Information has been as powerful a weapon as any in the history of warfare. Modern militaries continue to grapple with the power of information by developing and incorporating specific information strategies into their warfighting arsenals. In 2017, the U.S. military established information as a warfighting function to define and harness “the military role of information at the strategic, operational and tactical levels within today’s complex operating environment.” While such a step signifies the deliberate effort to integrate more intensively the informational aspects of modern technologies into traditional combat operations, leveraging information for a military advantage is hardly a new phenomenon. Though exquisite technologies and capabilities have altered the applications of information warfare, the underlying principles remain unchanged and can be found in the day-to-day operations of the Continental army during the American Revolution.
At its most basic level, information warfare is the use or manipulation of information to pursue a competitive advantage by influencing targets to make decisions in the interest of those conducting the operation. Military deception, psychological operations, and propaganda are but a few information-related activities that constitute the larger information warfare concept. The term information warfare is an anachronism for Colonial America, but its tenets are evident in Gen. George Washington’s war correspondence as it pertains to specific information threats and vulnerabilities. Washington demonstrated a keen awareness of the power of information and its capacity to influence combat operations and public perceptions, and sources indicate he deliberately pursued advantages at both the strategic and tactical levels of warfare through his use of information.
The role and impacts of propaganda during the American Revolutionary War have been thoroughly studied. HistorianPhilip Davidson argues that “propaganda was . . . indispensable to those who first promoted resistance to specific British acts and ultimately urged revolution,” and states further that “the evidences of a conscious, systematic effort on the part of certain colonial leaders to gain public support for their ideas are unmistakable.” Carl Berger writes that the conflict “was a war of words as well as gunpowder,” during which “the atrocity story, kidnappings, false rumors, and bribery stirred the people” in attempts by both Americans and the British to gain influence with specific groups. These scholars reveal propaganda as a significant component of the American war effort, including building anti-British sentiment, lobbying France for direct support, and reinforcing the French alliance domestically.
Davidson and Berger use propaganda as a catch-all term for different types of information-related actions, but do not account for the variety of ways that military leaders managed information threats and created and leveraged information advantages for specific purposes in a warfighting context. Berger states he is “much less concerned with the important military operations of the war than with what was said and done in support of them.” The information war should be understood as more than propaganda alone, especially because the military leaders that engaged in physical combat on the battlefield also fought information battles away from it, seeking influence equal to any pamphleteer or newspaperman. General Washington is a prime example. Washington faced a variety of information threats and challenges during the war, some tactical in nature while others were more strategic, but all of which required tailored and deliberate responses to prevent potential vulnerabilities from becoming major setbacks.
Away from the battlefield, British disinformation proved enough of a threat at the tactical level that General Washington felt compelled to address it directly. In the summer of 1776, Daniel Roberdeau, a brigadier general of the Pennsylvania militia serving in New Jersey, corresponded directly with Washington, who was then headquartered in New York City. In a series of letters between them, Roberdeau provided Washington with useful intelligence delivered to him by two prisoners who escaped detention by the British fleet. In a letter dated August 15, 1776, Roberdeau notified Washington of receiving the two escapees, captains Alexander Hunter and Isaac Farrier, and enclosed with the letter their accounts of British force dispositions. Both accounts informed Washington of British forces receiving reinforcements of Hessian troops; Hunter added “That it is expected an Attack will be made [against Washington in New York] in Eight or Ten days and not before.” Roberdeau followed with another urgent letter to Washington on August 19, writing,
Sir, The Post rider just past through here with a very incredible story which he told with great Confidence vizt that you had received a Flag from Lord Howe ‘proposing to retire with the Fleet and Army and that he was willing to settle the present dispute on any terms you should ask’ for which he quoted the Authority of an Officer in your Army who told him that he might spred the News without the least reserve for that the Officer offered to sware to the truth for that he had it from you.
The urgency with which Roberdeau relayed this information is readily apparent in the conclusion of the letter: “As this Intelligence might have a tendancy to lull the Inhabitants I thought it duty to make it the subject of an Express without consulting Genl Mercer who is gone forwards towards Amboy,” Roberdeau continued, then closed the letter with a postscript that stated, “The Intelligencer further informed that the Reason of this hasty move from Ld Howe was news from England of a Rumpus wt. France.”
