Winning the Revolutionary War was a longshot for the Continental Army. They needed all the help they could get. The French helped. George Washington believed that God supported their cause. But help also came from spies. These brave men and women risked their lives to gather information for George Washington about the British army’s plans. Of course, the British had their own spies.
Both the British and the Americans sent messages written in code. A codebook was necessary to decipher these messages.
Invisible ink, usually made from ferrous sulfate and water, could be used to write secret messages in between the lines of a letter. Sometimes, spies wrote the messages on the bottom of a receipt or in a pamphlet. The ink could be made visible by applying a chemical agent or holding the letter over the fire.
The British often hid messages in common objects, such as a quill, a button, or small silver balls. British spy, Daniel Taylor, was caught with one of these balls. He swallowed it but American soldiers forced him to vomit it. He was eventually hanged.
Carriers delivered secret messages between military leaders. Some of these carriers became double agents, pretending to work for one side when they actually worked for the other.
Nathan Hale was one of the first American spies. Unfortunately, he wasn’t particularly good at the job and was quickly caught by the British. Before he was hanged, he said, “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”
James Armistead was a slave who, with his owner’s permission, served as a spy for the French general, Marquis de Lafayette. Pretending to be an escaped slave, he entered the British camp. He was so convincing that General Cornwallis asked him to be a British spy. Armistead risked his life pretending to work for the British army, while all the time he was helping the Continental Army. After the war, he went back to being a slave until 1787, when Lafayette wrote a letter to the Virginia legislature asking for Armistead’s freedom.
Ben Tallmadge organized the Culper spy ring, which placed spies in New York – right in enemy territory. The spies were able to deliver important information to Washington. In five years, not a single spy was caught by the British.