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As informative as it is entertaining...
on June 16, 2008
George Washington, Spymaster: How the Americans Outspied the British and Won the Revolutionary War is a National Geographic book written by Thomas B. Allen. This young adult book is as informative as it is entertaining. In the books that I have read about the Revolution, the Patriot spy network isn't given much coverage.
Allen starts during the French and Indian War when Washington was a young major. He was sent out by Virginia Royal Governor Robert Dimwiddie. Washington realized early on that he had to rely on intelligence gathered from civilians and the Indians to learn about French forces. Washington wrote "There is nothing more necessary than good Intelligence to frustrate a designing enemy & nothing that requires greater pains to obtain."
When the Revolutionary War began, Washington built on those information-gathering techniques that he used during the French and Indian War. Washington became a "spymaster," handling large numbers of individual spies. At first, Washington wanted an intelligence network of military men. The first such group was the Knowlton Rangers, which eventually evolved into the modern Army Rangers and Special Forces. The Rangers got off to a disastrous start, and Washington realized that "Instead of relying on officers to gather military intelligence, he would do what the Sons of Liberty had done in Boston. He would use civilians--sharp-witted Patriots who could spy while making believe they were Tories."
Thomas gives the reader a tutorial on spying and spies. He tells us the difference between an agent, a double agent, an intelligence officer and a snitch. He provides the code created by Benjamin Tallmadge for Patriot correspondence. He also hides messages throughout the book using this code. He details the tools of the spy trade from the 1700s including invisible ink, hiding messages in feather quills, small silver balls for hiding messages (they could be swallowed when captured), etc. Also, the Patriots were masters at forging documents and making sure they fell into British hands. One civilian woman relayed information to the military by the way she hung her laundry. But for all the information Washington received from his spy network, there was always the danger of dealing with double agents and traitors (Benedict Arnold).
One thing I found especially interesting about George Washington, Spymaster is how many agents and double agents were not identified until well after the Revolution. It has taken until the 1900s and the opening of British papers for Americans to discover that some of their trusted Patriots were actually working for Britain.
This may be a book written for young adults, but I certainly learned quite a bit from Thomas Allen in George Washington, Spymaster.