Understanding the deleterious effect that such disinformation could have on his troops’ readiness and willingness to fight, Washington wasted no time in working to dispel the rumor. In a return letter dated the same day, Washington wrote,
The Report propagated by the post Rider, is totally destitute of truth in every instance, & as It may have the fatal tendency you seem but too Justly to apprehend, I beg Sir, that you will take Such Steps to contradict & Suppress It, as you shall think most likely to effect It.
Washington thought the information threat severe enough to reinforce his directive to Roberdeau by directly addressing the disinformation in the general orders he issued the following day, which stated:
The General being informed, to his great surprize, that a report prevails and is industriously spread far and wide that Lord Howe has made propositions of peace, calculated by designing persons more probably to lull us into a fatal security; his duty obliges him to declare that no such offer has been made by Lord Howe, but on the contrary, from the best intelligence he can procure—the Army may expect an attack as soon as the wind and tide shall prove favourable: He hopes therefore, every man’s mind and arms, will be prepared for action, and when called to it, shew our enemies, and the whole world, that Freemen contending on their own land, are superior to any mercenaries on earth.
Through this series of correspondence, it is clear Washington understood the importance of the information war, and responded swiftly and thoroughly to counter a very real information threat by informing his troops and ensuring their preparedness for a potential enemy attack.
Not all information threats are propagated by the enemy. One of the most significant information threats to organizational cohesion and effectiveness is the spread of distrust and disaffection from within the group itself, with any spillover potentially causing a loss of public faith in the organization. This reality was no different in colonial America, where the Continental army fought on behalf of a people whose support it hoped to win through trust and vigilance.A People Numerous and Armed is a work notable for marrying the military history of the war with the politics and social issues of the Revolutionary period. In it, John Shy stresses “the importance of perception to decision and action” for the colonial population, who stood to influence the military conflict one way or the other. Shy argues, “the widely ramifying effects of a legally armed population” could either help or hinder the revolutionary cause, hence the book’s title. Those who were neither avowed Loyalists nor anti-Loyalists stood as potential sympathizers to each cause, lacking only an effective influence to push them to action. Therefore, the information battle within the greater war was critical to the fight for independence, both on a broad strategic scale and at the tactical level within villages and towns throughout the colonies. Once advocates were recruited to the revolutionary cause, their support needed to be won every day, lest disaffection spread and staunch the fight for independence from within.
George Washington’s response to information threats indicate that he believed no such threat was insignificant, as evidenced by his response to the disinformation regarding a rumored truce with General Howe. Enter Dr. Penuel Cheney, whose potentially toxic influence Washington took quick measure to mitigate before it could lead to serious consequences. Penuel Cheney was a surgeon’s mate in the 3rd Connecticut Regiment who was accused of making “fraudulent Draughts upon the Commissary’s Store and other malpractices” and was set to face a military court of inquiry, as directed in Washington’s general orders from July 22, 1775. In a letter dated September 4, 1775, Cheney wrote to Washington, requesting that “but for the Benefit of the Regiment the good of my Cuntry and the noble Cause in which this Army & Continent are now ingaged I would therefore humbly beseech your Excellency to discharge me from any future Attendence on said Regiment.”Cheney’s request was approved and he was discharged from further service, but was later appointed as the surgeon for the same unit on October 4.
Not one to accept willingly the service of officers with questionable conduct records, Washington wrote to Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., on October 29, to inquire about the details of Cheney’s appointment:
I was somewhat surprised to find, that in one of the Regiments lately from Connecticut Dr Cheney had been commissioned as a Surgeon—As I am persuaded he must have obtained this Appointment by some misrepresentation I think it proper to apprize you of his conduct and behaviour last Summer
He then recounted the nature of Cheney’s charges from May and explained that Cheney evaded his trial “by requesting a desmission, which was granted him.” Washington continued,
I am very credibly informed, he returned to his Colony where he has propagated the most infamous reports of some of the General Officers—Reports tending to impress the minds of the Soldiery and Country with prejudices which would dissolve that confidence which ought to subsist between Troops and their Officers. Since he has returned to Camp he has renewed his draughts upon the Stores but being immediately detected I have ordered him under an arrest, and hope sufficient evidence may be had to convict him, so as to rid the Army of him entirely.
