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The reader would scarcely expect at this late day to get new light upon the military character of General Washington. But, in truth, scarcely a month passes in which some of our busy historical students do not add to our knowledge of him. Recently Mr. H.P. Johnston published in the _Magazine of American History_ some curious documents, hitherto unknown, exhibiting Washington's methods of procuring intelligence of the movements of the British army.

 

Like a true general, he knew from the first all the importance of correct and prompt information. How necessary this is, is known to every one who remembers vividly the late war, particularly the first few months of it, before there was any good system of employing spies. Some terrible disasters could have been avoided if our generals had obtained better information of the opposing army's position, temper, and resources.

An attentive study of the dispatches of Napoleon Bonaparte will show the importance which he attached to intelligence of this kind. He kept near him at headquarters an officer of rank who had nothing to do but to procure, record, and arrange all the military news which could be gleaned from newspapers, correspondents, and spies. The name of every regiment, detachment, and corps in the enemy's service was written upon a card. For the reception of these cards he had a case made with compartments and pigeon-holes. Every time a movement was reported the cards were shifted to correspond, so that he could know at a glance, when the cards were spread out upon a table, just how the troops of the enemy were distributed or massed. Every few days, the officer in charge had to send the emperor a list of the changes which had taken place. This important matter was intrusted to a person who knew the languages of the different nations engaged in the war.

It was Bonaparte's perfect organization of his spy system which enabled him to carry out his plan of always having a superior force at the point of attack. These two were the great secrets of his tactical system, namely, to have the best information and the most men at the decisive moment.

Bonaparte was a trained soldier; but when Washington took command of the army in July, 1775, he had had very little experience of actual warfare. That little, however, was precisely of the kind to prove the value of correct information. For the want of it, he had seen General Braddock lead an army into the jaws of destruction, and he may have still possessed in some closet of Mount Vernon the coat with four bullet-holes in it which he had himself worn on that occasion. There are no warriors so skillful either at getting or concealing information as Indians, and all his experience hitherto had been in the Indian country and with warlike methods of an Indian character.

Hence it is not surprising to discover that the first important act which he performed at Cambridge was to engage a person to go into the city of Boston for the purpose of procuring "intelligence of the enemy's movements and designs." An entry in his private note-book shows that he paid this unknown individual $333.33 in advance.

A person who serves as a spy takes his life in his hand. It is a curious fact of human nature that nothing so surely reconciles a man to risking his life as a handsome sum in cash. General Washington, being perfectly aware of this fact, generally contrived to have a sum of what he called "hard money" at headquarters all through the war. Spies do not readily take to paper money. There are no Greenbackers among them. In the letters of General Washington we find a great many requests to Congress for a kind of money that would pass current anywhere, and suffer no deterioration at the bottom of a river in a freshet. He preferred gold as being the "most portable." He wrote in 1778 from White Plains:

"I have always found a difficulty in procuring intelligence by the means of paper money, and I perceive that it increases."

It continued to increase, until, I suppose, an offer of a million dollars in paper would not have induced a spy to enter the enemy's lines. In fact, the general himself says as much. In acknowledging the receipt of five hundred guineas for the secret service, he says that for want of a little gold he had been obliged to dispense with the services of some of his informers; and adds:

"In some cases no consideration in paper money has been found sufficient to effect even an engagement to procure intelligence; and where it has been otherwise, the terms of service on account of the depreciation have been high, if not exorbitant."

The time was not distant when paper money ceased to have any value, and Governor Jefferson of Virginia paid his whole salary for a year (a thousand pounds) for a second-hand side-saddle.

During the later years of the war, the city of New York was the chief source of information concerning the designs and movements of the enemy. General Washington, as early as 1778, had always two or three correspondents there upon whose information he could rely if only they could send it out to him. Sometimes, when his ordinary correspondents failed him, he would send in a spy disguised as a farmer driving a small load of provisions, and who would bring out some family supplies, as tea, sugar, and calico, the better to conceal his real object. Often the spy _was_ a farmer, and sometimes quite illiterate. As it was unsafe for him to have any written paper upon his person, he was required to learn by heart the precise message which he was to deliver in the city, as also the information which he received from the resident correspondent.

The messenger frequently entered the city in the disguise of a peddler, a fact which suggested to Horace Greeley, when he was a printer's apprentice in Vermont, the idea of a story which he called "The Peddler-Spy of the Revolution." I once had in my hand a considerable package of his manuscript of this tale; but even as a boy he wrote so bad a hand that I could not read much of it. It is possible that this manuscript still exists.

These methods of procuring intelligence in New York were all abused by real peddlers, who, when they were caught selling contraband goods to the enemy, pretended to be spies, and so escaped the penalty. At length the general chiefly depended upon two persons, one called "Culper Senior," and the other "Culper Junior," who may have been father and son, but whose real names and qualities have never been disclosed. General Washington's secrecy was perfect. His most confidential officers, except one or two who had to be in the secret, never knew enough of these men to be able to designate them afterwards. When Benedict Arnold fled to New York after his treason, the American spies there were panic-stricken, as they very naturally concluded that Arnold must have been acquainted with their names and residences. General Washington was able to assure them that such was not the fact, and it is even probable that only one individual besides himself knew who they were. This was Major Benjamin Tallmadge, a native of Long Island, who frequently received the dispatches from New York and forwarded them to headquarters. The letters were commonly taken across the East River to Brooklyn; thence to a point on the Sound about opposite to Rye or Portchester; and were thence conveyed to camp.

The dispatches from the Culpers were generally written in invisible ink, which was made legible by wetting the paper with another liquid. It was a matter of no small difficulty to keep the spies in New York supplied with the two fluids, and also with the guineas which were requisite for their maintenance. At first the spies wrote their letters on a blank sheet of paper; but that would never do. General Washington wrote:

"This circumstance alone is sufficient to raise suspicions. A much better way is to write a letter in the Tory style, with some mixture of family matters, and, between the lines and on the remaining part of the sheet, communicate with the stain (the invisible ink) the intended intelligence."

The Culpers served faithfully to the end of the war, and finally had the happiness of sending to the general the glorious news that the British army, the fleet, and the Tories were all evidently preparing to depart from the city, which they had held for seven years. Who were these adroit and faithful Culpers? The secret seems to have died with Washington and Tallmadge.