Espionage in the American Revolution

While spying or espionage seems to be a popular news item today, it is by no means new. Thousands of years ago the Roman Spartans were sending secret messages by “scytale,” a coded message on a strip of leather which was decoded by wrapping it around a stick and reading it. During the American Revolution 10% of the war effort was allocated to intelligence. Tory and patriot agents were employed—lured by gold pay. Such tricks as deception or disinformation to fool the British about Colonial plans were common.
Campers in Stratford’s Grandparent/Grandchild summer camps will explore this fascinating subject, along with many other activities. They will use various encoding systems such as a rotary code device. A number of different code systems were in use—most were difficult, but not impossible for the enemy to figure out. Over half of American secret correspondence was eventually decrypted by the British who had a sophisticated and well-established spy system and funds to support it. Stratford campers will also see how some innocent correspondence contained secret messages which could be seen only by masking out the superfluous words.
Stratford’s Light Horse Harry Lee was instructed by George Washington to send an agent into the British fort at Stony Point, NY to gather intelligence on the exact size of the garrison and the progress it was making in building defenses. Captain Allan McLane took the assignment. Dressing himself as a country bumpkin and utilizing the cover of escorting a Mrs. Smith into the fort to see her sons, McLane spent two weeks collecting intelligence within the fort and returned safely. This information allowed the Colonials to stage a successful surprise attack using only swords as weapons.
Arthur Lee, son of Stratford’s founder, was not only a physician, lawyer and diplomat, but is often considered to be one of America’s first spies—transmitting to America information from England and France using invisible ink and with so-called dictionary codes. Sophisticated invisible ink, called sympathetic stains, was created by a physician brother of John Jay. Invisible ink messages (secret intelligence) were written in the blank spaces of a regular social or business letter so as not to arouse suspicion and developed (decrypted) by the Colonials. Arthur’s brother, William was serving as Sheriff of London and was likewise in a position to collect important intelligence for the Patriots.
Grandchildren in the Stratford summer camp will enjoy making cloth-covered buttons containing intelligence information as did a Philadelphia Quaker, Lydia Darragh, who eavesdropped on British conversations and sent her young son wearing a coat with such buttons across enemy lines to the Colonials.
There may not have been a surrender at Yorktown without the diversionary deception the British were led to believe that a French-American attack on New York was being planned; or if Philadelphia British printer/American spy had not obtained a copy of the Royal Navy signal book, which helped the French fleet repel a British flotilla trying to relieve Cornwallis; or if an encrypted message from Cornwallis had not been intercepted, the code broken and General Washington able to determine how desperate Cornwallis’ situation was and to time his attack on British lines; or if the Colonials had not been able to decrypt another message warning the French fleet off Yorktown that a British force was approaching, allowing them to scare off the British flotilla, sealing victory for the Americans.
Grandparents who bring their grandchildren to one of the 2014 Stratford summer camps will be able to live American history—Spying and so much more!. The Camps are June 24-26, July 8-10 and August 5-7. Enroll early. Space is limited. For camp information go to:

-Bill Doerken, Summer Camp Programs Director