Not only did Washington take exception to Cheney’s previous misconduct and express concern over his return to military service, but was sure to note that Cheney’s efforts to bring disrepute to the officers of the Continental army were equally troubling.
Further correspondence between Washington and Trumbull discussed the nature of Cheney’s re-appointment as surgeon, Washington’s assurance that Cheney would receive an impartial trial, and Washington’s subtle request that Trumbull—and all others of equal position and influence—take great “Strength, Care, Firmness and Union” in such efforts as appointing officers to military service to support the fight for independence. According to the general orders issued on November 21 and 22, 1775, the Cheney affair ended with a court martial that found Cheney “guilty of speaking words tending to the dishonour of the Character of Major Genl Putnam, and therefore adjudge him to be cashiered,” a sentence that Washington approved and ordered to take place immediately. The Cheney incident shows how seriously Washington took the issue of slander and its potential impact on the good order and discipline of his army, and the likely second- and third-order negative effects it could have on support for the American war effort.
A consequential information campaign for both American and British leaders during the war was the fight for influence with Native Americans to gain their military support. The battle between Americans and the British to garner Native allies was not only about gaining a military advantage during the war, but also would have longstanding impacts on the relationship between Native peoples and the winners of the war. The contest to win Native American support was rife with potential pitfalls, and inaction could be particularly risky. If a side decided not to pursue Indian allies, or at least promote Indian neutrality in the conflict, they might cede the advantage to their enemy. Conversely, to engage with and attract Indian allies could risk losing the support of various colonial populations who either feared Indians or were already competing with them for land and resources. Thus, the war for influence with Indian allies was extremely nuanced and cautious. As historian Colin Calloway writes,
both sides courted Indian allies, and both sides hesitated to employ them. Messengers and scouting parties crisscrossed the northern borderlands, and reports and rumors of enemy agents in Indian country created a tense environment. Indian communities tried to figure out what was going on and what it would mean for them . . . Like the Americans, the British worried that if they did not employ Indian allies, the enemy would.
George Washington’s wartime correspondence offers further evidence of the evolving approach to persuading Indian allies to the American cause.
The Continental Congress created three departments for managing Indian affairs: the northern department focusing on the Six Nations of the Iroquois confederation, the middle department concentrating on the Kentucky-Ohio territory and the loose western confederation of the Shawnee, Delaware, Miami, and other tribes, and the southern department covering the Virginia-Georgia-Carolina backcountry where the Cherokee, Creek, and Chickasaw tribes were the most influential. Establishing these departments was a strategic necessity to account for the regional inter-tribal dynamics and relationships that were essential to maintaining influence with the different Native groups.
In the war’s early years, Washington seemed to value Indians more as agents of the information war rather than as allied combatants. Washington detailed an interaction he had with several Mohawk warriors in a letter to Maj. Gen. Philip Schuyler on May 3, 1776. Washington writes that at least one of the warriors wanted “a Commission to raise Men & fight against the Regulars.” However, Washington believed the Indians did “not appear to be Persons of any Sort of Consequence,” and instead commented that
As they have been at Boston & Eye Witnesses of the Departure of the Kings Troops, & the many things left by them, whether would It not be Good Policy to hasten them home as fast as possible, that they may Communicate the Intelligence, their Tale will Carry more Conviction than the Report of twenty white men.
