Top Ten American Intelligence Officers: Calling on Paul Revere…
All international relations involve intelligence activities, most of which are hidden from view at the time, and usually for many years thereafter. This was true during the founding of the United States. However, now 250 years after the start of the political campaign for independence —precipitated by the British government’s decision to impose the Stamp Act —many details, but hardly all, are known. In no particular order, except for perhaps the top three, are the ten most important intelligence officers of the period.
George Washington: As commander of the Continental Army, he was the chief consumer and user of intelligence during the war. However, he was also very much the senior operation’s officer, or case officer, for many of the agent operations, especially that of the Culper Ring in New York City. This American spy network, recently publicized and overly dramatized by the TV series “TURN,” was the most complex intelligence collection effort of the war and Washington was directly involved from its inception through to the smallest details of how it functioned.
Benjamin Franklin: As the chief of America’s first diplomatic mission abroad, the Paris Commission, Franklin was responsible for planning and coordinating covert action—political operations, propaganda, and paramilitary activities —and clandestine military support with the French government before it became an official ally. Without this covert effort with France, it is doubtful the Continental Army would have survived in the early years of the war.
John Jay: He is primarily remembered for his judicial contributions, but early in the war he also established America’s first counterintelligence (CI) organization: the Committee and First Commission for Detecting Conspiracies in the upper Hudson Valley, above New York City. Perhaps more importantly, during the judicial phase of his CI activities, Jay incorporated sound legal proceedings that afforded the accused objective “due process” in their defense. Unfortunately, his efforts were short-lived, and most CI activities became localized and more subjective than judicial.
Samuel Adams: Often referred to as the “Founding Father of the Revolution,” his organization and leadership of the Sons of Liberty as a platform to move public opinion toward political independence as well as intimidate British officials demonstrates that a more accurate title would be the “Lenin of the American Revolution.”
Nathanael Greene: Particularly after taking command of the Southern Army in late 1780, he utilized an aggressive intelligence network to monitor British activities, recognizing that he would never have adequate forces to engage them directly. Through his use of intelligence, Greene was able to engage the British in battles where their casualties so weakened their forces that they were forced into the decisive battle at Yorktown.
Pierre-Augustin Caron Beaumarchais: Beaumarchais is best known as the playwright of The Marriage of Figaro and The Barber of Seville and certainly least known as the secret agent of the French government. He was responsible for managing the front company Hortalez & Company, which provided millions of dollars in French military aid to the Continental Army, while giving the government “plausible denial” that it was not officially involved in the conflict.
Marquis de Lafayette: A young French nobleman, he served during most of the war and became a favorite of George Washington’s. During the months before the Battle of Yorktown, his spies provided the British forces in the Tidewater area with false information that kept them from moving out of what was becoming a trap set by Washington.
Major Benjamin Tallmadge: The day-to-day manager of intelligence activities by the Culper Ring, Tallmadge was a much more professional and disciplined officer than is portrayed in the series “TURN.”
Major Allen McLane: This Delaware Line officer established a tactical collection network monitoring British activities during their occupation of Philadelphia. He was able to warn Washington of British movements toward his camp, as well as of a British attempt to capture Lafayette while he was conducting a reconnaissance of their lines near Philadelphia. McLane also personally infiltrated the British post at Stony Point, gaining intelligence that supported the subsequent successful American attack in 1779.
Colonel John Laurens: While known as an aide to Washington and for his diplomatic activities with the Paris Commission in France, Laurens also functioned as a skilled intelligence officer under Nathanael Greene from December 1781 until his death in August 1782. His agents monitored plans and objectives at the British headquarters in Charleston, South Carolina, in a timely and productive manner.
While dozens of other intelligence officers and many actual agents who worked for the American cause have been identified over the years from research in documents, memoirs, and pension requests, these ten immediately come to mind based upon their overall contributions in the intelligence field during the Revolutionary War.
Kenneth A. Daigler is author of Spies, Patriots, and Traitors: American Intelligence in the Revolutionary War