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The Story of the First American Spies

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The Story of the First American Spies

spy historyAmerican espionage is by no means a modern idea. It played a part in every war that America, as a country, has ever had to fight.

Espionage is mostly associated with the Cold War, but it even played an important role in the American Revolutionary war. George Washington is quoted as saying, ?There is nothing more necessary than good intelligence to frustrate a designing enemy and nothing requires greater pains to obtain.?

Even during these early times as a nation, our founding fathers realized the important role that intelligence played in the winning of wars. They also realized what extreme measures were needed to obtain such intelligence.

The Story of Nathan Hale

Our History is one filled with tales of spies whose job it was to gather intelligence information.

One of these most famous spies was Nathan Hale. Hale was actually a schoolteacher before joining the regular Continental Army’s Seventh Connecticut Regimen. He was quickly promoted to captain and in March 1776, commanded a small unit of Lt. Col. Thomas Knowlton’s Rangers defending New York City.

spy history

Unfortunately, the British eventually did capture New York City in the Battle of Long Island. Hale volunteered to go behind enemy lines to report on British troop movements. This was considered an act of spying. An offense that was immediately punishable by death and posed a great risk to Hale.

Hale was captured and on the morning of September 22, 1776, the 21 year old American spy simply stated, ?I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country? and was then hanged by the neck.

The Culper Spy Ring

A schoolmate of Nathan Hale, Benjamin Tallmadge, was another American spy during the American Revolution. Tallmadge was actually the Chief Intelligence Officer under George Washington. He organized the Culper Spy Ring based out of New York City and Long Island during the war, which is rumored to have revealed the betrayal of Benedict Arnold, though this is disputed.

The Ring’s true task was to send messages to Washington about the whereabouts and activities of the British. The Ring conducted covert operations until the end of the American Revolutionary War.

To create the Culper Ring, Tallmadge enlisted the services of farmers, merchants, and tavern keepers throughout the New York area. These ?cilivians? gathered intelligence and couried it to Tallmadge?s dragoons to carry it to Washington?s headquarters.

Washington made sure that the Culper Ring spies had plenty of support. He did not want to repeat the mistakes that were made with Nathan Hale. Therefore, through Tallmadge, Washington provided the Culper Ring with codes, invisible ink, dead drops, aliases and a wide variety of other espionage tools available at the time. Tallmadge and his Ring can certainly be described as the CIA of the American Revolution.

A Runaway Slave Turned Spy

A little known American spy during the Revolutionary War was James Armistead Lafayette, a Virginia slave. The ploy was an ingenious one. Lafayette posed as a runaway slave hiding across British lines.

In a lucky twist of fate, British General Cornwallis actually recruited Lafayette to spy for the British. With his new ruse in place, Lafayette returned to the Americans, and together they forged a false order for a large regiment of patriot soldier replacements.

Lafayette went back to the British to deliver the message to Cornwallis. Claiming the written order was found on the road during a mission, Lafayette was able to convince Cornwallis that the forgery was real. Because of this note, Cornwallis believed the Americans were much stronger than they really were. The plan was executed so flawlessly that Cornwallis never realized he was tricked until after the Battle of Yorktown.

James Armistead Lafayette was so successful at this mission and many others that the Virginia Legislature granted him his freedom from slavery after the Revolutionary War.

Just as today?s CIA is an integral part of our modern-day national security, these men (and many others like them) were an integral part in obtaining our country?s security when it was only a fledging nation.

Originally published on

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