Washington is known for many things. An aspect of his life not explored nearly enough is his role as spymaster. As tensions in the colonies grew, so did the presence of British troops intent on squashing any hint of rebellion. The war officially began in 1775 and from that point on the need for intelligence only grew. Washington needed insights into troop movements and the intent of the British or success would be very hard.
Early attempts to gain insights failed. A famous example was the capture of Nathan Hale on his first mission in 1776, an attempt to determine the location of the British forces prior to their invasion of Manhattan Island. He would later suffer an even bigger failure with the roll-up of a three person spy ring in New York.
These failures clearly contributed to a new focus on professionalization of intelligence. The result, Washington established means to spy on British that resulted in traitors being found, troop locations being better known, and forces being out maneuvered.
By the summer of 1778, Washington and his troops had held on and there was hope. But Washington desperately needed to know where the British would strike next. This is when his new spy ring swung into action. His group, called “The Culper Ring”, was personally guided by Washington, who proved to be an absolutely great spymaster. The members of the Culper Ring, including Benjamin Tallmadge and Abraham Woodhull, were serious about secrecy and so was General Washington. Almost nothing was known about the ring till years after the death of major participants when letters and documents were found and pieced together to reveal this incredible story.
The way one British officer, Major George Beckwith described the result was that “Washington did not really outfight the British, he simply outspied us.”
Lessons for today: Intelligence is critical in war. And leaders should help shape the nature of intelligence.