The Need for Secrecy: Gathering and Communicating Information during Times of War
Suggested Teaching Instructions
Secret communications and spy networks were a very important part of the process of intelligence-gathering during the Revolutionary War. Coded letters and spies often conveyed information that was pivotal to the outcomes of individual battles and the whole war itself. These documents show some of the ways in which officers were able to gather and communicate information secretly, as well as prevent the enemy from communicating intelligence.
George Washington used a network of spies, known as the Culper Gang, to spy on the British Army in New York City. The Culpers used a very complicated scheme involving many people to relay information from behind British lines in New York City to Washington in New Windsor, New York. Washington’s letter of June 27, 1779 in this set was intercepted by the British. Because of this, the Culper Gang began communicating in code in later letters.
British Commander, Henry Clinton, wrote the letter in this set to General John Burgoyne using a mask that could be sent separately. The letter reads very differently with the mask than without the mask. If the letter was intercepted and read without the mask, it would provide the enemy with misinformation.
The undated, unsigned letter in this set is thought to have been written by Major Drummond of the British Army about Ann Bates, a female spy who gathered intelligence about soldiers and weapons while selling supplies in the American camp. Intelligence that she gave to the British about American troop movements led to the Americans’ withdrawal from Rhode Island in August of 1778.
Miss Jenny was another female spy for the British who infiltrated the camp of the French soldiers fighting for the Americans and gathered intelligence about the Americans’ plans to attack New York City. Because of this information, the British decided to keep their troops in New York, leaving Yorktown with too few men to defend it. When the Americans decided to attack Yorktown instead of New York City, the British surrendered the battle, leading to their disgrace and the eventual end of the war.
N.B. For more information about the Clinton letter, the Culper Gang, Miss Jenny, or Ann Bates, see the Clements Library University of Michigan website at https://clements.umich.edu/exhibit/spy-letters-of-the-american-revolution/stories-of-spies/
Compelling Question: How did information travel in secrecy during the American Revolution?