J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, September 10, 2010

“For the Purpose of Conveying Intelligence”

On 15 July 1775, Gen. George Washington wrote this entry in his expense notebook:

To 333 1/3 Dollars give to —— ——* to enduce him to go into the Town of Boston; to establish a secret correspondence for the purpose of conveying intelligence of the Enemy’s movements & designs

* The names of Persons who are employed within the Enemy’s lines, or who may fall within their power cannot be inserted.
This £100 expenditure is one of the largest the general made during the first year of the war. Two outlays were bigger. One was the £239 Washington paid for five horses when he started out from Philadelphia. The other came up on 1 Apr 1776, as he prepared to leave Massachusetts:
To amount of Sundry sums pr. Memmo. for secret services to the date … [£]232
Thus, the biggest expenses that the commander personally controlled in 1775-76 involved espionage. In fact, in this article for the C.I.A. website P. K. Rose notes: “During the Revolutionary War, Washington spent more than 10 percent of his military funds on intelligence activities.”

Washington scholar John C. Fitzpatrick wrote as a note to the second of the two expense entries:
The memoranda of accounts for secret service expenditures were carefully destroyed and it is now impossible fully to identify many of the American spies. Later in the war Major Benjamin Tallmadge was placed in charge of the Secret Service, and in the Washington Papers is a letter from him in which he incautiously mentioned the name of one of his spies. It has been so heavily scored over by the pen of the Commander-in-Chief as to defy deciphering and Washington’s answer to Tallmadge’s letter contains a sharp rebuke to the major for having needlessly exposed the spy to such a risk of discovery.
And on the first entry Fitzpatrick said:
The item of $333 1/3 marks the beginning of the official secret service activities. . . . how many and who were employed during the siege of Boston is not known.
This week Boston 1775 sets out to blow the cover on Gen. Washington’s very first spy ring.

TOMORROW: “A Scheme he is about to put in Execution.”

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