Washington wrote to Schuyler again on October 10, 1776, sharing similar sentiments. Washington wrote that two Sachems of the Cayugas had spent several days with him, wherein he
shewed them every Civility in My Power & presented them with such Necessaries as our Barren stores afforded and they were pleased to take; I also had them shewn all our Works upon this Island, which I had manned, to give them an Idea of our Force & to do away the false Notions they might have imbibed from the Tales which had been propagated among ’em
He concluded his account of the interaction by stating “They took their Departure Yesterday morning & I hope with No Unfavorable Impressions.” Still later in 1776, Washington corresponded directly with chiefs of the Passamaquoddy Indians, writing,
Our Enemy the King of Great Britain endeavoured to Stir up all the Indians from Canada to South Carolina Against Us, But our Bretheren of the Six Nations and their Allies the Shawanese and Delewares would not hearken to the Advice of the Messengers sent among them but kept fast hold of our Ancient Covenant Chain; The Cherokees and the Southern Tribes were foolish enough to listen to them, and to take up the Hatchet Against us.
In March 1777, Washington wrote to John Hancock, then president of the Continental Congress, to recount his interaction with an Oneida chief and several warriors. Washington wrote that the Oneidas came “to enquire into the true state of matters, that they might report them to a Grand Council to be shortly held. they said, things were so falsely and variously represented by our Enemies through their Agents, that they did not know what to depend on.” Washington continued, writing that “they were well satisfied with what they had seen, and that they were authorized to tell their Nation, All they had heard from the Enemy was false. being told that France was assisting us & about to join in the War, they seemed highly pleased.” He added that Rev. Samuel Kirkland, a Protestant missionary who lived among the Oneidas, “was persuaded it would have a considerable effect on the minds of several of the Nations and secure to us their neutrality if not a declaration & commencement of Hostilities in our favor.”
These few examples of Washington’s correspondence discussing Native American neutrality, along with the other information-centric operations discussed herein, are but a small sample of the information war within the American Revolution. Information was as crucial a weapon to military orders and movements as it was to broadsides, pamphlets, and newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic. As these examples show, the information war was more than propaganda spread across colonial and British populations. Success in information warfare, not unlike in traditional war, requires advantages at the tactical and strategic levels to provide the greatest likelihood of victory.
Historian Woody Holton writes that manipulating morale was a central strategic imperative during the war. As both sides constantly sought to rally and maintain support from their own populations, “the most important target of commanders’ morale influence operations was always their own side,” both civilians and soldiers. Propaganda, disinformation, morale, and influence were all pieces of the larger information war, and military leaders were in the very thick of that information fight. The examples herein provide insight into just how nuanced and layered the information battle was for the Continental army, from tactical to strategic considerations. While much scholarship on information during the American Revolution has focused largely on the nature, methods, and practitioners of propaganda, by promoting a more nuanced understanding of the military’s role to leverage the power of information, it becomes clear that the elements of information warfare are as relevant today as they were during the fight for American independence.
James N. Mattis, “Information as a Joint Function.” Memorandum, Secretary of Defense, September 15, 2017, www.rmda.army.mil/records-management/docs/SECDEF-Endorsement_Information_Joint%20Function_Clean.pdf.
Daniel Roberdeau to George Washington, August 15, 1776, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-06-02-0028.
Roberdeau to Washington, August 19, 1776,founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-06-02-0075.
Washington to Roberdeau, August 19, 1776,founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-06-02-0076.
General orders, August 20, 1776, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-06-02-0079.
General orders, July 22, 1775, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-01-02-0091.
Penuel Cheney to Washington, September 4, 1775, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-01-02-0304.
Washington to Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., October 29, 1775, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-02-02-0235.
Washington to Trumbull, November 15, 1775,founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-02-02-0348.
General orders, November 21, 1775, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-02-02-0378; General orders, November 22, 1775, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-02-02-0381.
Washington to Philip Schuyler, May 3, 1776,founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-04-02-0159.
Washington to Schuyler, October 10, 1776,founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-06-02-0403.
Washington to the Chiefs of the Passamaquoddy Indians, December 24, 1776, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-07-02-0340.
Washington to John Hancock, March 29, 1777,founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-09-02-0013.
Woody Holton, “Morale Manipulation as the Central Strategic Imperative in the American Revolutionary War,” Journal of the American RevolutionAugust 3, 2021, allthingsliberty.com/2021/08/morale-manipulation-as-the-central-strategic-imperative-in-the-american-revolutionary-war/.