A vast network of spies, double agents and secret informants were engaged by the inexperience Continental Army during the American Revolution to gain an advantage over the British. If caught spying, agents faced the gallows. Therefore espionage was considered very dangerous work. That did not however discourage dozens of dauntless volunteers from collecting information and partaking in secret missions from behind enemy lines. Here are some facts on five of the most fabled secret agents of the American Revolution.
“America’s first spy.” A Yale graduate who served in Knowlton’s Rangers, an imperminent Continental reconnaissance Unit, Hale volunteered for an assignment to collect crucial information behind enemy lines when General George Washington’s forces became confined on Manhatten Island in September 1776. After being taken across the Long Island Sound on September 16, Hale crept into the occupied town of Huntington and began observing British encampments while pretending to be a schoolmaster.
Although Hale was unquestionably courageous, he was not a very good intelligence officer, according to most historians. Within a few days his suspicious questions attracted attention from faithful locals and later got busted after a British agent spoke to him while pretending to be a fellow patriot spy. Hale was arrested the next day, found with incriminating documents hidden in the soles of his shoes, charged as an illegal combatant and executed by hanging on September 22. Legend has it that he approached the gallows with “gentle dignity” and then uttered the words, “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”
This unlikely secret agent was a black slave who was given his master’s permission to help the Continental Army. First he transported intelligence reports across enemy lines, then become a full-blown spy in the summer of 1781, when he pretended to be a runaway slave loyal to the British and infiltrated Charles Cornwallis’s camp. His act was so convincing that Cornwallis enrolled him to work as a British spy. He was then of course passing phony information provided by Lafayette.
Even though he performed these tasks at great personal risk, he was sent back to his master after the war and remained a slave for several more years. He eventually won his release papers in 1787 thanks to Lafayette and changed his name to James Armistead Lafayette as a sign of gratitude to his former master.
Benjamin Tallmadge and the Culper Ring
He was the mastermind of the Culper Spy Ring, one of the most successful spy networks of the American Revolution. Working under the fake name John Bolton, Tallmadge told his operatives to write some of their reports in invisible ink which could be read only after applying a certain chemical.
Although they were operating in the heart of enemy territory, they never lost a single agent to the British for five years while gathering information. One of their most significant accomplishments was in 1780 when they learned of a British plan to ambush French troupes gathered at Newport, Rhode Island and told Washington of this plan.
Enoch Crosby’s spy career began quite by accident when he was on his way to a Continental Army camp; he was mistaken for a British supporter and invited to a meeting of faithful militia. He went along with it and later reported what he found out to John Bay – Patriot leader – who took this opportunity to make Crosby one of the first counterintelligence spies. Crosby rejoined the British supporters and reported what was happening. Thanks to his information, the whole group was captured a few days later in a Continental raid.
Crosby managed to infiltrate more of these groups at least four times. He was finally discharged and made a hero in 1777, but before then even his own parents thought him to be a traitor.
Lewis Costigin was famous for supplying valuable information from behind enemy lines while openly wearing a Continental Army uniform. He was sent to New Jersey to find out information on the British movements after the Battle of Trenton. He was immediately captured but was classified as a soldier and not a spy and therefore managed to avoid the gallows.
He was exchanged for a British officer in September 1778 but remained in occupied New York and collected information for the Continental Army. The British no longer viewed him as a threat because he had been there for so long. He finally left New York in January 1779 after spying on the British in plain sight and enemy uniform.