Spies in the Continental Capital

Title:                      Spies in the Continental Capital

Author:                 John A. Nagy

Nagy, John A. (2011). Spies in the Continental Capital: Espionage Across Pennsylvania During the American Revolution. Yardley, PA: Westholme

LCCN:    2012289227

E279 .N347 2011


  • “Demonstrates that intelligence operations on both sides emanating from Pennsylvania were vast, well-designed, and critical to understanding the course and outcome of the war”–Dust jacket.


  • A peace treaty is signed, the war begins — British intrigues in Congress — The British capture of Philadelphia — Occupied Philadelphia : the British move in — The Major John Clark Jr. spy ring — Occupied Philadelphia : the British move out — Chasing a fox — Commuter spies : New York and Philadelphia — Spies along the Susquehanna River : Lancaster, Muncy, and York — The traitor and the merchant — Pittsburgh : Pennsylvania’s frontier — European adventures — More British intrigues in Congress.


Date Posted:      March 1, 2016

Reviewed by Hayden Peake.[1]

In Turncoats, Traitors and Heroes[2] his benchmark history about intelligence in the Revolutionary War, historian John Bakeless included one chapter on spies in the “Quaker City,” wherein he cautioned the reader that there was scant evidence to support some of the tales handed down. Aware of the problem, author John Nagy was able to write an entire book on the subject, Spies in the Continental Capital, after he found overlooked clues and previously undiscovered sources.

Spies in the colonies were nothing new by the start of the Revolution, and Nagy begins with a review of French espionage in Pennsylvania during the French and Indian War (1754-63). This is followed by a discussion of British efforts to obtain military secrets and to penetrate the Continental Congress, and American actions to prevent success. The stories of James Molesworth (a spy for British Admiral Howe) and Simon Girty (the loyalist spy who couldn’t read or write) are examples not reported fully elsewhere. Lydia Darragh’s story as a spy who crossed the lines for General Washington-an account often doubted by historians-is reinforced by the new documentary evidence Nagy uncovered. Some of the cases discussed are well known, for example Maj or John Clark’s spy network in Philadelphia, but Nagy has added new details. Coverage of others, such as Benedict Arnold, contributes nothing new but is included for completeness.

Nagy keeps the emphasis on spies on both sides, and sometimes the narrative is a bit choppy for lack of historical context. The book’s documentation is extensive, and Nagy is careful to label spies as “possible” when the evidence warrants. (p. 193) For those unaware of the extent of espionage in Pennsylvania during the Revolutionary War, Spies in the Continental Capital will be an eye-opener and a source for further research.

[1] Hayden Peake is a frequent reviewer of books on intelligence and this review appeared in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (19, 1, Winter/Spring, 2013, pp. 121-122). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Di recto rate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence. These and many other reviews and articles may be found on line at http://www.cia.gov.

[2] Bakeless, John (1959, 1998). Turncoats, Traitors, And Heroes. New York, NY: Da Capo Press

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One Response to Spies in the Continental Capital

  1. Pingback: George Washington’s Secret Spy War | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

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