It is well known that George Washington was Nathanael Greene’s mentor in many ways, but luckily for many of us he did not completely share Washington’s personal discipline regarding intelligence activities in his official papers. With the exception of the Culper Ring, where the case officer for the network, Benjamin Tallmadge, often kept copies of reports and Washington also kept copies of correspondence related to its activities, Washington maintained a disciplined approach to protecting the identities and activities of his various spies. Greene was slightly less careful, and his collection of papers contain some identification of agents, discussions of their activities and the names of individuals who functioned as intelligence collectors for him, especially during his command of the Southern Army.
Greene was untrained in intelligence activities, but relied on his common sense to organize the intelligence he required for his military operations. As he wrote to Col. Frances “Swamp Fox” Marion on December 4, 1780, “Spies are the eyes of an Army and without them a General is always groping in the dark.” While Greene had some experience in tactical collection as early as the summer of 1775, it was upon his taking command of the Southern Army in December 1780 that he became a strategic intelligence manager.
Greene recognized he was fighting a war of mobility, where in the British would usually have superiority in numbers and he would have superiority of movement. This type of warfare requires knowledge of enemy capabilities and intent so that actions rather than reactions can be executed. This meant Greene had to have current and accurate information on British troop locations, numbers, and intentions.
Greene’s official papers identify dozens of Continental army, state and militia officers who functioned as his intelligence collectors. The individuals most involved were Col. Francis Marion, Col. John Laurens, Capt. William Wilmot, Gen. Thomas “The Gamecock” Sumter, Col. Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, and Col. Thaddeus Kosciuszko. These officers provided a steady stream of information on British forces. For more traditional tactical military activities—scouting or reconnaissance efforts—his chief scout Capt. C.K. Chitty is usually mentioned. But here I will briefly describe the capabilities of the six officers who were most involved in Greene’s collection efforts.
Colonel Marion’s intelligence collection methods were those one would expect of a small and highly mobile guerilla force: reconnaissance, interception of enemy communications, and comprehensive debriefing of prisoners and those coming from inside enemy-controlled areas. His lack of financial resources might explain why there are no records of paid informants working for him. His most useful intelligence came during the period December 1780 to January of the next year. For example he intercepted a letter from an officer of the British 64th Regiment to Gen. Alexander Leslie which identified Leslie’s and the British commanding general Charles Cornwallis’s locations. This information was particularly useful to Daniel Morgan as he made his plans to meet Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton at Cowpens on January 17, 1781. Morgan knew British reinforcements were not available to Tarleton.
The next period of valuable collection by Marion was the period July to December 1781. This was a period when both sides anticipated a cease fire would soon be declared, and thus a jockeying for physical control of areas would be a key element in negotiating a future settlement. Prisoner debriefings produced information on the size and capabilities of forces under Francis Lord Rawdon and Col. Alexander Stewart. The intelligence on Stewart’s command was corroborated by information obtained by Col. Henry Lee, and with information from Col. John Laurens’ collection efforts.
Col. John Laurens was the most aggressive intelligence collector for Greene, and his activities reflect his personality and emotional commitment to the American cause. He joined Greene after the victory at Yorktown and ran five agents until his death in combat in August 1782:
Roger Parker Saunders reported on British activities in Charleston, and his motivation seemed to be support of the American cause. He later was a member of the South Carolina legislature that approved the U.S. Constitution. His sub-sources included a slave, William, who acted both as a collector through observation, rather poorly it appears, and as a courier for Saunders’ reports. A second source, only identified as “gentleman” was also noted.
Thomas Farr was a merchant dealing with businessmen in Charleston, and using his business dealings as a cover for his collection activities. He also used a sub-source, Archibald McKay, who had access to the city. In one of his reports he identified John McQueen as an agent of the British pretending to work for Greene. McQueen was actually a double agent loyal to Greene and reporting on his British “controllers.” Farr was never advised of that fact.
Andrew Williamson, a former South Carolina militia commander, who has been branded as the “Benedict Arnold of the South,” began reporting in the spring of 1782. While his motivations for quitting his militia command and subsequently taking on the equally dangerous role of a spy are far from clear, his reporting apparently was of some value. Greene made this clear in a request to the South Carolina Governor asking that all penalties against Williamson be waived based on his activities supporting the American cause as a spy.
Edmund Petrie was another Charleston merchant, and apparently had some access to British Gen. Alexander Leslie. While his reporting seemed accurate, his motivation for cooperation seemed pragmatic rather than based on any strong loyalty to the American cause.
Eliza Clitherall was Laurens’s last agent, and one he did not trust for good reasons. The wife of a Loyalist physician in Charleston, she agreed to assist in return for South Carolina’s non-confiscation of the family’s property once the peace had been arranged. Her reporting often consisted of nothing more than Charleston newspapers and was infrequent. Greene did honor the agreement made with her, and subsequently requested the South Carolina government provide a full pardon to the family.
Upon Laurens death, Polish born Col. Thaddeus Kosciuszko took over collection activities. In his reporting, he enhanced operational security a bit by referring to Williamson only as “W” and Petrie as “P”. However, his reporting also identified three of Petrie’s sub-sources: Prince, a “Negro,” James, and a Mr. Clark.
Capt. William Wilmot, of the 2nd Maryland Regiment of the Continental Army, conducted collection operations for Greene from the spring of 1782 until November of that year when he was killed in combat. He focused on British troop positions and movements. His reporting was considered both detailed and comprehensive. His most impressive action was the recruitment of Loyalist Col. Edward Fenwick, a senior South Carolina militia commander. Both Wilmot and Greene made efforts to protect the identity of Fenwick for obvious reasons. His contributions to American intelligence collection did nonetheless come to light after Greene wrote a “certification” for Fenwick promising to do all in his power to obtain a full pardon and even compensation for his assistance to the American cause.
Thomas Sumter, another South Carolina militia commander, was an intelligence provider to Greene, but only on occasion. As a state militia officer, Sumter felt no responsibility to follow the orders of a Continental officer and only followed orders when he wished to. However, during the first half of 1781 he did provide valuable intelligence useful at the battle of Cowpens. Then, in the spring he provided advanced warning that Cornwallis was moving north out of South Carolina. It is probable that Sumter could have provided more useful intelligence to Greene, but his perception of where he stood in the command structure affected such efforts.
The final officer identified for his intelligence contributions in Greene’s official paper is Col. Henry Lee, the father of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. He commanded a “Legion,” a combination of cavalry and infantry often used as rapid deployment troops. His focus was on British commander Francis Lord Rawdon’s forces. The bulk of his reporting was during the period early 1781 to early the next year when illness caused him to leave service. His intelligence sources were primarily tactical: reconnaissance, and debriefings of individuals who had been behind enemy lines, prisoners of war and British deserters.
Greene’s use of the intelligence capabilities available to him was not as impressive as the Culper Ring. But considering his resources and the strategic situation in the South, he used what he could get quite well. The battles at Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse, as well as lesser engagements, depleted British forces to the point of forcing Cornwallis to move to the tidewater area of Virginia, where fate awaited his army. While praised as a respected military commander, Greene also deserves credit for being a skilled manager and user of intelligence.