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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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Unanswered Question #2

Here’s another question that an audience member asked after my Evacuation Day talk on Gen. George Washington’s intelligence efforts in 1775.

Did Gen. Washington engage in any disinformation campaigns during the siege of Boston? Specifically, after discovering on 3 Aug 1775 that his army had much less gunpowder than everyone had thought, did he tell the British commanders that he had so much that he would trade it for uniforms?

I haven’t come across that story, much less solid evidence for it. However, I did find a story of disinformation after the gunpowder crisis that’s become widespread in recent years.

The general definitely didn’t want the British command to learn how little powder the American army had. On 4 August, the general wrote to the Continental Congress:

Upon discovering this mistake, I immediately went up to confer with the Speaker of the House of Representatives [James Warren] upon some measures to obtain a supply from the Neighbouring Townships, in such a manner as might prevent our Poverty from being known. As it is a secret of too much consequence to be devulg’d, even to the General Court. some Individual of which might perhaps indiscrietly suffer it to escape him so as to get to the Enemy. The Consequences of which are terrible even in Idea.

I shall also write to the Governors of Rhode Island, Connecticut and the Committee of Safety at New Hampshire on this Subject, urging in the most forcible Terms the Necessity of an immediate supply if in their Power. I need not enlarge on our melancholy Situation it is sufficient to say that the existence of the Army and Salvation of the Country depends upon some thing being done for our relief both speedy and effectual and that our Situation be kept a profound Secret.
According to James Thomas Flexner’s George Washington in the American Revolution (the 1968 installment in his multi-volume biography), the commander-in-chief went further and actually took steps to feed false information to the British:
As a first step, he leaked word to the enemy (which their intelligence eagerly gobbled up) that he had eighteen hundred barrels of powder. He started a rumor in his own camp that he was almost embarrassed at having so much…
The 1,800 barrels of powder is a wonderfully specific detail that makes the rumor more credible. That story of disinformation appeared more recent books as well, including Thomas B. Allen’s George Washington, Spymaster and Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life. It seems to be especially pleasing to novelists; both Jeff Shaara in Rise to Rebellion and Laurie Calkhoven in Daniel at the Siege of Boston dramatize the moment Washington sets the plan in motion.

TOMORROW: But what’s the evidence for that deliberate and misleading leak?

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