Allen McLane—Revolutionary War Intelligence Officer and Spy


March 29, 2018
by Ken Daigler Also by this Author


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There is often confusion in terms when discussing individuals involved in intelligence activities. For example, intelligence officers are often referred to as spies, and while this is occasionally the case, it is not the norm. A spy is an individual with access, through location, occupation or relationship, to information of value regarding an adversary. In most cases the intelligence officer is the person who recruits and directs the activities of spies. During the Revolutionary War the term “intelligence officer” wasn’t used, but military officers did perform that role. Allen McLane was a rare individual who, during the course of his service in the Continental Army, functioned both as an intelligence officer and as a spy.

McLane joined Caesar Rodney’s Delaware militia battalion as a lieutenant in September 1775, and his unit was involved in heavy combat during the army’s retreat from Long Island and New York City. He was also involved in the successful attacks on Trenton and Princeton. He was promoted to the rank of Continental Army captain in January 1777.[1] Shortly thereafter, McLane returned to Delaware and raised a mounted company which would operate as an independent scouting and reconnaissance unit for Washington.

McLane’s first documented involvement in intelligence collection against the British began in early 1777 when Gen. Thomas Mifflin, at the orders of Washington, began to establish an intelligence collection capability in the Philadelphia area. After the disastrous New York campaign, Washington recognized that intelligence collection was as necessary for the army’s survival as his equally pressing logistical and manpower problems. He also recognized that Philadelphia, the de facto colonial capital and home of the Continental Congress, would be a target of the British forces and he did not want to be ignorant of their activities there as he had been in the New York campaign.

McLane’s intelligence activities were both overt and covert. His unit’s military role to scout British defensive positions and remain alert to any British offensive movement represented his overt role. It also provided cover for his debriefing of human sources to report on British activities. In a letter from Washington to McLane dated March 28, 1777, he was told “… I therefore depend upon your keeping a very good look out upon their line, and gaining every intelligence from people coming out of town”[2]. At this point, McLane was only involved in debriefing people, but as Washington wanted more detailed information that would soon change.

After the British victory at the Battle of Brandywine, which Washington admitted was partially due to poor intelligence on his part,[3] in a letter dated on October 29 he sent McLane a detailed list of information he hoped to receive.

1st What number of troops supposed to be in Genl Howe’s Army, and how disposed of?
2nd What works thrown up in and about the City, & what cannon in them?
3rd Have any detachments been made over to Jersey, & for what purpose?
4th How many men have they sent over there, & how many pieces of cannon?
5th What kind of cannon, whether field pieces or larger cannon?
6th What preparations are they making on the water, are they fitting out Ships, Gallies, fire rafts, or floating batteries?
7th Do they think they can stay in Philadelphia, if their shipping cannot pass the forts?
8th Are they resolved to make any farther attempts on both the Forts or either of them, and in what way, whether by storm or siege?
9th Can you discover whether they will attempt anything against the Forts and where? Observe carefully the preparations making on the river, and along the wharves, it is of great importance to know the time or near it.
10th Is there any talk of leaving Philada and by what route, observe carefully what they are doing with their wagons, whether their baggage is packed up, and in what directions their wagons receive?
11th Are the Tories, and friends of the British Army, under much apprehensions of their leaving Town, and what preparations are they making to remove themselves, or their effects?
12th For what purpose is it understood, the bridge is thrown over the middle ferry, and what force is kept on the West side of the Schuylkill?
13th Has the bridge been injured by the late storm, or is it passable?
14th Where are the Grenadiers, Light Infantry, and Rangers, and are they making any preparations to move?
15th What number of men are sent over to Carpenters, and province Islands, and how often are they relieved?
16th In what condition are those banks since the late rain-Can wagons and Carriages pass, so as to transport provisions and Stores from the Ships to the Town?
17th In what conditions are the Troops for provisions, and in what articles is there the greatest scarcity?
18th How are the Inhabitants situated for provisions?
19th What impression has the new of Genl Burgoyne’s surrender made on the British Army?
20th Is there any conversation in the British Army, or among the Inhabitants, of Genl Howe’s coming out to meet Genl Washington?
21st What is the British Army now employed about? Note carefully the prices of every thing.
22nd Does continental money rise or fall in value, in the Town?
23rd Can you learn whether there are any preparations making or any intentions to go up the Delaware, to burn the Frigates & Vessels there?
24th Find out what duty the Soldiers do, and whether they are contented, How many nights in the week, are they in bed?
25th Enquire particularly into the treatment of the prisoners, in the new Goal, so that if necessary you make oath of it!
26th Do they compel any to enlist by starving or otherwise ill treating them?
27th Find out how far the redoubts between Delaware and Schuylkill are apart, and whether there are lines, or abattis between the redoubts.[4]

Considering the broad scope of information Washington wanted it was obvious to McLane that regular scouting activities alone would not be sufficient. He would need reporting from people specifically tasked to seek out this information from observations within the city and by conversations with British officials, military personnel and local Tories. He began to identify individuals who could fulfill such roles and how to motivate them to do so.

