At the height of the Revolutionary War, the British had over 50,000 troops. George Washington never had more than 20,000 men at his command.
Most of General Washington’s men were young, unskilled, and untrained.
And though it’s hard to imagine, the fate of our great nation rested on the shoulders of a tailor, a farmer, and a judge’s wife.
The fact is, General Washington relied on a secret weapon to win the war:
An intelligence network of spies.
And this intelligence was the key to winning independence.
As one defeated British double agent said, “Washington did not really outfight the British. He simply out-spied us.”
Here’s how it happened:
In November 1778, General Washington appointed Benjamin Tallmadge director of military intelligence and ordered him to construct a spy ring inside New York City.
The spy group was named the “Culper Ring.”
Washington picked the name after Culpeper County in his home state of Virginia.
And Washington’s code name in the ring was agent 711.
The identities of the spies were a secret until well after the war had ended.
But we now know the ring comprised a group of patriots & small-town friends who worked with Washington.
The Culper Ring was central to Washington’s success.
And much of the credit goes to the leadership and direction of Benjamin Tallmadge.
Many of the members of the ring were his acquaintances and recruited by him.
The system of operation was very clandestine.
American spies like Robert Townsend or ‘Samuel Culper Jr’ were moles.
They attended gatherings of the British elites to get information.
Then Anna Strong, another ring member, would hang clothes up on a clothesline to signal she had information.
Another method the ring used was the “dead drop.”
Valuable information was hidden on a farm owned by Abraham Woodhull, picked up by Caleb Brewster, and delivered to Washington.
The ring helped uncover the British plans of when they intended to ambush the French naval fleet.
Townsend managed to send a warning to Washington, who was able to prepare his defenses in time to thwart the British attack.
The ring also identified and captured the British spy Major John Andre.
They also uncovered the British plan to ruin the American economy by printing counterfeit currency.
And in 1780, they helped unmask the war’s most infamous traitor Benedict Arnold.
Arnold had agreed to surrender the American garrison at West Point to the British for $20,000.
In addition to gathering intelligence, Washington encouraged his spies to spread disinformation.
For instance, they exaggerated the size and strength of his army.
He also shared false information about military movements and attacks in various forts.
Washington sent information via regular post to ensure the British intercepted it.
He used tools like invisible ink in penning letters containing intelligence.
But, more important were the codes and ciphers used to hide messages.
Correspondence within the spy network was intercepted during the war.
The codes had to be constantly created, revised, and reinvented.
Many of the tools used by spies of the American Revolution were ground-breaking.
These included code names, ciphers, locations of dead drops, and clothesline codes.
Truth is, Washington and his spies used many skills and techniques that are still used today.
Even better, the skills used by the Culper Ring can easily be used by civilians today.
Here’s what I mean…
Disinformation: Washington liked to exaggerate the size of his army. He knew he was outnumbered, yet he didn’t want the British to know how badly.
The skill of disinformation can be used in many instances.
For example, if you have an ex-spouse that is stalking you…
You can use disinformation to throw them off your trail.
Simply telling a mutual friend you are going to dinner at a specific restaurant, then going elsewhere is an easy way to do it.
The person following you will gather bad intelligence, which will lead them in a different direction.
In another example, you can post on Facebook that you’re moving to Hawaii and then move to a safe location that you share with nobody.
Dead drop: A dead drop is a coordinated handoff where a source leaves a physical object in an agreed upon hiding spot.
Dead drops are still widely used in the intelligence world.
Yet, they are also used by everyday people.
Even in the digital age, dead drops are used for journalism and protecting sources.
That plastic bag in the ditch in your local park or chalk mark on your bus stop’s bench may be more than it looks.
Codes and ciphers: Washington’s spies had to prevent the British from understanding their messages.
Anything sent in the mail was most likely read, so they communicated in codes and ciphers.
This is still used in many things we do every day, especially in the digital world.
The way we bank, send e-mails and texts include forms of ciphers to protect the information.
There is no doubt the spies of the American Revolution helped win the war.
They also gave us tools to help keep our information private, and to protect us from our enemies.
And if you need them, you can use these same tools for yourself.