Spies, Patriots, and Traitors: American Intelligence in the Revolutionary War by Kenneth A. Daigler, Georgetown University Press: Washington, DC, 2014, ISBN-13: 978-1626160507, 336 pp., $23.94 (Hardcover), $16.17 (Kindle).
The American Revolution and spying are two subjects that ought to make a good read. “Spies, Patriots, and Traitors” by Kenneth A. Daigler is proof of that proposition. The book’s theme is fairly straightforward, that intelligence and espionage played a key role during the American War for Independence. Americans with a modicum of historical knowledge (an increasingly smaller percentage of the general population) are aware of this in a vague, general fashion usually limited to name recognition of Nathan Hale and Benedict Arnold. But the story involves much more and many more people. Most interestingly, it involves General George Washington in a much more direct and intensive manner than most of us have realized. The inside book cover claims that the book adds a new dimension to our understanding of the American Revolution, and it does. This result is not surprising as Daigler is a retired intelligence officer (aka “spy”) and like all such, loves to reveal a bit of ankle. Like most intelligence operators, he has a weakness for derring-do and provides lots of such stories. Many of which have been recorded but generally in fairly obscure documents and files that Mr. Daigler has diligently ferreted out.
Nathan Hale, Richard Rogers, and Benedict Arnold are three very well known names in early American history, but most people would be able to say little about them, other than they are well known. Mr. Daigler has pulled together much information from many sources, and illustrates why their actual stories are better than the vague memories most of us have carried away from primary school. Nathan Hall is the failed spy who supposedly said on the scaffold “I regret I only have one life to give for my country”, an historical fact probably equal in veracity to Washington cutting down the cherry tree. Hale was a patriot and a brave man, but failed in his mission because, as Daigler explains in great detail, he just was not fit for the job. Brave, sincere, honest, but also somewhat naive and most importantly without experience, he was rather easily unmasked by Richard Rogers. Richard Rogers, one asks, Spencer Tracy in “Northwest Passage”? How did he get into this story?
Well, Rogers remained loyal to the Crown, organized and led troops against the rebels, and was the man who caught and unmasked Nathan Hale.
In some respects Rogers was similar to Benedict Arnold, a character out of Greek tragedy if there ever was one. Arnold’s skill as a soldier, personal bravery, and battlefield leadership (he was crucial to the victory at Saratoga) marked him as one of the coming military leaders of the Revolution. But arrogance, injured pride, a taste for fast living, and, of course, the influence of a women all brought him to betray the cause he had fought for so valiantly and his leader—George Washington. This cautionary tale would by itself make a great movie.
Numerous other “Spies, Patriots, and Traitors” are mentioned and discussed, traitors in this case being those who served the British. The extent of the activity and the number of players is eye opening. Many on the American side were members or participants in organized teams such as the Culper Ring in New York City. The Culper Ring was consciously organized at the instigation of George Washington who appointed its “case officer”, first Brigadier General Charles Scott, then Major Benjamin Tallmadge. The history of the Culper Ring places an entirely new perspective on the intelligence activity of the American rebels in general, and General Washington in particular. In another example, John Jay, while best remembered as the first U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice, was head of an effective counterintelligence organization in New York City. Officially known as the Committee and First Commission for Detecting Conspiracies, it operated in the early days of the war in a relatively limited way along the Hudson River north of the city. The story demonstrates quite clearly the awareness of the importance of regular intelligence and the necessity to organize and conduct it seriously, and professionally.
The Founding Fathers were neither naive nor inexperienced, despite the impression given in so many “traditional” American history books used in our schools. Many of the American leaders had been involved in diplomacy and war since the French & Indian War and understood the need for intelligence. George Washington, for instance, obviously learned much from his experience in that war. In fact, Washington fired the first shot, ambushing a French patrol in the disputed territory in what is now western Pennsylvania. That event did not turn out well as the rapid and effective French response forced Washington to surrender. Still he was only 23 on his first independent command and from that experience and his participation in Braddock’s defeat, where he performed very well, obviously taught him much about command and the importance of intelligence
“To identify George Washington as the founding father of American intelligence collection was an easy task.” Mr. Daigler makes this case in discussing George Washington whom he likes to personify as a sort of “CIA Director” avant la lettre. Certainly Washington understood the importance of intelligence and spent energy and limited resources in obtaining it. Washington’s leadership skills were clear in this area as well as in the better-known military arena. As the leader of an outmatched army involved in what was essentially an insurgency he needed information, intelligence, in order to use his comparatively limited military resources to best advantage. Like most insurgences, such as the world is full of today, the American rebels essentially adopted a strategy of wearing out the opponent. Washington did not start out that way, but soon realized that it was necessary. In accepting that reality, he needed more than tactical military intelligence, he needed strategic intelligence about the British senior leadership and their plans. Mr. Daigler describes in clear detail how he went about getting it. It is a fascinating and important part of the history of the Revolutionary War.
One amusing aspect of this book, at least to this reader, is the regular use of technical terms from the contemporary world of intelligence. I doubt if George Washington considered himself a “case officer”, and some of the attempts to put various incidents in contemporary terms appear a bit strained. No harm done, however, and this approach makes the history being told appear more real and more relevant.
Still it should be noted that the author stretches the term “intelligence” to cover a wide field, tactical military intelligence for instance. More questionable is the characterization of Benjamin Franklin’s activities in France as “intelligence” operations rather than diplomacy. Just because Franklin’s work was often “secret” and just because he was the target of British intelligence does not mean that Franklin himself was a “spy” or intelligence operator. He was an accredited diplomat pursing bilateral negotiations with his official host.
The chapter on Franklin, in fact, is one of the best as it re-interprets a story we all thought we knew. The British were all over the American mission to Paris, surrounding it with spies and observers, but more important inserting an agent, American-born Dr. Edward Bancroft, on to Franklin’s staff. In fact, the British were fully informed of everything the Americans were doing, to the point of receiving full and complete copies of the most secret communications. As the author quotes from another historian, “Franklin’s embassy at Passy, it now appears, was almost a branch office of the British Secret Service.”
But this is where the story becomes even more educational. Despite this fully successful intelligence operation against Franklin, he was completely successful in his diplomatic mission. The obvious lesson is to learn from this is that intelligence is a supporting function, intended to assist in the success of a given policy or program and has no value in itself. This is a lesson that we might wish to consider with respect to contemporary American policies and programs; clever action operations so popular in the movies and on TV do not by themselves a successful foreign policy make.
Another lesson to contemplate is the tendency of specialized staff, like intelligence or security personnel, to believe they know better than their bosses. “Like many government officials before and after him, he (Franklin) may have believed that he knew exactly what he was doing, and that his judgment required no additional verification” primly lectures our author. But in fact Franklin did know exactly what he was doing, and the results prove it.
Still, Mr. Daigler’s theme comes through loud and clear. Intelligence operations and collection were important elements of the American insurgency, they were consciously and intelligently conducted as an integral part of the military and political campaign under the leadership of General George Washington and others of the Founding Fathers, and they contributed significantly to the eventual victory. And in addition, this well-written book makes learning about this important part of our history a pleasure. “Spies, Patriots, and Traitors” in tricorn hats: what could be more fun.