In late November, Washington responded to a request from McLane asking permission to pay certain individuals to spy for him:

I have this moment received your Letter containing the Proposals of some of the Inhabitants near the Enemys Lines – I will undoubtedly accept their Offers of Service provided they give in a list of their names, and engage to be under the absolute command for the time specified of such Officer as I shall appoint – this precaution is necessary, for otherwise they may receive the Public Money without preforming the Duty expected of them.[5]

A few days later, on November 28, Washington alerted McLane to the possibility of a British attack, and asked him specifically to obtain intelligence on British plans and intentions:

I have certain information that Lord Cornwallis returned from Jersy Yesterday, and ‘tis said they intent an Attack upon the Army with their Joint Force before Genl Greene can rejoin us. I therefore depend upon your keeping a very good look out upon their line, and gaining every intelligence from people coming out of town, that I may have the earliest Notice of their Movements or Intentions.[6]

In early December, McLane was able to provide intelligence, confirming information from other sources, that gave Washington advanced notice of the British movement towards the army’s position at Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania.[7] This reporting allowed Washington to prepare the Continental Army for what he hoped would be a setpiece battle similar to Bunker Hill, at which he could defeat the British or at least burden them with heavy causalities. Aafter several days of clashes, however, General Howe withdrew to Philadelphia, and the Continental Army marched to their winter quarters at Valley Forge.

During early 1778 it became apparent that the British might evacuate Philadelphia and McLane watched closely for any such indications of enemy movement. By early May, Washington expected the British to move soon, and McLane was instructed to increase his debriefings of persons entering or departing the city. He was to report all intelligence obtained and the time he obtained it. He was also instructed to send daily reports of this information to Washington very morning.[8]

Later that month Washington sent General Lafayette to Barren Hill, near Whitemarsh, to observe British activities and their defensive lines. This was an exposed position, and he was accompanied by only a small force. When the British learned of his forward location a plan was formulated to try and capture him. Considering Lafayette’s close relationship to the French monarchy, his capture would be a serious diplomatic blow to the newly formalized French-American alliance. Once again, McLane was able to identify British preparations and learn their objective, and warned Lafayette in time for him to escape capture.[9]

As the British departed Philadelphia on June 18, 1778, McLane led a small party into the city to confirm their departure. He captured several British officers who dallied with their local female companions a bit too long.[10] It is also probable that Washington selected McLane as the first officer to enter the city because of the need to protect American intelligence operatives who had reported on British plans and activities through close association with them. Unless protected, these individuals would become targets of revenge for their “cooperation with the enemy” by local patriots who would not have known of their intelligence activities for the American cause.

In the following year McLane was involved, as a soldier, an intelligence officer and a spy, in two battles, Stony Point and Paulus Hook. At Stony Point in July 1779, Washington ordered Gen. Anthony Wayne to attack the British position on the west side of the Hudson River. As the British post appeared to be well defended, Washington suggested Wayne conduct a detailed reconnaissance of the position with the help of Continental engineering officers. He further suggested that even better intelligence could be obtained if a man could be sent into the position to personally observe the force and its situation. McLane agreed to play the role of a rather simple-minded relative of a local woman who had been given permission to visit Stony Point to see her son, who had recently defected to the British from a local militia unit. While the mother spoke with her son, McLane wandered about the post, noting defensive positions, numbers of troops and the garrison’s security procedures at night.[11] When he returned to Wayne’s headquarters, the general combined McLane’s information with the engineering officers’ observations of the terrain and defensive works, and formulated a plan for a night bayonet assault by way of a shallow area of the river. The surprise attack was successful, resulting in the capture of most of the British garrison with only a few American causalities.

The next month, on August 16, Maj.or Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee sent McLane to reconnoiter the British fort at Paulus Hook, New Jersey. The fort served as a base for British and Loyalist raids into New Jersey and thus was a constant irritation to American forces. While observing activities at the fort, and its defensives, McLane was able to capture two British soldiers. His comprehensive debriefing of these men, combined with his personal observations of the fort, provided valuable intelligence that assisted Lee in planning a successful attack in the early hours of August 19.[12] American losses were minimal, while the enemy suffered numerous causalities and over one hundred and fifty prisoners were captured.

In the fall of 1781 Washington sent McLane to the New York City area to meet with a spy connected with the Culper Ring, the large and sophisticated American collection effort centered in the region. This was a very important agent, the Tory printer James Rivington, who had social and business access to senior British officials and military officers in the city. Details of McLane’s actions with Rivington have not been uncovered, but it is known that McLane received from Rivington the British naval signal book, which contained the code used by the British fleet to coordinate its movements. How, when and from whom Rivington obtained the book remains unknown. The book was subsequently provided to the French Fleet operating to keep the British bottled up at Yorktown.[13] The book may have provided information of value to the French.

McLane resigned from the army later that year, and at the end of the year Washington, in a December 31 letter, wrote, “I can testify that he distinguished himself highly as a brave and enterprising partiz[an].”[14] Typical of Washington’s practice of not recording specifics of intelligence activities, he made no mention of McLane’s contributions in the intelligence field.


[1] George Washington to Allan McLane, December 31, 1781, Founders Online, National Archives,, accessed December 21, 2013.

[2] Washington to McLane, March 28, 1777, The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, Library of Congress, Vol. 7: 327.

[3] Washington to the Continental Congress, September 11, 1777, George Washington Papers, Revolutionary War Series, Vol. 9:207.

[4] Questions for Capt. Allen McLane, October 29, 1777, Founders Online, National Archives,, accessed December 21, 2013.

[5] Washington to McLane, November 22, 1777, Founder Online, National Archives,, accessed December 21, 2013.

[6] Washington to McLane, November 28, 1777, The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 10:118.

[7] Allen McLane Papers, BV McLane, MS1817, New York Historical Society.

[8] Alexander Clough to McLane, May 1778, Orders, image 756,, accessed August 3, 2014.

[9] Allen McLane Papers.

[10] Edward G. Lengel, General George Washington: A Military Life (New York: Random House, 2005), 291-292.

[11] Allen McLane Papers, entry dated July 2, 1779.

[12] Allen McLane Papers, entry dated August 16, 1779.

[13] Allen McLane Papers.

[14] Washington to McLane, December 31, 1781, Founders Online, National Archives,, accessed December 21, 2013.

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