.

[6] The historical Sackett is one aspect where Turn’s need for characters and the historical record deviate completely. Sackett was not the intelligence genius portrayed, nor was he the victim of an assassination. In fact, he lived long enough to solicit President Washington for a federal appointment.

[7] Stephen Knott, “American Was Founded on Secrets and Lies,” Foreign Policy, February 15, 2016, http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/02/15/george-washington-spies-lies-executive-power/ (last retrieved on 09.24.16).

[8] See, e.g., Edward Lengel, George Washington: A Military Life, at Kindle loc. 7015 (“[Washington] was not a great tactician.”)

[9] While it is unlikely that intelligence and spy craft altered the War’s actual outcome, intelligence historians at the CIA have concluded that:

while it is hard to gauge the precise contribution that intelligence operations made to his victories, the Revolutionary War would have lasted longer, cost more lives, and caused more social and economic upheaval without all of the clandestine activities that were conducted under [Washington’s] direction.

CIA News and Information Blog, “A Look Back… George Washington: American’s First Military Intelligence Director,” https://www.cia.gov/news-information/featured-story-archive/2007-featured-story-archive/george-washington.html (last retrieved 09.24.16).

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1 Comment

  • Dr. Nagy had a well deserved reputation as a researcher of primary documents on spying in the Revolutionary Period. Like this book, I have purchased his other books on this subject. All are useful tools because of his deep research. His talents as a writer were overshadowed by his desire to include all the material he discovered, even when this made topical context difficult.
    He passed away in April of this year. Sadly, this book does not represent the best of his efforts.

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